This Christmas many people will come to church buildings, halls and schools to engage with the Christmas story through various services, nativity plays and events. I hope we will capture all those numbers, but then what?
How will we go on living and confidently sharing the story of Christ’s hope and love amid the daily lives of children, young people and adults – in the mundane, the celebration, and the pain and struggle (and incidentally not seeing it all about finding ways to get more into church on a Sunday)?
Watch the video message here:
Full Christmas message to the Diocese of Gloucester:
I wonder how much you enjoy numbers. Perhaps you have been opening the numbered doors on an advent calendar or are gradually lighting the five candles on the advent wreath. And speaking of five, there will be choirs endlessly singing ‘five gold rings’ as they perform ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’.
This advent has seen the publication of numbers from the UK 2021 census and much has been made of the less-than-50% who identified themselves as Christian, although those figures say nothing about the number who desire their parish church to remain; or the number who are thankful for those community places of good news, justice and belonging, initiated and supported by Christians.
A census was part of that first Christmas. Joseph and Mary had travelled to Bethlehem to be registered, and it is there that the life-changing, world-changing event of God coming to earth as a tiny vulnerable baby takes place. Yet despite the crowds in Bethlehem, the numbers turning up to see were seemingly poor: A few shepherds, a few animals, and no doubt a few distant relations in Joseph’s hometown; and then some days later a few astrologers from the East – perhaps three. Although let’s not forget the multitude of angels (and by the way the 2021 census didn’t reference that unchanging number of the heavenly host).
Yet Christmas is about something immeasurable: love. And God who is love –
Overwhelming mysterious love which cannot be measured.
Years after the Bethlehem birth, only a small number stood at the cross when Jesus Christ was crucified, and three days later just a small number encountered him alive. Yet, here is love greater than even death itself.
But I’m not dismissing numbers or merely being defensive about census data, because the 2021 census figures do present a challenge to every child, young person and adult who identifies as a Christian. A challenge about how we listen to people’s stories and speak our own and the hope of Jesus Christ within it. How we speak and live Christ’s love in those food banks, toddler groups, schools, sports clubs, events for the elderly, engagement with the climate crisis etc.
This Christmas many people will come to church buildings, halls and schools to engage with the Christmas story through various services, nativity plays and events. I hope we will capture all those numbers, but then what? How will we go on living and confidently sharing the story of Christ’s hope and love amid the daily lives of children, young people and adults – in the mundane, the celebration, and the pain and struggle (and incidentally not seeing it all about finding ways to get more into church on a Sunday)?
I confess that all this does take me back to five gold rings because this week I noticed that the five commitments of our LIFE Together are visually presented as five interlocking rings of commitment – and they are all about how we better live and share that story of God with us:
New ways of worshipping in different places which connect with more people; investing in young people to explore and grow in faith; our commitment to the just flourishing of people and place; a commitment to diverse leadership; and of course our growing as everyday disciples, which is about our everyday lives beyond Christmas.
Thank you for sharing in this LIFE Together across the many different places of our diocese.
Let us rejoice this Christmas with countless angels as we speak and sing of the mystery of God who is love come to earth – and may we go on offering connection to that continuing story long after the three wise men have left the room.
The 2021 census reminds us that there are millions of people who have not yet peered into the crib and encountered the face of God who is love. May our longing for that to change, fire us as our hearts are set on fire with love for God.
Bishop Robert and I hold you in our prayers with thanksgiving this Christmas.
May you have a peaceful and hope-filled Christmas.