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A Quick Question 

How do you celebrate Christmas?

From Dec. 2005

The quick answer:   Not by going to Church!

The longer answer: An inordinate amount of attention in recent weeks has focused on the decision of, by my count, 9 megachurches to cancel Sunday services on December 25th. Whether this is a legitimate Christian response or not is a question better left to theologians and pastors to debate. However, I would like to present some information I’ve found as I’ve been called upon to respond to this situation which offers a more disturbing reality than just a few congregations that decide to close their doors and give staff off that day.

When Christmas falls on a Sunday it presents a problem for nearly every Protestant congregation – no matter what the size, shape or denominational affiliation. After talking with official researchers of several of the country’s major denominations, it is absolutely clear that when Christmas and Sunday service coincide – it is the Sunday service that loses. Attendance is always minimal on a Christmas Sunday. This is a radical alteration to the reality of December attendance for congregations of these denominations. December, or the Advent season, is often marked by higher than average attendance, with the Sunday around Christmas occasionally being the second highest attendance of the year next to Easter.

After the Associated Press story ran telling that Willow Creek Community Church decided to cancel its Sunday services, I went to the web and examined several blogs which asked their readers whether their churches were holding services or not. While far from the scientifically rigorous or careful study Hartford Institute for Religion Research usually does, the findings are nevertheless very illuminating. Looking at the blog responses of persons from 26 small to medium Conservative Protestant churches, all agreed that their attendance would be down considerably on Christmas Sunday. These churches represented Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, nondenominational, Calvary Chapel, and other evangelical traditions.

  • All but 5 of these congregations were having services on Sunday morning – this also means that almost one fifth were not having service!
  • But every one of these was reducing their service offerings that day.
  • If they had 2 or three services, they were instead holding just one.
  • Nearly all these churches canceled their Sunday school programs that day.
  • A few shortened the service times.
  • Often services were going to focus primarily on singing hymns with a very brief sermon.
  • Almost none of them were holding Sunday evening services.

At the same time nearly every one of these churches had one or more Christmas Eve services. Everybody was expecting these Christmas Eve services to be very well attended.

The situation is very different outside of Protestantism. Catholic and Orthodox churches experience the exact opposite attendance pattern on Christmas, even if it falls on Sunday. Catholic researchers I talked to expected attendance at Mass on Christmas to be from one-third higher to twice the usual number. Given that it is a holy day of obligation, it is inconceivable not to have Mass on Christmas. The religious celebration of Christmas places the Mass at the center of the holiday – no matter what day of the week. Extra worship services are frequently added for Christmas Eve as well as on Christmas Day.

In the midst of the megachurch bashing, it is also helpful to keep in mind that even if a dozen megachurches are closing, it still means that 99% of all megachurches in the United States are remaining open. And in their defense, megachurches face challenges that smaller congregations don’t. It often takes many hundreds of persons to park, usher, record, perform, service, stage, or whatever term or task you choose, to enact a worship service at a megachurch. That means 100’s of persons must leave their family and “work” on Christmas. Likewise, many of the mega churches offer weeks of major celebratory performances (like elaborate live nativity scenes, plays, dramas, singing Christmas trees, etc.) around the Christmas season. Additionally, nearly all megachurches hold multiple Christmas Eve services that are attended by 1000’s of persons. None of this excuses them from their seeming obligation to hold Sunday services on one of the most holiest days in the Christian calendar, but it should at least put their decision in perspective.

This incident points to several much more challenging and disturbing issues related to Christmas falling on a Sunday that should be addressed by reporters and especially by pastors and Christian theologians. Where are the attenders on this sacred holiday? Why is it that sincere, weekly, church-going Protestant Christians (not just those nominal or marginal members) don’t show up at church when Christmas falls on a Sunday? They are often at services if Christmas falls on a Saturday or Monday. Therefore, driving to visit out of town family doesn’t hinder attendance much then, so should it make that much of a difference if Christmas happens to be on a Sunday. What is more important than celebrating the remembrance of Jesus’ birth on Sunday – the Lord’s Day?

Perhaps what Jerry Falwell and others are saying this holiday Christmas season is somewhat true. Competing forces are encroaching on the meaning of Christmas. The holiday is taking on other meanings, other significances. Certainly the retail marketers hope so. The multiple meanings of Christmas are compatible and uncontested as long as they don’t meet head to head. BUT when they coincide on a Sunday, it spells disaster for the religious significance of the day. The celebration of Jesus’ birth in church on the day of the holiday is less important than the commercial import of giving and especially receiving gifts, less vital than rekindling the familial connections around a table laden with food; less essential than marking the day watching parades and above all football games on the big screen television. After all, how does a celebration of Jesus’ birth compete with these? Apparently, from my quick research, it doesn’t fare well at all for Protestant Christians – at least in terms of church attendance. Maybe there is wisdom in familiar holiday songs that there is no place like home for the holiday and Christmas is for the family.

And of course no one is writing stories about the next great challenge for the churches - what to do about the sacred holiday of New Years Day the following week and just how many folks will rouse from their party stupor, overlook more parades on TV, dash to church and then hurry home for more extravagant meals and, of course, the truly sacred American pastime, watching football games.

Scott Thumma

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