Christmas is a great time to see how our society responds to the gospel, and how we can use the opportunities of Christmas to proclaim Jesus to the world.
I am once again joined by Talar Khatchoyan while Tony is away on long service leave.
Phillip Jensen: We're coming up to Christmas this time of year.
Talar Khatchoyan: Yes, it is very close. I'm a bit nervous how close it is.
PJ: You mean you haven't bought any presents yet?
PJ: Oh, I've been away on holidays, and on holidays, we go shopping in reject shops.
TK: So you're all set?
PJ: Well, not all set, but we've got a lot of rejects. I think the best Christmas we ever had was to give each of our children $10 and two hours at a holiday center, and they had to buy a present for everybody from the $10 (there are five in our family) and you couldn't spend beyond $10. Helen and I joined in too. So then we had all these junky presents. It was $50 well spent, $50 of shared joy and fun as we ran around this big shopping center going into reject shops. What’s Christmas like in your family? Do you catch up with everybody?
TK: Yeah, we'll do that, or at least we'll try and do that. On Christmas Day we're at church with the family, and then we do collapse in a bit of a heap after.
PJ: Yes, for people in Christian ministry, Christmas Day is a different experience, isn't it?
TK: It is, yes, and all the days leading up to it.
PJ: Yes. And I have special sympathy for our friends at cathedrals who have many, many services.
TK: I'm fairly sure when I was an apprentice at the cathedral with you, Phillip, we had something like eighteen Christmas related events in December. It was a marathon; it was very, very long.
PJ: It really was a marathon. And we ran a service one Christmas night once because Christmas fell on a Sunday. And it was fascinating because we had twelve members of our congregation there, and a couple hundred visitors. It was extraordinary. I do not think that would happen in all suburban churches, but in a city church, there were so many lonely people wandering around the streets on Christmas night with nowhere to go. And so they turned up at a church. So then we started doing it every Christmas night rather than just the Sunday ones and the numbers grew. But it was a funny congregation; they weren't used to singing.
TK: Because there were not many Christians.
PJ: No, hardly any Christians.
TK: They were there to listen.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. They joined in with a carol if it was a very well-known carol. But I think if we had put on Jingle Bells, they would have done better.
TK: They would have sang with gusto.
PJ: Yes. But Christmas is a fun time for our community, isn't it? And that's a healthy thing in society. I'm sorry to bother you with your Armenian background again, but how similar or different is it with the Armenian community?
TK: It’s not quite the same. It depends on your family, and I think in the end, families are what really matter. For us, Christmas is January 6th. And so for some families that might be the day in which they gather together rather than on 25 December.
PJ: That's the twelfth day of Christmas, isn't it? When gifts are given within those families sometimes, because it's the celebration of the wise men coming with the gifts for the Lord Jesus.
PJ: An epiphany, it's called. You've just had one.
TK: I have. Thank you Phillip. But I'll tell you what though, again it might depend on the family, but Armenians generally don’t don't open presents at Christmas time. They open it at New Year's and the name for the Armenian Santa Claus, translated, is Father New Year's rather than Father Christmas. And so New Year's Eve for my family is when we actually exchange gifts and open them up.
PJ: And is he dressed in the same kind of outfit that the Coca-Cola people invented in the 1920s? Or is he dressed differently?
TK: I think he's dressed in whatever red outfit a parent can get their child to wear, and he brings in a bag of presents for all the children. So he looks different every year.
PJ: Well, Christmas has always been a difficult time for me. Since I've become a Christian it's been difficult because what I was converted out of was cultural Christianity. And I don't think anything quite represents cultural Christianity quite as much as Christmas does.
TK: What do you mean by cultural Christianity?
PJ: Well, it's Christianity in the sense that the word is ‘Christmas’. Some people want to say Xmas, but that sounds like a skin disease and it never has worked particularly as an alternative. So it still carries the word Christmas, but it really was not about Jesus and his incarnation. You see, as a Christian, I'm celebrating that God became man in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. And nothing in the universe was ever the same again because he never ceases to be man. He dies as a man, he rises as a man, he ascends as a man, and he is now the ruler of the universe. A man rules the universe in the Lord Jesus Christ. So there was a change in the whole fabric of the universe that took place at the incarnation. And I'm celebrating this great event.
TK: That's not what the average person is thinking at Christmas time.
PJ: No, it’s not. But they'll still do it at church. When I was a child, the church was a more dominant experience. And so, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, people turned up to church to celebrate Christmas. And when they got there, it was slightly more about Jesus than in the shopping center, but the shopping center sang carols and the church sang the same songs. So we were in a society which was Christianized. However, over the years, the non-Christian side of it has grown and the Christian side of it has diminished so that Santa Claus is much more dominant now than the baby Jesus. In fact, the element of Santa Claus and all the mythology that goes with reindeers and their names and the wearing of hats, that becomes the dominant theme of what Christmas is about, which actually has nothing to do with Christianity. It's exactly what I was converted out of. I don't believe in myths; I believe in history. Santa Claus is mythological. I mean, I know you can find historical roots to St. Nicholas who was a Christian and he gave gifts and that Christianity is about giving. So I can trace the roots, but that's not what the average Aussie at his family gathering is really thinking about when he talks about Santa Claus. It's got to do with reindeer and the North Pole. Nonsense.
