Monday, December 12, 2005

"I'll Be Closed For Christmas..."

There are stories and debates which tend to flow through the various nooks and crannies of the blogosphere until they seem to ooze from every blog. The current conniption is the decision of various churches to keep the doors closed on Sunday morning, December 25, 2005. Because most of those churches getting public mention are of the megachurch variety, people seem ready to rush the doors with torches and pitchforks. After all, it doesn't take much to get some people ready to take on the local megachurch.

I could provide links to a couple dozen blogs commenting on the subject from one view or another. Well, I take that back. Most blogs tend to take one view -- condemning churches who are closed on Sunday. Here's a post at Church Marketing Stinks/Sucks giving a kind of overview. Anyway, I've entered into debate on a few of those sites and most people have been at least open-minded enough to discuss the situation without hysterics. For instance, Matt Jones and I had a nice discussion last week. But instead of trying to go through this on 700 individual blogs, I figured I'd get my offensive two cents worth in here at Attention Span.

I'll lead with my admission: I pastor a church which will not have a worship service on Christmas Day this year, and it was my final decision to schedule the weekend. Now before you grab the pitchforks and light the torches, let me tell you about my reasoning.

We started a traditional Christmas Eve Candlelight service about six years ago. Previously the church had never done that. It's a family church, meaning we have a couple of large families of many generations which make up a good chunk of our membership. One of these families always has family Christmas activities that night, so it's rare that they make the 8:00 p.m. service. I can live with that, although I will always offer the option and not stop the service because they won't be there. I want to have a service during the Christmas Eve/Christmas Day time period where we come together to remember why we are celebrating in the first place. I think it's important to do so, either privately or corporately.

So with the schedule this year, instead of having a service Saturday night at 8:00 then again Sunday morning at 10:00 for the same people, I simply combined the two services and scheduled the one service for 8:00 Christmas Eve. For those who consider The Lord's Day as the Christian Sabbath, it falls between sundown Saturday and sundown Sunday so calm down a bit! Not everyone likes the decision and that's alright. No decision would please everyone. But in considering all the options, I thought of a few things.

At my church, keeping the service on Sunday morning would be done to appeal to two groups of people: (1) the regular attenders who are there whenever the church doors are open, and (2) those wanting to "get right with God" by attending services on Christmas and Easter.

The first group are important people. They commit themselves to the worship of Almighty God, mostly through the ministries of the local church. I agree that we need to gather together to celebrate our common faith and to lift up the Lord in corporate worship, but where do we get the instructions on frequency. The early church used to gather every day! Think of how many complaints would be registered if a pastor expected to see you at services every night! We've settled on Sundays to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, but gathering to worship is the important part of the equation.

The second group are interesting folks. The "C & E goers" are usually nominal Christians -- meaning they use the name (when it's convenient), but don't walk the walk. A visit to church on the holiest days eases the guilt and quiets the conscience, enabling them to go back to their regular lives come Monday. I'll admit there are probably a few actual Christians who don't attend a traditional church except for a holiday service, but I can honestly say I've never met one in person. So the vast majority of "C & E goers" are in church not for worship, but because they've been dragged there by family or a guilty conscience. We don't have them at our church, for better or worse. But if we did, I would agree that we need to be able to present Christ to people like this, but these people aren't truly searching for God. I just don't think that a church should help support the delusions of these people simply for their sake. So I wouldn't work a schedule around to suit those who don't seem to care.

Now there is a third group -- those who suddenly receive an epiphany and want to accept Christ and come to church right away. How many would find such a message in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning I don't know, but again I can't schedule to accomodate such a remote possibility.

When it comes to a megachurch there could be other issues involved, I realize. But the key seems to be understanding what God wants from us. And I truly believe that there should be a time for corporate worship on Christmas weekend. I just don't think it has to be on Sunday morning. Even Sunday night would be a good alternative. But churches who have no services at any time Christmas weekend are missing out on a great opportunity to worship the newborn King. Make it a no-frills service if there aren't enough volunteers. Scrap the worship band and sing a capella. Forget the video presentations. Don't offer Sunday School or small groups. Close the bookstore and the coffee shop. Cut from four services to one. Make it special. But get together and worship somehow. It's too great an opportunity to miss.

Am I talking out of both sides of my mouth -- defending the cancelation of Sunday services while calling for churches to meet? No. My point is simply that corporate worship is a priviledge we should enjoy, especially on a weekend celebrating Christ's birth. But using a church's decision as an excuse to hammer away at a church is uncalled for. Sure, we should urge each church to offer a time of celebrating the birth of our Lord, but restricting the celebration to Sunday morning is more than Scripture demands. Hey, Scripture doesn't demand anything in regards to celebrating His birth. Perhaps we all need to be slower to anger and quicker to encourage.

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