This article originally published (with photos) on the Faith+Leader blog.
The birth of Jesus as told in the gospel of Luke is, arguably, the most well-known story in all of scripture. Listeners know the words, the cadences, and the imagery of this story that has a 2,000-year reach across the veil of time. But this age-old story takes on new texture and meaning when experienced in the simplicity of a modern day barn. As one worshiper put it, “Christmas just seems more real in a barn.”
And what could be more real than sitting on straw bales in a cleaned-up working barn, with all the faint smells and low sounds of farm life around you? The clucking chickens (with the occasional crow of our resident rooster, Charlie), the bleating sheep, the soft chewing of donkeys and calves, and the cheeky sounds of goats looking for some attention, all welcome people as they gather for worship on Christmas Eve. Strings of white lights and a hanging, lit star are the only creative flourishes in a barn space that, on the other 364 days of the year, holds the pen of about a dozen sheep. The low winter light that streams in from the barn windows illuminates the floating motes of dust like ethereal confetti. The warm smell of summer from the hay almost seems like an added blanket as worshipers snuggle in next to each other (two butts to a bale by our count), before the organist begins his own musical prelude on the keyboard.
And then we sing. And we listen. And we take in the story of Jesus’ birth with new senses. We watch the nativity story come alive as characters in costume gather around the manger. The earthy smells remind us of a God who meets us in the ordinary and the unexpected. The lifting of voices together seems to take on a different tenor when sung within the timbers of an old farm building. And when the Christmas Eve service is concluding, the lights are turned off, and “Silent Night” is sung in the soft glow of strings of Christmas lights, it seems completely possible that this is, indeed, the kind of place God would choose to be born into the world.
As a pastor, I know the pressure that many of us, as church leaders, feel this time of year. The push to create meaningful and beautiful worship experiences. The task of coordinating annual seasonal events. The expectations to perform flawlessly. Do I dare say that the church often feels like it has to “manufacture” a suitable encounter with the Divine every December?
Christmas in the Barn does indeed take on a life of its own for my two small congregations and the countless volunteers involved, but it has also proven to be a wonderful reminder of how the Divine encounters us in so many simple ways.
Like in a barn that is freshly cleaned up but not decked out.
And in the sharing of space and home with animals.
Or in the holy spaces of shared stories and laughter.
And in the company of beautifully mixed voices, all singing in places not necessarily made for singing.
Just as at the first Christmas, the wonder of the holy finds us in the plain, the ordinary, and the beautifully mundane. And the wonder of the incarnation can be found in the simplest corners farthest from the brightest lights and the busiest calendars. This is what our annual barn services have taught me … that Christmas does not need to be manufactured or found in a deeply choreographed worship space. Sometimes you just need the simple places in which to hear the most world-changing, world-loving story ever told (and having some chickens, sheep, and goats in the congregation with you doesn’t hurt, either).
The small, rural congregations of Trinity and St. Paul’s Lutheran Churches in Gaylord, Minnesota, have been hosting Christmas in the Barn since 2015. The barn belongs to a church member, whose farm is located one mile from the country church of Trinity.