Wednesday, December 14, 2016

How About “Closed for Easter”?

Churches Close for Easter
as “reported” by Kent B. True

In a move that came as a surprise to some, one area church has decided to cancel services for Easter Sunday this year.  While some expressed concern with the change, church leaders defended the move as Biblically correct and practically necessary.

Pastor Ben Right of The Church of What’s Happening Now refused to be interviewed about the matter, but earlier in the week spokeswoman Ima Chatterly issued statements to the press about her church’s decision.

“Easter is all about eggs, bunnies, and families,” she said.  “Our focus has always been on families, although we have absolutely no objection to eggs or bunnies if families decide to use those” she added.

But Chatterly insisted that there were even more important reasons to cancel services at What’s Happening Now on Easter.  “It requires approximately 17.8 church member volunteers to induce each unchurched individual to attend services here at What’s Happening Now,” said Chatterly, “and we decided that those dedicated people needed another Sunday to spend with family and friends.”

The Church of What’s Happening Now was one of the first in the nation to cancel services on Christmas Sunday, and Chatterly cited the great success of that idea as one factor in the Easter decision.  “We noticed that after our Christmas Sunday break last year, only 12.3 volunteers were needed for several weeks to draw each unchurched person to our church.  The volunteers seem to work a lot harder if you let them rest now and then.  That made us realize just how important these Sunday sabbaticals can be for a healthy mega-church,” although Chatterly quickly added that they do not call their church a “mega-church.”

But in an unexpected move, Pastor Right addressed the canceled Easter controversy in his sermon last week.  In his sermon, on a stage decorated with thousands of plastic Easter Eggs and flanked by all the members of his church’s “Advisory and Affirmation” Team dressed in Easter Bunny suits, Right made an emotional defense of his decision.

“The Advisory and Affirmation Team and I met, prayed, and cried over this decision for several hours this week,” said Right in his Thursday afternoon sermon last week, “and in the end we decided to make a stand in favor of families.”  At one point, Pastor Right said, “Easter is for families.  We don’t want ‘church’ to get in the way of that.”

But it wasn’t only about saving the family, according to Pastor Right.

“It’s not just an Easter thing,” said Right.  “It’s a change I have been studying for some time now.  In fact, as a result of this study, I was granted my D.M.A. (Doctor of Megachurch Administration) from the prestigious World Christian University.”  W.C.U. grants this degree only to students who have completed its intense ten-month program.

Right told his mesmerized congregation, “I have been able to do some detailed New Testament study, which I don’t suggest you ordinary people should try at home.  But what I found was that in first-century Judea, Sunday morning actually fell somewhere between what we call Thursday afternoon and Friday night.  This follows from a careful consideration of time zones, calendar changes, church controversies, and the international date line.  So beginning on Easter Sunday, our church will be observing the correct meeting time for the church, which is Friday evening.”

Right sees this as a way to make his church more Biblical.  “Easter is really a pagan holiday,” Right explained in one of the less emotional moments in his sermon.  “So if we can overcome all this societal Easter pressure, we can help make our church a less pagan place than it is right now.”

Later in his sermon, Pastor Right reminded his congregation that not only was Friday evening a time, indicated by Biblical studies, when the church should meet, but it also happened to be the church meeting time preferred by 8.6 of every 10 unchurched persons.  “We want to be unchurched-person sensitive,” said Right, “and you can’t do that if your church insists on meeting at times the unchurched find inconvenient.”
Right hinted that some who disagree with his Easter cancellation policy might be a little jealous.  “It’s hard to argue with success.  In fact, you shouldn’t even try.” Right said.  “People at smaller churches shouldn’t be wasting their time disagreeing with us.  Instead, they should be trying to become more like us,” Right insisted.

Right’s sermon at What’s Happening Now was interrupted several times with lengthy standing ovations punctuated with cheers and whistles from the thousands of unchurched who were present.  After the sermon, many of the unchurched present at What’s Happening Now offered their support for Pastor Right’s decision.

