Friday, December 09, 2005

Never on Sunday Redux

This NYT article digs a bit deeper in to the issue of "megachurches" closing on Sunday, December 25, 2005. This matter raises a whole host of ecclesiological questions.

1) First, what is worship for?

"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, that God is with us wherever we are," said Cally Parkinson, communications director at Willow Creek, which draws 20,000 people on a typical Sunday.
2) Second, what is church for?

The uproar is not only over closing the churches on Christmas Day, because some evangelical churches large and small have done that in recent years and made Christmas Eve the big draw, without attracting much criticism.

What some consider the deeper affront is in canceling services on a Sunday, which most Christian churches consider the Lord's Day, when communal worship is an obligation. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was in 1994. Some of these same megachurches remained open them, they say, but found attendance sparse.
Now, I will be honest: the first time I ever attended a worship service on Christmas Day when that day was not on a Sunday, was the first time I pastored a church. And even then, it was a "country" church (rural Illinois town of 500), and the service was still being held "for the old people." Most churches in the Reformed tradition, in other words, don't hold a Christmas Day service. They simply worship on the Lord's Day, a practice that is as American as the Puritans. But does anyone in a church in the Reformed tradition see worship as an "obligation" anymore? Vanishingly few churches still adhere to that standard, even among "mainline" denominations.

Now here's where it gets interesting:

"This attachment to a particular day on the calendar is just not something that megachurches have been known for," Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, said. "They're known for being flexible and creative, and not for taking these traditions, seasons, dates and symbols really seriously."
Are those "traditional" practices worthless, then, outdated, outmoded? Not necessarily:

In many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, known for their rich liturgical traditions, Christmas Day attracts far more worshippers than an average Sunday. Grown children return with their parents to the parishes they belonged to when they were young.
I did experience, especially in my country church, a dramatic swing in attendance on Christmas Eve. The first year, the church was full that night (75+ people; it was a small church, indeed). the next year, it seemed almost empty (35+ people). The difference was family travel: families "came home" every other year, a pattern I have observed, more or less dramatically, in every church I have pastored since. Indeed, in Houston, where "native Houstonians" are as rare as hen's teeth, the pattern is usually people leaving to visit their children at Christmas (packages and "Santa Claus" are the primary reason families with young children travel at Thanksgiving, not Christmas). And it has been my experience in the Episcopal church (also known for its "rich liturgical traditions") that many people return there for Christmas Eve. Indeed, my strongest memories from my Presbyterian church childhood (not known for its liturgy) are the few quasi-liturgical moments offered by "special" services such as Christmas Eve.

In fact, I'm not so sure it's the holiday that is exclusively the draw, but the liturgy in combination with it. For liturgical traditions, it is the "tradition" of the liturgy; for non-liturgical traditions, it is the "tradition" of the congregation: Christmas "carols," the church decorations, the familiar words of Luke (one reason "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is still so popular) in a familiar place.

But perhaps the most interesting, and revealing, point in this article is when it shows just how American "megachurches" are, and how American the celebration of Christmas in this country is. Which bring us to:

3) Third, what is the claim of the church on the individual, on the family?

"We're encouraging our members to do a family worship," Bishop Long [Senior Pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in Lithonia, Ga.] said. "They could wake up and read Scripture and pray and sometimes sing a song, and go over the true meaning of what Christmas is, before opening up their gifts. It keeps them together and not running off to get dressed up to go off to church."
This, of course, hearkens back to the "family chapel" of a place like "Castle Brideshead;" hardly an image of "communal worship." But it ties in perfectly with an "American Christmas," the kind basically invented not by Charles Dickens (Scrooge, after all, awakes to the church bells calling people to service on Christmas Day) but by Clement Clark Moore. Christmas, in other words, as the exclusive province of the family, whether nuclear or extended. But "family" does not mean one's "brothers and sisters in Christ." It means blood and marital relationships.

Of course, "running off to get dressed up to go off to church" hardly sounds like a severe separation of the family unit; especially considering most families gathering soon dissolve into some watching football, some playing with the new toys, some in the kitchen, and some (especially teenagers) wishing they could meet up with their friends and get away from their family! But this just underscores the purpose of "megachurches:" convenience. And convenience works, like utilitarianism, to provide the greatest good to the greatest number:

"I see this in many ways as a capitulation to narcissism, the self-centered, me-first, I'm going to put me and my immediate family first agenda of the larger culture," said Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "If Christianity is an evangelistic religion, then what kind of message is this sending to the larger culture - that worship is an optional extra?"

John D. Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College, asked: "What about the people in society without strong family connections? The elderly, single people a long distance from family, or people who are simply lonely and for whom church and prayers would be a significant part of their day?"
What, in other words, happens to: "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me?"

Christmas, after all, is the day we celebrate the birth of a man who said: "Do you suppose I came here to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, on the contrary: conflict. As a result, from now on in any given house there will be five in conflict, three against two and two against three. Father will be pitted against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." (Luke 12:51-53, SV)

To be sure, that is not a sentiment that needs to be enacted in the celebration of the Prince of Peace. But how ironic, in the name of that celebration,and in the name of that man, to elevate family above all other considerations on this one day of the year.

How ironic; and how sadly American.

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