The auditorium was filled to capacity, the stage was set with brightly colored lights and creative props, and the music was loud and animated – all typical aspects of a contemporary worship service, yet features that still catch my attention on occasion as someone raised in a more traditional church environment.
It was the Sunday before Christmas and I was sitting in Buckhead Church, a campus of North Point Ministries located in the heart of Atlanta's business district. Although Buckhead is not my home church, I visit there from time to time and that morning my mother and I were attending with some friends.
"Your mom is really into it," my friend whispered during one of the songs. "Yeah, she loves it here," I instantly replied. And then as I looked over at her, it suddenly hit me… here was a 60-year-old Hindu convert from a rural village in eastern India called Jhalda worshipping at an ultramodern megachurch gathering in the middle of Atlanta along with over 30,000 people who would attend one of the church campuses that day.
The sheer juxtaposition was overwhelming to me, and in this moment, many thoughts converged. Tears filled my eyes and from that point on I viewed the service through the lens of what I had experienced in India this year and how God had worked in my own family over decades to introduce us to Himself.
You see, just a few days earlier I had heard my mother share her dramatic conversion story with a group of high school students in the suburbs. She contrasted the elaborate religious ceremonies she once performed with the freedom she now experiences as a believer, explaining, "When I was a Hindu, I would do the temple rituals out of fear and fatalism, to avoid the wrath and destruction of the gods... Now that I am a Christian, I serve God with a heart of worship and gratitude." Maybe you can imagine why I was gripped by the simple sight of her singing "Joy to the World" and celebrating our Savior's birth with thousands in this setting.
If there is one thing I have gained a deeper understanding of this year, it is the contrast between light and darkness in our world today. The time I have spent in India experiencing different aspects of a culture often defined by polytheism and poverty – combined with a greater exploration of my family's spiritual trajectory – has given me a profound sense of gratefulness for my own salvation and a renewed confidence that Christ's redemptive power knows no limits. It has changed the way I approach my personal relationship with God and given me a deeper burden for the role of the local church in pointing our world to the only One who can offer true hope, a theme that was echoed throughout the church gathering that morning.
In perhaps the most moving part of the service, campus pastor Billy Phenix led in a time of reflection and thanksgiving for how the light of God had worked in the church community this year. "Light is so symbolic for us and it shows up all around the things of God," he said. "The star directs people to Jesus, and light is what God's people are called to be in our world. If this was a year that you would call spiritually significant, light a candle and show us how the Light that came down at Christmas has affected you as well."
While I watched the auditorium light up in a vivid display of gratitude and hope, I gave thanks for all God had taught me this year and prayed for the Indian believers boldly shining their lights in environments hostile to the Gospel. The Christmas season brings many challenges and opportunities for them, as an estimated less than 3% of India's population is Christian. I recently met with a Christian attorney in India who helps defend persecuted believers, and she told me one story after another of those who have suffered for their faith. "I am inspired by people like the family in Orissa [in eastern India] whose neighbor wants to hack them to death, yet they still put out a star at Christmas," she said. Though most of us will never face such risks for expressing our beliefs, I was reminded that we are each called to be a witness in whatever arena we are placed.
In Genesis 12:3, God promises Abraham that, "all peoples on earth will be blessed" through his line – a line that would end with the birth of Jesus Christ. "The end of the line was the beginning of blessing for the whole world," said Andy Stanley in his Christmas message. "You have all been blessed because of the birth of Jesus, and your life has intersected with the miracle of Bethlehem. In fact, every nation and every generation has been impacted by the concentric circles of blessing."
As I drove out of Buckhead Church that cold rainy morning and braced myself to encounter the chaos of Christmas in the city, I was reminded that God kept His promise and that "all peoples on earth" meant just that. It included the women I prayed with in the brothels of Mumbai's red light district just a few months ago and the children of New Delhi's slums who will hear the message of Jesus this Christmas for the first time. It included the brilliant Georgia Tech students I sat next to in the service who lit a candle to signify how they had grown in their faith this year and finally found a church home. It included the successful Buckhead businessmen yet to be reached.
"All peoples on earth" even included a little girl from the village of Jhalda who grew up to be my mom and now freely worships the One who brought her from darkness into marvelous light.