by Rachel Bomberger
A few weeks ago, I heard from one of our Lutheran Witness readers, who contacted me to express concern that her church had decided to cancel not only its Thanksgiving service but also its Christmas Eve service. She wrote:
To think that my little hometown country church will be dark and cold and bare on Christmas Eve is just really sad. Jesus will be there waiting for us in the cold, dark lonely church, but WHERE will His people be?
She went on:
I work alongside several Hindu and Muslim people. They take notice of all of this and have told me on numerous occasions that they think it’s odd when us Christians have the doors closed on Christmas Eve. They say, “Why aren’t you celebrating the birth of your Leader on Christmas Eve? He must not mean all that much to you.” I used to kind of apologize and tell them that we celebrate it on a different day or time, but the past few years, I make no more excuses. They’re right. We can do much better when it comes to how we conduct our services. The unchurched folks out there do notice.
The scheduling decision that provoked this reader’s letter is, sadly, part of a larger movement away from the religious observance of Christmas in Christian churches. As long ago as 2005, Christianity Today was already reporting on this trend. That year, a number of evangelical megachurches, including Willow Creek, Mars Hill and North Point, all conspired to cancel their services on December 25. (Since Christmas Day happened to fall on a Sunday in 2005, the decision to cut both holiday and regular Sunday worship a single stroke was doubly regrettable.)
According to a spokeswoman for Willow Creek quoted in the article, the decision was about “being lifestyle-friendly for people who are just very, very busy.”
Since that time, many churches large and small have struggled with their own versions of this Christmas dilemma. Should they bow to the culture, become “lifestyle-friendly” and cut back on scheduling to accommodate busy families? Or should they continue to hold services and proclaim the Gospel on Christmas — whether anyone comes or not?
Thanks in part to the cozy, nostalgia-laden ad campaigns and media extravaganzas that bombard us each December, Christmas has in recent decades come to be seen primarily as family time. Private family gatherings (usually revolving around feasting and gift giving) now frequently take precedence over church services. I know of families that “do Christmas” together days or even weeks ahead of the actual holiday, so that they can turn around and “do Christmas” again with other branches of the family on Christmas Eve, Christmas morning and Christmas day.
The temptation for church leaders to cancel services becomes harder and harder to resist when members, swayed by these broader cultural trends, quietly begin to vote on the issue with their feet.
Our family’s previous congregation once held three Christmas services — a children’s Christmas Eve Vespers, a Christmas Eve candlelight vigil and a Christmas Day Divine Service. After one dark and sleety Christmas Eve when only five people showed up, the vigil was the first to go. Cancelling one service, however, made both of the others vulnerable as well. The last year we were there, even the children’s service was moved to the Sunday before, and the church was dark on Christmas.
I do get it. Everyone’s busy during the holidays. Everyone wants an unobstructed shot at that picture-perfect Christmas — possibly replayed several times over to indulge a range of in-laws and exes. Everyone has someone in their circle of friends and relations ready to give them grief for skipping even part of a cozy family Christmas celebration to go to church.
As busy as everyone is — and as important as family time may be — our LW letter writer’s non-Christian coworkers still make a very good point. From their perspective, Christmas is “the birth of our Leader,” and our failure to celebrate publicly in worship with our fellow Christians is a minor travesty. From our perspective, though, it’s even worse. “The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The very God who spoke the universe into existence became a tiny baby — a real, live, flesh-and-blood human being — for us. Yet we’d rather commemorate the occasion by staying home than by coming together with the whole Church on earth to hear His Word, receive His gifts and glorify His Name? Say it isn’t so!
To pastors and church leaders, then, I say this: Even if only five people show up on a sleety Christmas Eve, open the doors. Light candles. Sing. Read Scripture. Preach the Word. Do not let the world bully you in to yielding ground on this holy Feast of the Nativity.
To my fellow Christian laypeople, however, I say this: Let’s not let give our churches any cause to cancel Christmas. Two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, God fulfilled a promise made at the dawn of creation (Gen. 3:15). He invaded earth and became one of us — and that event changes everything.
So this Christmas, enjoy time at home with your family. Feast. Make merry. Open presents. Sing carols. Deck the halls. Drink a glass of eggnog for me.
But whatever else you do, make time for worship. Go to church.
Because frankly, Christmas is just too good to miss.
Rachel Bomberger is managing editor for The Lutheran Witness.