For centuries, Christians have celebrated the birth of Jesus by coming to church to sing, pray, remember, give thanks, and recommit our lives to God. What were we thinking?
This year, with Christmas falling on Sunday, many churches have decided that the best way to celebrate the coming of Christ is to cancel worship. The primary reason given is that attendance will be sparse. When did we decide that the purpose of worship is to draw a crowd? Attendance at the first Christmas was not big, but God decided to go ahead with it.
A second reason offered is that canceling worship is in keeping with a “family friendly” approach. A pastor in Melbourne, Florida, says: “Christmas is a big family day, and we’re focused on the family. We should be able to worship the Lord in our homes, also.”
Huh? Should churches encourage members to gather with their family for brunch on Easter or go bowling on Good Friday? When did we get the idea that the primary purpose of the church is to support the family? The New Testament teaches that the church is our family. Christians put God ahead of their family. Jesus felt this so strongly that he said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters cannot be my disciple.” (This verse is not going to make it on to anybody’s Christmas card.)
What about the people without a family—the elderly, singles, lonely people, those a long distance from family? Isn’t it possible that those who are alone at Christmas need to worship God?
The real issue is not that people will skip church on Sunday. The problem is that churches are failing to tell the truth about Christmas. It is hard to read the Gospels and see how our modern Christmas celebration could have begun with the ancient story. In the Bible, Christmas is not about big crowds, family gatherings, or expensive presents.
The first Christmas marks the beginning of a small, counter-cultural community that puts their trust in God’s way and none of their faith in materialism. Christmas invites us to have different standards, hopes and dreams than those who do not know the meaning of Christ’s coming.
If we believe that Jesus’ birth changes the world, then we will change the way we see our world. The work of Christ’s hands will be continued in the work of our hands. We will have compassion for all people—especially those that are usually left out. Because Jesus has come, we will walk out of step with the rhythms of the world.
On Sunday morning at 11:00 at Plymouth, we will gather to sing, pray, and listen to the story. We will celebrate by remembering the first Christmas and giving ourselves again to the hope born in Bethlehem.