Christmas in Emoji

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, November 21, 2016

Christmas in Emoji

As I wrote in The Rise of the Nones, a lesson from history might be in order when it comes to the importance of the visual. The Lindisfarne Gospels, a 1,300-year-old manuscript, is revered to this day as the oldest surviving English version of the Gospels. Lindisfarne is a small island just off the Northumberland coast of England. It is often referred to as Holy Island. Tidal waters cut it off from the rest of the world for several hours every day, adding to its mystique as a spiritual pilgrimage. 

Produced around AD 715 in honor of St. Cuthbert, largely by a man named Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, the Lindisfarne Gospels presents a copy of the four Gospels of the New Testament. But it isn’t revered simply for its age. Its pages reveal curvy, embellished letters, strange creatures and spiraling symbols of exquisite precision and beauty. During the eighth century, pilgrims flocked to St. Cuthbert’s shrine where it was housed, making the Lindisfarne manuscript one of the most visited and seen books of its day. Its artwork and symbols helped convey its message to those who could not read.

Professor Richard Gameson from Durham University sees it as a precursor to modern multimedia because it was designed to be a visual, sensual and artistic experience for its audience. Michelle Brown from the University of London notes that the book’s impact was similar to those of films and electronic media today. As Gameson adds, “The emphasis was to reach as many people as possible.”

There are many strategies needed for the church to have an open “front door” – to help those who were previously unchurched to come and feel not only welcomed, but connected. In reaching the culture today it is clear that the church needs to be focused on a key element of this:

Be visual

At Mecklenburg Community Church, the church where I serve as senior pastor, there is very little we don’t try to convey visually, whether it’s a song during worship or a point during a message. We often convey the “story” across multiple screens in multiple forms. It’s simply how people best receive information and meaning, content and context.

But the need for the visual goes beyond something as basic as video. It’s reflected in the changing nature of language itself.

The depth of this shift was evident when Oxford Dictionary named its 2015 “Word of the Year.” Here’s the word:

Yes, it is a pictograph or, as it is more commonly called, an emoji. But not just any emoji. It is called the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji. While emojis have been around since the late 1990s, “2015 saw their use, and use of the word emoji, increase hugely.” This particular emoji was selected because it was identified as the most used emoji globally in 2015. 

In case you are a closet Luddite, an emoji is “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication.” The term itself is Japanese in origin “and comes from e ‘picture’ + moji ‘letter, character.’ The similarity to the English word emoticon has helped its memorability and rise in use.” An emoticon, by the way, is a “facial expression composed of keyboard characters, such as :), rather than a stylized image.”

This reflects the cultural revolution that has come with technology in general, and the smartphone in particular. It’s also the only form of language that can transcend linguistic borders, serving the interconnected world of the internet that knows no geopolitical or language boundaries. 

But more than anything, it reflects the changing nature of communication itself. 

And when it comes to reaching the latest and largest generation – Generation Z – emojis are part of their language. The research of Sparks and Honey has found that Generation Z “speak in emoticons and emojis. Symbols and glyphs provide context and create subtext so they can have private conversations. Emoji alphabets and icon ‘stickers’ replace text with pictures.” 

This is why, during a recent slate of Christmas Eve services, we presented the entire Christmas story through a video of two people texting each other, using emojis, emoticons, and gifs. 

In other words, the way people today increasingly communicate. 

Take a look here.

And yes, you are free to use this video during your church’s Christmas Eve services. No charge, no copyrights.

Just consider it our gift to step into the new language.

James Emery White


Flavia Di Consiglio, “Lindisfarne Gospels: Why is this book so special?” BBC Religion and Ethics, March 20, 2013, read online.

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, trans. William Weaver.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite

Christmas in Emoji