Rather than singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” on Dec. 25, mega-churches this year are opting instead for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Because Christmas this year falls on a Sunday, some of America’s prominent evangelical churches–including Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago and Baptist-affiliated North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.–are canceling worship services to allow church staff and members to spend time with their families.
Willow Creek spokesperson Cally Parkinson said the decision makes sense in today’s hectic world. “It’s more than being family-friendly,” she said, quoted in the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. “It’s being lifestyle-friendly for people who are just very, very busy.”
Critics denounce the move as the ultimate capitulation to culture.
“What’s going on here is a redefinition of Christmas as a time of family celebration rather than as a time of the community faithful celebrating the birth of the savior,” said Robert Johnson, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Christmas falls on Sunday this year for the first time since 1994. When it happens, it creates unusual logistical problems.
After three Christmas Eve services, the last at 11 p.m., and with many families having family traditions that involve breakfast, gift giving, children playing with toys and cleaning up, Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas expects a reduced crowd on Christmas Day, said Pastor George Mason.
Because of that, the church is canceling Sunday school and an 8:30 a.m. worship service, while inviting members and guests to a single joint worship at 11:00.
While seeking to balance spiritual and practical concerns, Mason said canceling Christmas Day services altogether subtly sends a wrong message.
“The church is one sign of the family of spirit/Spirit that is the kingdom of God, and as such it is the only family that in principle survives the grave intact,” Mason told EthicsDaily.com.
James Flamming, pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., said he found it “kind of fascinating” that any church would be canceling services on Christmas morning. He told EthicsDaily.com his 225-year-old congregation is also conducting only one service, instead of the usual two, and canceling Sunday school, but he “really would have trouble not having any worship service” at all.
“In our culture Christmas is obviously about Christ, or else there wouldn’t be so much controversy about Merry Christmas,” Flamming said.
“I don’t think frankly we even thought about not having services,” said Flamming. “If I had brought it up I probably would have been reprimanded.”
In Catholic tradition, Christmas is a holy day and church law mandates attendance at Sunday Mass, making Christmas one of the best-attended days of the year. Most Protestants, however, don’t schedule special services on Christmas Day when it doesn’t fall on Sunday, celebrating instead Christmas Eve while allowing church members to spend Dec. 25 with family.
Started in 1995 by Andy Stanley, son of former Southern Baptist Convention president Charles Stanley, North Point Community Church in Atlanta’s northern suburbs says on a Web site that “This year’s Christmas services will take place Saturday, December 24 at 8:30, 10:30 & 12:30,” and “There will be no services on Christmas Day or on New Year’s Day.”
An added concern for mega-churches that smaller congregations don’t have is the large number of staff and volunteers needed to handle the logistics of multiple Sunday services.
Southland Christian Church in Nicholasville, Ky., near Lexington, for example, needs at least 500 volunteers to run Sunday services for about 8,000 people who usually attend, according to the Associated Press. A church spokesperson said many volunteers appreciate the chance to spend Christmas with their families instead of at church.
Further, many of the churches in the Willow Creek tradition tend to be “seeker” oriented, hoping to attract non-churchgoers instead of appealing primarily to traditional Christians.
“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?” Willow Creek spokesperson Parkinson said in the AP story.
First Baptist Church in Franklin, Tenn., also called the People’s Church, is closing the church doors on Christmas but produced a DVD with the pastor reading the Christmas story and choir performing carols with words scrolled across the screen for families to use at home, according the The Tennessean.
But such accommodations beg the question for conservative Christians like Roy Wickoff of the American Family Association, of whether many of the same voices getting angry over secular culture supposedly removing Christ from Christmas are themselves guilty of “‘Santa’-Tizing” Christmas by putting far more energy into buying gifts than worship.
“When Hollywood has made more than 150 movies about Christmas and none of them reflect His birth as a central theme, then it is indeed apparent to this quiet observer that we have definitely ‘Santa’-tized Christmas,” Wickoff wrote in a guest commentary for Agape Press.
“It’s no wonder the chain stores and the culture uses the term ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ We don’t even know why we say ‘Merry Christmas’–and for that matter, why we get so upset at others for not using it–when we would rather pay homage to the commercial Christmas and Ol’ Saint Nick.”
Flamming, who as been at the Richmond church for 22 years, acknowledged that churches can’t do anything about family and travel commitments reducing the numbers of people who show up when Christmas falls on a Sunday.
“But you can make it a celebration of worship,” he said, “and that’s what we try to do.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.