One of the many highlights of my 45-day Indian adventure has been the opportunity to visit several different churches all over India. There is something special about gathering with believers in another country and culture, especially in a Hindu-dominant place like India where less than 2% of the population is Christian. Perhaps it is the instant bond I feel with these believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, or my appreciation for the immense challenges they face while seeking to shine their light in very dark place. I’m learning so much from them, and I’ve been truly blessed and blown away by each Indian church I’ve visited over the past several weeks. Whenever I meet a Christian here or even overhear someone talking about Jesus or the Bible, I want to run up and give them a hug and say, “I’m a Christian too!” Okay, I admit it. I’ve actually done that a few times… even to complete strangers.
In an earlier post, I wrote about some Indian churches’ Christmas celebrations taking place all month, from outreach programs in city clubs to candlelight gatherings in rural fields. I thought I had seen it all, but I was overwhelmed on Christmas morning. The churches here in New Delhi and all over India were packed and overflowing on Sunday for Christmas Day services, even causing traffic jams around town. At an early morning Hindi service I attended at Green Park Free Church, the building was full and there were hundreds of people standing outside the building and in the streets around; they even had to open all the doors and use an intercom so people could hear… and that was just the first gathering! I attended an English-speaking congregation later that morning, and they had a very meaningful service followed by a festive Christmas luncheon that resembled a lavish wedding feast. “This is our day to celebrate big,” one of the members told me. “We must demonstrate our joy to everyone.”
Indian believers — and unbelievers alike — were very surprised to find out that it wasn’t the same in many of America’s churches on Christmas morning. I was pretty much speechless when someone here told me, “I find it ironic and confusing that you Americans keep talking about ‘keeping Christ in Christmas,’ yet most of your churches are closed on Christmas Sunday.” That definitely made me think. A Hindu friend told me later, “I knew America was materialistic and all, but I can’t believe people would rather stay at home to open presents than go to church on their holiest day of the year!” Ouch! The more I tried to explain how and why some churches meet on Christmas Eve instead or earlier in the week, the less it made sense to me.
By some estimates, as many as one in 10 churches were empty this Christmas, and Indian believers were not the only ones perplexed this. Even the mainstream media tried to make sense of churches closing on Christmas day. “It’s an unusual religious irony,” said Keith Whitney at 11Alive News in Atlanta. “Every few years, many churches choose not to have Christmas service on Christmas day because it falls on a Sunday.” Just reading that sentence makes me feel uneasy.
In an interview with USA Today, Ed Stetzer, President of LifeWay Research, said this: “Having church on Christmas Day when it falls on a Sunday seems as if it would be as much of a given as having Thanksgiving on a Thursday, but this has been an issue of discussion and contention in recent years.” He continued, “Also, just because an overwhelming majority of pastors think that way doesn’t mean those in their congregations necessarily share their perspective.”
The biggest reasons I hear for churches closing on Christmas in America are usually along the lines of “Everyone should be able to spend the day with their families” or “We want to give our staff the day off.” I understand that we can worship God anywhere at any time, that spending time with our family honors Him, and that Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest. I get that, really. And I’m not one to be legalistic or ritualistic. But after witnessing the sacrifices of pastors and church leaders in India, the priority believers here place on sharing their faith during the Advent season, and the lengths that people will go to for the chance to worship with their families in church on Christmas, somehow those reasons don’t make as much sense anymore.
“I passed a lot of empty church parking lots on Christmas day, while I was on my way to worship,” said James Barnes, Minster to Children at First Baptist Church of Winder, Georgia, who emphasized that Christmas day is a great time to invite neighbors and visiting family members. “Worship should not be confined to a day or hour of the week, but it is good for us to have healthy evaluations of our celebrations.” I agree. I’m not condemning the churches that closed this Christmas, I’m just saying that it wouldn’t hurt to rethink the reasons for doing so. In fact, we in the West definitely need to think more deeply about how we “do church,” and not just on Christmas.