Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Should Churches Close on Christmas?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that over the course of twenty-one years as the pastor of two different congregations, I have had a hand in cancelling Sunday worship celebrations.

In that period, the two churches, taken together, have perhaps scrubbed ten Sunday services because of blizzards.

Once, we had to cancel on a winter Sunday when we didn't have heat.

As I recall, once, the school in which we worshiped at the time was so insufferably hot on a Sunday morning that we canceled worship. (Although I did briefly consider forging ahead that day, considering the conditions prime for a sermon on hell!)

And I won't say that when I looked at the December calendar earlier this year, I didn't consider cancelling Sunday services on Christmas Day. It would have been easy for me to build a case for cancellation. For one thing, a large percentage of our congregation's members are not originally from around here and many go "back home" for Christmas with extended families. We're also a young church with lots of little ones, who would likely prefer not being dragged away from Santa's gifts on Christmas morning.

But for me, that logic ran into an incontrovertible counterargument: Sunday is the day we Christians set aside to remember an event even more important than the birth of Jesus. Every Sunday, we Christians say, is to be a "little Easter," a weekly opportunity to thank and honor God for the new life that can be ours when we surrender our lives, our pasts, our futures, and our sins to that same Jesus. On every Sunday, we remember what Jesus did on an Easter some two-thousand years ago. After voluntarily accepting our death sentence for sin on a cross, Jesus rose from the dead.

Of course, we don't have to hold weekly worship on Sundays. That's why our congregation recently began offering a second worship service on Saturdays at 5:30. But I would be loathe to give up worshiping on Sunday, no matter how few people may be likely to show up.

I mention all this because several megachurches across the country have decided that they'll not be worshiping on Christmas Day this year. The folks at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago say, for example, that they probably would only get about 1500 for worship that day, a paltry crowd not worth the effort of staff or the expenditure of money they'd have to pay them to open their doors.

I have immense respect for Willow Creek and its founding pastor, Bill Hybels. The congregation, under his leadership, does a fantastic job of inviting spiritually-disconnected people into a relationship with God.

But it doesn't seem to have dawned on them to do what we'll be doing at our infinitely smaller church on Sunday, December 25. We'll follow the advice of Paul to the first-century Colossian church. Paul wrote, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Colossians 3:16-17).

Maybe on one Sunday in the year, the megachurches could do without their meticulously-crafted worship celebrations, effective though I'm sure they are in reaching people for Christ. That way, they wouldn't have to spend a lot of money. Such a stripped-down approach seems especially appropriate on the day we'll also remember the birth of the Savior not in a high-tech maternity ward, but in a smelly barn, Whose earthly parents were from peasant stock. God likes simple.

Worship requires no pyrotechnics. No glitzy production. No elaborate AV stuff. Not even gold crosses, expensive vestments, or choirs. All it takes is a group of people who are, in Martin Luther's words, "called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified" by God's Holy Spirit, who receive the Good News of Jesus with gratitude, and who gather to praise God for all His grace and His glory.

12 comments:

Pastor_Jeff said...

Mark,

We have cancelled a few times due to really bad weather, not wanting anyone potentially to get hurt coming to church. We will have Sunday morning worship this Dec. 25 for the reasons you mentioned, although I think it will be less structured and more informal.

I think part of Willow's decision was that their mission is to reach unchurched people, and almost none would come on Christmas morning. I imagine they think the "mere" 1,500 would be entirely believers. I also have a lot of respect for Bill Hybels and Willow Creek, but to me these seem strange reasons to cancel church - we'd draw only 15 times what the average church does, and they would only be Christians.

There's of course nothing holy or biblically mandated about Dec. 25 per se (or even Sunday), but long tradition supports both. It's not as though having church on Dec. 25 would hurt their outreach, and you could argue it might help. I am bothered by the attitude that it isn't worth pulling together a worship service for such a small crowd. I wonder if they even considered that you can worship without video, praise band, drama, and stage lighting?

For more insight on this(including the offer of a Christmas DVD in the place of worship), see the CT article here.

