Put Christmas back in the church

manager emptyThis Associated Press report is one of those “believe it or not” stories that you just have to write straight and let the readers shake their head.

Or is it just me that thinks this way, since I am one of those strange liturgical calendar kind of guys?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Central Kentucky’s largest church will be dark on Christmas Day, a decision drawing some criticism among the faithful.

Southland Christian Church near Lexington is joining several evangelical megachurches across the country in canceling services for the holiday, which this year falls on a Sunday. Officials at the church, where about 7,000 people worship each week, said the move is designed to allow staff members and volunteers to spend the holiday with their families.

The megachurches, which rank among the largest congregations in America, will hold multiple Christmas Eve services instead. Among the churches closed on Christmas Day are Willow Creek Community Church, the Chicago area’s largest congregation; Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.; North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.; and Fellowship Church near Dallas.

The move is drawing mixed reviews. Critics say it’s the day of the week — not the day of the year — that’s sacred. To them, closing the doors of the church on the Lord’s Day is unthinkable.

Some churches are scaling down their Sunday schedule on Christmas. Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church, where 18,000 people worship each weekend, is scheduled to hold one service on Christmas in the fellowship hall.

You know, I think Easter falls on Sunday as well and that can be inconvenient, too.

But, seriously, this is a wonderful example of a news story that is the mirror image of the Christmas Wars story that some of you are so tired of, it seems. (Thanks for the link, Michael.) Actually, I remain interested in the “Merry Christmas” speech battles because, like Ms. Mollie, I am interested in anything that has to do with the blurring of public speech about religion. I am interested in what happens when people call out the lawyers to settle religious issues.

But the story that interests me just as much or more is the amazing fade out of Christmas in real, live, big-sign-on-the-lawn CHURCHES. It seems that the actual traditions of Christmas are being rolled over by The Commercialized Holidays Steamroller — and the mall calendar that goes with it — inside the doors of actual churches.

So I wish the Associated Press or one of the local newspapers touched by this trend had gone a step or two further and let us know what the leaders of these megachurches were actually thinking when they made this decision.

Do Christmas rites matter? Why not? Put Christ in Christmas? How about put Christmas back in the Church? Having the Feast of the Nativity fall on a Sunday morning would seem, to me, to be a chance to do more with this holy day — the first day of the 12-day Christmas season — rather than less.

If anyone sees a report of a Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran or Eastern Orthodox congregation canceling Christmas morning services or scaling them back, please let me know.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.newyorknewchurch.org Will Linden

    How about a Swedenborgian church?

    I have often griped about having the only apparent church in the city without a Christmas service. So my colleagues approved a Christmas Eve service at last… but it is REPLACING Sunday. (In our case, we have a dismal record of ignored Good Friday services to look at.)

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    The Herald-Leader (where the AP found the story) has an explanation of why services aren’t being held on Christmas:

    “Lexington Theological Seminary professor Bill Turner says it’s difficult for some congregations to hold multiple Christmas Eve services and then return the following day.

    “You’re talking about a lot of volunteers and a lot of logistics to make Sunday happen in a lot of those megachurches,” he said. By the end of Saturday’s services, “you’re pretty well wrung out.”

  • http://u2sermons.blogspot.com/ Beth

    An elderly seminary professor of my acquaintance told a story (which, I admit, perhaps has a ring of being one of those stories that has improved somewhat over years of telling it) of serving the early years of his ministry in a small rural church on the Calvinist end of the spectrum. This was the era before liturgical renewal had made many inroads into Protestantism, when all holy days were still a tad suspect in some quarters. He received from the church’s national headquarters a mailer which began “Dear Pastor: As you are doubtless already aware, the [name of denomination] has designated Sunday, Dec 25 of this year as Christian College Sunday. Enclosed are a number of resources you may use as you observe this day to encourage youth in your congregation to attend a Christian college….” and so on.

    He reported having sat down and written a letter back which began, “Dear Pastor: As you are doubtless already aware, the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church has designated Sunday, Dec 25 of every year as the Feast of the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ… “

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Wow. It’s the punchline of an old Jewish joke, come to life.

