The Nativity Story is Not the Gospel
December is the high season for evangelism in Thailand. Tapping into people’s natural curiosity about this “foreign” holiday, Thai Christians and missionaries alike take full advantage of the opportunity to put on special Christmas evangelistic events and programs. Whether its in schools, homes, neighborhoods or churches, everybody in the Christian community is doing some kind of evangelistic activity. Over the years, I’ve participated in and lead many such activities but I’ve begun to wonder how “evangelistic” some of them are.
It is a great thing that Thai Christians and missionaries are leading songs and games, and doing crafts with kids on a Christmas theme. It is also great that skits or retellings of the Nativity story from the Bible are presented. It is my hope (and that of many others) that such activities will go a long way to dispelling the popular notion that Christmas is an American and European holiday that is about Santa Claus and gifts. That is the ONLY image of Christmas that most Thai people receive in the popular media, and it needs to be corrected.
However, merely telling the story of Jesus’ birth is not the same thing as presenting the Gospel.
The story of Christ’s birth is certainly part of the Gospel, but it is not the whole thing. Without the creation and the fall, the coming of a Savior makes no sense. In his classic book on evangelism, Tell the Truth, Will Metzger tells the story of a man sitting at the end of a pier, fishing. All of a sudden, another man runs down the pier screaming, and jumps into the water and drowns. Right after that, another man comes along to the man fishing and says, “That man died for you!” The man fishing looks confused. “What do you mean? Why did he die? He certainly didn’t die for me. I am in no danger. I am just sitting here fishing.”
When the church tells the world that Jesus came at Christmas to save us from sin, it sounds ridiculous. Most people are like the man fishing on the pier. They think they are fine as they are, and don’t know why anyone would need to die for them. The coming of a SAVIOR makes no sense.
Apart from the full Gospel story, the Nativity story is heard as merely the story of the birth of a founder of a world religion.
I hope that you don’t misunderstand me at this point. It is not my intention to bash the telling of the Nativity story. Every story of Scripture can be used of God in people’s lives because God’s Word is powerful to do what God sends it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:10-11). Telling the Nativity story is better than not telling it. However, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that just because we have told the story of Jesus’ birth, then we have presented the Gospel.
What Then Should We Do?
Wherever possible, we should present the Nativity story in in the fuller context of the Gospel. One of the better examples that I’ve seen of this was done by the Thai pastor whom we worked with this past term in Central Thailand. Starting in Genesis, he told the Christmas story beginning at creation and worked his way all the way to the cross.
In some situations, however, it is not always possible to proclaim the Gospel fully. Most Christmas evangelism in Thai public schools is a one-time opportunity and sharing a lot of religious content is not welcome. Yet even if you are able to present a brief synopsis of the Gospel, it usually takes repeated, regular exposure to Scripture before people from a completely non-Christian background begin to understand the Gospel.
My recommendation, therefore, would be to continue doing games, songs, skits, crafts, and retellings of the Nativity story. When you can give a synopsis of the Gospel, do it. However, it would be best to use those Christmas evangelistic events as a bridge to some other context where they can hear the Gospel. Invite people to a weekly church service, small group Bible study, or kids club. Hand out a Gospel portion (i.e. the Gospel of Mark) or other Christian literature that points people beyond the Nativity story to the Gospel. Also, there are many instances when it would be appropriate to invite those with questions about what they heard to talk after the event has ended with the speaker (and/or others who came with the speaker). A personal conversation, and a personal invitation to come learn more afterwards may indeed be more effective in introducing people to the Gospel than a public invitation to another event.