December 14, 2017

Evangelicalism and Special Seasons

Guest post today by Chaplain Mike Mercer…

When I ministered in suburban evangelical churches (nine years in one as 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 holy 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. 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.

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 it 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, for one thing. And the importance of God’s family celebrating Jesus and his works in these special seasons. And the opportunity to use the seasons for the spiritual formation of believers. And the fact 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.

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 we do to fulfill God’s calling in Christ,” and exhort the people in our congregations to make the services of the church their priority? And if we do this, how do we avoid becoming legalistic or domineering over our congregations?

Comments

  1. I don’t like the idea of being domineering, but I don’t like the idea of adjusting the liturgical calendar either.

    Part of my experience with Holy Weeks and Advents coincided with a recognition of a broader sense of “family.” My best Holy Weeks were weeks I spent WITHOUT going back home and staying down in Southern California and celebrating with friends. I’ve done Seder (sic?) meals, easter eggs (pagan, I know) and Good Friday services and of course Easter with my friends and small churches down here.

    I think the challenge to the mobile society (which I am firmly entrenched) is more about what connections, as Christians, we can created in new places among new people than it is about traveling home to celebrate.

    In fact, Christmas and thanksgiving are the only times of the year I feel the need to go home now. I am officially a grown-up.

    So maybe the solution to the problem is that Churches and families in those churches would take special care in looking out for the college/career diaspora in their congregations, and welcome them accordingly.

  2. Come on, Michael, you KNOW you want to be Orthodox (as in, Eastern Orthodox). Most of the things you fault Evangelicalism for lacking – identity/meaning of the term “church”, valuing of liturgy and spiritual formation, fasting, etc. – are at the heart of Orthodox Tradition and practice. When did you last hear of an Orthodox Church ending the liturgy early for a football game, or cancelling the Sunday service for Super Bowl Sunday, or cancelling the Christmas (or Theophany/Nativity) service because it occurred on a Sunday and telling people to stay home with their families instead and/or not meeting on Christmas/Nativity because it occurred on a weekday? http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1868647,00.html

    • Ooops. I thought Michael Spencer wrote this post. My bad. Ignore my comments. 🙂

      • That’s OK, iMonk and I share a lot in common when it comes to frustration about evangelicalism and attraction to the more ancient and deeper traditions and practices of the church. So your comments were not off the mark at all.

        • landofmiddlegirth says:

          Perhaps it is my youth (31,) but I do not understand why there needs to be such division between evangelicalism and the ancient church. It seems to me that the closer you get to the ancient church, the closer you get to a worship that is no longer self serving, but focuses instead on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

          This is something that has been eating me up for a while, and this may or may not be the correct venue to air out my thoughts and concerns, but outside of converting to a mainline church, what avenues can the upcoming generation take to incorporate the past into the future? Does it take starting a new church or movement, or would that lack the ethos the mainline traditions hold?

          CM, excellent post by the way. It is always helpful to hear new voices.

          • Land of Middle Girth, you must not be a long time iMonk reader. For you hit the very heart of this blog and of all the evangelicals who read it. Many churches are trying to incorporate ancient traditions with modern practice. I’m a pastor of a small non-denom church and I have been slowly introducing such things. There is a new church movement in this direction and you have discovered the center of that movement…right here.

  3. I’ve experienced both the “We won’t do a special Christmas service!” attitude and the “Easter and Christmas we set aside to actually preach the gospel for once!” attitude. Neither really made me happy: the former because feasts and celebrations are important, and the latter because the gospel should be central all year, even if more emphasized at our feasts of remembrance.

    Part of how to help, I think, is to build community effectively. It makes a difference when people feel that their church is as much family as their relatives are. Without that, people will quite naturally tend to head back to their relatives, but with it, there is a good chance they’ll appreciate the significance of sharing celebrations with their eternal brothers and sisters.

    That requires a lot of work, though: both teaching and practicing that kind of community as church leaders. That’s exactly what my own church leaders have done, and it mkaes a huge difference.

    Bringing the liturgical calendar into the church at all in a meaningful sense could make a big difference, too. (In most mainstream evangelical churches I’ve seen, the idea would be looked at with as much revulsion as saying the Creeds together: “But, that’s… tradition, the greatest of all evils!”)

  4. We gather as a community in our homes. We meet in each others homes all the time. So we set our own schedule as the families see fit. But we also get together more often than just Sundays, so our schedule is always as the Lord leads us (not set by who has a ball game or who has spring break). If someone chooses to go somewhere with their family, so be it. Just because they do not make it to our gathering does not make them a heretic by missing so-called “church”. We are all His Church wherever and whenever we are. Since we do not have a rigid calendar to follow, this has never become an issue.

    The church is not an organization, it is a community under the Godhead of Christ. So how can it have its own calendar? I feel each gathering will have different ways of worshipping and getting together. As long as Christ is the focus, and the magnet that holds everything together, I feel this is not a first order priority, Christ is.

    • You say Christ is the first order priority, but you find ways and means of celebrating him, learning about him, forming yourselves in his life, and communicating his good news to others. These are “traditions” that you are building.

      It just so happens that for a couple thousand years, the church has established many such traditions, such as the Christian calendar, for enabling believers to live out their life in Christ. And it is only in the past 200 years or so that evangelicals have jettisoned many of those traditions and replaced them with ways and means of their own. The evangelical “tradition” has made some valuable contributions to the life of the universal Church (the one true, catholic, and apostolic church), but my perspective at this point is that we have lost far more than we have gained by abandoning much of the wisdom gained over 1800 years of church history.

      • All the “traditions” I have established with my family is a second order reality. I am not saying that I am against other believers following a calendar with Advent and the Epiphany on it. If they put Christ first in their “traditions” so be it. Christ is all that matters, it is all about Him.

        We still put up a tree and we decorate it with ornaments, but our focus has never been the consumerism of the holiday.