  • http://pervious.blogspot.com Jody Bilyeu

    This could be a cultural thing, too, rather than a sign of the decline of Christmas in churches. I think many of us whose ways are less liturgical are more inclined to see Christmas as a simple family time, harkening back to the first Christmas, with no implications as to commercialism, no less holiness, and no hatin’ on Jesus. Christmas eve, my immediate family gathers around the fire and reads most of Luke 2. Christmas day, the extended family gets together and cousin Brady quotes it (used to be Grandpa). Scarcely a dry eye in the house. If they had church we’d skip it, because we wouldn’t want to miss the service.

  • Brad

    This is an interesting counterpoint to all those debates about “Christmas” vs. “holidays,” etc.

    I guess those churches have decided to put the “commercial” back in “Christmas,” er, something.

    Brad

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  • http://www.culture-makers.com/ Andy Crouch

    My large evangelical Episcopal/Anglican parish in suburban Philadelphia is holding one teensy service on Christmas Day (and also on the Feast Day of the New Year According to the Secular Calendar on the following Sunday).

    I think they probably know their congregation well enough to know that even if they held the usual array of services, no one would come.

    Anyway, Terry, if I’m not mistaken the Orthodox Easter service is pretty much over by dawn on Sunday, right? What’s so bad about celebrating Christmas at nightfall on Christmas Eve?

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  • ceemac

    tmatt

    Why are you surprised about a church ignoring Christmas? Think back to your Baptist days. Bet a big deal was not made about Christmas services.

    Pulliam is a member of a conservative Calvinist tribe. I suspect they don’t do Advent and Christmas. I remember reading a book by one of the founders of the PCA detailing what he considered the theological decline of the old PCUS. The first step in that decline was inclusion of Christmas in the Denominational Calender in the late 1800′s.

  • http://onanazurefield.blogspot.com David

    Good News!

    Unto us a Savior is Born!

    Just don’t expect to learn about it at church

    It puts a whole new meaning to “No room in the Inn”

  • Achilles

    1) I think this is inexcusable.

    2)Having got that out the way, my wife pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: think of how empty these megachurches would feel if only 100 people showed up. They’re not designed for that. It would seem far more echoing and hollow than even a mainstream protestant church built to hold 300-400 that only gets 50. This would be quite unnerving for those that showed up. Best not to test those waters.

    As a PK, I remember several Christmases where we had to go to church (and there were like 10 lay people there) before opening presents. Mom and Dad let us open one before we left (they usually gave me a book I could read during the service). The delay gave those Christmase a piquant air of tantalization. And we’ll do it again this Christmas, because Mom still has to play the organ over to Brainardsville

  • dpulliam

    Beth, you are right about us reformed Presbyterians. We do not consider Christmas as part of the church calender and the only special thing scheduled around December 25 this year at Grace Presbterian Church (PCA) is some Christmas carolling around the neighborhood.

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  • tmatt

    Andy:

    The service starts at midnight, so that the service IS on Christmas morning. Early, Christmas morning.

    Then most Orthodox services will come BACK for another service on Christmas day itself. Yes, that service will be smaller. But most churches hold it, no matter what. It is Christmas.

    Will the Orthodox hold a full Divine Liturgy on the Sunday a.m. after that midnight Divine Liturgy? No, because we do not do two full Divine Liturgies in the same 24-hour period.

    BTW, there are Protestant churches that do giant, neo-liturgical carols services by candlelight on Christmas Eve. I have even seen them done with no sermon and no words spoken, other than the carols and Bible verses — even in Southern Baptist churches. Sort of honorary Anglican things, usually in left-of-center moderate Baptist settings.

  • Brad

    Maybe this is a topic for another thread, but I was wondering, what do those of you who are Orthodox and Catholic (and high-church Protestant, for that matter) do during the Christmas season, say – Advent through Epiphany?

    Do you have any special things you do at home, along with at the church?

    I ask because I am starting to look at some of my own (very typical) Christmas traditions, such as a tree, Christmas specials, tons of gifts on Christmas morning, etc. and rethink the culture-to-Christian ratio of those traditions, I guess you might say. I am considering trading in some of my traditions.

    Brad

  • Kizmet

    Brad, from an Orthodox perspective:

    We have a 40 day fast, from November 15th to December 25th, ending with a Divine Liturgy (church service with communion) on Christmas. In general, we fast from meat and dairy, and on Wednesdays and Fridays, we also fast from fish, wine and olive oil.

    Still interested?

