When Christmas Falls on Sunday, Megachurches Take the Day Off
by Laurie Goodstein
Some of the nation’s most prominent megachurches have decided not to hold worship services on the Sunday that coincides with Christmas Day, a move that is generating controversy among evangelical Christians at a time when many conservative groups are battling to “put the Christ back in Christmas.”
Megachurch leaders say that the decision is in keeping with their innovative and “family friendly” approach and that they are compensating in other ways. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., always a pacesetter among megachurches, is handing out a DVD it produced for the occasion that features a heartwarming contemporary Christmas tale.
“What we’re encouraging people to do is take that DVD and in the comfort of their living room, with friends and family, pop it into the player and hopefully hear a different and more personal and maybe more intimate Christmas message, that God is with us wherever we are,” said Cally Parkinson, communications director at Willow Creek, which draws 20,000 people on a typical Sunday.
Megachurches have long been criticized for offering “theology lite,” but some critics say that this time the churches have gone too far in the quest to make Christianity accessible to spiritual seekers.
“I see this in many ways as a capitulation to narcissism, the self-centered, me-first, I’m going to put me and my immediate family first agenda of the larger culture,” said Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. “If Christianity is an evangelistic religion, then what kind of message is this sending to the larger culture – that worship is an optional extra?”
John D. Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College, asked: “What about the people in society without strong family connections? The elderly, single people a long distance from family, or people who are simply lonely and for whom church and prayers would be a significant part of their day?”
The uproar is not only over closing the churches on Christmas Day, because some evangelical churches large and small have done that in recent years and made Christmas Eve the big draw, without attracting much criticism.
What some consider the deeper affront is in canceling services on a Sunday, which most Christian churches consider the Lord’s Day, when communal worship is an obligation. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was in 1994. Some of these same megachurches remained open them, they say, but found attendance sparse.
Since then, the perennial culture wars over the secularization of Christmas have intensified, and this year the scuffles are especially lively. Conservative Christian groups are boycotting stores that fail to mention “Christmas” in their holiday greetings or advertising campaigns. Schools are being pressured to refer to the December vacation as “Christmas break.” Even the White House came under attack this week for sending out cards with best wishes for the “holiday season.”
When the office of Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia sent out a press release last Friday announcing plans for a “holiday tree” lighting, a half-hour later it sent out another saying, “It is in fact a Christmas tree.”
For years, it has been an open secret that many mainline Protestant churches are half empty – or worse – on Christmas Day. The churches’ emphasis has been instead on the days leading up to Christmas, with Christmas Eve attracting the most worshipers. Some of the megachurches closing on Christmas this year have increased the number of services in the days before.
But for the vast majority of the other churches, closing down on Christmas Sunday would be unthinkable.
“I can’t even imagine not observing Christmas in an Episcopal church,” said Robert Williams, a spokesman for the Episcopal Church USA. “The only thing I could think of would be a summer chapel that might be shut down anyway.”
In many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, known for their rich liturgical traditions, Christmas Day attracts far more worshippers than an average Sunday. Grown children return with their parents to the parishes they belonged to when they were young.
“From the Catholic perspective, the whole purpose of the holiday is to celebrate it as a religious holiday in the company of the community, and for Catholics that means at Mass,” said Robert J. Miller, director of research and planning in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Canceling worship on Christmas Day appears to be predominantly a megachurch phenomenon, sociologists of religion say.
“This attachment to a particular day on the calendar is just not something that megachurches have been known for,” Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, said. “They’re known for being flexible and creative, and not for taking these traditions, seasons, dates and symbols really seriously.”
At least eight megachurches have canceled their Christmas services. They are only a fraction of the 1,200 or so in the country, but they are influential, Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, said. The trend has been reported in The Lexington Herald-Leader and in other newspapers.
Besides Willow Creek, the churches include Southland Christian Church in Nicholasville, Ky.; Crossroads Christian Church in Lexington, Ky.; Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Tex.; Redemption World Outreach Center in Greenville, S.C.; North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.; First Baptist in Atlanta; and Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.
Many other megachurches that are staying open on Christmas Day are holding fewer services than they would on a typical Sunday. New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, in Lithonia, Ga., with about 25,000 members, will hold only one of its usual two services this Christmas Day.
Bishop Eddie L. Long, the senior pastor, said that his church was “always promoting family,” and that many members of his congregation were transplants to the Atlanta area who traveled far away to be with their families on Christmas.
“We’re encouraging our members to do a family worship,” Bishop Long said. “They could wake up and read Scripture and pray and sometimes sing a song, and go over the true meaning of what Christmas is, before opening up their gifts. It keeps them together and not running off to get dressed up to go off to church.”
His church offers streaming video of the Sunday service, and Bishop Long said he expected a spike in viewers this Christmas. “They have an option if they want to join their family around the computer and worship with us,” he said.
Staff members at Willow Creek said they had had few complaints from members about the church closing on Christmas. Said the Rev. Mark Ashton, whose title is pastor of spiritual discovery: “We’ve always been a church that’s been on the edge of innovation. We’ve been willing to try and experiment, so this is another one of those innovations.”
The real question is not why churches are skipping Christmas, but why individual Christians are skipping church on the second holiest day on the Christian calendar next to Easter, said Mr. Thumma.
“I think these critics who decry the megachurches should really be aiming their barbs at individual Christians who are willing to stay at home around the Christmas tree instead of coming and giving at least part of that day to the meaning of the holiday,” he said. “They should be facing up to the reality of that.”