        I have set up family “traditions” to focus on Him during a time that the world has commercialized the calendar.

        We only get 3 simple gifts (not extravagant by any means) for our kids. To represent the 3 gifts given to Christ.

        I know many family members see it other ways (especially grandparents). When they lavish our kids with gifts, I just tell my kids that grandparents are a great example on showing us the love God lavishes over us as He gave His Son as a gift, as they shower you with gifts.

        I also established my own so-called Advent (I call it the Celebration of Christ with my kids)where I take the last 3 Sunday’s before Christmas and my kids pick 3 countries or regions where each Sunday night we celebrate Christ the way other beleivers all over the world celebrate Him with their “traditions”. We play their music, pray for the other beleivers that Christ would be exulted in their actions, we find a Christ-centered missionary to give to and write a letter telling them what we are doing as a community for Him, and then we eat a meal that resembles what the church eats in remembrance. Not the way the countries celebrate Santa, but how they traditionally see Christ during this time. It works for my family, and we learn how to love and give to others.

        At Epiphany we take down all our decorations and reflect back on how we saw Christ in what we did each Sunday and on Christmas morning.

        We personally stay away from church buildings on Christmas Eve, because most of the ones I have attended are more for entertainment purposes and to recruit new tithers. But, if someone wants to go and worship that way, great! i am not saying it is wrong. i just see it differently. In the end it is all about Him anyway.

        So if someone wants to follow a calendar to focus on Christ.. do it.

        Swanny

      • Feliz Navidad says:

        Amen

    • Amen Swanny!

  5. Coming at this from the other angle, Ireland still has the (remnants of?) a strongly Catholic culture, even though the Christmas-and-Easter as shopping sprees element is increasingly encroaching. Even St. Patrick’s Day is being turned into a holiday rather than a holy day.

    However, the influence of the Church year is still strong, particularly in church holidays on the calendar. Easter is still a school holiday, even if the Mid-Term break has already happened in February. And though the Department of Education has been trying to discourage the practice, schools still close for one day on December 8th (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception) so the Department has more or less given in on this one 🙂

    • Martha,

      St. Patricks Day is a Holy Day? What???? 🙂

      Seriously, I heard an older Irish fellow say one time that when he was growing up in Ireland there wasn’t anything that “fun” about St. Patricks Day. It just meant church again. But when he came to America he was shocked by how it was celebrated.

      Austin

      • The big things about St. Patrick’s Day (back in the old days) was that, coming in the middle of Lent, the fast-and-abstinence requirement was relaxed and you could eat meat 🙂

        Even up till the 1960s, pubs had to be closed: yes, no drinking on Paddy’s Day! But that has long since gone by the boards. Only Good Friday and Christmas Day are now “dry” days (and we get the annual whinging from semi-atheists and/or lapsed Catholics in the media about why can’t they get a drink on Good Friday – because of course there are no such things as off-licences to stock up on booze if you absolutely, positively can’t go one day without going down the pub).

        Mainly, growing up, it meant attending the parade in town (in the biting cold wind and probably raining as well) with the parade of tractors and floats by local businesses, then going home to thaw out by the fire and watch the tv evening news coverage of visiting American marching bands getting hypothermia in Dublin as they processed past the GPO 🙂

        The American phenomenon of green beer and leprechauns is a completely different matter.

        • “…watch the tv evening news coverage of visiting American marching bands getting hypothermia in Dublin as they processed past the GPO.”
          Oh, you silly Irish people 😉

          So, when you were growing up, didn’t you attend Mass on St. Patrick’s? Or is there some tradition or canon law regarding feast days in Lent? I is confused…

          • Oh, of course Mass on Lá le Phádraig! It *is* a Holy Day of Obligation, after all!

            The big event was the last-minute rush out the door and out into the field looking for shamrock to wear – yes, it would have made more sense to pick it the night before, but we always did things at the last minute in my family (lemme tell you all about how I almost missed my Confirmation because my father decided to tune the car engine just when we needed to be driving into town to the parish church) 😉

            If St. Patrick’s Day was on a weekday (not a Sunday, which always relaxed the Lenten fast) then there was a dispensation from fasting (and, if it fell on Friday, from abstinence). Of course, this was during the days of the “Black Fast” when it was common for people to abstain from milk, eggs and butter (which is why you used up all those ingredients on Shrove Tuesday making pancakes), as well as giving up sugar in their tea and the like – not like nowadays (though to be fair, when I was growing up, the rigours of fasting were also pretty much gone and it was only the ‘fish on Friday’ abstinence and the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasting observed).

            But mainly the traditional St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland was going to Mass and then into town watching the parade pass while freezing in the biting east wind and rain 🙂

  6. Chaplain Mike,

    Great post. I agree 100 percent, but would like to throw the following thought out there. Are “evangelical” churches busier during the rest of the year than liturgical churches? I don’t know, I’m just asking. From my observations, it seems that most evanglelical churches around my area, have stuff going on all the time. If one so desired, or sometimes guilted into, they could find a church function each night. These may not be very “rich” experiences spiritually but they are church-y. Does that make sense?

    Perhaps folks from these type churches see the holidays as a break from everything, including church?

    I think we should be combining family and church at these times. Our whole family goes to Christmas Eve service every year. The same with Good Friday.

    One thing that would help- outlaw Sunday night services.

    • Christiane says:

      My family goes to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We wouldn’t miss it.
      Somehow, just going to Mass makes it ‘Christmas Eve’ for us: the readings, the sacred liturgy, the candles, the music, the peacefulness . . . sometimes, we are even blessed with snow. 🙂
      Then, we have a tradition of eating dessert and opening ‘just one gift’ each, when we get home. The Christmas Eve Vigil Candle burns all night on our mantel.

