She was sitting right behind us in church on Sunday, so proud and excited because along with her name, her name tag said ANGEL in big letters. She announced to her parents that she was pretty sure her friend Ethan was going to get to be a shepherd—or maybe a wise man. No matter how much our world has changed, there is something about the re-enactment of THIS story that still has great power over us. There are many things churches have had to leave behind, because no one signed up, no one came. BUT the slow walk down the aisle for Mary and Joseph and the doll wrapped in swaddling clothes frequently still happens.
Of course, the children are adorable, but there is something that happens at a Christmas pageant that tugs at our hearts in a unique way. Because what becomes real once again either as we watch or participate ourselves, what gets told to us by those bathrobes and crowns and wings is not just a Bible story of the birth of a baby. It zeros our hearts in on what happens when God comes to with live with us, to be like us. Emmanuel happens right there in the enactment. It allows us all to share and receive the sense of God’s presence, “God with us,” which is much a bigger story than the story itself.
Andrew Zirschky writes about this very phenomenon in his new book about youth ministry—Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation. (Abingdon, 2015) He doesn’t write about Christmas pagaents, but he expresses the social realities of those angels and shepherds in such a way that you need to read this book whether or not you are working with adolescents. Zirschky sees into what is going on with kids and social media as a clarion call to the church. Unlike so many others, he neither condemns the screens, NOR advocates the church has to “cool up” by using screens to attract kids. But he sees that kids’ relationship with technology and social media especially is asking us as church to stop just watching the tableau, and begin living in it– “living present” to one another. Receive Emmanuel. Nothing less will address the longing for connection that teens have–and have always had.
Zirschky identifies that the social world of teenagers (and the rest of us) has deeply changed–and consequently they (and we) “are hungry for continuous, meaningful relationships of presence that are not easily discovered in the disconnected landscape of the networked individualism.” (Zirschky, p. 148) We need to understand the real and godly source of our longing for what Zirschky names “living presence” in order to understand why kids want to text all the time. We need to create communities where we are deeply embedded in one another’s every days, whether we are physically present to one another or not–because we can. And only then will we be able to offer deeply connected presence that goes beyond screens.
You need to read this book, because you too know the longing that gets tapped in you when you hear those shepherds say to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:15). “What is truly relevant to the lives of teenagers are relationships of depth and a community of people who ‘live present’ to one another.” (Zirschky, p.6) That is the reason we love the pagaent. God came to be with us. On some level, young people with phones in their hands just want to go to Bethlehem. Join them.