Pastors Reject Hype, Preach Humble Christmas Story
Stages are set, sermons are ready, and tickets are nearly all reserved for the thousands of seats in megachurches across the country as they begin numerous Christmas services this week.
But while everyone anticipates a joyous and grand Christmas observance, many preachers are rejecting the hoopla around the season and pointing people to a moment in history that's far humbler and darker than people typically hear about.
"Christmas time is all about the announcement," said Pastor Steven Furtick of Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C. "There's this triumphant 'joy to the world, the Lord has come.' Christmas is about the greatest announcement ever made."
"But there's something not often said about the Christmas story," the pastor of one of the fastest growing churches in the country told congregants Sunday.
That includes the situation of the virgin Mary.
"When God finally spoke out of 400 years of silence to Mary, He didn't drop the messiah out of the sky on the wings of an angel ... He chose a virgin girl in a hick town and He said 'I'm about to bring the Son of God into the earth,'" Furtick explained.
But it wasn't necessarily good news to Mary, who is believed to have been a teenager at that time and was engaged to Joseph.
"How do you think it went over with Mary?" the pastor posed. "You think she wore the scarlet letter?"
"This is about the most devastating news that a teenage girl can get," but Mary still responded with faith and obedience.
Over in Birmingham, Ala., at another fast-growing megachurch, Pastor Chris Hodges also called congregants to look beyond the celebrations and deeper into the Christmas story.
"The whole story centers around a time that was incredibly dark," said Hodges of Church of the Highlands on Sunday. "If there was ever a time of hopelessness, it was during that time."
"God intentionally sends His son during a time of hopelessness because I think it's one of the major messages of Christmas," he added.
The Birmingham megachurch already held on Monday two of its seven Christmas services. And like the past 25 years, Hodges is making sure this year's Christmas worship experience is all about Jesus.
Evangelist and Pastor Greg Laurie at Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif., is making a similar effort to help believers see past the commercial Christmas and know the real message.
On Sunday, Laurie officially canceled "Christmas" – at least the hyped version that many people "buy into" today.
"The very word 'Christmas' has been pirated, emptied of its meaning," Laurie told thousands at his megachurch Sunday. "Some prefer to use the more politically correct terminology (i.e. Happy Holidays)."
"But I actually think those things are not as bad as those people who say 'Merry Christmas' and not know what it means," he said.
"I suggest we cancel Christmas and instead celebrate the birth of Christ."
The primary Christmas message is that "God came to us," said Laurie. "That's a staggering thought."
And while other religions call followers to follow a creed or do certain works to find peace or reach heaven, Christianity says "it's done ... for you at the cross," Laurie reminded congregants.
"The message of Christmas is ... God is not only with us but God comes in us. Being a Christian is not merely following a creed, but having Christ himself live in you."
Also recognizing the challenges many face today during hard economic times, the pastor encouraged Christians that even if the holiday does not deliver the harmony or peace or even gifts that people expect during this season, what this "sin-sick world" needs is only Jesus.
"We don't need good will, we need the messiah. We don't need presents, we need His presence," he said.
Many churches are observing Christmas on Dec. 24 with special services, with some of the larger churches holding additional worship times in the days leading up to Christmas Eve to accommodate bigger crowds.