TK: I noticed we have the public carols that we get from Carols in the Domain that get put up every year. And every year, slowly, the traditional carols seem to get less and less and the reindeers and the Santa songs become more and more prominent. And I always find that whenever I watch, I'll see a whole group of people singing so enthusiastically the traditional carols, the ones about Jesus, and I find it hard to hear because they're proclaiming all these eternal truths—like you were saying before—and yet their hardness of heart seems to grow as they turn a blind eye to it. And so it's kind of like singing the words of their own judgment.
PJ: Yes. You don't want to be judgmental of people, but there is that element that the Scripture says, they honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And so growing up as someone who was part of that Christianized world but not actually myself a Christian, when I became Christian, I realized how far my heart was from the Lord. While my lips were saying all these things, I hadn't differentiated between Santa Claus and presents and reindeers, and Jesus and his life and his crucifixion and his resurrection. It was all muddled in together and prevented me and my friends from actually hearing the gospel. It was like a—I don't like the phrase—but it's like a kind of inoculation against the gospel that was sufficiently Christian to make you think you're Christian, but not actually Christian at all. And so it means Christmas always reminds me of the thing I've been converted out of. And now, people think Christmas is for the children. It's family time. And so now even those who go to church prefer to go to church on Christmas Eve than Christmas Day.
TK: To have the family time.
PJ: Yes. It’s hard to invite people to church on Christmas day. At the cathedral when I was there some years ago, we would run four huge gatherings on Christmas Eve, but only two on Christmas Day.
TK: Yes, and they were early so people could get away.
PJ: Yes, so people could get away to their family Christmas dinner. Now I'm all for family life, and isn't family a wonderful thing? It's great that there is that moment in the year when families get back together again. But that is not celebrating the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. It's just a different thing. And so what drives Christmas is family and children. And of course, it’s materialism too. I mean, if it wasn't the peak time for shops, I'm not sure Christmas would really be as important in the community anymore. But you'd be a very brave politician to try and stop Christmas holidays because we're a secularist state and we shouldn't be celebrating religious holidays. That wouldn't work because the shops make money on Christmas and the giving of presents. They've even made money out of me, $50 worth of money with my children! Where would the reject shops be without my Christmas spending? So Christmas is just a problem for us.
TK: So what are we going to do about it as Christians? Like, do we just go, “Oh, well, it's done…?”
PJ: Well, no, it's tricky because there is a place for Christians to meet together and celebrate the incarnation. So we should do that, because that is one of the great events of history of the universe. I think it's not as important as Easter; I think the death and resurrection of Jesus is the outcome of the incarnation and the incarnation is the preparation for it. The heart of Christianity is Easter, not Christmas. But it's still very important. It's not something to sneer at and think it's insignificant. That God became man is massive. So we should celebrate that as Christians, and that means getting together and celebrating it. What a wonderful thing to be able to.
But then I have this other problem. You see, how much time should I give to my family? And how much time should I give to my Christian family? I mean, that's a hard choice, isn't it? And if my family is Christian, they'll understand. But if my family is not Christian, that's all the more reason to be spending time with them. So I'm caught out.
So what do you do on Christmas? What's your church doing on Christmas?
TK: So we will have a big outdoor carols, which we've done for many years, and a lot of people in the community come. I think you can see what you've described in terms of their cultural Christianity; it is definitely about the kids and it's definitely just fun. People just keep talking throughout the event. But I think it's also signs of life, similar to the way we think about ministry at church. You go, there's a lot of noise happening everywhere, and we want to show that we are believers. We love Jesus and we're here as a church. We run a two-day kids program too.
PJ: Asking about the carols service, you say outdoors? Is it on your site, or in a park?
TK: It’s in a park close to our site.
PJ: And is it in association with other groups?
TK: No, just us.
PJ: I think it's a great idea. I prefer to do it on the site if you've got a site that can do it.
TK: Yes, our site is not big enough.
PJ: I know of one church down in the Shire area of Sydney which has big grounds around it; they can put hundreds or a couple of thousand on that site. It's product placement, and that's important to do.
TK: Yes, you want to put your name everywhere.
PJ: Yes, we want people to see that we're still alive. We still exist within society even though we're not in the newspapers or on the television. So here is somewhere where we are. And it's good to do it locally.
But I'm interested that your church just does it itself, because I think that's an important product as well, because when you do it joined with others, over time, it always goes to the lowest common denominator between you. The big carols in town were started off by Christians, but you'd never guess that today. It's now sponsored and paid for by some shopping system or other and so you lose control of it next to no time. And it doesn't really create much product placement.
