Finding a Way To Inspire, Year After Year
Pastors Strive to Make Christmas Sermons Unique, Relevant

By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 24, 2007

So you thought American Idol contestants were under a lot of pressure. How would you like to be in the pulpit on Christmas Eve?

Hundreds of ministers in the Washington region will face packed churches tonight when they preach one of their most important, and challenging, sermons of the year as Christians gather to celebrate Christmas.

With high-flown rhetoric or plain-spoken bluntness, brevity or long-winded oratory, ministers will try to make the centuries-old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ relevant to today's worshipers.

It's not easy, ministers say. Most houses of worship draw double or triple the usual number of worshipers during the Christmas season. Churches are packed with restless children, stressed-out parents and unfamiliar faces making their annual appearance. Parking lots and nurseries are overflowing, and the proximity of holiday scarves and Christmas candles makes some folks nervous.

"I think it's one of the hardest services to preach," said Bishop John Bryson Chane of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who will face a standing-room-only crowd of 3,800 -- many of whom rarely step into a church except at Christmastime -- at the 6 p.m. Christmas Eve service at Washington National Cathedral.

Worshipers are picky about their Christmas sermons, ministers say. They want brevity and relevance -- and no straying from the Christmas story.

"People feel like if you go too far from baby Jesus and the manger and the wise men, they don't feel like you did your job," said Alan Nelson, executive editor of Rev!, a magazine for ministers. As a pastor, Nelson once tried to tie the movie "The Matrix" to the birth of Christ in a Christmas sermon. It bombed, he said.

Yet coming up with a fresh angle on a 2,000-year-old story requires a deft touch. Some ministers manage it by tying the birth of Christ to current events, and others pull an overarching lesson -- such as hope or freedom or love -- from the tale. Some go for humor; others try for pathos. Everyone aims to keep worshipers awake.

Betty Peebles, senior pastor of Jericho City of Praise in Landover, thinks she has found a creative approach. For her Christmas sermon yesterday morning, she focused on an obscure character in the Christmas tale: the innkeeper with no vacancies who in Luke 2:7 installed Joseph and Mary in the stable, where Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ.

The innkeeper "missed the whole event," Peebles said. "The moral of the sermon is, are you celebrating Christmas with Jesus? Do you have a place for him at your table?"

Ministers also have to wrestle with the dynamics in the pews below them. The presence of so many occasional worshipers can stir resentments among the regulars, said the Rev. William Byrne of St. Peter's Catholic Church on Capitol Hill. At his church, Christmas Eve attendance can be up to 600 -- double the usual Sunday attendance.

Byrne worries that his regulars will think, I'm here all the time, and who are all these other people?

"But we have to realize that there were a lot of people showing up in that barn 2,000 years ago who hadn't heard of Jesus, and Mary welcomed them all," Byrne added.

Monsignor Bill Parent of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Waldorf aims his sermon at the "Santa Clauses," as churches call them -- those who come to church only at Christmastime.

"The goal in whatever you're preaching is to inspire," Parent said, "and explicitly to invite people who have been away or aren't coming regularly to be a more regular part of the parish community."

At Harvest Life Changers, a nondenominational church in Woodbridge, the Rev. Lyle Dukes focused yesterday's sermon on linking the Christmas story to the everyday difficulties faced by his parishioners, such as the mounting number of home foreclosures as well as the frustration of high gas prices and lost jobs.

"We're in some challenging times," he told 1,500 worshipers. "But Christ was born in challenging times. . . . In spite of all this crazy stuff going on, he was born alive and well."

Church member Lori Douglas pronounced the sermon "awesome."

"So many of us today are going through challenging times," Douglas said. But Jesus "made it through, and it's a lesson on how we can make it through."

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