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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Christmas and the Way to Do Church

I appreciated Dignan’s thoughts and the different viewpoints expressed in the Comments section of Part I and Part II of “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin Laid an Egg.” Just a few thoughts…

I am going to disagree with my friend Dignan when he says that “there is no right way to do church.” Well, sorta disagree. There is, there must be, a right way to do church. The problem, of course, and I think Dignan would agree with this, is that we see through a glass dimly. We live in a fractured, fallen world where fallenness permeates every level of our being, individual and social. This is compounded by the fact that we live in different places amidst different societies, cultural contexts, religious backgrounds, political circumstances, and population densities. This should add a level of humility to our discussion on this issue. The best we can do—and I think many Christians from liturgical to megachurch backgrounds are attempting this—is strive to faithfully discern the wisdom of Scripture and the acquired wisdom of our churches and traditions as we think through living out our faith in a fallen, diverse world.

There are two central issues in this debate: Christmas and Sunday. Liturgically minded Christians from the Catholic, Orthodox and some Protestant traditions have placed great emphasis on the church calendar. From this perspective, not attending church on Christmas (originally the Christ Mass) would be unthinkable. The day itself would matter. For Protestants more skeptical of the church calendar, there still would have been a great emphasis on the Sabbath. Scripture and the history of the early church would suggest to them that this was on Sunday, symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus. Both viewpoints would see the day as a time when God comes to commune with his gathered people. This is what the Incarnation is all about.

Which is why the cancellation of Christmas services is so striking. It seems to go against these incarnational sensibilities. Christmas is about the Incarnation, the physical, real presence of God with us. “Us” being his people. Hence the extraordinary irony when “The People’s Church” in Franklin, Tennessee sends out a Christmas DVD containing their pastor’s message and choir’s concert for families to enjoy at home, instead of gathering together to experience the Incarnation as the body of Christ. And speaking of families, what about those who are alone, have physical limitations, or have family situations that make the prospect of communing with fellow believers seem like an oasis?

Lastly, I wanted to mention the explanations given by those associated with churches canceling services. From the articles and discussions I’ve seen: time with families, "a more personal experience," "lifestyle friendly," "people who are just very, very busy," or because studies show that Christmas Eve services are "the least threatening." It would be difficult to find biblical warrant or precedent in the history of the Church for these explanations. Many appear as well-intended capitulations to the idols of our age: family (yes, family as an idol), work, busyness, the concept of lifestyle, excessive individuality. You know, ones we all struggle with. I don’t want to cast stones, as I have plenty of planks in my eye (to mix Jesus’ metaphors). But there is merit in resisting the authority of personal preference, in exploring the Scriptures and wisdom of the ages, and in attempting to find the “right way to do church,” knowing that we will fall short. Grace to all in that endeavor.

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