TK: Yes, one of our intentions this year is to have different groups of people from our church running different aspects of the whole event, so that you could say to the community, “Oh, you want to have a sausage sizzle? Our youth group is providing it.” And because I think one of the great things you can do for the community is to show: here are our people. That's what is compelling for many of them. You've got youth, you've got children, you've got people who are looking after your children, and there seems to be a cohesion to the way that you as Christians are functioning and working.
PJ: It sounds great. What else are you doing? You were saying there is a children’s program?
TK: Yes, we've got a two-day kids program that we've been running for over two decades now, so it is well-attended and known in the community. I think we don't need to do as much work to get them there, and that works with our kids club and sometimes feeds into that in the new year. So that's good.
PJ: Yes. Getting the bridge and feeding on to other things is important. And at the carols I presume you give out leaflets about the year’s program?
TK: Yes. And we've tried different things, we've tried QR codes. We don't get much feedback, but you do sometimes, which is exciting. And that's something we can follow up on. And then we have our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Services as well.
PJ: And will it be bigger on Christmas Eve than Christmas day?
TK: It’s about the same, I think. But we'll see. I've been at my church for four years, and a few of those years have been COVID years. So I'm still learning.
PJ: Yes, quite so. COVID has had such an impact upon us on these things, hasn't it? So that in one sense, that's fairly standard for Christmas in local churches.
TK: Yes. So what's happening in your world?
PJ: Well, down at Coogee, there is a huge carol thing. It'll be five to six thousand people, but its Christian element is so weak. However, when I went down last Christmas, I just walked around and it gave great opportunities for personal evangelism, because people are not actually listening to what's happening on the stage. And you meet people from the locality. I met some of my neighbors from my own block of units, so we sat and talked for a while. And the subject of Christianity is still there in Christmas, so you can say things a little bit more bluntly and plainly than you normally can because of Christmas.
TK: So what kind of conversations have you had?
PJ: Well, they're still bridge building with my neighbors. But it’s conversations like, “What do you think of this? Do you like these carols? What was your background?” I found out one of my neighbors actually grew up in church and knew hymns and likes singing hymns but hasn't been to church for years. Well, I hadn't known that before. But the context was one where I could ask those kinds of questions and find that out about him. So Christmas does open for you possibilities of personal evangelism. It's a moment where you can invite people to church. “Our church has carols on, why don't you come?” I think you've got more chance of seeing those people invited by Christians to take the gospel seriously, than the people who have come in off the street because it's rooted in the relational context and follow up, whereas the people coming off the street go out into the street, and if there are no QR codes, there's no way of contacting them. Then the whole gospel event that you've got is that one hour that is mostly filled up with carols. And even the Christian carols aren't very good. There are only a few Christian carols that convey the gospel. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” conveys the gospel, but some of the others are romanticized views of Christmas.
TK: Which ones do you have in mind?
PJ: The Sussex Carol about the deep, deep winter. Bethlehem hardly ever has snow. England has. So it's just a romanticized view of the events, which is kind of sad. We have one hour to make the gospel clear, and we are making it emotionally fuzzy. It doesn't work.
Are you an avid follower of chick flicks?
TK: Every now and then.
PJ: Well, I noticed the other day on one of the streaming services that romantic comedies—the chick flicks—happen around Christmas.
TK: Oh yes, there's a whole genre for it.
PJ: Christmas is the time to fall in love.
TK: Christmas is magical, it’s the magic time.
PJ: Yes, there’s even one that’s called “The Magic Christmas”. And I thought no, I can't stomach that. And so feeding into that is not actually helping people to become Christians. Your own way of speaking about it is undermining the message that you're trying to get across. But to get the message across by being blunt just alienates people because they don't come on Christmas to hear the message. They come on Christmas to feel good. And that makes evangelism very difficult.
TK: Yes, they're not coming to engage. If you've got an evangelistic event in the middle of the year, and you've invited your friend along to that, they get a sense that they're going to engage with ideas from the Bible that you are presenting. Whereas the reason why the Christmas invite is so easy is because they don't come with that expectation at all. They're just coming to enjoy.
PJ: Yes, so that’s why the QR codes, to use that as a symbol, is really such an important element. That's why doing it on your own site and doing it as your own church is so important, because it's bridge building rather than gospel clarifying. And it's the easiest bridge to build. Mother's Day is the only other one that's easier than Christmas to invite people to be involved in.
TK: Do you think so?
PJ: Oh, yes. Mother's Day is easy because everybody has a mother, because even the most hardened soul feels some obligation to mothers, because mothers take us back to family life. And so if mothers say to their children, “I want you to come to church, then take me out to lunch” the children will do it. It's not that hard an ask, that one.
TK: It's a good time for mothers to think of how they might be evangelizing their families.
PJ: Oh, yes, absolutely. And grandmothers. And likewise, to invite my mother or my grandmother to come to church and then take her out afterwards, that kind of thing. Father's Day does not have the same emotional pull. But the Christian year in Australia now centres around things like Mother's Day and Father's Day, rather than Whit Sunday, which I think passes by most people without the slightest whit.
So we have Christmas, we've got to use it. And we'd love to hear from you, dear listener, how you are using it this year so that we can think of better ways of using it next year.