    Ok. We also have St. Nicholas’ Day on 6 December, where our church had a prayer service and the kids made gingerbread houses. St. Lucy’s Day is 13 December, a day my family celebrates with cinnamon rolls and candles. On 17 December is St. Boniface’s Day, the patron saint of Germany, and we put up our tree that day.

    From the 17th to the 24th, there are daily services. On the 24th, there is a strict fast – no food or as little as you can – until after the vigil, the evening service. Many families have ethnic traditional meals to eat that night. Then on Christmas morning, there will be a Divine Liturgy to end the Nativity fast. And then WE PARTY!!!

  • Andy

    Traditionally, the Sunday after Christmas is the universal vacation day for pastors, at least in my own (Presbyterian) denomination. One can’t very well take Christmas off, though, can one?

    My grandfather grew up in a Covenanter (Reformed Presbyterian) mission on the North Side of Pittsburgh. Not only did Christmas not feature on the calendar, they steadfastly refused to recognize its existence. This didn’t go over very well with the German immigrants who made up the surrounding neighborhood, though, so they started scheduling “prayer meetings” on December 24 each year. The meeting concluded with the 84th Psalm sung (a cappella, of course) to the tune of “Silent Night.”

  • Joan O.

    For years we have used the Advent wreath to help us prepare for the Christchild. Our daughters continue this with their families. We also don’t put up lots of lights until nearly Christmas Eve; however, a new tradition, an Open House, has necessitated more decorations before Christmas Day than we used to do. We put up the creche–nativity scene–but it is minus the baby Jesus and the three Kings: those come at their appointed time during the Christmas season (Dec. 25th thru Epiphany.)
    Our Episcopal church doen’t even sing Christmas Carols until Christmas day! And, YES, there will be a Communion Service on Christmas Day.

  • Brad

    Thank you for your suggestions!

    I am very interested in hearing what you do Kizmet!:) I actually strongly considered Orthodoxy at one point, so I am aware that the calendar often involves lots of fasting.

    I am considering narrowing the decor down to an Advent Wreath or some other decorations with a specifically religious significance (no need to point out it didn’t start out as a religious symbol…I know that and, hey, even the cross didn’t get its start as a religious symbol! :) ).

    Brad

  • http://www.mattjonesblog.com Matt

    “You know, I think Easter falls on Sunday as well and that can be inconvenient, too.” This was my comment exactly!!

    I was pointed here by Magic Statistics as I have been having some similar discussion at my recent blog post. My somewhat small (150ish) presbyterian home church has decided to close Christmas as well and this upset me and my family quite a bit.

    Closing for Christmas never even crossed my mind and so was quite shocking for me. One of my commenters said it best: “this is just one rather obvious instance of how God really comes last for most of us fat and happy christians” A fairly harsh statement, but I think if you cut through the crap, a fairly accurate one.

    Great post! Very interesting dialogue going on at multiple sites, good to see it being discussed.

    God Bless,
    Matt

  • http://brad.boydston.us Brad Boydston

    The Southeast Christian Church website lists a 11:15 a.m. Christmas Sunday service, contrary to the news article, or perhaps subsequent to the article.

    http://www.southeastchristian.org/com_servicetimes.cfm

  • http://brad.boydston.us Brad Boydston

    My goof. The subject of the article is Southland Christian Church in Lexington.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    When I was growing up, when midnight mass was still at midnight, we had a rather involved family tradition. (I was raised Roman Catholic.)

    The tree went up on first Advent and didn’t come down ’till Epiphany. Presents went under the tree when they were wrapped.

    On Christmas Eve, we had lasagna. After the dishes were washed, we opened presents. We got to play with them until about 11, when we went to church for an hour of caroling followed by midnight mass.

    After mass, we went back to our home with Father and several other family friends, ate a gigantic brunch, then all went to bed.

    Father was at Christmas Day mass the next morning, but we weren’t…

  • John Stewart

    If you want to know where many of the “closed for the holidays” church attenders will be Christmas morning, I suspect they’ll be at churches like the one I pastor with joy in rural America. They’ll be there,home for the holidays,visiting mom and dad,grandma and grandpa,and hopefully remembering where faith in Christ was initially nurtured for them.For us,not having worship on this day was just not an option.Merry Christmas.
    John

  • Molly

    For the nine years that we were in Dayton, OH, my PCUSA husband held services ON Christmas day every year. It was Christmas and worshipping God was the most important thing to him. This year, we will all be present in teh church he now serves in VA and if history is any indicator, we will be in church on Christmas day next year as well even though it will be on his day off.