    • You have a point. I would want to expand the discussion to say that much of the activity in the evangelical churches that I’m familiar with is unnecessary and counterproductive to a healthy life in Christ and in the world. We have developed a “temple-mentality”—I think iMonk would call it a “church-shaped spirituality”—in which commitment to Christ means devoting most of our time to fellowship and activism in the programs of the local church organization.

      This is most certainly NOT what I am suggesting in my post at all!

      Rather, I see a renewed emphasis on the Christian Year as part of an entire way of spiritual formation that is not about “keeping busy for the Lord” (in the church), but more about a simpler contemplative approach to keeping Jesus at the center of our lives.

    • Mmmm, not necessarily a break, but there’s a definite sense of “If I miss this event, there’s always another one.”

  7. Do what the Catholic Church does: Make them Holy Days of obligation which must be attended on pain of sin.

  8. Yes, it’s hard to tell Christians to follow church tradition twice a year when the rest of the time tradition is looked upon as something threatening to sola scriptura.

    As we have moved toward a Christianity driven by personal salvation, we have unwittingly contributed to a culture that is all about “me.” And in a me-based culture, I’m going to do what I want at Christmas, not what the church wants.

    On the other hand, spending time with family twice a year is certainly a blessing. Loving thy neighbor is part of loving God.

    But the choice of priorities is indeed frustrating. At the church where I work, the first thing looked at when scheduling fall events is if there’s a state college football game that day.

    • Our sanctuary has its share of people wearing Colts’ jerseys every Sunday in the fall, as well as those who leave early to get to the game on time, or don’t attend at all when tailgating is an option. In one church, I had to constantly work around musicians who had season tickets.

      These are exactly the kinds of frustrations that pastors feel and which I hoped to convey in my post. It’s not really just about Christmas and Easter. Those two times of year stand out because they are meant to be the high points of the Christian Year, and yet so often I have found myself disappointed year after year with the lack of attention, devotion, and thought we all gave to them.

      And it’s not really just about the conflict between church and family either. Of course spending time with our families is a good and godly practice. I just believe that ALL relationships, family or otherwise, should be seen and lived out within the context of life in Christ and his family. And it seems as if that order has been completely reversed. Church is seen as fitting in when possible to my life and the life of my family (and the sports schedule).

  9. I get that christmas and easter are special times set aside for us to worship and celebrate together as a church, but I question the notion that we are supposed to be “busier” during those times. Isn’t the purpose to be still and reflect? If we are expecting an increase in church attendance, what is that saying about our congregation? I have met “christians” who identify as such only because they go to church twice a year on the “important days”. That is not a christian life; it is religious laziness. If we participate in our physical families twice a year we are (rightly) labeled deadbeats. Why would this be even acceptable, much less expected, in any healthy church?

    Of course we should celebrate special times in our church family in the same way that we celebrate special times in our blood families. But we shouldn’t accept token appearances to mean the same thing as being part of the family.

  10. Jonathan Hunnicutt says:

    I was thinking: why can’t we integrate church and family life?

    Heck, my parents were Christmas and Easter Christians, so often the only time we went to church was on Christmas eve. I have many fond memories of that service, and then we would go to my grandparents house, and we would read Luke 2, and each of the kids would get to open one present from under the Christmas tree.

    I think the ultimate question is: Are we going to order our lives around God, or make God order His life around us?

    As for the Easter stuff, I went to a church that had an all out production on Easter Sunday, with so much drama, children’s choir, praise dance team that the pastor barely had time to preach and there was very little singing. We also pretty much had a carnival for the kids instead of Sunday school. On one level, I get the idea of pulling out all the stops and genuinely celebrating Easter, but how can we make sure to focus on the resurrection?

    But as part of the team that put it together, it was exhausting for the regular church goers. It made me wonder if we just couldn’t do a really polished Sunday service, with special focus on the resurrection.

    I think this was Austin’s point: if our people are so burnt out from church that they need a break, what are we doing at church? What on God’s green earth is burning them out? Is it the need to put on the shiny happy Christian face? I think we all know what Jesus would say about that…

    • See above. It’s not about busyness. Evangelicals make this mistake all the time. Listen folks, forming my life in Christ does not = activism.

    • Feliz Navidad says:

      My grandparents were from Eastern Europe (Byzantine Catholics) and these people had amazing ways of celebrating the sacred — yes – you can have both — celebrate and observe the sacred. They wouldn’t think of missing Church — and although doing so was a “sin”, they attended not from Law, but because worship of Christ was truly central to their lives, not just on Sunday, but on a daily basis. At Easter, they celebrated with making of Easter baskets, making the beautiful hand-crafted Easter eggs, special breads, and other traditional items, to be blessed. But each item symbolized an element from the Resurrrection story, and as these items were made, children were taught about the Power of Christ over death. On Sunday morning, we hailed one another with “He is Risen!” and our response, “He is risen indeed, alleluia!” We children now only knew what the holiday was about, but we felt the power of the Lord moving in our families.
      Christmas eve was “celebrated” with a holy night — after church services we had a dinner with 12 specified dishes — one for each of the 12 apostles. The local priest and three altar boys carried a litter with the infant Jesus ensconced to each and every house of the parish. At each house, we sang carols with the priest and his entourage, and our thoughts were turned to the sacred event of Christ’s birth, which we honored. My grandparents taught us how to celebrate — with the sacred. Our celebrations were always Christ centered — family centered events. Never was a child so fortunate.

      • Feliz Navidad…

        That is one of the more eloquent and evocative descriptions that I have ever read of how inhabiting God’s story as told in the church year forms us spiritually. Thank you. Thank you.

        I can see it, can’t you?: “The local priest and three altar boys carried a litter with the infant Jesus ensconced to each and every house of the parish. At each house, we sang carols with the priest and his entourage, and our thoughts were turned to the sacred event of Christ’s birth, which we honored.” Incredibly beautiful.

