I was reminded this past weekend of just how difficult it can be to let Christmas truly be a Christian observance. We spend the season fighting against the hustle and bustle of a commercialized rhythm that can leave any church in the dust.
We did 4 worship services over the course of the weekend (3 on Christmas Eve and 1 on Christmas Day). I figure the vast majority of churches probably followed a similar pattern. It wasn’t until I read an article via the Patheos blog that I even realized just how many were not planning to hold worship on Sunday, December 25, at all. In fact, around 10% of Protestant pastors polled by LifeWay said they did not plan to hold worship on Christmas Day. Why? Well, many churches cite the need for the staff and ministers to have a day to spend with their families. One church’s website I found (and won’t disclose) even said that “Christmas is a day to love and appreciate family, we will not have worship on Christmas Day so that families can do just that.” Very interesting.
I hear the tension that exists for pastors who try to balance their family life with their vocation of ministry. I now know first-hand just how much work goes into Christmas Eve services so I get the fact that many would rather hold the very best services throughout Christmas Eve and then take the next day (Sunday) off. It’s hard when much of your logistical work is done by volunteers who have conflicts on a holiday weekend. It’s hard when you consider the paid staff who would like a day off as well. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.
But let’s at least be honest that underneath the family needs on Christmas Day, we’re also canceling church because we think no one will attend. The truth is, if we were guaranteed the same crowds on Christmas Day that we see on Christmas Eve, we wouldn’t consider canceling worship even if you paid us. So yes, there are family needs at play here. But there’s also a marketing mentality that informs us to believe that low crowds don’t merit our best efforts so maybe it’s more efficient to close up shop instead.
So in that spirit, I wonder what sort of message a mass canceling worship sends to those outside of the church?
The author for the atheism section of about.com makes the ironic connection in his article titled, “Christmas: So Christian that Churches Close for Christmas Day.” It is a bit ironic that we spend so much time preserving some sense of religious observance throughout the season just to say that we’ll close on Christmas Day itself in favor of “quality time with families.”
Rather than trying to make the point that short of natural disaster or weather that makes it unsafe for travel you shouldn’t cancel worship–period, I want tease out this idea of family. What constitutes our sense of family? And how is that sense informed by our identities as Christians?
The United Methodist Church’s Book of Worship contains the wording of the Baptismal Liturgy we practice in the life of the church. In it, there are some interesting ways this idea of family is reoriented in light of one’s baptism:
“Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church…we are given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.” [BOW p.87]
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God…” [BOW p. 89]
“Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as member(s) of the family of Christ” [BOW p. 92]
You see, while canceling worship might be more convenient for pastors in our observance of family time, we are, in fact, neglecting the family time of the community of faith. Limiting family to one’s immediate family at Christmas is not Christian at all. We have to be honest about that fact. As members of the baptized community of faith we have to hold fast to the idea that for us, “family” has been expanded to touch the far-reaches of the church universal.
So is an hour on Christmas Day really a sacrifice when it comes to spending quality time with our family in light of our baptismal identity? I guess that’s a question pastors, members, and churches should ask themselves. But don’t worry, I hear 2016 will give us another opportunity to respond to such a challenge.
Have you ever noticed how much of the Christmas season is defined by the feeling of being rushed? We’ve coined the term “christmas rush” to describe the pace of the season. It all seems to be a rush; a race to get somewhere as fast as we can. The sad part is, when we declare it to be Christmas before the actual day gets here, it makes December 25th sort of a let down. By the time it comes, we’re already celebrated out and ready for the songs, decorations and festivities to be over and done with. It’s a bit ironic, but that’s reality for most of us.
I want to admit that I’m traditionally more of a “Christmas rusher” during this season than I like. But this year it’s a bit different. Advent has taken on a new meaning for me–it’s been brought closer to home than I’ve ever experienced before and I now have a new appreciation for the season. You see, my wife and I are 7 months into the pregnancy of our very first child! This event, even in its lead-up, has begun to reshape me as a person. And it’s offered me a chance to celebrate Advent, the season of expectant waiting, in a way that I never thought was possible.
Advent Means Waiting and Mystery
Nine months can feel like an eternity sometimes. Sure, there are days when it seems like you blink and you’re 7 months in. But there are also days when you think that special day will never come. Advent is a season marked by waiting. It’s a season that calls for us to stop what we’re doing and wait for something new and life-changing. The beauty of it is, we can’t rush the day of birth here anymore than we can rush Christmas Day along. It will get here in due time–in God’s time.
