Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

On Mission for Christmas (2014)

*Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published in 2010. We thought it was an important read in preparation for Christmas Eve services.

Toys "R" Us wants you for Christmas.

I remember reading an article about a very targeted plan by the toy giant to “invade the mall [during the] holiday season, opening 600 ‘Express’ stores in malls and other shopping centers around the country, more than six times [the previous] year’s count, and hiring 10,000 seasonal workers.”

During a time of economic downturn, CEO Gerald Storch saw this as a necessary "aggressive action” plan.

The company indeed went into action and the question simply became, “How big can we make this?” 

How big can we make Christmas?

Or more specifically, Christmas Eve?

Evangelical churches of all kinds throughout the United States have seldom held services on Christmas Day when it has not fallen on a Sunday (a tradition that dates back to the Puritans). In fact, marking Christmas has never been tied to a Sunday-specific celebration (as with Easter). 

If there is a day that has uniformly been seized by churches to celebrate the birth of Christ, it has been Christmas Eve. For many years, Christmas Eve has been the day of choice for the communal celebration among Christians of the birth of Christ. 

Christmas Eve services are a last bastion against the rampant materialism and secularism that threatens to overwhelm the true meaning of the season, keeping the birth of Christ in the center of our hearts and celebrations.

They are also one of the most strategic ways we can reach out to individuals for Christ so that one day they may celebrate His birth with us in the fullness of the new birth He brought to their life. Christmas Eve really is one of the best times to reach out to the unchurched in a culture that, for now at least, still draws them to attend such services.

As a result, we need to ask ourselves - as Toys “R” Us did - “How big can we make this?” 

By “how big can we make this,” I mean:

How many people can we reach for Christ who wouldn’t darken the doorstep of a church any other time of the year?

How can we most strategically remind them of the reason for the season in a way their latest trip to the mall did not?

If they naturally turn their thoughts to church and Jesus, how can we serve those inclinations and let this Christmas Eve mark the advent of Christ in their life?

Our Christmas Eve services are planned months in advance; staff is out in full force; we employ hundreds of volunteers; we give a present to all in attendance (usually a book to serve a spiritual search or journey); we offer refreshments and, outside, carolers and lights.

This year we will offer twenty-six services over five days and you can even view our promotional video for this year if you would like.

A lot of effort, I know. But the way we figure it, there was a lot of effort in the incarnation, and it was for more than a Christmas card. 

It was, as the angel said, to bring “good news of great joy for all the people.”

So how big are we going to make it?

As big as we can.

James Emery White

 

Sources     

Mae Anderson, "Toys 'R' Us opening 600 holiday stores in malls, hiring 10,000," USA Today, September 9, 2010, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Generation X-Mas (2014)

* Editor’s Note: This blog has been updated from its original version published in 2007. The Team at ChurchandCulture.org thought you would enjoy reading it again as we approach Christmas.

A couple of years ago a film crew from our church hit the streets of Charlotte to produce a “man on the street” video asking people, “What comes to your mind when you think of the Christmas story?”

Number one answer? 

“The movie.”

Yep, the 1983 “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid” tale from 1940’s Indiana of a nine-year-old boy’s desire for a Red-Ryder Carbon-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle BB Gun (and, lest we forget, with a compass in the stock).

An intriguing editorial in Time magazine at around the same time chronicled how A Christmas Story has become the quintessential American film for Christmas, replacing It’s a Wonderful Life. Titled “Generation X-Mas,” it chronicled how an “upstart film became a holiday icon for the post-boomer set.” 

As for George Bailey? 

“Not so into him anymore.”

In a 2006 Harris poll (and I haven’t found one more recent), those from older generations picked Bedford Falls, along with Macy’s (Miracle on 34th Street) as their favorite film destinations. 

But respondents a bit younger, from 18 to 41 years old, granted the “major award” to Scott Fargas, Flick and the Bumpus’ dogs - hence this season marking the 17th year (with steadily rising ratings) of the 24-hour marathon on TBS (and before that on TNT) come December 24-25.

This is one of the “pop-cultural shifts,” suggested Time - such as football overtaking baseball, salsa defeating ketchup – that “signal bigger changes.”  Perhaps because it’s everything It’s a Wonderful Life is not – “satiric and myth-deflating, down to the cranky store Santa kicking Ralphie down a slide.” 

Or, as Time noted, perhaps it is because of the changing relationship between the community and the individual. Whereas the older films position Christmas as that which “uplifts the suicidal, raises every voice in Whoville, [and] renders peace between Macy and Gimbel,” A Christmas Story “inverts the moral.” 

Now it’s the individual Christmas experience that matters. Getting the BB gun, instead of protecting the local Savings and Loan for the poor, is the point. Or as Time put it, “It’s the individual Christmas that matters. Bedford Falls can take a hike…[it’s not about] angels’ getting their wings. Christmas is about the kids’ getting their due.”

But perhaps we can go where Time could not.

The great divide between It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story is more than just the radical individualism that marks our day, but what has spawned such individualism. 

The real divide between the two films is that one retains the idea that Christmas is about the birth of the Jesus, and one does not. Unless I have missed it, A Christmas Story does not have a single reference, symbol, picture or event that would suggest Christmas is about the birth of Christ, or has religious significance of any kind.

