Note from CM: We’re giving Michael Spencer the week off. Instead, I will revive this post from my early days of writing for him.
This was one of the first posts I did for Internet Monk, back in 2009.
I wrote it in the early days of attending a Lutheran church, having left pastoral ministry in a non-denominational congregation, bouncing around and trying to find my footing in the post-evangelical wilderness.
One thing that impressed me about our congregation was the seriousness with which services were planned for particular seasons and occasions. The colors, banners, vestments and decorations, the music, the readings, and the extra services people attended reinforced that these were special days, that they deserved a priority place on our calendars, and that our worship was going to be shaped by the gospel story of Jesus and not of our own devising.
I’ve done some editing to update the post, but it still sets forth the same questions.
And oh, yes. This week is Holy Week, and where I live it once more coincides with spring break. And I’m leading services at our church. Wonder who will show?
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When I ministered in suburban evangelical churches (nine years in one as a “worship pastor”), there were two times each year when I struggled most against the infiltration of American secular culture into the church. These two times also happened to be the main feasts of the church, Christmas and Easter. One would think that, of all times in the year, Christians would keep these two seasons sacred, but what I have found is —
1. The way people approach these seasons is defined more by individual and family traditions than by church traditions.
In our busy and mobile society, the holidays are travelin’ times and family get-together times first and foremost.
As a pastor and worship leader, I encouraged our people to follow the liturgical calendar to some extent. Inevitably however, we had to push special Christmas events earlier into December in order to successfully “compete” against family gatherings and programs. Or, we found that Holy Week and Spring Break (the true holiday?) conflicted, so that we almost always had to announce and celebrate the resurrection before commemorating when Jesus went to the Cross!
Christmas Eve and Good Friday services were usually poorly attended. Ash Wednesday? Lent? No chance. Forget about planning additional gatherings or service opportunities during Advent or the time around Easter. The extra effort involved in putting together special ways of commemorating the great events of our faith seemed wasted when we considered how few would participate or attend.
I know that seems like I’m emphasizing how many people attend as a measure of success, but from a pastor’s perspective it’s more than that. We are called, as Paul said, to labor until Christ is formed in our people (Galatians 4:19), and folks simply taking off at the most important times of the year is discouraging.
2. Patterns of worship in some congregations vary little from the way worship is practiced during other parts of the year.
One pastor with whom I worked insisted that, except for some decorations and maybe a couple of different songs, worship on special days would be exactly the same as on any other Sunday. His reasoning was that more unbelievers would attend services on those days and that we should therefore show them what the church is like all the time. He usually did not change his message but continued the Bible book series he was teaching, the band played mostly the same praise and worship songs, and the “feel” of the service was consistent with other Sundays.
I always thought he missed the point of worship and the importance of God’s family celebrating Jesus and his works in these special seasons. We also missed the opportunity to use the seasons as special opportunities for the spiritual formation of believers. And I disagreed about special days having a primarily evangelistic focus, believing that we are primarily to reach unbelievers in the world, not in the worship services of the church.
In my experience in evangelicalism, whenever the church calendar has a face-off with the family calendar, school calendar, or community calendar, the church calendar usually loses.
I have had countless discussion with church leaders about this, and I wonder what you think.
Here are a few questions these things raise for me, especially when I look at it from a pastor’s perspective.
How far should we go in accommodating culture?
On the other hand, are there times when the church should simply insist that “this is what church is, and this is what we do to fulfill God’s calling in Christ,” exhorting our people to make the services of the church a priority? And if we do this, how do we avoid becoming legalistic or overly critical about it?
Then again, shouldn’t we also affirm the goodness and sacredness of being with family, enjoying life and blessings such as travel and seasons of refreshment?