“I’m an atheist,” said Patti Pettibrain,  “but I love What’s Happening Now, I love Pastor Right, and I’m a regular here.”  She added with tears in her eyes, “I don’t know why all the mean people around town are attacking Pastor Right.  After all, he can’t be wrong when his name is Right.”

One of the elders of What’s Happening Now, twenty-three-year-old I. B. Yesmann, told this reporter, “Church isn’t about days of the week.  Our church’s critics are, like, way too worried about Sunday.  Friday is just as much one of the Lord’s days as Sunday, isn’t it?”

While it is not clear if other churches will follow the lead of What’s Happening Now, it is clear that the Easter controversy will probably affect churches around the country.  One What’s Happening Now member, who asked not to be identified, said, “Some churches are just stuck in the past.  But we are, just like our name says, ‘What’s Happening Now.’  God’s always doing new things, and we are the latest and greatest.”

Christmas Falls on Sunday - Again

Christmas past.  Long past?  It has been some time, but what was somewhat strange then is rather common now.  Strange things happened at some churches in December 2005 when, as it does every few years, Christmas falls on Sunday.  The strange thing that happened was: nothing.  It turned into nation-wide news after a Lexington, Kentucky reporter published his story.  Club members can thank our agent - we will called him “Snow 007" - for tipping us off to that article.  Over the next few days many papers picked up a version of the story.  I stopped reading with the few mentioned below, but there were probably more.  The Christianity Today weblog called it “Megachurches Cancel Christmas.”  Why would a church cancel Christmas?  Let’s find out as we examine . . .

Christmas Past Strange

“Why do churches close on Sunday?,” Lexington Herald-Leader, December 4, 2005
“Some Megachurches Closing for Christmas,” Associated Press, December 06, 2005
“Evangelical churches such as suburban Willow Creek will close on Christmas,” Chicago Tribune, December 6, 2005
“When Christmas Falls on Sunday, Megachurches Take the Day Off,” New York Times - December 9, 2005

One thing was obvious in all these articles: the secular press thought it was strange that churches would make a point of closing on Christmas.  It was almost as though some of these writers were C & E (Christmas and Easter) Christians, and they were puzzled as to why churches would cut out one of the two days they might show up!  (By the way, all the citations below are from one or more of these stories.  But I won’t try to identify them more than this because it quickly becomes far too complicated.)

Beyond what the newspaper writers might have thought, it was clear that for many of these church people, it became a matter of Christmas trumping Sunday.  I know that sounds strange, but this is the Strange Club, after all.

In the days of yesteryear, it always seemed to me that most church people considered it an extra-special bonus when Christmas fell on Sunday.  Here was the day of the year traditionally set aside to celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ falling on the same day of the week the church is supposed to meet to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.  Of course, Christmas has, for a long time, been a big social event as well as a religious celebration.  So sometimes churches would adjust their schedules somewhat to accommodate all that.  But the idea that we would “cancel Christmas” never crossed a churchman’s mind, at least as far as I ever knew.  But in “the year of our Lord” 2005 - if we should still so call it - all that has changed.

The really interesting question is: why?  While the answers were not identical, there were some mysteriously common threads.

Let us begin up on Willow Creek:

Cally Parkinson, a spokeswoman for Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., said church leaders decided that organizing services on a Christmas Sunday would not be the most effective use of staff and volunteer resources. . . "If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?" she said.

The decision makes sense in today's hectic world, said Willow Creek spokeswoman Cally Parkinson. "It's more than being family-friendly. It's being lifestyle-friendly for people who are just very, very busy," she said.

"At first glance it does sound contrarian," said Rev. Gene Appel, senior pastor of Willow Creek. "We don't see it as not having church on Christmas. We see it as decentralizing the church on Christmas--hundreds of thousands of experiences going on around Christmas trees. The best way to honor the birth of Jesus is for families to have a more personal experience on that day."

So, up on Willow Creek, they think church on Sunday, when Sunday is also Christmas, is a waste of resources, because the “unchurched” won’t come to church on Christmas morning, since they are “very, very busy.”  So the Willows decided to “decentralize” church on Christmas Sunday.

