Friendly Fire in the War on Christmas

This week the Christian blogosphere had a mini coming out party, with Christian bloggers breaking a story in advance of the mainstream media in reporting that some of the nation’s most prominent evangelical megachurches will not be holding services on Christmas Day, which falls on a Sunday this year. These churches, whose roll reads like a who’s who of evangelical movers, consulted with each other before deciding to take the day off. Among the churches closed on Christmas are Willow Creek Community Church (IL), Mars Hill Bible Church (MI), North Point Community Church (GA), and Fellowship Church (TX). Pastors and spokespersons for these churches say that services on Christmas would not be a good use of staff time because in the past their Christmas services had been sparsely attended. Many of these churches are holding multiple services on December 23rd and Christmas Eve instead. Christmas Day, however, would be better spent with family, they say. Critics call the closings a sell out to mainstream culture which regards Christmas as “Toy Day.” David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, said, “This is a consumer mentality at work: ‘Let’s not impose the church on people. Let’s not make church in any way inconvenient.’ I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing.” Prominent Bible scholar Ben Witherington III also has harsh words.

I don’t know if more bothered by the fact that these megachurches will be closed on Christmas, or by the fact that the megachurches consulted with each other before closing, like they were setting policy for evangelicalism as a whole. Anyway, the idea of no church on Christmas is quite foreign to Catholics or liturgical Protestants, for in the liturgical tradition Christmas is not just a random holiday at the end of December, but the culmination of the entire season of Advent. The Bible readings for the season of Advent, from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, are intended to build anticipation for the coming Christ child, finally revealed on December 25th. That Advent roughly corresponds with the Christmas shopping season doubles the anticipation. Canceling services on December 25th would therefore by analogous to reading through a great detective novel and throwing the book away the page before the killer is finally revealed.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Catholic and liturgical Protestant churches, in contrast to the evangelical megas, usually have their biggest crowds of the year on Christmas Day. Indeed, given the large numbers of non- or nominal Christians that only show up on Christmas and Easter, churches closing their doors on those days would be demonstrating the height of seeker insensitivity.

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