The last time Christmas Day fell on a Sunday was in 2016 and I remember the appalling feeling I had when churches began to announce that they were canceling their worship services for that week. The reason most often given was to allow parishioners and staff to spend time with their families. I was shocked that this was even a debate, let alone that churches were choosing to forego services on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar. I said as much in a Facebook group for clergy and was derided by nearly everyone who responded. One that I remember informed me that I was “insensitive and out of touch with today’s church.” Another accused me of not caring about families and that I was an “egomaniac for demanding that people come to hear (me) preach.”
And, yes, these were pastors saying these things.
As you may know, Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year. I recently began seeing comments from pastors who state their intention is to either not hold services at all or that they will be virtual-only for Christmas 2022. As you may have seen, dear reader, I’m very much pro-digital worship, hybrid worship, and other innovative means of encountering Christ. With that said, I do believe that communities that typically meet on Sundays should do so without interruption as much as possible (a pandemic being a prime example of when a church should consider gathering virtually and not physically). The statement I made on my socials was that any church that cancels worship on Sunday, December 25th, because it’s Christmas day is not a church, it’s a social club.
I stand by that conviction.
A Small Word About Me
First, you need to know these things about me: I’m a foster father with two young foster children. My wife and I have family spread all over the state of Mississippi and beyond. We will have to travel a minimum of two hours in any direction to celebrate the day with any of our family.
The reasons cited for calling off worship typically revolve around one’s family or to give volunteers a break. Family is important and so is rest. I get it and I really don’t want to sound like a jerk, but I believe those are awful reasons to cancel an in-person worship service or to offer a digital-only option if the congregation typically meets physically.
Put down your pitchforks and hear me out.
The Biblical Case
The simple thing is this: God is to be the first priority for a disciple. This means that everything else – yes, even our family – takes a lower place on our list than God. I don’t believe God was bluffing when He told Moses, “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3 NIV) Jesus expands on this later on when he talks about the price of discipleship in Luke 14. The reality is this: The cost of discipleship is high. To be a true disciple, we must put everything else on the back burner and give our primary allegiance to God. This is the expectation that’s given to us and this is part of what it means to “take up (our) cross and follow (Him).” While I don’t believe that Jesus was literally teaching disciples to hate their families, I do believe that the point is clear that our families are not more important than our discipleship.
Next, let’s talk about the meaning of the day we gather for worship. In the case of Christmas day, we will not only celebrate the birth of the Christ child but we will also celebrate resurrection and the life to come, a life that was only possible because Jesus was born and has ultimately conquered sin and death. Let’s think forward to the season of Lent: The reason it’s said that Lent is 40 days of fasting minus Sundays is because every Sunday – the day most Christians gather for the main time of worship – is like a little Easter, therefore we take a break from fasting and enjoy the grace and the victory that Christ has brought us. In other words, adherents don’t fast on Sundays because of the significance of the resurrection. Think of Christmas Day falling on Sunday in the same way: We’re celebrating more than “the baby Jesus in the manger.” We’re celebrating the fact that Jesus was born as one of us, ultimately died as one of us but also rose again and gave us victory over sin and death.
Advent is not only about preparing for the Christ child but also about getting ready for the return of Jesus. Why would we not want to gather and celebrate that day together? #UMCTweet
The Practical Case
The last time Christmas day fell on a Sunday, I was approached by a couple of people who were part of the church I was serving at the time who believed I should cancel the worship service. As one put it, “No one’s going to show up because they’ll be getting ready for lunch.” I flatly refused and made clear that we would be holding a worship service on that day. What was predicted to be a low attendance day by many ended up being more attended than our Easter service earlier in the year, partly because of people visiting from out of town as well as a couple of churches in the area that did cancel their services and their people wanted a place to go. For such as those, I will be leading worship in some form on that day.
Consider this: Not everyone has a family with whom to spend Christmas with. Not everyone travels out of town. Not everyone has plans that would prevent them from attending a worship service. For some, Christmas is a very traumatic and sad day and to deprive them of the opportunity to attend worship on a day when they would normally do so would potentially (likely?) cause harm. I believe such deprivation would even be an act that would deprive them of love, the very definition of sin. I simply cannot wrap my head around not offering an in-person worship service even if only for them.
“But it takes people to run a worship service and I want to give my people a day with their family!” That’s commendable, truly. Here’s my suggestion: Give them that day off. I promise, the worship service will be just fine without them. For nearly 2,000 years, the church did just fine without an army of volunteers to run things. In fact, the church flourished long before volunteers to run the projection and sound systems were even a thing. This is an opportunity for a simple worship service to be offered. Is it really vital to have projection and a light show? I promise, God will still be glorified if, in the case of large churches, the coffee shop and bookstore are closed so that people can relax. I promise that the lack of laser lights will not take away from the birth of Jesus. I’m also certain that, if projection isn’t done and we simply sing familiar songs even without instruments, that the worship will be acceptable and pleasing in God’s sight (perhaps even more so!). If the preacher simply tells the Christmas story and gives a few personal thoughts, I believe that’s perfectly fine too. The bottom line is that worship services need not always be a production, and Christmas day falling on a Sunday is a perfect time to put the concept of “simple church” into practice.
Digital Isn’t Enough on Christmas
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to a digital church or an online campus. For a congregation that typically gathers in-person, I don’t believe that digital is enough. As large of a proponent as I am of streaming and digital church, I don’t believe that a congregation that typically gathers physically should only offer digital for the sake of “family.” Are we going to start calling off services for the sake of secular Easter observances? Of course not (I hope not, anyway!). While that may seem hyperbolic and/or like a comparison between an apple and an orange, I believe the significance is similar. Easter is our holiest of days, but Christmas is not far behind.
If we start compromising on meeting together for Christmas, where will it end? What does this say to other believers? What does this say to the world?
If you’re tempted to comment “but what about covid shutdowns,” stop it. That’s a completely different situation and not even close to what I’m talking about here.
It’s worth nothing that this discussion is almost entirely an American evangelical phenomenon. Christians in other parts of the world would not even dream of calling off worship for a holiday, especially one like Christmas that has a deep and direct connection to our faith. Christians in branches of faith such as Roman Catholicism and the various orthodox denominations would also scoff at the very idea of not worshiping on Christmas Day, especially when the day falls on a Sunday.
We also need to remember that not everyone has reliable internet access to view an online service. There are also people who, for reasons all their own, don’t engage in online worship.
To only offer digital worship this Christmas is a move laden with privilege. #UMCTweet
Am I Just Being a Grinch?
I know, I know. You think I’m just being a big mean and green Grinch. Perhaps you also want to say some (ahem) Christian words to describe how you believe I’m being insensitive and even hypocritical in saying that I love some digital church but believe digital isn’t enough for one of our high holy days, not in a physical congregation. What I’m saying is that I believe that a congregation that gathers in its sanctuary on a Sunday morning should not call off the service just because of secular observances.
We say we want to remember the “reason for the season,” and to “keep Christ in Christmas.” Year after year, people trot these lines out as a way of
showing off their piety reminding us of what’s truly important about Christmas. We either actually believe this or we don’t. If we cancel Christmas worship, then these sayings are mere slogans for social media clout.
It’s time to put our money where our mouths are.