        For the life of me, I don’t understand how someone could read your comment and not have a deep hunger of heart to experience the richness of Gospel, tradition, church, family, and community in Christ that you describe.

  11. I know of one evangelical church (which shall remain nameless) which regularly has Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening services. Unless Christmas falls on a Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Then the corresponding evening service gets cut in favor of “family” events. My family regularly attends a different church when services get cut.

    I was very proud of a family friend and former pastor at that church who, when asked to cancel Sunday evening service in favor of family Christmas Eve events, told the congregation that since it was Sunday evening, and especially because it was Christmas Eve, he and his wife would be at the church to worship God. Anyone in the community was welcome to join them.

    I do not think every church needs a big Advent or Lent program, but I would never recommend reducing the service(s) because of a holiday.

    Conversely, refusing to recognize Christmas or Easter as different than every other Sunday is essentially surrendering the holiday to the culture and losing any real Christian meaning. This may be worse!

  12. Luther instructed fathers to teach their families the catechism at home. But home never replaced church.

    Things are so messed up. Home has become church, and church has become our homes and vocation. Church is supposed to feed us on the Word and sacraments to send us into our homes and vocations, where we witness and serve. Our homes and our vocations reflect what we receive at church. Instead, I live a self-centered, individualistic life at home and at work, and then go to church only when I want to have a religious experience or take in an entertaining worship show.

    Some blame needs to be laid at the feet of the culture warriors, who make the family the foundational unit upon which even church is dependent. Orestes Brownson wrote a great article, which explained how the family derives its value from the Holy Family. Without that context, the family is just an extension of me.

    http://www.orestesbrownson.com/moralsocialinfluencedevotionmary.html

    • “Church is supposed to feed us on the Word and sacraments to send us into our homes and vocations, where we witness and serve. ”

      It’s not. It’s where we get a “Strong Marriage” or a “Better Parenting” series.

      • Oops. My bad. Don’t forget the better sex seminar! I heard of one church doing that as a lenten series.

  13. I suppose I’ve never really thought about it before — whether I think family or church is more important, that is. On one hand I see the importance of a community of faith, to encourage and hold one another accountable to lives of worship and obedience. I see the church’s importance in carrying out Christ’s mission and serving as a beacon of truth in our world.

    But what I’m hearing discussed in these responses is mostly programs, and their attendance. It seems to me the church should be more concerned with its members building strong Christian families and living Christ into their communities, than with attendance at programs. Of course, it seems the members ought to have some level of loyalty to their spiritual family. I’m really not sure how I feel about a lack of involvement in Christmas and Easter services or programs, when family has taken priority.

    My church heritage doesn’t spend much time at all on special religious days, so for me personally, family has always been priority during these particular times of year. I actually wish our churches did a better job of recognizing Christian holidays… But now I’m living in a country where these days are seen as quite important — to everyone, Christian or not. So maybe it’s all going to change for me. Thanks for posting, and encouraging me to think through some things.

  14. I should clarify my earlier statement: I don’t mean by any stretch to diminish the importance of earthly family. I just think that we can do a better job of helping people understand the importance of being together with the heavenly family for days of celebration if indeed it is a heavenly family.

    Higher attendance, I think, is less the issue than the importance of truly celebrating the two events that are arguably most important in all of history: Christ’s birth, and his resurrection. In human history, only man’s creation rivals those for importance. (On which note I propose… wait, that’d just be more humanism. Never mind… 😛 )

    • In my opinion, the most important thing about Jesus Christ is that He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Sure, he had to be born first in order to do that; and sure, the resurrection is the Father’s seal of approval on what the Son had done and gives us all hope.

      But the Cross is the most important event in all of history. Not the second coming. Not the incarnation. Not the resurrection or the ascension. The Cross.

      This has been one man’s opinion.

      And I’m not even Truly Reformed.

      • You’re a Jehovah’s Witness? They celebrate the crucifixion, not the Resurrection. But seriously, without the Resurrection, Jesus is just Spartacus, a bold guy with a new idea who got executed.

        • And without Good Friday, Easter is just another church festival where everyone wears permanent smiles (having jumped to Easter straight from the “hosannas” of Palm Sunday) and we don’t even have to touch on the disturbing image of that man bleeding to death on a cross for us sinners. No, we don’t jump up and down and cheer at Good Friday services. Does that mean the day of the creation of man could ever trump Good Friday for importance– because we don’t “celebrate” GF with noisemakers?

          Give Bob a break. When did he ever say that he thought that Good Friday was important *without* Easter? We all know that all the seasons of the church year are interrelated and you can’t have one without the other. But at least he points out the truth that we as Christians resolve to know nothing but Christ crucified. This is where he won the forgiveness for all our sins. He came to die for us. He didn’t “fail” on the cross (only to pull a surprise “win” on Easter) and Christians should stop acting embarrassed by the sight. None of this is a denial of the Resurrection.

          • No, Kozak, not JW. Please read my sentence, “the resurrection is the Father’s seal of approval on what the Son had done and gives us all hope” again. Of course the resurrection; I just said it wasn’t “the most important.”.

            Oh, and what Kelly said.

          • 1) I ain’t embarrassed by the cross. In fact I own a copy of “Passion of the Christ”
            2) Bob said that the crucifixion is more important than the Resurrection. I know he didn’t deny the Resurrection. I disagree that the Crucifixion is more important. Crucifixion happened to lots of people, including my buddy Spartacus. Resurrection happened once, made all the difference.

  15. No doubt special season gatherings of the church can be good. But, I think it ok to release our folk to celebrate with family and friends, even if they miss the special service(s). We can encourage them to be the church ‘out there’, even if they aren’t at a special service in the church building.

