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.