Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Birthday Blues - The Christmas Closing Controversy

“We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.”

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man. (my emphasis added)”

From the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.)

Sometimes the powerful forget the source of their power. I think that may be the case for mega church leaders this Christmas. Many, citing the need for their staffs to be with family on this holiday, have cancelled services this year on Christmas day, Sunday, December 25th.

Willow Creek Community Church, possibly the best known of the mega churches, offered some creative explanations for the cancellations, as noted by the Chicago Tribune. First, there is this from one of the pastoral staff at Willow Creek:

“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.”

And there’s this from another staffer:

“A spokeswoman for Willow Creek said the church has never held services on Christmas Day, except for one late-morning service on Dec. 25, 1994, the last time the holiday fell on a Sunday. About 1,500 people attended, said Cally Parkinson.”
“The resources that would have funded the church's Sunday service this year will go toward the DVD instead, potentially touching thousands more people than the same message from the stage on Sunday morning, Parkinson said.””[The Christmas season] is our Super Bowl,” she said. “Remembering our mission is to reach people who are far from God, and Christmas tends to be the one time of year when lots of those ‘unchurched’ people show up at Willow; why not give them a gift?”

I think I’ve got it. First, there’s a bit of newspeak. “We’re not “not” having church on Christmas, we’re decentralizing.” That’s clever, really clever. Big Brother would be proud. And, it’s quite enlightening indeed to know that the “Christmas season is our Super Bowl.” Whoopee! Let’s all break out the nachos, open a cold one, and let the games begin.

Closer to Emporia, one Kansas City media outlet weighed in on the controversy. Citing mega church officials, one reporter noted that the reason for the cancellations was because “the Christmas holiday is all about family.” Whether or not the quote was accurate, the impression has now been circulated that Christians think that the holiday celebrating the birth of their Savior is really all about family. I suppose it’s in keeping with history. There was no room for Jesus in the inn. There’s no room for him in our culture. And now there may be precious little room for him in some of our mega churches.

The mega churches do have an army of defenders and defenses. Sometimes the murkiness of Christ’s actual birthday is cited, as one blog commenter did a few days ago:

“Let us not forget that Christmas is a human and cultural institution that the Church recognizes. We all know that Christ was not born Dec. 25th, this is simply the day that many people world wide celebrate and recognize Christ's coming. Certainly the apostles did not celebrate Christ's birth nor were we commanded to do so. It is a matter of tradition.”

Another commenter had this to say about the issue:

“What if you really believed that the home was the true center of faith development and activity while church was merely an extension of that?”

“What if a church really trusted families to be at home, honoring Christ in meaningful ways?”

“What if church leaders wanted to give their volunteers a day off to spend with their kids – knowing that Sunday morning wasn’t the only “day of worship” they got?”

The defenses are quite interesting. Christmas is a “human and cultural institution.” Church is merely an extension of the family, and mega church volunteers need a day off. And so are the implications. Churches that have services on Christmas Sunday must not really trust their parishioners. They must be uncaring dolts who won’t allow their members to take a day off.

Well, count me in as one of those nasty traditionalists who insist that there is something special about Sunday and that there is also something very special about celebrating Jesus’ birth by worshipping Him on Sunday, December 25th this year. Count me in with the likes of David Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary:

“That we would think that going to church is getting in the way of celebrating Christmas--that the family celebration shouldn't be impeded by having to go to church--it seems to me that our priorities are upside down.”

Count me in with Ben Witherington from Asbury Theological Seminary:

“Our culture does not need any encouragement to be more self-centered and narcissistic or to stay at home on Sunday. It is already that way. Christmas above all else should be a day when we come together as the body of Christ to worship and adore the Lord Jesus. Christmas should be the day above all days where we don't stay home and open all those things we bought for ourselves INSTEAD of going to church. Christmas should be the day when we forget about ourselves for a few hours and go and honor the birthday of the great King, our Savior.”

“What we are dealing with here are churches whose priorities are so askew that they somehow think it is more important for the church to serve the wants of the physical family than the other way around. This is a far cry from the pattern of the original disciples of Jesus who were seen leaving homes, relatives, jobs to come and follow Jesus. What kind of message does it send to our culture when churches close on one of its highest holy days? That it is o.k. to stay home and do one's own thing even on Jesus' birthday?”

As I said in my introduction to this essay, there are times when the powerful forget the source of their power. Mega churches have become so enamored with being culturally relevant and reliant on technical analysis and cultural trends that they stand in danger of forgetting what Christianity is all about. I appreciate the fact that their volunteers and staff members work hard. I really do. But, I suspect if mega church leaders saddled them with less regression analysis, marketing, budget and strategy meetings, they’d have the time to enjoy both their families and the opportunity to worship and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on this holy day.

This morning I read a bit from the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. There, one page 135, was a small paragraph from the section titled “the uniqueness of Christ.” I think it stands in stark contrast to the defenses mega churches are making for canceling Christmas day services:

“Jesus Christ was unique in that he alone, of all men who ever lived, was both God and man. The New Testament teaches the fully unified deity and humanity of Christ. The Nicene Creed (325) states the uniform belief that Christ was fully God and fully man in one person.”

The birth of Jesus is unique! Mega churches can argue that the day it’s celebrated doesn’t matter, they can say that Christmas day is all about family, and they can say that Christmas is nothing more than a cultural invention, but I say they’re skating on thin ice. Giving in to the culture here could some day mean that Easter and the Resurrection of Jesus. After all, Easter is always celebrated on a Sunday. Better, based on the mega church rationale, to give their weary staffers and volunteers the day off. That way, Jesus’ resurrection wouldn’t have to compete with the opening of the baseball season. It wouldn’t take much tweaking. All we’d have to do is trade “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

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