    As a smaller family church, we don’t have a Christmas Eve service or Christmas morning service, but specifically celebrate Christmas together the Sunday before Christmas (at least for those who have not travelled for the holidays). I think it fine. I would be interested in considering a small Christmas Eve gathering in the future, but I don’t believe it is essential for staying focused in our faith during the holidays. Matter of fact, I wouldn’t even be offended if someone simply saw Christmas as a time to gather with family (never reading the early chapters of the gospels, etc). That’s a good and healthy thing – family gatherings (well, they can be difficult, but we can look to be light in difficult situations). We want our people walking with Christ in January and July as well, which we all know. Of course, it’s beneficial to consider special messages and services in these special season (and these special services could even be outreach to non-Christians), but it is not an absolute necessity to have them.

    Just some thoughts.

  16. Accommodate not at all! I like the fixed days of obligation – its a standard of stability, knowing that it will happen whether 10 or 100 attend. As a child I looked forward to the light of the candle on the wreath during Advent, the changes of the color of the vestments, the different smells. As I have matured into my forties I really enjoy those Masses and services that are seasonal: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and especially the Tenaebre service.

    Yes, traveling is a priority but I know if my family chooses to stay home the Church will be fuller with visitors, if we choose to travel I know that on the prescribed day I will be able to attend the special Mass or service and look forward to what is offered at that Church.

    Advent and Lent gives us a chance to refocus and I like the fact that the liturgical calendar drives this instead of the throught or idea of a particular pastor coming up with a topic for a particular week.

  17. I think you bring up some really good points to consider as we enter this season. As with most things in my life, I wish I would’ve been thinking of these things a couple of months ago 😛

    Anyway, regarding your first point – as an individual already pointed out, “culture warriors” among others have spent too much time ‘focusing on the family’ and making it THE foundation. It’s an idol – pure and simple. People have made, as Pastor Driscoll has said, ‘a good thing a God thing – and that’s a bad thing.’ Getting your people in the right place during the holidays is a task that is taken upon the pastors and church leadership the rest of the year. Not right before the holiday season.

    Regarding your second point, I agree, there should be some change in pace, some switching of some gear as we enter the Advent season. Our church has done this by not only switching things up on Sunday, but almost inundating the people with materials (readings, ‘how to Advent’, etc.) to prepare themselves and truly be aware of the Advent season.

    • “but almost inundating the people with materials (readings, ‘how to Advent’, etc.)”

      That would be a pity, if Advent and Lent became times for yet more ministry/programmes/small groups/DVDs and what have you; if the seasons become one more fad or movement like a Purpose-Driven Jabez’s Best Life Scented Candles and Mousepads plus bonus 50-volume DVD boxset. There has to be a balance.

      I’m lucky, in that I’m in a liturgical church so that I know what the seasons are going to be, and as I’m getting older I appreciate that structure, that spine to the year, and that it is recurrent and unchanging.

      If I were inundated with a whole Advent programme of “4 Weeks of Change!” or the like, I’d be overwhelmed, and I really cannot blame anyone who grew up in a church that never used the liturgical year and is now being smothered with that kind of stuff deciding the heck with it, we’re staying home for Christmas and visiting the grandparents instead of all of us running around ticking off boxes on a worksheet.

  18. Also, Scripture doesn’t mandate that anyone do anything different during the Advent season, so it would be legalistic of us to enforce something different or become irritated that people weren’t doing it differently or seemingly taking it as serious as we might.

  19. If we accept that Jesus was not born on Dec. 25 then the “church calendar” is off a bit to begin with isn’t it? Wasn’t culture accomodated long, long ago?

  20. Cpt. Steve says:

    We celebrate Christmas Day and Easter on the days in which they fall. Our singing and preaching, Kids Story, etc all follow the Text each Sunday and would reflect the church season on the above days. However the elements of our services remain the same for Christmas Day except for a shorter service.
    For Good Friday my wife and I have created very different solemn services.
    We have thought about a Thursday service which we may do next year and a Christmas Eve service which would probably not be largely attended.
    In our corner of Evangelicalism and being non-sacramental, means the scope for different elements of worship is limited. This means the imagination of those leading worship needs to be employed much more. The result is occasionally very thoughtful and fresh meetings. More often though a limited number of ideas are simply repeated.
    I would love to incorporate more traditional elements of the Christian church, especially the Sacraments. But that’s not going to happen.
    Our Easter service is typically smaller, Christmas about the same size, (Less members but more out of town visitors.)
    Not changing a book series is appalling IMHO.
    I am presently preaching through Mark but have reverted to the RCL for Advent.

  21. this posting seems to make an assumption, that everyone has a family to go home to. I am member of a church that is very transcient (almost noone is from the area). During every Holiday we have the few families who are going to be in town on the hoidays get together for a potluck lunch. Everyone from the church is invited. This last Thanksgiving my family went to visit extended family while i stayed home & worked, It made me realize how important it is for the church to be open & welcoming to those who have noone to be with over the holidays. A church that tells all there members to go home and be with YOUR family, is missing the idea of the family of God. it is throwing the lonely out to the streets when they need that family of God the most. Just some thoughts, peace

    • Great point, Brian. Some of our most precious times were in a congregation that was made up of a lot of “exiles” as well as many older people who were alone during the holidays. We really knew what being God’s “forever family” meant in those years.

    • textjunkie says:

      Amen to that!! One of the churches I used to attend always had the ‘If you don’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving, come here’ Thanksgiving dinners, which was a great ministry for people who were new in the area, recently separated, or otherwise unattached and would have been alone. Some great friendships were made that way.

      Same thing for Christmas–people go away during the season, but other people come to visit or come looking. It’s a very difficult time for a lot of people (suicides go up that time of year, for example), and having the church as an institution be aware of that and open to tending to that need is critical.