    Cancelling Christmas…. that’s what Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham ordered in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.

  • SusanP

    Hi Brad–

    Something I started last year with my preschooler was a Jesse Tree advent calendar. Each day she gets an ornament to hang on her tree and we read a bit of salvation history, starting with Adam and going all the way to the Nativity gospel narrative.

    I found this page to be helpful: http://www.pcusa.org/today/archive/features/adventcal99.htm

  • Tim

    We have a particularly poignant Christmas train wreck approaching at our urban Presbyterian church, where the Sunday *after* Christmas has typically been a youth-led service (with, typically, the thinnest attendance of the year). Our Christian Ed director decided to have a youth-led Christmas pageant on Christmas morning — muster at 9:15 for practice for an 11 a.m. service performance, which, for most of the far-flung congregation, means being on the road by 8:30. I am certain that the name of the Lord will spring to many parental lips this Christmas! The problem, as I see it, is this: PCUSA churches do not hold with a mystical high worship concept that demands attendance as a sacramental obligation. (Missing church is a shame, but not a sin). Therefore, the question of Christmas Sunday worship is largely logistical. Family traditions of Christmas morning, on the other hand, *do* have both mystical and emotional importance to the participants and demand as their first rule that heaven and earth be moved for attendance (“I’ll be home for Christmas” probably means, to most people, somewhere near the living room and with a pleasant stimulant available). There are very real personal penalties for not gathering at the foot of the family tree; meanwhile, the spiritual rewards of attending a Presbyterian youth-led pageant service, in place of that, can seem a little bit more like certain visions of purgatory held by 14th-century Roman Catholics.

  • Chris

    While it isn’t applicable to those large churches, for many churches meeting in non-traditional locations holding a service on Christmas Day isn’t an option as those facilities are not open.

    The church I attend meets in the community center of an apartment complex, and we are unable to get the facility on that day. We are directing the members of the congregation which are in town to attend services at our “mother” church, but I suspect a large number (>50%) will be traveling and not in the area, like my wife and I will be.

  • Jim Dahlman

    My family and I lived in England during the 1980s, and many churches there scheduled worship services on Christmas morning. (Ours, where I was a pastor, always held a late-night Christmas Eve service, scheduled to end at midnight.) On a few occasions, our family (we had a little girl at the time) would also worship on Christmas morning in another church — perhaps our local parish church, if we were in town or, if we had got out of town to visit friends elsewhere, their church. All that to say: It was wonderful. We might open one gift before worship, and then go for carols, a brief (BRIEF) sermon, and, depending on the church, communion. We’d come back to the house, eat breakfast, and then finish opening gifts. Our daughter never complained; it was just part of the day. If you want to talk about setting the mood for the day — well, there you go.

    I know megachurches have unique concerns, such as having almost-empty buildings. (Although many of them, such as Willow Creek, also have smaller “chapels” that hold only a couple of hundred people.) Even so, if I had to err in one direction or another, I’d rather err on the side of offering too many opportunties to gather for worship rather than too few. If a church is too big for that, then maybe it’s too big.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org R Lynn

    I’ve been a lifelong member of one of the megachurches being discussed. While I find the decision questionable, I will support our staff in their decision. We are obviously doing something right as you don’t wake-up one Sunday morning and find 8000 people wanting to come in. People are finding the grace, peace forgiveness of the Lord they’v never known was possible. As the phrase goes….You will never see a line outside a restaurant serving bad food. People go where they are being fed…and trust me, we have “Thanksgiving” anytime you walk thru our doors.

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  • tmatt

    Two more links to some substance on this topic. I am going to have to write about this, you know. Got to.

    http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2005/12/churches-closed-on-christmas.html

    http://www.internetmonk.com/index.php/archives/how-the-megachurch-stole-christmas-day-worship

    Yes, there is some Protestant soul searning going on out there.

  • tmatt

    Sorry. Didn’t see the previous posting of the Internet Monk link.

  • Liz

    My Anglican Mission of America church in Colorado isn’t having church on Christmas Sunday, although our bishop isn’t too happy about it. We’re small and many people will be gone as is…

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    One of the churches mentioned in this post, North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, GA, is not only cancelling services on Christmas Day but on New Years Day as well:
    http://www.northpoint.org/christmas

    As an Episcopalian, this is all very strange to me. My church always has a Eucharist service on Christmas Day, even if it falls in the middle of the week.

