Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Never On Sunday

I suppose this makes it official: Christmas is not a day of prayer; even on Sunday.

Either that, or "mega-churches," by their own admission now, aren't really "churches." ("Church--The Eng. 'church'...come[s] ultimately from the Gk. kurion '[thing] belonging to the Lord.'"--Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

This Christmas, no prayers will be said in several megachurches around the country. Even though the holiday falls this year on a Sunday, when churches normally host thousands for worship, pastors are canceling services, anticipating low attendance on what they call a family day.

Critics within the evangelical community, more accustomed to doing battle with department stores and public schools over keeping religion in Christmas, are stunned by the shutdown.

It is almost unheard of for a Christian church to cancel services on a Sunday, and opponents of the closures are accusing these congregations of bowing to secular culture.

"This is a consumer mentality at work: `Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient,'" said David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a leading evangelical school in Hamilton, Mass. "I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing."

The churches closing on Christmas plan multiple services in the days leading up to the holiday, including on Christmas Eve. Most normally do not hold Christmas Day services, preferring instead to mark the holiday in the days and night before. However, Sunday worship has been a Christian practice since ancient times.
And that "where two or three are gathered in my name" stuff? Apparently what Jesus really meant was: "At least two or three thousand."

Cally Parkinson, a spokeswoman for Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., said church leaders decided that organizing services on a Christmas Sunday would not be the most effective use of staff and volunteer resources. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was 1994, and only a small number of people showed up to pray, she said.

"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?" she said.
Thanks to leap year, of course, this happens only about every 11 years. And it used to be that people went to church on Christmas Day, whatever day of the week it was. What this really indicates is that, as Stephen Nissenbaum points out, sometime after Clement Clark Moore's ubiquitous and iconic poem, Christmas became accepted in America as a family holiday.

A nuclear family holiday, in fact; which is why most people travel on Thanksgiving, but stay home on Christmas. (In the near future I hope to be able to elaborate Nissenbaum's thesis.)

So Christmas has almost nothing to do with "Christ" at all. And the mega-churches, being a perfect product of marketing, understand that.

This isn't all that odd, actually. Most "mega-churches" are in the Reformed tradition, and almost reflexively abhor any liturgical practices, including a liturgical calendar. A few years ago, when I was on the mailing list of various "religious publications," most of them marketing to "mega-church" pastors or wannabe mega-church pastors, I got a notice about a new book promising to remake my December preaching. It was inspired by a discovery by a non-denominational pastor, who grew bored preaching sin and salvation 12 months a year, and needed something more interesting for December. His discovery?


Yup. He "discovered" the season of Advent, something that has existed in the Christian church since about the 4th century.

Having grown up in the Presbyterian church (also the "Reformed" tradition), I barely knew Advent, and didn't know Lent at all; much less Epiphany or Pentecost. And church on Christmas Day only occurred when Christmas Day was a Sunday; and even then, turnout was usually light. When I was a student pastor, my Church Council blithely informed me that it was a tradition to hold services on Christmas Day, but that they never came!

Now, I knew these members were the most faithful attendees at worship that I had. If they didn't come, why did they have a service? "For the old people," they told me, the last of whom, I realized, had gone into a nursing home that year. So I took a practice from a church I knew in Tyler, one I had wanted to try since I entered seminary.

I announced a "Love Feast," something I understand is a practice of the Moravian church. I offered hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls on Sunday morning, as a "sort of" eucharist. (I was not ordained then, and my advisors were at great pains to be reassured I would not call this either a "meal" or "Communion," even though I said a communion prayer that morning. This may seem reasonable to someone in an episcopal tradition, such as the RC or the Anglian Communion, but in the loose UCC "traditions," this struck me as almost laughable. It still does.)

In terms of attendance, it was the greatest single success of my ministry. College students coming home for Christmas got out of bed to come to church. 30 people showed up (which was a "good" turnout on a Sunday morning; this was a tiny and lovely church, some of the best people I have ever known). I invited them to stay after the short service to finish off the food, and we had a party. It worked so well that, to this day (and that was nearly a decade ago, now), they still have a service on Christmas Day, and still serve hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls.

So, if Willow Creek Community Church wants to get in touch with me, I'm sure we can work out the product placement arrangements.....

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