We’ve been doing the pub carols at the Bedford for almost a decade now. It’s probably the highlight of the term. It’s certainly a fitting conclusion to the calendar year and puts everyone in a festive frame of mind for Christmas.
This year we had two start times. One at 6pm and the other at 8pm. We had about two hundred people at each. The earlier slot attracted a handful of families with younger children. The later one was almost exclusively young adults. We’re upstairs in a large function room which is dark and decorated. The band play carols in a rock genre. We tend to have eight truncated arrangements interspersed with readings, adverts for church and a talk. It’s not for everyone but it is for us. And it’s clearly for others.
This is a list of the lessons that I’ve learnt over the years from speaking at the event.
1. You need to open with something that puts everyone totally at ease. The words ‘Richard Perkins, the Senior Minister at CCB, is now going to speak’ are a rude intrusion into a colourful carol event. People want to sing Christmas. They don’t want to hear about it. They came for the carols. They weren’t expecting a sermon. So don’t give them one. Give them a talk. But right at the start show them that’s it’s going to be quite unlike whatever they were expecting.
2. You need to be brief. I aim for fifteen minutes. Last year I got away with twenty five. When I say ‘got away with’ what I mean is that no one complained at the time. Apart from a few of the congregation. And the staff! They were probably right. Fifteen is just about right. You can barely do anything worthwhile in ten. You don’t need to have all the ‘what to do if you’re interested’ stuff in your talk. Get the person who’s leading the ‘service’ to say all that towards the end.
3. You need to be humourous. Not necessarily belly laughs but certainly witty. From the moment you stand up, you’re working against the clock. And so your talk is the closest thing you’ll probably ever come to stand up. But those laughs allow you to speak for a little bit longer. It’s gets the crowd onside. If you have to choose between laughing and listening, go for listening. But aim for both. At 6pm this year we got both. Wierdly, at 8pm it was only listening. I gave exactly the same talk but it got a very different response. I felt a little as though my talk had taken the fun out of Christmas. It was therefore helpful to have an ‘upbeat’ host and two rousing carols to come afterwards.
4. You need to get enough laughs in the bank so that by the time you want to talk about the spiritually serious stuff, they’re prepared to listen. It helps to know your own limitations and not to try to exceed them! And so you may not be the best person to speak at the carols. Don’t ask the staff what they think. They’re too loyal. Ask your staff what the congregation say. After all, they’re the ones doing the inviting and they need confidence in the speaker if they’re going to bring their friends along.
5. You need to park your expository inclinations. I can still remember with some discomfort my efforts one year to expound the Magnificat. What was I thinking? It gave me a chance to open with some ‘Christmas Number Ones’ trivia. But even so! I’m told that the best pub carols talk I ever gave was on John 3:16 and I explained what that verse taught us about God’s love. It was simple and clear. It explained the text. But it wasn’t strictly expository in that I didn’t spend any time at all putting it in context. My best pub talks are those where I’m not overly ambitious in what I’m trying to do. Less is invariably more.
6. You need to explain the gospel. And that includes the unpopular bits like sin and judgement. After all what does it mean that Jesus is our Saviour? What did he save us from? What did he save us for? How did he save us? Why can’t we save ourselves? To merely state that Jesus is our saviour and think that we’ve somehow done our job is laughable. We may cop some flak for what some see as the negative aspects of the Christian faith. But why would I need a saviour unless I’m convinced that I need saving. In dependence on the Spirit, we’re trying to persuade people that they’re sinners in need of a saviour and that Jesus is a saviour for sinners. Not everyone will like it. And not everyone will thank you for it. One Christian lady this year (not from our church) told me in no uncertain terms that she wouldn’t have done what I did in the way that I did it. She may have been right. But the well taught Christians will know that the gospel includes the Lord’s judgment on our sin (e.g. Revelation 14:6&7, Romans 2:16). And they’ll thank you for courageously and carefully explaining what we all need to hear. And what they brought their friends to hear; namely the whole gospel. Because without the bad news, the good news is just a little bit worse.
7. You need to ramp back your expectations for follow-up. It’s unlikely that the Lord will bring anyone to conversion through that one talk. Though He could. But you’re more likely to disavow people of the misconception that Christianity is irrational tosh. In our experience very little of what happens at the Pub Carols has any impact in January at church. Rarely do people sign up for Christianity Explored, or come to church. Very occasionally people might pay you another visit to a Christmas event. But it’s all part of sowing seeds. And to that end it’s an event that we’ll put our heart and soul into each year.
I’m sure that there are things that I’ve forgotten. But these are what came to mind following a conversation with a fellow Co-Mission Minister who was facing his first pub carols. Assuming that it’s not a complete train wreck, I guarantee it won’t be his last.