It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, was rich in Christian idea and ethos, from traditional Christmas songs celebrating the birth of Christ (the climax of the movie is marked by the spontaneous outburst of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) to the central character of an angel.

A Christmas Story is marked by the complete and total absence of anything religious at all, much less Christian. No nativity scenes, no church services, no Christian music – even the department store, Higbees, honors the season not with shepherds or wise men, but with characters from The Wizard of Oz.

Yet this reflects more than the choice of one movie over another. An analysis of 48,000 hours of programming by the NRB (National Religious Broadcasters) in December of 2002 (again, a study I have not found repeated) found that 90 percent of programming did not have a significant spiritual theme. 7 percent had a religious or spiritual theme, but did not refer to Jesus or the biblical story of His birth. 

Jesus was the focus of only 3 percent of all Christmas programming.

Yet I confess that A Christmas Story has become one of my favorite movies. The nostalgia of the time, and the way it reveals how Christmas often “works,” runs deep and familiar. But when I watch it this season, along with millions of others, I will remind myself that while it is a Christmas story, it is not the Christmas story.

For that I would need to return to Bedford Falls. 

Or better yet, the little town of Bethlehem.

James Emery White
 

Sources

“Generation X-Mas: How an upstart film became a holiday icon for the post-boomer set,” James Poniewozik, Time, December 10, 2007, p. 90. Read the article online.

National Religious Broadcasters analysis can be found in the Winter 2004 edition of Enrichment, and also on the website of Preaching Today (a service of Christianity Today magazine). The website for the NRB is nrb.org.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

"I Can't Breathe"

There would be few reading this unaware of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, regarding the shooting death by a police officer of Michael Brown. This was quickly followed by the asphyxiation of Eric Garner in New York as a result of a chokehold during an arrest.

Neither case resulted in a grand jury indicting the officer involved.

Many lumped the two together, but I did not. To my thinking, they were very, very different. Apparently I’m not alone. A USA Today poll found that most Americans supported the Brown decision, but not the Garner decision.

I don’t want to get into the racial elements.

I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of grand jury indictments.

I don’t want to get into the perils of resisting arrest.

I don’t want to get into the difficulties and challenges of police work.

I only want to get into one thing:

“I can’t breathe.”

It’s said a picture is worth a thousand words. If so, a video must be worth ten thousand. Or in this case, an extremely potent three. If you saw it, you know that those three words were repeated eight times. And after he was on the ground, held down by multiple other men, and being handcuffed.

“I can’t breathe.”

I don’t care if he resisted arrest.

I don’t care if he weighed 300 or more pounds.

I don’t care if he had a criminal history.

At the time of the arrest, all I care about are those three words.

“I can’t breathe.”

Why?

Because I am a follower of Christ. I am a follower of Christ before I am a member of a political party, before I am a cultural “conservative” or “liberal,” and certainly before I am either “black” or “white.” 

And as a follower of Christ, I understand every human being to be someone made in the very image of God and of immeasurable worth to their Father. 

The color of their skin does not matter.

Their arrest record does not matter.

Their non-lethal resistance to arrest does not matter.

What matters is their “imago dei.” The image of God reflected in their very soul. And no human being should have been handled that way, much less in that situation.

Period.

And this includes the breaking news of the extent of torture carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency. [I couldn’t help but think of the connection between water-boarding and a chokehold – both are acts on another that keep them from breathing.] It doesn’t matter whether such acts fell short of a legal definition of torture, or whether they were effective.

Torture is simply wrong. Why? Because no human being, made in the image of God, should be treated that way.

Period.  

As I watched the video of Eric Garner’s arrest, I could only imagine one of my sons, resisting arrest for whatever stupid or miscalculated reason, who then found himself thrown to the ground and fighting for air.

And dying.

Dear God. I can barely sustain the thought.

So whatever needs to happen to address racism in our land,

     ...and the great evil is that it does thrive;

...whatever needs to happen to uphold justice,

     ...and only a naïve observer would assume it flows freely;

…whatever needs to happen to support police in their responsibilities, not to mention rid police forces of rogue elements,

     …and both must be pursued;

…whatever needs to happen to end all affronts to the worth and dignity of human beings as made in the image of God;

Whatever needs to happen, until it does,

     …for Christ’s sake,

     …let them breathe.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Susan Page, “Poll: Americans back charges in Eric Garner death,” December 8, 2014, USA Today, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Translation vs. Transformation

There are many things that confront leaders regarding the interplay of church and culture, but perhaps none is more pressing than the dynamic between translation and transformation.

Theologian Millard Erickson, building on the insights of William E. Hordern, notes that every generation must translate the gospel into its unique cultural context. But this is very different from transforming the message of the gospel into something that was never intended by the biblical witness.

Transformation of the message must be avoided at all costs. 

Translation, however, is essential for a winsome and compelling presentation of the gospel of Christ. 

And it is precisely this interplay between translation and transformation that must be navigated by every leader in regard to culture. 

If transformation takes place, then we have simply abandoned orthodoxy for the hopeful sake of warm bodies. The tickling of ears does not exactly have a welcome spot in the biblical materials.

If translation takes place, we intentionally build bridges of cultural understanding, but retain our prophetic voice in the marketplace of ideas.

Transformation is heresy.

Translation is the heart of our mission.

Knowing the difference is the crucible of leadership, and the difference between being in the world,

…and of it.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

About Dr. James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

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