“Merry Christmas” or “happy holidays”? That was the big question in the ongoing “Christmas wars.” Last year’s skirmish over Starbucks’ seasonal red coffee cups proved there are still a few Christmas warriors out there, on both sides.
Of course, the majority of Christians have no interest in chewing out minimum-wage baristas. We don’t mind when neighbors, coworkers, or grocery store clerks wish us “happy holidays.” But we do want to lovingly proclaim the reason behind the season. That’s why it’s so strange that this year, many churches—particularly megachurches—are cancelling services on the Lord’s Day because it coincides with Christmas.
There are no exact figures on how many American churches are locking their doors on the 25th. But a quick search shows that most of the churches Christianity Today listed as closing up shop in 2005 are doing so again this year (Willow Creek and Mars Hill have, thankfully, opted to hold services on Christmas). Other influential megachurches like Andy Stanley’s North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, and Buckhead Tower Point in Atlanta, have stuck to their guns. Obviously, this is still an issue, even in the heart of the Bible Belt.
The number of churches hopping on this bandwagon may be higher than many think. As soon as word got out that I was writing about this, emails from friends and coworkers who said their churches are also cancelling Sunday services began filling my inbox. One colleague told me that she and her husband want to honor the Lord’s Day, but said they’d have to find a different church if they want to worship Jesus on Christmas morning.
Because Christmas Is About My Feelings
Why is this happening? The first time Christmas fell on a Sunday this century, The Chicago Tribune interviewed the pastor of one multi-campus Illinois megachurch about their decision not to hold services. “We don’t see it as not having church on Christmas,” this pastor explained. “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.”
Perusing megachurch websites for Christmas schedules, “experience” was a word that cropped up over and over, usually beneath banner-sized photos of audiences ensconced by lasers and smoke machines. I’m not out to mock large, contemporary worship services. Others have ably done that. Rather, I want to suggest that this emphasis on “experience” is precisely why so many Sunday services are being cancelled.
If corporate worship and preaching of the word are mere “experiences,” which we consume while sitting passively, why not replicate them at home or stream them on an iPad? Come to think of it, why not ditch church altogether and host our own custom spiritual experiences the rest of the year? If it’s possible to “decentralize” church when the Lord’s Day falls on Christmas, why not every Sunday?
The Word ‘Christmas’ Implies Church Service
What makes this doubly odd is the legacy of Christmas-as-church-service that lives on in its very name. We Protestants reject the Roman Catholic Mass, but for hundreds of years, “Christ-mass” was, first and foremost, a communion service. Generations of Christians believed that this celebration of our savior’s birth was best marked by a commemoration of and participation in his atoning death. Also, believers around the world, both before and after the Reformation, have celebrated yet another moment in Jesus’ life every time Christmas has fallen on a Sunday: His resurrection.
The book of Acts (chapter 20, verse 7) records that before Christmas was ever formalized, the early church met to break bread and worship on “the first day of the week.” It was on Sunday morning—two nights and a day after the crucifixion—that the gospels tell us Jesus rose from the dead. Christians for millennia have gathered weekly on that day to mark the occasion, under solemn biblical command (Hebrews 10:25).
In other words, cancelling the Lord’s Day when it falls on December 25 shows not just a lack of understanding about church and the history of Christmas, but a lack of understanding about the one whose birth we’re celebrating.
For Christmas Day, Spend Time with Christ’s Family
To be fair, some pastors and megachurch staffers choose Christmas over Sunday as a concession to family. Church members often attend special services like Christmas Eve candlelight events leading up to Christmas, and staffers and volunteers work hard during the weeks and days beforehand to make these services happen. Those lasers and smoke machines don’t run on Christmas spirit.
Whatever their role, whether senior pastor of a multi-campus colossus or nursery volunteer, everyone should have time off at Christmas. I plan on spending mine with my wife, kids, and extended family, and I wouldn’t want to take away anyone’s chance to do the same. But if this time with family is taking priority over Jesus’ invitation to gather in his house, around his table, with his family, something is wrong. Christmas is, after all, his birthday celebration!
Writing at the Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung pleads with fellow pastors not to buy into the idea that rockin’ around the Christmas tree can replace public worship or hearing God’s word preached. He offers some real and workable suggestions for dialing back the seasonal bustle, including cancelling pre-Christmas services and Sunday school—whatever is necessary in order to honor the Lord’s birth on the Lord’s Day.
“It’s Christmas for crying out loud,” he writes. “It’s the day we celebrate the incarnation, the birth of the Messiah, the entrance into our world of the second Person of the Trinity. Don’t we want to sing? Don’t we want to celebrate? Don’t we want to preach and praise and pray?
Christmas Is about Jesus, Not You
If that’s not enough, there’s a more practical reason not to cancel services on Christmas: Research shows it’s one of two times in the year when people who normally don’t attend church come flocking back, often at the invitation of family. The phrase “Christmas and Easter churchgoers” exists for a reason! There are lots of them. Christmas is a rare opportunity when they come to our doors, ready to hear the gospel. Don’t waste it!
Finally, for regular churchgoers, it’s tempting to stay home on the big day, especially after the kids wake up before dawn to tear into presents, and want to spend hours playing with toys. I’m a dad, I get it. But as Ed Stetzer told The Christian Post a few years ago, “Too many Christians get distracted by the secular at Christmas—lots of lights and music but not enough Jesus. If you’re too busy for worship during the Christmas season, you are too busy.”
He’s right. If you find yourself dragging by Christmas day, maybe it’s time to scale back. Don’t attend so many events, and make it clear to your kids—as unpopular as it will make you—that presents need to wait until after church. Don’t settle for an “experience,” either in your living room or the sanctuary. Get with the Lord’s people to partake and participate in corporate worship, word, and sacrament.
This year we won’t just celebrate a baby born in a manger, but a savior who rose from the grave on a Sunday and commands us not to forsake gathering together—even, and especially, on Christmas.
Update: Between article submission and publication some churches on the Christianity Today list published their intention to hold Christmas Day services. This article has been updated to reflect that.