Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 4

December 19, 2011

This is the last of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
 
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical
 
In this series, I’ve presented practical arguments for some churches not to hold Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday. I then presented a number of points that seem to be assumed in arguing that services must be held, points that cannot be substantiated Biblically. After that, I argued that effectively reaching and growing people is more important than meeting 52 Sundays a year. I’d like to finish this series by talking more generally about extrabiblical commands. 
 
Although my opinion is clear, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m being dogmatic on this question. If anyone is aware of Biblical passages that shed a different light on this topic, especially my points in part 2, I would be very grateful to hear them and will give them serious consideration. 
 
What I am emphatically speaking against is anyone who insists that it is a sin or wrong not to hold Christmas Sunday services without Biblical support for such a claim. To insist on something extra-Biblical (such as Christmas Sunday services) in such a way that it hinders obedience to a command that is Biblical (for example, loving your family and prioritizing them over professional or lay ministry, 1 Tim 3:4) is the essence of Pharisaism, and is one of the things that Jesus vocally opposed more than anything else. When the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples broke traditions, he retorted, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mat 15:3).  
 
Legalism is a danger and a temptation to every Christian. Following it destroys your own obedience to God, and imposing it upon others leads them astray. Whether you hold a Christmas Sunday service is not a big deal, but whether or not you’re a legalist is absolutely vital. We need to challenge ourselves to hold with an open hand everything that isn’t Biblically commanded. If that ends up risking our traditions, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe God is testing us to make sure we’re willing to choose him over the traditions we’ve set up for ourselves over the years. 
 
So let’s celebrate Christmas, let’s talk about this issue, let’s respect one another, let’s get Biblical in our reasoning, and let’s refuse to elevate tradition where it competes with the word of God. Sunday services don’t give life; Jesus gives life. Sunday services aren’t worship: your whole life is worship. 


Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 3

December 15, 2011

This is the third of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
 
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical 
 
In the first two parts of this series, I gave the practical reasoning some churches give for not holding Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday but moving them to Saturday instead. Then, I argued that there is no Biblical command on several questions related to the topic, and therefore churches are free to hold services or not, whichever they decide is most strategic for them. I’d like to continue this series by discussing a bit about church mission and the role of the church service.  
 
Insisting on Sunday morning worship more strongly than the Bible does may betray a deeper problem: subtle idolization of the church service. As my wife recently wrote on her blog, the church is not a building, and it is not an organization: the church is a collection of people. It’s good for us to gather, but we do not cease to be the church when we leave. In fact, many of God’s commands to the church can only be obeyed in the context of relating to one another, not when sitting in rows.  
 
Also, if the only time you worship is on Sunday morning, you may be missing the point of worship. Worship involves the whole person relating to God, loving him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mat 22:37), and this is a command that cannot be obeyed one morning a week alone. Can you genuinely love your spouse for two hours a week, and then stop? Meeting with other believers does play an important role for the church, whether in worship services or in small groups. But the Bible never describes it as so vital that we’re cut off from worship or from God if we don’t meet a certain morning.  
 
If the Bible doesn’t command us to hold services every Sunday, might there still be practical reasons to do so? Maybe some people have in mind the “Christmas and Easter” crowd; they might think that we shouldn’t lose one of only two annual chances to reach them with the gospel. But how many of that demographic would really give up Christmas morning around the tree to show up at church? I’d love to see some statistics on this, but in my mind it seems like not many. As for the committed crowd, will they be any less likely to come Christmas Eve day than Christmas day? More likely, it would seem to me. Will they be any less edified? Of course not. Worship is worship and preaching is preaching.  
 
Some might say that, while this is true, gathering is still better than not gathering, no matter how few people come. Even the act of meeting is a witness to the world who see us committed to our faith even when it’s inconvenient for us. If anyone knows of someone who has come to faith because their friend attended church on Christmas day, I’d love to hear it, but I can’t imagine it’s too common.  
 