My wife and I are opting to be surprised on the gender of our baby. So this only amplifies the season of waiting because this “thing” she’s carrying around is wrapped in a deep mystery. God only knows the “innermost parts” of what’s being “knit together” in the womb of my wife (Psalm 139:13 CEB). The journey of faith, like the journey of Advent and the journey of childbirth, is wrapped in a deep mystery. We have to resist the temptation of buying all of the commodified ways of gaining certainty in our journeys. Faith is rooted in a trust that grows in the rich soil of mystery.
[Note: I know there are those who will advocate very passionately that finding out the gender of the baby in advance never spoiled a surprise and was a great experience. But just go with me on this for the sake of the analogy]
Advent Means Expectation and Journey
Advent is a season marked by journey and expectation. In a similar way, childbirth is a season marked by journey and expectation. As each doctor’s visit comes and goes we complete legs of the journey. We can go online and see progress of our pregnancy through pictures of what our baby should look like in size and shape. All of this is part of a journey that will culminate in a miracle.
But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves: childbirth (like the Advent journey to Bethlehem) comes with many risks and dangers. I always thought life was precious but I have a new appreciation for that idea. Anything could go wrong at any moment. That’s why the journey of childbirth is a risky one. And when a child is born, it is nothing short of a gift of grace–a miracle that words cannot contain. We no more control this gift than we do the mystery of life itself. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, “we have to recover our ability to pray to God, and to imagine what it might mean to be Christian in a world we do not control” (Hannah’s Child p. 237) Advent and childbirth are journeys that help us do just that.
Advent Means Complexity in Life
The great complexity about our faith is that it’s often a lot bigger than we acknowledge it to be. Too often we treat faith as a simplistic rendering of the world. The church becomes a club of persons gathered who believe like me and subscribe to the same brand of spirituality that I do. In this climate, Advent becomes a quaint observance of lighting candles in between declaring the Christ child to already be here through the carols we sing and the sermons we offer about peace and love in the hustle and bustle of the shopping season.
If Advent is to truly be characteristic of who we are called to be as Christians, then it has to become a season that celebrates the complexities of the unknown. We mark this season by acknowledging that we don’t have all of the answers for the journey ahead. We celebrate the season by naming the darkness that is present in life, those seasons where answers aren’t available, and we look to the light of God that comes as a gift to our darkness. And in doing so, we truly celebrate and appreciate the gift of the newborn baby found in the manger.
Part of the excitement of being expecting parents is learning to embrace the complexity of anticipating life’s inevitable tectonic shift that comes with a new baby. It means learning to live in the “in-between” time–the promise has been made and the journey has begun but it’s not yet fulfilled. And it also means being okay with not knowing all of the ways you’ll parent a new baby, prepare for organization, or even which brand of diapers you’ll use. There’s time for all of that and it’s okay to not know every detail before God’s time has arrived.
Waiting Beyond Advent
I’m especially reminded that there are those in my life and in this world who wait for light amid their darkness beyond Christmas Day. Life doesn’t get fixed in neat little package wrapped in a nice bow. Waiting can seem like an eternity and darkness can seem to snuff out any life that’s left. We will still be waiting for our baby to arrive once Christmas has passed. And I’m keenly aware that the season of waiting and watching doesn’t end for everyone.
This is why we should take time out of our celebrations this weekend to pray for someone who is hurting this season. It’s easy to become consumed with our own celebrations and journeys that end, but there are those who continue to journey, often silently, through hard times. Call someone who’s hurting this weekend and tell them you’re thinking about them. Write someone a note or send them an e-mail telling them that they’re on your heart this weekend. Don’t let the end of your journey consume every bit of your time and energy.
The waiting and watching of Advent makes for a very complex season. The doctors visits, childcare books, instructions for putting a crib together, gift registries, etc. all make for childbirth to be a season of complexities as well. But the joy of both comes in the fact that because when God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, born as an innocent baby and laid in a dirty manger, we can learn how to recognize how extraordinary the ordinary is. Being Christian means being baptized into citizenship in a new age. This means the everyday events of our life–celebrating the Advent liturgy at church or welcoming a new baby into the world– are not only possible, but they’re pretty extraordinary!
Standing next to my pastor,holding the wine,I have this thought:“I do not belong here.”The clay cup is heavyand cool in my hands.The wine is darkand brooding.Declaring to the gentlystooped woman standing before me:“The blood of Christ, shed for you,”I feel a sense of loss.When she whispers “amen,”I hear my doubts on her lips.Handing the cup back,she smiles, but not at me.And I realize that she has receivedsomething that was never mineto give.I turn to the next person in line,and the next and the next,blinking back tears,feeling holyand undeserving;knowing,with each “amen,”that both are true.
