"There is an old carol that has a line that goes, 'And all the bells on earth shall ring, on Christmas Day, on Christmas Day, and all the bells on earth shall ring, on Christmas Day in the morning.' If churches still bother with bells anymore, they won't be ringing on Christmas Day in the morning this year. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and presents under the tree are issuing a louder call." So says Ingrid Schlueter as she laments the nation-wide news reports concerning churches closing on Christmas this year. For example, Fox News reports, "This Christmas, no prayers will be said in several mega-churches around the country. Even though the holiday falls this year on a Sunday, when churches normally host thousands for worship, pastors are canceling services, anticipating low attendance on what they call a family day." The famous Willow Creek Church in South Barrington, Illinois is leading the way in this move saying they wanted people to be able to "be with their families on Christmas Day" rather than be in church.
Schlueter asks, "What does it say about the followers of Jesus Christ that the day on which his incarnation is remembered, there is no desire to gather corporately as the visible church on earth to worship at His feet? What does it say about our pastors and leaders who are more concerned about family values than emulating the example of the Magi in worshiping the long awaited Messiah? They traveled a vast distance to find the Lord of glory in his humble home. We can't be bothered to drive across town. What a searing indictment this is of those who claim to follow Christ." What an indictment indeed. This indictment raises a number of issues for the contemporary church.
First, there is the issue of the object of the Christian's true devotion: Christ. He is more to be preferred than anything. He is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the bread of life, and the living water that quenches our thirst in such a way that we will never thirst again. He satisfies completely and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore. When men prefer things over Christ, the heart of the problem is a problem with the heart.
We are not talking about law here. There is no Scripture that says we must be in church every time the door is open or that we must celebrate the birth of Christ. However, Christians go to church on the Lord's Day out of love for Christ. Indeed it is a heart issue for those who choose to celebrate a cultural holiday bound up in materialism rather than gather with God's people for worship on a day that has significant meaning in the Christian context.
What do I love more is the question we should be asking ourselves: Jesus or things? Part of the problem lies in the fact that many Christians have no concept of the all satisfying joy that is to be had in Christ. Some have not been discipled in that regard. Others, sadly, are Christians in name only. Far too many Christians see church or worship as a duty rather than a delight. Again, this view is an issue of the heart. A heart transformed by the love and grace of Christ will find greater pleasure in Him than in anything. Yet, in our self-centered, Laodicean, and consumeristic culture, when Santa Claus and Jesus Christ compete, it is Santa Claus who wins. This reality should break our hearts.
Second, there is the issue of compromise. The commitment of the church is guided by the commitment of consumers rather than godly leaders. A certain mode of thinking exists in a great number of churches today that says we should give the people what they want rather than what they need. Addressing felt-needs is the watchword of our day. Of course, felt needs is simply another way of speaking of selfish desires. Yet, we are told to survey the lost world and find out what they want in church and then provide it. Can anything be more completely contrary to the Scriptures? Lost people don't know what they need. We are to be that city set upon a hill shining forth the the light of the gospel that men might see their true need, come to Christ, and be saved.
Churches that fall into this mode of thinking are quite frankly man-centered as opposed to God-centered. The problem lies in the realty that such a commitment completely compromises the nature, mission, and work of the church. In the case before us and in a diversity of others, this mind-set leads to a bowing to secular culture rather than to the Lord of Glory. David Wells, Professor of History and Systematic Theology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary said, "This is a consumer mentality at work: Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient. I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing." In Judges 17:6, the condemnation of God rests upon the development in Israel that everyone did that which was right in his own eyes. Such is the case in the Israel of God today.
Third, there is the issue of hypocrisy in light of the newly developing "Christmas Controversy." Fox News reports, "It is almost unheard of for a Christian church to cancel services on a Sunday, and opponents of the closures are accusing these congregations of bowing to secular culture." As am I. Further, "Critics within the evangelical community, more accustomed to doing battle with department stores and public schools over keeping religion in Christmas, are stunned by the shutdown." While I think putting belligerent, public, organized economic pressure on department stores is misguided for a number of reasons, (not that I don't take a personal stance), with my fellow evangelical critics, I too am stunned by the shutdown. Schlueter noted, "It is interesting that evangelicals are angrily signing petitions and calling up Wal-Mart and Lowe's managers to demand that clerks say, 'Merry Christmas' instead of 'Happy Holidays,' but how many of them will find the doors of their own churches closed and the lights off on one of the high holy days of the Christian church year? Merry Christmas, indeed." Is not this development hypocrisy, or at the very least, spiritual schizophrenia?
Fourth, there is the issue of the message we send to a lost world. The world is watching this new trend and oddly enough, they are just as stunned as we are. Schlueter noted that the very fact that this trend is making headlines says the world has taken notice. Further, "An NBC affiliate ran a poll on its website asking readers whether they approved of this trend or not. Last time I checked it, 72 percent of readers said they thought the trend was wrong. Even the world knows something is off here." The world sees this move as compromise, as a lack of commitment to Christ, or to our claim, and no doubt as hypocritical. Surely and sadly, we are sending the message that Christ is not as important as we generally make Him out to be. Is that the message you want your church to send to a lost and dying world?
Fifth, there is the issue of replacing a focus on Christ with a focus on family. While family is certainly important, family means nothing apart from Christ. Moreover, if we vote to close the church on Sunday simply because Christmas falls on Sunday, what message do we send to our children? We in effect tell them that things are more important than Christ. We tell them that Christ is simply too inconvenient sometimes and that He is not really that important. When we focus on the presents of Christmas morning to the exclusion of the worship of our God, we echo the words of Michael Douglas from the movie "Wall Street," "Greed is good." Materialism has come home to roost and we have become idolaters.
[More Implications Tomorrow in Part Two]
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About Paul Dean
Dr. Paul Dean is a pastor, cultural commentator, and author. He serves as a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors, speaks at several conferences throughout the year, and provides training for ministers and churches on a regular basis. Paul resides in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife and three children.
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