By contrast, God has used North Point’s church model to lead hundreds or thousands of people to Christ over the years, and I’ve gotten to see hundreds of them give their testimonies and be baptized. Our church tries to make every decision in light of what most effectively leads people into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ. And we’ve found that we do that best with hundreds of staff and volunteers to put on a service: parking attendants, greeters, production team, care ministry, preschool leaders, etc. If we can manage to have this great of an impact on 50 Sundays per year, then I don’t think God will say at the judgment that we should have given all that up in order to be able to meet 52 Sundays instead.  
 
This is not to say that all churches that meet for 52 days per year aren’t fulfilling their mission, but only to say that the focus needs to be on doing whatever it takes to reach and grow people. If, for any given church, that means breaking the tradition of meeting every single Sunday, then it seems that this is what God would want them to do.  
 
This is also not to say that it’s categorically wrong to hold services on Christmas Sunday. If you have a demographic that is demonstrably interested in meeting that morning, and you can get enough staff and volunteers without having to resort to pressure, guilt, or begging, then it’s certainly a fine thing to do. And it would be a tremendously Christlike thing for churches to set up, for example, an optional Christmas morning program for families to volunteer to serve the homeless or bedridden: giving up their own Christmas morning to bring a happier one to those who would otherwise be alone and in need. But none of that amounts to proof that churches are morally obligated to hold normal services on every Sunday including Christmas.  
 
In the final part of this series, I’ll address a general issue that this topic brings up: insisting on something extra-Biblical in such a way as to hinder obedience to a command that is Biblical.


Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 2

December 12, 2011

This is the second of a four-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
 
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical
 
 
In the previous post, I gave the practical reasons some churches give for not holding Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday but holding Saturday services instead. I said that those reasons will convince some readers, but others will maintain that it’s always wrong to not meet on a Sunday. How can we determine whether this is the case?  
 
For those who claim the Bible as their sole source of authority, the only way to answer a question about right and wrong is, what does the Bible command and forbid? Regardless of traditions, church declarations, or the opinions of theologians and professors, if the Bible doesn’t speak to the issue, it may be a matter of wisdom or effectiveness, but it’s not a matter of right or wrong. And I’d like to argue precisely that: that the Bible does not clearly address this issue. I’m certainly not a scholar, but I have taken some seminary courses, including one on the church. And, as far as I know:  
 

  • The Bible never commands Christians to meet weekly. All we have is descriptive statements that some Christians met on the first day of the week, Sunday (Acts 20:7). But it’s not a command, such that missing a Sunday is a sin.  
  • The Bible never commands Christians that the day they must meet is on Sunday. Again, that’s certainly the example, and it makes sense considering the day Jesus was resurrected (Mat 28:1). But it’s not stated to be a sin to shift services to a Saturday occasionally. Or another day if it helps your underground church avoid the authorities, for example.  
  • The Bible never commands Christians to celebrate any specific days or seasons, such as Christmas or Lent. Some passages could be construed to oppose such celebration altogether (Gal 4:10), and other passages seem to state that celebrating or not is to the person’s own discretion (Col 2:16). But there are no New Testament passages that command the celebration of specific days.  
  • The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus was born on December 25th, such that that day should receive special importance. I’ve heard that many scholars believe that Jesus was likely born at a different time of the year, and that they are divided over which came first, Christmas or the pagan winter solstice festival (if anyone has details on these, I’d love to read them). If the winter solstice came first, opinions are also divided as to whether that serves as a reason to not celebrate at this time. All this goes to show that the importance of celebrating on December 25th is not at all clear cut.  