      • this is one of the main reasons America is now “post-evangelical”. evangelicalism in america became a religion corrupted by culture instead of a culture influenced by the Church. evangelicals were more worried about the cashiers at Wal-mart telling them “Merry Chirstmas” then the forgotten & lonely being given the Joy of the season. we are now Family focused & not Kingdom focused. hopefully things will change. peace

  22. Louis Winthrop says:

    I hate Christmas. Absolutely loath it. Like Scrooge and the Grinch, I wish I never had to hear another one of those cursed carols again. I think the Armenians have the right idea–wait until Jan. 7 to celebrate it. (That way they get all the sales!) Divorce the religious aspect from Santa and presents and so forth. (And don’t even get me started on Kwanzaa…) It’s not that I’m super-religious or anything like that. I’d just rather not feel a religious obligation to feel ho-ho-ho cheery. (Imagine if Halloween lasted two months, and we got to listen to Death Metal the whole time.)

    Easter is not such a big thing. For everybody except (apparently) Catholics, it lasts a couple of days, and is mainly important if you have kids. Otherwise you just see newspaper articles about the president leading an egg toss, or whatever it is they make him do, and I think the pope gives a speech or something. Yeah, Spring Break is the main thing, and that is disconnected from Easter–I guess it’s one of those arcane Julian vs. Gregorian calendar issues. I think the Russians celebrate it by having pot-luck casserole suppers, or something equally religious.

    Incidentally, there’s an ongoing argument on Wikipedia’s “Easter” article over the relative importance of eggs and bunnies vs. Jesus. (Cue comments from Orthodox about their religious eggs.) A lot of the disagreement is over how much emphasis to give customs that seem to be peculiar to the U.S.., and how much significance to assign folklore to the effect that it was once a pagan holiday.

    Anyway, the themes of the Incarnation and the Resurrection are supposed to come up every Sunday, so I don’t see the point of getting all concerned if say, it’s hard to get enough kids for the pageant because everybody’s traveling. (Do Protestants have “feast days of obligation”?)

    • Louis, you do sound like the Grinch, but I know what you mean. In fact, while reading through these posts I was thinking about Joni Mitchell’s song, “River”. A great lesson in creative writing no matter how you feel about Christmas. Instead of saying, “I always get depressed around the holidays” she sang,

      “It’s coming on Christmas
      They’re cutting down trees
      They’re putting up reindeer
      And singing songs of joy and peace
      Oh I wish I had a river
      I could skate away on.”

      Joy and peace nevertheless. God bless you.

    • “I think the pope gives a speech or something.”

      I think you mean the “Urbi et Orbi” address and Apostolic Blessing, Louis 🙂

      I am in full agreement with you about the deluge of advertising. I know we’re in a global recession, but I was gobsmacked to hear the radio advertising in June – JUNE!!!! – for hotels saying “Book your Christmas function now! Catering for office parties!”

      And the Christmas stuff was in the shops at the same time as Hallowe’en. What????

      That does not make me want to go out and buy buy buy, it just irritates the heck out of me. I stick stubbornly to the old-fashioned Irish tradition of outting up the decorations and doing the shopping on December 6th; indeed, I do al my shopping more or less the week before the 25th.

      It’s crazy, and it is not Christmas. I don’t know what would happen if we did cut off the religious aspect; there still would remain the 30/40/50 days of consumer culture pushing, which drives me nuts, but at least we might get the emphasis back on Christmas doesn’t start until the 24th and it doesn’t end until January 6th (the Ephiphany) – remember the 12 Days of Christmas?

      We still have St. Stephen’s Day as a public holiday over here, but how many people could tell you when the Feast of the Holy Innocents is?

      • Louis Winthrop says:

        “I think you mean the “Urbi et Orbi” address and Apostolic Blessing, Louis”

        No hablo Esperanto, or whatever it is they speak over there.

        • Louis, is it a total shock to you to discover that people living in Rome, Italy speak – wait for it – Italian? 😉

          And the Church has hung on to scraps of Latin, which is what the “Urbi et Orbi” phrase is – it means “To the City (that is Rome) and the World”.

          Ah, come on now: you get an Apostolic Blessing at the end of the address, *with* Plenary Indulgence attached, and it’s even effectual over the television and everything! 🙂

  23. Let’s face it: we live in a mobile society where families often live thousands of miles apart. For those with school-age (even college-age) children, it is often only at Christmas and Easter that they have enough time off to visit out-of-town relatives during the school year. This is true for us, as visiting my parents requires a 7-hour drive either way, not easily done on a usual weekend. However, we always attend my parents’ church while we are there for services, which by the way, are always crowded during both the Christmas holidays and at Easter. It may look, to those at my home church, that we’re “skipping out”, but instead we are attending church somewhere else.

    I’m a Methodist, and perhaps it’s just part of our normal practice, but celebrating Advent and attending Christmas Eve services has always been part of our church/family tradition. I did find it odd on the few occasions when I attended another church on Christmas Eve, where once the pastor preached about financial stewardship. I’ll be generous and say that he perhaps was making a comment about materialism during a holy season; but it seemed more like a Dave Ramsey seminar!

    • We always attend candlelight Christmas Eve services as well. The first one, I remember leaving the church holding a candle, in the dark, singing Silent Night, and walking out into gently falling snow at midnight as the bells were ringing. Since that, it’s been a tradition.

      Last year we even slipped out of my parent’s home on Christmas Eve and went to the local Methodist church. It was packed, as they usually are.

      More people commit suicide during the Christmas Holidays than at any other time, so I see Christmas Eve services as a real opportunity to minister to those looking for human companionship and God’s comfort during a lonely time. I spend probably half my outreach budget during Advent, and we make a real attempt to invite people who are having a less-than-joyful Christmas.

    • I attend an Episcopal Church and Christmas Eve Mass is something that I always look forward to. The church that I attend takes Advent very seriously, so Christmas Eve is the first time we get to sing Christmas carols, decorate the church for Christmas, and even say “allelujah” during the service. Our Christmas Eve church services are always pretty crowded too.

