On Christmas and Church

Maybe Trump’s election caused more of a mental disturbance than I thought. The “Safe Spaces,” therapy dogs, free counseling sessions, and petitions to have the Electorate change their votes were certainly not what I was expecting following November 8. (Just to be clear, I am not endorsing nor condemning the President Elect). But now, we are having to have discussions around whether or not to gather for worship on a major Church holiday?

For those who may not have heard the buzz flying around the interwebs this season, there is a conversation/debate going around Christian circles over whether or not to have an organized gathering on Christmas. Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, and thus many churches are deciding not to have a service.

I simply don’t get it. Why is this even a conversation? Have we run out of things to discuss?

In all seriousness, let’s have a chat about this. Christmas is less than 2 weeks away, and although this post is, no doubt, late to the party, I still think there is a lot we need to talk about when it comes to this particular topic.

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I will be blunt: I think it’s a poor choice to cancel church on Christmas. I will try to be brief, so here is my reasoning:

1. Most Americans are closet Gnostics, already. American Christianity struggles with understanding the value of creation and the material world (Thank you, Plato). The Incarnation is an incredible opportunity to teach this – and a necessary one. God becoming flesh – literally occupying physical space – carries profound density that could take a lifetime to explore, but how often do we wrestle with this idea? I cannot think of the last time I was at a Christmas service where the Crucifixion/Resurrection was not the climax of the Christmas Story. If we cannot appreciate the significance of the Incarnation without burying it under the Cross, then we have a problem.

By cancelling church on Christmas, we communicate a theological message about the value of the Incarnation whether we mean to or not.

2. It’s not just another Sunday. I don’t know why many pastor’s I’ve heard from use this as a justification for cancelling services: it’s just another Sunday. Truth is, it’s a major Christian holiday. What better place to celebrate a Church holiday than on a Sunday? We should be excited that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year – the day that the Lord meets with his Holy Church Universal! Think of what it would be like to cancel church during Easter because it falls on a Sunday.

I know the reasoning behind this, which brings me to the third point:

3. Family is not more important than Church. The number 1 reason I have heard for cancelling church revolves around: “This is time I can spend with my family. I’m not going to neglect my family for the sake of a service.” Here’s the problem I have with this thinking: it assumes a false dichotomy. Family is not at odds with Church. Family time and Church time are not mutually exclusive. See one of my latest posts for more on this subject.

I understand that family is important, but we are treading dangerously close to making family an idol by assuming that families are somehow being damaged by worshipping together. If we can’t worship with our families for an hour on a Sunday morning without suffering damage, then I suggest counseling rather than sleeping-in and opening presents. Are we such bad family members that we can’t take advantage of the other 364 days in the year and spend adequate time with our family? We only have this one day to show our families what they mean to us?

Now, I get the pressures of being a pastor, and that it isn’t “just an hour” you have to put into a Sunday morning service. But here’s the awesome thing: You’re the pastor! You don’t have to plan an hour-long service. Personally, I’m planning a simple Christmas morning service that, at most, will go for about 45 minutes with Scripture readings and no worship team. Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean we have to go full-throttle on the choirs, songs, videos, and all that jazz. But, gathering as the community of faith is an important thing to do.

4. It’s one Sunday out of the year. I understand we want to spend time with our families. Again, I am not against family time because I don’t believe the lie that Church time and Family time can’t go together. But, if we truly need that time together as a family on a Sunday morning and can’t survive without it, then why not take off the following Sunday? Or the Sunday before? Christmas is not just “another Sunday.” Have we truly forgotten what a holiday is? What’s more – it’s one of the most significant holidays of the year! (and I’m counting the Church calendar, not just the Hallmark calendar)

Another major argument I’ve heard for churches closing is that “it’s only one Sunday out of the year. No big deal!” My point exactly: it’s only one Sunday out of the year. Why not make a small sacrifice and worship?

5. Mixed messages. I will never be able to count how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” If that is true, then why can’t we acknowledge that on Christmas, of all days, by actually observing that message?

By preaching, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and turning around and saying, “No church on Christmas,” we mark ourselves as hypocrites and preach a different message. More often than not, as far as I’ve heard/read, the message is: “Family is the Reason for the Season.” As Christians, we are called to be set apart; to follow a different way of living. Where Secular Culture decides to treat Christmas as a time to worship family, we should be setting an example by taking that time to worship Christ.

I have heard it argued that canceling church is not a problem because church is not the same as Jesus. I get it. But we have to be careful in that thinking because Christ himself saw the regular gathering of the community as important. And, he also established the Church and set her up to be his bride. Perhaps this is over-spiritualizing things a tad, but I would argue that by gathering consistently, especially on holidays, we honor Christ’s bride and thereby Christ himself.

6. Christmas without a cost. I don’t know, maybe this is a cheap shot, but I have a sneaking suspicion that one major reason for our lackluster approach to Christmas this year is that we want to treat ourselves. We don’t want to have to work. We want some time off. We want a holiday that doesn’t cost us anything (well, anything beyond the $500 we spent on Christmas presents). Our time spent shopping was enough time away from home.

But Christmas is about giving, not getting. Am I seriously having to say this to a mostly adult audience? So why not give some ti—…….       you know what… I think I’ve made my point by now.

 

There are other reasons for why I will have church on Christmas morning, but these are the highlights. And, honestly, I still can’t believe we have to have this conversation. It’s not like this is the first time Christmas fell on a Sunday. It happened 5 years ago, and I’m pretty sure we were all good with it back then. So what happened?

And, frankly, if we can’t take an hour or two out of one day of the year to worship as a family because “that’s the only time we have together,” then maybe we’re too busy with filling our lives with things that don’t matter.

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On Family and Church (Part 2)

I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!

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So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.

I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.

Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.

Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.

Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.

Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith[1]. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.

One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service[2] is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:

For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.

There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.

Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?

I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.

“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)

 

[1]. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
[2]. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!

 

On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.