Christmas and Symbolic Meaning for a Church in Transformation
By Marcelo Gomes
Human beings develop their ability to relate to the world through a process of creating symbols in their inner world. This is called symbol formation. It is a type of figurative representation that creates the emotional stability to face life. These mental representations are related to ideas, conflicts, and wishes. In early life, we experience the concrete world, but only by symbolizing what is outside us are we able to understand people and the world and relate to them.
Christmas season is a time for us to reconnect to many of the symbols that make up our inner perception of the world: these include spiritual meanings and traditional components —and therefore, Christmas. Traditional music, family gatherings, and familiar customs encompass the ways we Christians celebrate this coming of the Lord and “the most wonderful time of the year.” The symbolic meaning of Christmas is so strong that even during tough times for churches, packed sanctuaries and special events provide significant participation and involvement.
I want to make two important observations. The first one is related to discipleship. The way we were discipled during life—especially during our childhood—determines our vision about the meaning of Christmas and how it should be lived in the church. This is evident when we consider the conflicts that occur when leaders try to change anything about the Christmas Eve service or any other component of Christmas in the church. People may get angry about any changes. For them, there is a symbolic meaning in certain traditions. Changing those traditions seems to affect spirituality and people’s emotional connections to the season, the church, and faith.
The way we were discipled during life—especially during our childhood—determines our vision about the meaning of Christmas and how it should be lived in the church.
As the world changes and church attendance declines, many congregations have trouble finding enough people to offer musicals and special celebrations. Some churches are moving toward ways of worship and living out Christ’s message that no longer fit traditional Christmas programs. Churches may need to reframe and rethink symbolic meanings. They may want to revisit discipleship formation and be open to dealing with new ideas, wishes, and conflicts. This spiritual exercise requires prayer, discernment, and community sharing.
My second observation concerns church planting. Considering the importance of symbols at Christmas time, church leaders need new strategies for church planting that look at symbol formation in the targeted community before they engage in any activity. Unlike pastoring an existing congregation, church planting is a crafting process where the planter needs to find the spiritual and faith meanings, the “symbols” of the community’s spirituality. By doing so, the planter can establish a connection. Understanding symbolic dynamics is an important aspect of any church planting initiative.
If you want to discuss this topic or talk about challenges related to the ideas presented here, please, feel free to contact me at [email protected].
Dr. Marcelo Gomes is the Director of Training & Church Planting Systems with Path 1 at Discipleship Ministries.
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