 
I may have gotten some of these wrong or missed another point the Bible does make that specifically commands this schedule of worship. If I have, I would love your input in the comments; I’m just trying to get at what’s Biblical, whichever position it leads to. But if all these statements are correct, then there is nothing in God’s word that makes it essential to gather on every Sunday or on December 25th. If that is true, then the burden of proof lies on those who would insist that it is wrong to not hold services. And if they would in fact say that it is morally wrong, not just inadvisable, then that proof must be furnished on Biblical grounds, because nothing is authoritative on the believer other than the Word of God as contained in scripture.  
And if there is no such clear command, then it’s to the church’s own discretion as to what the church service is for, and what will help its ministry to be most effective. I’ll discuss these topics in the final post in this series.


Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday? Part 1

December 7, 2011

This is the first of a three-part series entitled Should Churches Close on Christmas Sunday?  
 
Part 1: Reasons Given  
Part 2: Biblical Evidence  
Part 3: Mission and Strategy  
Part 4: The Extrabiblical
 
 
When I realized that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, I said to myself, “Here we go again…” The last time this happened was in 2005, and, when some churches decided not to hold Sunday services on Christmas day, it resulted in controversy. It was a personal issue for me: my church, North Point Community Church in Atlanta, did not hold services, and one of the most-quoted critics was a professor from a seminary associated with my undergrad college.  
 
This year, Lifeway reported that 91% of churches surveyed are holding Sunday services, and this has raised some opposition to the other 9%—even the ones that are holding multiple services on Saturday the 24th. There are strong opinions on both sides, and unfortunately there’s a lot of talking past each other going on. In a three part blog series starting with this one, I’d like to make the case that it is Biblically permissible, and at times beneficial, for churches to not hold services on Christmas Sunday, as well as to solicit further Biblical discussion.  
 
I can certainly understand how the first impression can seem bad. Churches should gather faithfully every Sunday, right? And especially on Christmas. Oftentimes, though, just hearing someone’s reasoning can shed a lot of light. In the case of North Point, as well as many other megachurches, the reason they give is that they want to allow attenders and volunteers time to spend time with their families. In particular, many volunteer teams serve every Sunday, making the need for a break even greater. (NP actually always takes the Sunday after Christmas off for the same reason, meaning that this year they are off for two Sundays in a row.) A related logistical issue is that larger churches can require hundreds of volunteers to hold a service, and that many volunteers may not even be in town, let alone available to help out. (As to the possibility of holding a service with fewer volunteers, I’ll address that in a future post.)  
 
A pastor’s kid friend of mine made another point that the pastors themselves probably agree with, but may be hesitant to say. She said, we want to have our dad to ourselves on Christmas. When she said this, it clicked for me: being a pastor is more than a job, but not less. Aren’t we indignant about other jobs that force a parent to work on Christmas day? Yet it’s tempting to turn around and demand that pastors need to work on Christmas. You may have heard stories about pastor’s kids who have turned away from the church because of the excessive demands it placed on their dad. These stories show that we as congregations will either help or hinder our pastors in being good fathers. Many pastors are overworked as it is: we should be looking for ways to make it better, not worse.  
 
This issue forces us to decide if we really believe what a lot of us say: that our family should be more important to us than our job or our organizational ministry. And this isn’t just a platitude: the Bible even says that one qualification of an elder (including pastors) is that they are able to raise their children well (1 Tim 3:4). If that’s the case, then it’s unbiblical for congregations to insist that their pastors make a sacrifice of their family for the sake of their church ministry. For all of the impact my pastor, Andy Stanley, has had, setting boundaries to protect his family life has always been important for him. Whatever your opinion may be of him, this is one point we can all learn from.  
 
For some readers, these practical reasons may be enough to convince you that not holding Christmas Sunday services is a valid option. For others, however, it’s not a matter of practicality but of obedience. They may say that to not gather for worship on any Sunday, or on Christmas Sunday in particular, means elevating secular traditions, materialism, and a convenience mindset above God. They may also say that pastoring requires sacrifice, and this is a small one to make. So the first question that has to be answered is, practical considerations aside, is it categorically wrong to not hold church services on any Sunday, or on Christmas in particular? I’ll address this question in part 2 of this series.