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  • David Dillard

    As one of millions of unsolicited voices, my personal concern is that we are showing non-believers that we can shift our established services for convenience. The concern feeds an even greater concern of (1) what if Christ or the apostles would have shifted their teachings or events due to convenience, and (2) what else is our Christian hierarchy willing to shift on in the name of that convenience? This is not a simple matter of shutting down services for a single day, Christmas Sunday. Further, this is neither to criticize a certain church over their choices. It is a question for those running those churches on what they are doing and how the world of non-believers view those choices.

    We are a family of Christ. This day, regardless whether it is actually Christ’s birthday or not, is that these church leaders are taking the decision of attending away from the worshipper. There are many who may or may not attend, however these church leaders are making the decision to close their doors on those that may indeed wish to worship. In this critical time in our history, we need to be opening doors of opportunity for non-believers, not closing them. Send all the volunteers home and let the pastors, preachers, ministers do their job. The word must be available to all and this day stands out to everyone for it’s significance. Maybe, just maybe, one non-believer will come to church and be converted. If that door is shut, then one soul may be lost. Forever.

  • Dan

    JoWiki wrote, “Someone said something to the extent that this type of behavior is the equivalent to ‘X-mas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ controversy of taking Christ out of Christmas.”

    Holiday is Holy Day and like Christmas for most in our culture has lost it’s original meaning. But, X-mas is not taking Christ out of Christmas… Xmas is the a shortened form… X is the first letter in the greek spelling of Christ.

    Grace and peace all.

  • rowie

    I’m answering Brad’s question as Catholic in the Philippines:

    Advent: The liturgy at Mass on the four Sundays of liturgy follow the Advent liturgy of course. At home, Christmas trees, the “belen” (creche/nativity scenes — minus the baby Jesus, which is only put in the scene on Christmas Day), and the “parol” (Christmas lantern in the shape of a star, to remember the star that guided the Three Kings) goes up. Lighting the candles of the Advent Wreath is also common here. Fasting is encouraged on all Fridays of Advent.

    Nine days before Christmas Eve: The nine-day dawn or evening Masses, called “Simbang Gabi” (Mass at Night) or “Misa de Gallo” (Mass of the Rooster) begin. These are sometimes followed by carolling or agape sessions in the parish hall where everyone brings some food, potluck, to share with others in the congregation.

    Mass either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. At many churches, the entire nativity story is dramatized. Usually the choirs have also prepared beautiful carols for the service. Many families choose Christmas Eve Mass late at night after Christmas dinner, then they troop home to eat “noche buena” (a Christmas Eve feast) and wait for the clock to strike twelve to usher in Christmas day. Presents are opened then.

    On Christmas Day, people usually visit with their families.

    New Year’s Day is also the Feast of Mary as the Mother of God, so again, there is a Mass. Again, one can choose between New Year’s Eve Mass or New Year’s Day Mass. After the New Year’s Eve Mass, families troop home for Media Noche (midnight feast) to celebrate the new year.

    The Sunday after New Year’s is Epiphany, and the Mass celebrates the Epiphany.

    Only after the Epiphany do Christmas decorations come down.

    =======

    My thoughts on the rationalization of not having services on Christmas Day “so you can spend Christmas Day with your family” … well, Church IS supposed to be your family!!! Every Christmas Day, at Mass, I DO spend Christmas with my family–my large family of brothers and sisters in Christ, all celebrating at the same Mass that I am!

  • R Hyatt

    Wow, if 8000 in attendance is a confirmation of what is right then I wonder what over 1 billion members celebrating the same scriptures on the same day all over the world means?

  • CardinalJohn

    How many out there go to a Christmas day service when it is not Sunday? I’ve seen plenty of churches not have anything on December 25 when it isn’t a Sunday. Why is this suddenly news? Is it because we are that “brood of vipers?” Have we become the Pharisees of the 21st century? But let us instead respond to Christmas as the shepherds did. “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”

    I myself find it difficult to share such news in a church building. I, myself do not need to hear the story again as much as I need to tell it. The shepherds, the ruffians, the outcasts of society challenge US to love one another by sharing that Christ is born! One could not give a greater gift.

    -CJ

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