This is just excellent. Your last two paragraphs moved me very powerfully. With your permission, I'd like to share this in worship on Dec. 25 (giving you credit, of course). This post deserves to be widely published. You should send it to CT or some other publication. Thank you for your ministry.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Sorry, another thing that bothers me about this: one of the main justifications is to give people more time with family. What about the people who don't have families to be with on Christmas? They are being cut off from their true family, the people of God.

Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you." "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35)

We've overcommitted ourselves and filled our schedules with things that aren't really important. Now we feel stressed and anxious about not having enough time together. So anything that puts families together must be good, even not going to church. Oh, don't let me get started on the evangelical idolatry of the family...

Charlie said...

Mark,

Your good sense comes through in this post as if always does. I appreciate your reminder that we gather to celebrate God's incarnation, death and resurrection every Sunday, and that it doesn't take any sort of lavish production to do that. I'm going to link to this post on my site.

Mark Daniels said...

Jeff and Charlie:
Thank you so much for your kind words.

I'm honored, Jeff, that you want to use the last two paragraphs in this piece for your worship on December 25. Of course, you may do so. Charlie, thank you for the honor you do me when linking here.

Jeff, thanks a lot for your insightful comments...and I hope one day you will write about the evangelical idolatry of the family, something I almost tackled here. But I wanted to keep the piece to manageable proportions.

God bless both of you!

Mark

Christinewjc said...

Hello Mark,

Charlie at AnotherThink told me about your post on this subject so I came over to read it.

I have never heard of cancelling a Christmas day service when it falls on a Sunday. Then, I read that the last time this happened was back in 1994. But until this year, I had never heard of it before.

I was wondering if it is because most people attend the Christmas Eve services? We have done so for the last 15 years! It is our family tradition. Our church has 3 Christmas Eve services. One at 6 p.m., 8 p.m. and midnight. We also have one service at 10:00 a.m. Christmas morning.

I noticed that you have several blogs from the GodBlog conference on your blogroll. I was there too! I really enjoyed it.

Sounds like you are very busy with your family and ministry but if you get a chance I hope you might consider visiting my blog sometime soon and sharing some words of wisdom!

Thanks and God Bless,
Christine

Mark Daniels said...

Christine:
Thank you so much for reading and for commenting on the blog. I will definitely be visiting your site. Have a blessed Christmas!

Mark

John said...

I can't imagine not attending church on Christmas Day, except perhaps in the case of extremely bad weather or some disaster. It's one of the holiest days of the year, at least if one follows a liturgical calendar.

Mark Daniels said...

John:
Thanks for dropping by the blog and for your comments!

Maybe some of the folks who would otherwise attend the megachurches that close their doors on Christmas will worship elsewhere on that day.

Mark

jan@theviewfromher said...

Well, I suppose now I will have to admit our pastor was right. We're having church on Christmas morning because he said people who grew up going to church on Sunday would want to be in church on Sunday. I guess there is something comforting about that. You are a great encourager Mark, and I'm going to hold on to your statement, "God likes simple." It's a wonderful concept to remember. Thank you!

Mark Daniels said...

Jan:
Talk about encouraging...I really appreciate all the encouraging things that you and other commenters have said about this piece. In writing it, I thought that I might offend some--and maybe I have. But I simply wanted to present a different perspective and hopefully did so without being hostile or condescending, something this old sinner finds difficult to avoid when I disagree with others.

Thanks for your comments, Jan.

Mark

George said...

Your last comment was poignant. Why have we come to the point in Amerian Evangelicalism where we must close because we don't have enough staff? Could anyone imagine Jesus cancelling the Sermon on the Mount because he did not have his powerpoint slides? I hope we wake up and realize that a dozen voices lifted in song to God is more beautiful than a 20 piece worship band! Merry Christmas.

Mark Daniels said...

George:
Thank you for dropping by and for your comments. Technology of different kinds can bring effective tools in helping us share the Gospel and worship God. But they're not essential. Luther would call them "adiaphora," unnecessary for salvation or faithfulness.

God bless you with a wonderful Christmas!

Mark