Each year the Herald offers an opportunity for the church leaders of Auckland to publish a meditation or reflection on Christmas. This year’s appeared yesterday. It was clearly penned from someone from a liturgical tradition, but is signed by 29 denominational leaders – from the barely Christian (Seventh Day Adventist), the fairly liberal, through to the Destiny Church and various newer Pentecostal groups, and pretty much everyone in between.
Often I find these messages rather devoid of much distinctively Christian content. In some ways, this one – built around the modern Advent themes of hope, peace, joy and love – isn’t one of the worst I’ve seen. Most of what it says, I can nod along to. But there is that nagging feeling of “so what?” and “on what foundation does all this worthy stuff rest?”.
I presume the reason the church leaders generate these statements each year is, at least in part, evangelistic. The incarnation certainly was intended that way – good news. That God himself became fully human, as a baby born in an obscure provincial village, is astonishing enough. That he came to suffer and die for our sin – to reconcile us to God – is more staggering still.
Of course, there is something to be said for avoiding technical terms in pieces such as the Herald column. But not even the concept of sin gets a mention – the closest is a single mention of “evil”, but by implication that of others or institutions. There is no sense of the barrier placed between man and God, by our own free choice and acts, which Christ comes to break down. It isn’t even clear that the distinctly Christian perspective – God who becomes man – is in the message.
When I worked in an office, I often wondered what – if anything – about church could interest my colleagues in the gospel. Perhaps I’m wrong, but in a sense the only inescapable proposition is the claim that our sin separates us from God, and that God acts to break down the wall that divides. Perhaps it is wrong, but we proclaim it as true – the choice matters, for eternity. Much else – all the work in the community for example – may be outworking of our faith; acts of love and discipleship in response to God’s initiative. But on its own, it simply can’t seem that persuasive – after all, lots of pagans do good deeds (fewer perhaps than Christians do, but…).
In our age, the concept of fault, of responsibility, of sin seems uncomfortable. Perhaps they always were, but that was what serious religion was always about. Our secular age seems particularly effective in airbrushing out the very concept, but not just from secular life; too often it is barely present even in our churches and their message.
What would have been lost from a forceful proclamation of the incarnation, of sin and the need for grace, in the Herald column? I hope the answer is not just that they would then struggle to get 29 leaders to agree.