I admit that I am still confused.  Of course the “unchurched” are “too busy” to come to church - otherwise they would be “churched.”  But aren’t there any “churched” people up on Willow Creek who might like a great Christmas Sunday of assembled worship?  If calling off Sunday worship is just “decentralizing” the church, why not “decentralize” every Sunday?  That way ALL of the unchurched would become the “Church of the Decentralization”!  Wouldn’t that be great?

But since I really don’t understand things up on Willow Creek with their women elders and Rev. Gene, I think we should just move south - south to “God’s country” down in central Kentucky where Cindy Willison, a spokeswoman for the evangelical Southland Christian Church, said at least 500 volunteers are needed, along with staff, to run Sunday services for the estimated 8,000 people who usually attend.

"If we weren't having services at all, I would probably tend to feel that we were too accommodating to the secular viewpoint, but we're having multiple services on Saturday and an additional service Friday night," Willison said. "We believe that you worship every day of the week, not just on a weekend, and you don't have to be in a church building to worship."

I am not a big fan of conspiracy theories, but I could almost believe that these spokespersons had a little phone conversation before these interviews.  Southland, like the Willows, didn’t want to waste the time of their volunteers, and they want us to remember that the church doesn’t have to get together on Sunday to worship.

So again, I have to ask: since the church need not worship together on Sunday, why not save the time of these 500 volunteers every Sunday and just let people stay home and worship separately?  (Remember, up at Willow Creek they call that “decentralized” worship.)

Since I don’t have a ready answer for that question, we move on to another central Kentucky - which I think still might be God’s country - church.

Crossroads [Christian] Pastor Glenn Schneiders says Dec. 25 is no longer considered sacred by many Americans -- especially those who are not regular churchgoers. "It's viewed more as a holiday than a holy day," he said.

The unchurched are more reachable on Dec. 24, said Schneiders . . . "Studies would say the best opportunity to invite people is Christmas Eve. It's, for whatever reason, the least threatening service of the year to attend ... so what we do is really point all of our energy in that direction," Schneiders said. "We don't think we're compromising. We're actually reaching more people by doing that."

I thought the main reason the church gathers each Sunday is so that those who have been “reached” can worship God together.  I wasn’t aware that what non-regular churchgoers thought about this was a deciding factor.  In fact, I thought the church was obligated to gather on the first day of the week to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.  But apparently pastors, reverends, and spokeswomen don’t think that anymore.

Now I don’t know who Laurie Goodstein is other than the writer of the New York Times’ story mentioned above.  But here is what she commented concerning all this:

What some consider the deeper affront is in canceling services on a Sunday, which most Christian churches consider the Lord's Day, when communal worship is an obligation.

Laurie has a bit of insight here that mega-church spokeswomen seem to lack.  But she still needs to dig deeper for her reports.  There appear to be many Christian churches these days that do NOT consider Sunday the Lord’s Day.  Rather, they seem to think that (sing it, now!):

The Lord’s Day can be on a Friday, a Thursday, a Saturday - whatever you like best,
but never, never on a Sunday, a Sunday, a Sunday, ‘cause that’s our day of rest.

You know it’s true when Christmas trumps the Lord’s Day.

Perhaps the pastors, reverends, and spokeswomen need to expand their thinking.  There are other holidays that are no longer holy days we should consider.  When Independence Day - another big family time in the U.S.A. - falls on Sunday we might want to consider canceling church meetings.  What about New Year’s Day?  All the “unchurched” will be hung over from New’s Year’s Eve celebrations, so when Sunday falls on New Year’s day, there will be no one to reach and thus no reason for the church to meet.  (This was the case in 2005, and yet no one seemed to consider calling off New Year’s Day Sunday meetings.)  How about Super Bowl Sunday?  (It’s always on Sunday, of course.)  The unchurched will be far too busy getting ready for Super Bowl parties to come to church and get reached on that day.  So there’s another candidate for cancellation.

But there is one more “problem” Sunday we need to ponder.  Another big family holiday that is no longer a holy day is Easter.  That pesky little thing always falls on Sunday, given our Western church calendar.  So keep an eye on the newspapers to see if any churches are canceling Easter.  It’s definitely next.