A prayer of confession and assurance of pardon for the season of Advent
Prayer of Confession
God of the Messiah, you have saved us, yet we adamantly sin. We make the holydays about stuff and not about sacredness. We fret about the wrongs things. We allow dysfunction to dominate instead of the divine. You fill us with Christ, but we act empty.
For the sake of Emmanuel, forgive us. Prepare us for the comings. Amen.
Words of Assurance
Good Christian friends, rejoice! Christ was born to save! God forgives you every sin. What a present!
This prayer comes from a service written for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Lectionary Year B found here
Christmas has a special way of really bringing out both the best and worst in many of us. I was reading an article the other day about how we can “save Christmas” by demanding that retail stores drop their conventional, “Happy holidays” line for the more religious, “Merry Christmas.” And it made me think of one particular experience I had that has just stuck with me.
I vividly remember one particular day of the Christmas season a few years ago when I was trying to finish my shopping. I was at a local retail store in the town I was living in at the time and I was behind a man who seemed to be growing more and more impatient the longer we stood in the line. I figured it was merely a symptom of the typical holiday anxiety — long lines mean blood pressure elevations for many of us. But he surprised me when he finally got his turn to check out in the line and decided to speak up to the frazzled sales associate.
“Ma’am, please do me a favor and save your ‘Happy holidays’ line. I’m a Christian and I’d appreciate it if you told me ‘Merry Christmas.’ I just hate how you stores try to take Christ out of Christmas.”
There I was, with my own front-row seat to this exchange. And actually I thought the man made a lot of sense, really. Who did these stores think they were reducing the true meaning of Christmas down to a bland, innocuous notion of “Happy holidays?”
As the man left, I quietly agreed with him and even felt very justified in my seasonal discontent. I left the store that day wondering if I could help start a revolution to take Christmas back from department stores who would dare to remove Christ from the holiday. I buzzed out of that store, bags in hand, ready to take over the world and rectify this injustice.
It was a cold day and snow flurries had begun to fall. The traffic was slow and I was enjoying the Christmas music playing in my warm car. As I was exiting the parking lot, I was so excited about this revolutionary idea that I almost missed noticing a man who was standing at the entrance of the shopping complex. Since the traffic was slow I was able to get a good look at what he was doing. He was a disheveled man who looked like he hadn’t seen the right side of soap and water for some days. He was staring blankly at the traffic leaving the shopping complex holding a simple, handmade sign that read: “Will work hard for food. Very hungry.”
Yes, even at Christmas people find themselves hungry and hurting and hopeless. It’s such a wonderful season for so many of us that it can be easy to forget this. That day I was excited about a mission to “put Christ back into Christmas.” It never occurred to me that I might be driving right past the best opportunity to do just that.
[This article ran in the Macon Telegraph on Saturday, Dec. 10]
Here is a prayer from St. Teresa of Avila. Read more about her here
Thou knowest better than I myself
that I am growing older and will someday be old.
Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking
I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.
Release me from craving to
straighten out everybody’s affairs.
Make me thoughtful but not moody;
helpful but not bossy.
With my vast store of wisdom,
it seems a pity not to use it all;
but Thou knowest, Lord,
that I want a few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details;
give me wings to get to the point.
Seal my lips on my aches and pains;
they are increasing, and love of rehearsing them
is becoming sweeter as the years go by.
I dare not ask for improved memory,
but for a growing humility and a lessening cock-sureness
when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others.
Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet, for a sour old person
is one of the crowning works of the devil.
Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places
and talents in unexpected people;
and give, O Lord, the grace to tell them so.
Relevance. It’s a word you seem to hear more and more in church circles and leadership training seminars. The mainline church has been in decline for over 50 years and, many argue this can at least be partially attributed to the fact that, by and large, the Church can’t seem to remain relevant in an ever-changing world. If we can’t speak the language of a changing world, there’s no way we can ever hope to have a viable presence in said world.
It’s no secret that one of the biggest signs of this lack of relevance shows up in the lack of persons between ages of 25-35 on Sunday mornings. I’ve heard many make passionate and well-founded arguments that “you have to understand young people if you want them to come to church.” “This generation will take or leave the church.” “They aren’t like their parents or grandparents.”
