Why not to be afraid of repeating yourself this Christmas

Do you have a favourite movie? One that you just love watching over and over again?

Christmas seems to be the time for repetitive viewing. Whether your favourite holiday movie is Miracle on 34th Street, Love Actually or Die Hard (or in my case, Lethal Weapon), there is something warm and comforting about watching familiar scenes. We laugh at the same jokes, we quote the script along with the characters, we feel the tension and pain despite knowing the resolution and we tear up at the sentimental ending (Riggs and Murtaugh get me every time).

Yet despite our love for repetition when it comes to our favourite books, films or TV shows, I feel that at times there is an awkwardness and embarrassment when it comes to the repetition of the Christmas story.

As children’s ministry leaders, we’ve all been there. We start telling the story and someone calls out, “I know this one!”

What we do next is significant.

Is pursuing novelty the best approach?

Maybe you are like me. This kind of comment used to fill me with dread. I would get flustered and embarrassed. I would try and challenge the child that perhaps they could listen out for something new. And then I would try to make my re-telling really exciting and novel so that their attention was still captivated and they wouldn’t be bored with a story that they had heard before.

There is certainly value in this approach. There is always more that we can learn and engage with, even in the most familiar of stories. And of course we want to capture the attention and imagination of the children in our group. However, there is something deeper going on in these apprehensions that needs to be challenged; the pursuit of novelty.

Our culture champions novelty. The latest toys, the latest gadgets, the latest TV shows and movies (even if they are just new and different remakes or retellings of known stories). I don’t need a new iPhone every year, let alone a new software update every second day. But the flashy billboard advertising, or the little red number on my screen tells me otherwise.

As I reflect on my reaction to a child’s challenge that they have “heard this one before”, I fear that I have given myself over to this cultural pursuit. How can I best engage this child’s mind, heart and faith? By finding something new. By a creative, exciting, “more interesting” retelling of the story. If this child has heard this one before, then my task is to make it novel and new.

Or perhaps there is a better way.

Repetitive beauty

Let’s face it. The pursuit of novelty is tiring. Not only that, it often produces lack-lustre results. Just like the remake the didn’t need to be made, the mind-numbing sequel, or the “reimagining” of particular characters that comes off as crass commercialism, sometimes our pursuit of novelty in children’s ministry just misses the mark.

We hope to be creative. We long for church and community engagement. We want children and families to hear and respond to the wonderful message of grace in the Christmas story. So we build sets and write scripts and create costumes based on the latest pop-culture trend, with tenuous links between the pop-culture icon and the nativity. I know, because I’ve done so for over 15 years in children’s ministry.

My question this year is not whether there is value in these Disney-Bible mashups, but rather whether they are necessary?

As we look into the Scriptures, we see a lot of repetition in storytelling.

  • Families are to ask the same questions and tell the same stories over the Passover meal (Exodus 12:24-27).

  • The Psalmist calls the people to retell the stories of God’s people (Psalm 78).

  • Jesus expects that the disciples will continue telling and participating in the Last Supper (Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

  • And the writer of Hebrews calls us to repeat these same stories to each other (Hebrews 3:7-13).

There appears to be a power and importance to retelling the stories and lessons of God’s people repetitively throughout the ages.

Perhaps this is fine for an ancient, non-literate audience. Perhaps repetition is only important and valued when there isn’t endless novelty.

But as I put How To Train Your Dragon on for my kids for the 11-billionth time, I’m not so sure that we have outgrown the value of repetition.

Re-storying ourselves

James K. A. Smith writes in his book You Are What You Love about the importance of repetition in developing spiritual habits that form our faith. Our culture has a powerful and persuasive story for our lives, one that pursues our passions, imaginations and attention with the novel, the new and the eternally unimportant.

As we gather in church to hear, sing, pray and engage with God through Scripture, we are countering the cultural story and re-storying our faith through the beautiful repetition of the biblical story. It is the very fact that the biblical story remains unchanged and our church practices (liturgies) are the same week in and week out that is significant.

Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning repetition and faithful reception. [1]

The Christmas story is not new; it is not novel. And therein lies its value.

What the children and families in our churches need at Christmas is not novelty. And it is certainly not a dreaded embarrassment from us that they are hearing the same story over and over again.

What they need—what we need—is the beautiful repetition of the same old story. To be reminded again of the cosmic, supernatural, significance of God becoming man. To hear again the simplicity and humility of Nazareth, Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph, and a baby lying on a bed of straw.

It is in the familiarity and the repetition of the same old Christmas narrative, that we re-story ourselves and find again the faithfulness of God and our place with him in Christ.

[1] James K. A. Smith (2016) You Are What You Love, p.78.