      The one Methodist Christmas Eve service I attended was absolutely beautiful. We sang ‘Silent Night’ as one by one candles were lit around the church, and by the end of the song the church was bathed in light. Kind of like the service Jjoe mentions above.

      I honestly thought all churches made a big deal about Christmas services but after reading this thread I guess I was wrong.

      • Yes! We’re not saying the “Gloria” during Advent, and I miss that!

        Those parts of the liturgy are meaningful. The great Holy Saturday vigil, after the stripping of the altar on Good Friday. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

        Okay, yes, and the chocolate Easter eggs on Easter Sunday too 🙂

  24. I hate Christmas and Easter services and prefer to stay away from them.

    • If I may ask, why do you hate these services, Mr. Poet?

      • People act funny, dress in funny clothes, eat funny food, and talk about funny things during the holidays. At least Holy Week is just a week long, unless one wants to suffer through the social agonies of Lent. Holiday plays tend to be boring; the sermons overwrought; the calls for donations, service, and more, more, more (almost, you know, like the consumerism in the ads) get to me. Sometimes I consider myself the opposite of the Easter-Christmas churchgoer. I’ll go every other Sunday, just not those Sundays.

        • I completely understand you. While some of those things (acting funny, dressing funny, etc) are done because of the nature of the season, it has almost become overblown. Now it seems 3/4 of the time it is done for cultural reasons, rather then out of any deep meaning or piety.

          We need to get our heads back on straight and focus on the meaning and reason for the season(s) (Christmas and Easter). God help us to.

          • Therese Z says:

            But we act funny and dress funny on birthdays, too. A cake! Decorated with candles! And funny hats! And we put flowers on Grandma when it’s anniversary time!

            It is just that natural to strip the altar bare in Lent, and surround it with flowers and lights on Christmas and Easter. To wear purple, or white.

            People are willing to paint their faces with their football team colors, but get all wobbly when it is suggested that they remember the flame of Pentecost with a few candles in church. I’ll never understand it.

    • Christiane says:

      Hi Mr. Poet,

      My husband grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and his best friend’s father was like a father to my husbland, whose own father was very ill and died when my husband was young.

      My husband remembers coming home for Christmas from the Navy, and being told that his best friend’s father died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve.

      Sometimes holidays are sad for some people. For lots of reasons.

  25. Paul Fisher says:

    I agree with both points. I have spent my entire Christian life in churches were on Christmas there was a sermon about the Baby Jesus but otherwise nothing. I spent 17 years in a group where nothing could get the minister to change his teaching plan because that was all that matter. This Christian year is the first I am actually following the lectionary. I purchased the Ancient Christian Devotional and following week by week. I am also looking at going back to church as I am looking at attending a Lutheran church, there are plenty here in Minnesota. I find this year I am looking forward to Christmas as in times past I hated it. My goal is to understand the Christian season and forget the secular season. Though one reason I may have disliked Christmas was I was born on Christmas day.

  26. Last “Easter Service” at the independent bible church that we attend almost did me in. With the exception of a passing “Happy Easter” wish from our music leader at the beginning of the service it was business as usual. I left the service angry. As me and my equally frustrated wife drove home we passed the local Catholic Church as the service was ending. I commented to her that if someone had stumbled into that church today not knowing it was Easter they would have realized it very quickly because EVERYTHING would be different. Not so in our evangelical wilderness.

  27. As a fairly young home/simple-church fellowship, my small church family hasn’t completely figured out what we need to do with Christmas. During the Easter season, we do get together with some other home church fellowships (and anybody else who wants to come) and participate in a Christianized version of the Jewish Passover meal. I really enjoy that and highly recommend it to anyone who’s never done the “long version” of the Lord’s Supper before. But when it comes to Christmas, we really haven’t established any traditions as a church body. Typically, we just do the individual family thing — though, since the line between blood family and church family has become pretty blurred, we do a lot of intermingling and participating in each other’s family celebrations. And I think that’s a good thing. Still, I think we need to find something unique to do as a church fellowship during the Christmas season — something that’s very low budget and can be done meaningfully in someone’s living room, but that also focuses on Jesus and His coming into the world as a human infant. So, if anybody out there has any ideas for me, I would love to hear them.

    • Okay, I don’t know if you have a crib (I think you guys call ’em creches?) but the tradition (amongst Catholics) is that the manger is left empty until after the Midnight Mass, when the figure of the Infant Jesus is laid in the manger.

      Now, you don’t need to be as elaborate as the one in Rome, but hey – if it’s good enough for the Pope.. 😉

      That strikes me as something simple and do-able. You could have one of the children, say the youngest (if you have children attending?) put the baby in the manger after doing the Gospel reading or whatever readings you select as appropriate. Here’s a link to a Catholic rite of blessing; obviously, you aren’t going to use this one, but as an example of the kind of thing, it might give you some ideas (the Shorter Rite seems like it might fit better?)

      http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/831/Blessing_of_Christmas_Manger_or_Nativity_Scene.html

      • Thanks for the advice, Martha. And I think you may be right in that something aimed at children and which paints a visible picture of the Biblical story of Christ’s birth may be the way to go. We have a lot of young couples and several very young children in our fellowship. Heck, more than half the women in our fellowship are presently “with child” — so, Lord willing, we might actually have a real, live newborn to serve as our picture by Christmas time. That would be really cool.

  28. I attend one of those churches you’re talking about. I feel like we do Easter pretty well – but then, it’s always on a Sunday . The hardest part is marshaling the volunteers, since they all want to be home hunting eggs with their families.

    Christmas is another story entirely. Advent is just a time to add some Christmas songs to the praise time (which the worship pastor hates, because the team learns all these new songs and only gets to use them a couple of times!) We don’t do a Christmas Day service at all. Instead, we do a great big “family-friendly” Christmas Eve service. It’s the one day a year I can count on hearing the whole Gospel story. It’s meaningful, and powerful…. at least I think it is – I’ve only heard bits and snatches since I’m wrangling the kids!

