I need to begin with a disclaimer: I am a fan of Santa Claus. I have fond memories of writing wish-list letters to him as a child and bringing our sons to visit him at the mall when they were children.
My purpose this morning is not to criticize the commercialization of Christmas, but to explore a different though related topic.
How important is religion to Americans?
In the latest Pew Research Center report, 20 percent of those surveyed named "religious faith" as the "most important" source of meaning in their lives.
Here's the good news: religion received more votes than any source except "family." Here's the bad news: in a nation where 72 percent of the population identifies as Christian, a large majority of those claiming to follow Jesus do not find meaning in life primarily from their relationship with him.
He may be part of their lives, but he is not central to them.
How to get along with God
Of all life's priorities, which should come first? Here's God's answer: "Thus says the Lord: 'Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me'" (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Scripture repeatedly emphasizes the importance of putting the Lord first in our lives (cf. Matthew 6:33; Exodus 20:3; Colossians 3:2). God does not share his glory. If he did, he would be committing idolatry.
Years ago, I heard a preacher warn: "If you want to get along with God, stay off his throne."
However, such single-minded commitment to our Father runs counter to the secular culture we inhabit. It's fine if you want to make Jesus part of your life. But if you choose to make him your Lord and tell others they should do the same, you risk being branded as bigoted and intolerant.
Consider Santa Claus as an example.
From "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays"
Santa is the perfect symbol for American religion. He is a kindly grandfather figure who visits us to give us presents and then retreats to leave us alone. We have a transactional relationship with him: as the song warns, "He knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake!"
The Santa Clausification of Christmas doesn't end with Santa Claus. Our secular culture has turned "Merry Christmas" into "Merry Xmas" and "Happy Holidays." Christmas music specials abound on television, but if this year is like past years, few will include more than a passing reference to Jesus' birth.
My point is not to criticize the fun traditions that have grown up around the Christmas holidays. Nor is it to criticize secular people for acting like secular people. Before I became a Christian, I viewed Christmas in the same way.
My point is to encourage us to "take back" the holiday by reculturating it.
"Concentric circles of concern"
Dr. Oscar Thompson was a beloved evangelism professor when I taught on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary many years ago. He popularized a ministry model he called "concentric circles of concern."
Dr. Thompson traced seven levels in our relational lives: from self to family, relatives, friends, neighbors and associates, acquaintances, and "person X" (someone unknown to us). He urged us to build bridges to each as appropriate to our relationship with them.
Let's adopt his model as our missional strategy this Christmas season.
First, begin with the "self." We must know Jesus before we can make him known. So, make time for Christ each day–"Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10) by meeting with him in worship, Bible study, and prayer. Make your life the Bethlehem of Jesus.