For centuries, Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus by coming to church to sing, pray, remember, give thanks and recommit our lives to Christ. What were we thinking?
The front-page news is that many of the biggest churches in the United States have decided that the best way to celebrate the coming of Christ is to cancel worship.
The primary reason given is that attendance will be sparse. Ed Young of Fellowship Church pointed out that in 1994, the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, only 300 people showed up.
When did we decide that the purpose of worship is to draw a crowd? Attendance at the first Christmas wasn’t big, but God decided to go ahead with it, anyway.
Another reason offered by these megachurches is that canceling worship is in keeping with their “family friendly” approach. Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, said his church is “always promoting family. [Cancelling worship on Christmas] keeps them together and not running off to get dressed up to go off to church.”
Too many churches give the impression that the primary purpose of the church is to support the family. The New Testament teaches that the church is our family. Christians put Christ ahead of their family. Jesus felt this so strongly that he said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters cannot be my disciple.” (This verse isn’t going to make it onto anybody’s Christmas card.)
What about the people without a family—the elderly, singles, lonely people, those a long distance from family? Isn’t it possible that some of those who are alone at Christmas need to worship God?
In lieu of a worship service, Willow Creek Community Church is handing out a DVD. Cally Parkinson, communications director, explained, “What we’re encouraging people to do is take that DVD and in the comfort of their living room, with friends and family, pop it into the player and hopefully hear a different and more personal and maybe more intimate Christmas message.”
If watching a DVD is more personal and intimate than worship, then should we cancel worship on every holy day? Maybe churches could encourage members to gather with their family for brunch on Easter or go bowling together on Good Friday.
The issue isn’t that people will skip church on Sunday. The real problem is that churches are failing to tell the truth about Christmas. It’s hard to read the Gospels and see how our modern Christmas celebration could have begun with the ancient story. In the Bible, Christmas isn’t about big crowds, family gatherings, or expensive presents.
The first Christmas marks the beginning of a small, counter-cultural community of people who put their trust in God’s way and none of their faith in materialism and selfishness. Christmas invites us to have different standards, hopes, and dreams than those who don’t know the meaning of Christ’s coming.
If we believe that Jesus’ birth changes the world, then we’ll change the way we see our world. The work of Christ’s hands will be continued in the work of our hands. We’ll have compassion for all people—especially those that are usually left out. Because Jesus has come, we will walk out of step with the rhythms of the world.
On Sunday at our not-at-all-megachurch, we will sing, pray and listen to the story. We’ll remember the first Christmas and give ourselves again to the one born in Bethlehem.
Brett Younger is pastor at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.