    The theory seems to be to get the Good News in front of the Chreaster (Christmas and Easter) people. Great intention. The problem is, it’s family-friendly because we can’t get enough Children’s Ministry volunteers. So we print off a bunch of coloring and activities sheets and hope the kids will behave through a 30 minute sermon. Right…. I didn’t even go last year because the stress wasn’t worth it!

    My church comes down firmly on the side of culture – and it is firmly by design. That’s a big part of our purpose in being. I suppose that’s better than just falling into it because we’re tired of fighting for space on the calendar?

    • Louis Winthrop says:

      “Advent is just a time to add some Christmas songs to the praise time (which the worship pastor hates, because the team learns all these new songs and only gets to use them a couple of times!) ”

      I thought everybody knew those songs. Do they have *special* Christmas songs that don’t get played on the radio for weeks and weeks beforehand?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Depends on the “Christmas song”. If the church in question is smart (and because they mentioned “praise time” I’m not sure they are), they’d be doing something else than the “played on the radio for weeks and weeks beforehand” ones.

        Like…
        “O Come All Ye Faithful” instead of “Jingle Bells”.
        “Silent Night” instead of “Frosty the Snowman”.
        “O Come O Come Emmanuel” instead of “Mister Hanky the Xmas Poo”.

  29. Can I ask a really stupid question? Displaying my ignorance here, but I just noticed (yes, I’m slow) that Chaplain Mike said “When I ministered in suburban evangelical churches (nine years in one as worship pastor)”

    That is different from the ordinary (regular?) pastor – how? Does that mean that he was like the curate to the parish priest, or something else? I know the mysteries of the Worship Leader have been revealed unto us non-Americans on here, but now I’m confused all over again 😉

    • I was an Associate Pastor, with specific responsibilities for overseeing the planning of the worship services with the pastor and working with the musicians.

      • So something like a cross between a curate and a choir director?

        Trying to fit it into my frame of reference 🙂

        It was just the title of “worship pastor” that threw me – my instinctive reaction was “But sure aren’t all the pastors in charge of worship?”

        It seems to be that thing discussed here on previous posts about ‘what are worship leaders and what do they do?’ where worship = music and music = worship and the notion that prayer, sermons, Bible readings, etc. are somehow not ‘worship’ or that “worshipping” means “rocking out to the band”.

    • Louis Winthrop says:

      Well imagine how us Yanks feel when we hear about vicars, curates, rectors, primates, and God knows what all. (Aren’t we *all* primates?)

  30. Waltzing Matilda says:

    Quakers don’t observe the liturgical calandar at all. The reasoning is that we should be celebrating the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our lives every day. But, I do find that I miss it.

    • Cpt. Steve says:

      Hi Waltzing Matilda,
      Salvationist’s don’t officially follow the Liturgical calendar either. Each officer is autonomous in that way. We are not sacramental like Quakers either and for the same reasons. But I’m with you. I miss it too.

  31. This post reminded me of a fair number of mega-churches in our area that closed for Christmas when it fell on a Sunday a few years back—using the argument that Christmas is supposed to be “family time.”

    I think that in a huge chunk of Christianity worship with the family has been replaced by worship OF the family—virtually any expenditure of time or money goes unquestioned when it’s “for my family.” We could use a lot more focus on Christ and a lot less narcissistic focus on the family.

    • Just for Quix says:

      Excellent point.

      Perhaps “the family” is the friendly way to couch self-centered idolatry , and an inevitable focus borne in this age of “won’t someone think of the children!” “family values” and “protect the traditional family” culture war. I don’t think family emphasis is always idolatry, but you’re wise to point out the nuance of how it _can_ be.

      I’ll admit that because of my former Mormon past I am extremely sensitive to this kind of soothing self-centeredness not becoming promoted in our church. (Not to mention avoiding repeating the many Christmases and Easters where Christ — outside cultural surface traditions — hardly was discussed at all. Perhaps not surprising an outcome when the Gospel has gone missing too.)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Perhaps “the family” is the friendly way to couch self-centered idolatry , and an inevitable focus borne in this age of “won’t someone think of the children!” “family values” and “protect the traditional family” culture war.

        Gives new meaning to the phrase “Focus on the Family”, doesn’t it?

    • So true! Mega-churches have a Familymas in place of there Christmas. Mega-Churches forget they are a place of WORSHIP, not just teaching, singing, and preaching, but real WORSHIP devoted in God’s son Jesus Christ. How can they close the people’s place of WORSHIP on the day of celebration for the 1st coming of God’s son on earth??? & worst of all —-how can the people allow them to & come back again????? just me venting again! peace

    • Dave N.
      You are going to make me rethink what we do for this high Christian days. We would never think of canceling worship on Sunday because it was Christmas. However, we don’t have worship on Christmas because most of the people don’t come. We tried it for several years. However, I am moved to rethink. Thanks.

  32. My brother and I have talked before about how there is a family-centric trend the immediate family is above all. We’ve questioned – why do we place these people above others? What makes them more special? Four the last three years I’ve longed to be at my Anglican church for the entirety of the Advent season, but I’ve always had to go back home to where we have no tradition. I think we forget that the family unit is a picture of what the church should be and can be if we put any effort into it. Yet many of us are taught that family is always more important. What about my church family? This would also make sense why family tradition takes over church tradition. And living in a culture that was founded on the rebellion of tradition, it’s not too surprising which one wins.

  33. alpineflower says:

    We attended Anglican churches for 10 years, and left the tradition a couple years ago for a variety of reasons. I really miss Advent, Lent and Holy Week. A lot. We try to go back every season for at least one service, to get our liturgy fix.