Now besides the fact that such statements are vastly over-simplified and do not reflect any sort of consensus among younger adults (or their parents and grandparents for that matter), there is something to be said for the fact that a gulf between the church and society in America at large that is becoming more and more evident with every study of worship attendance and membership that comes out.
As a member of this elusive demographic, I would like to explore this idea of relevance in the hopes that I might at least spark a hearty discussion in the process.
Generation of Target Consumers
Somewhere around the mid-1970s or so a revolution in advertising happened. You see, ads are always run at particular times of day on particular channels during particular shows in order to target particular people. Around the early to mid 70s toy companies decided to shake things up by advertising straight to children. Whereas they always centered ads around parents and tried to attract parents into buying particular toys, these companies took to Saturday morning television (prime-time for kids) and centered their ads right at kids so they could then beg their parents for whatever the latest and greatest toy was that morning.
What does this mean for the church’s quest for relevance?
For starters, if you’re centering this quest for relevance around that elusive 25-35 year old demographic, you need to understand that we’re the first generation ever that will be advertised to from the cradle to the grave. Therefore, any quest for relevance that is anchored in advertising will very easily become white noise to a young adult. The church doesn’t need to try to be “hip” or “cool” in order to attract young adults. Frankly, the church isn’t very good at that stuff.
Secondly, the style of worship your church offers has much less of an “attractional” element than you might think. So many churches think, “if we just offered that rock band style of music young folks will knock our doors down.” That isn’t true. Very rarely do young post-grads ever search out the nearest church with the biggest rock concert to offer on a Sunday morning. Young adults will, however, ask a trusted friend or a co-worker about the church they attend. And this church could come in any shape, size or style–just so long as someone they know and trust is there to welcome them.
Relevance or Authenticity?
You see, if the church really wants to speak to younger adults, rather than striving to be “relevant” why don’t we just be authentic. Honesty goes a lot further than folks give it credit. If you don’t believe me just look at a big chunk of Ron Paul’s supporters–younger adults longing for a politician who will be honest and not speak from talking points. And the church ought to try that for once–speaking from the heart instead of a script of doctrinal talking points.
If you want your church to be relevant, then it won’t happen with slick ads or flashing lights and loud music. It won’t happen only in the form of a preacher who wears t-shirts and blue jeans and who sits on a stool to preach on Sunday mornings. It won’t be a part of any sort of manufactured and packaged effort that hopes to make your church somehow “attractional.” You don’t boast about “being real” either–you just are real and don’t make a big deal about it.
If you really want to be relevant or real for younger adults, then why don’t you do some truth telling about yourself and the world we live in? The world is a complicated and messy place and, frankly, it can be hard to stomach simplistic theology that tries to make God and the meaning of life into a 2+2=4 formula.
Why don’t you ask us what our passions are? Why don’t you sit down and listen to our dreams? Our fears? Rather than imposing some set of assumed “needs” you see younger adults having, why don’t you just ask? Remember that when, as a church, you attempt to “meet the needs” of younger adults without listening and learning you often just project your own needs upon folks you don’t even know. Just know that when you do listen and learn and love you have to be ready for some truth-telling in return. If the offer of Christ is to come in the form of love, then it can’t have an agenda. These young adults may not come to your church right away. They may drift in and out depending on where life is taking them–and that’s okay.
If you want to speak to the issue young adults face, be relevant if you will, then try being bold about who you are as a church. Talk about issues that matter beyond the walls of your church and leave room for questioning. Let us bring our black, hispanic or even gay friends to church because, after all, many of us simply see them as friends who don’t need a special pass to be allowed into worship. Talk about relationships in ways that aren’t trite and simplistic. Our lives are complicated and we need help navigating the rough waters of relationships without having a judgmental wave try to knock us off course. In all of this, don’t try to be everything to everyone and just try being authentically who you are.
When you do worship, dare to sing big beautiful songs about God and the world and not the pithy little anthems that only tells the story of my faith or my salvation. There’s a big world out there and we need the language of faith that recognizes we aren’t actually the center of that world. These songs can be sung with both pipe organs and electric guitars. Heck, many of us might even like it if you occasionally mixed a good banjo in with your guitars. And when you finish singing these big beautiful songs, dare to send us out into the world like we might actually be able to make a difference. God’s grace is big and mysterious but we need to know that it’s with us nonetheless, even when we don’t totally understand it. Oh and please, please, please do the sacraments often. Don’t rid the church space of mystery and iconography. I’ll let you in on a little secret–mystery is actually one of the biggest reasons many younger adults attend church (even if it is sporadically).
As a wise frog once taught us, “it’s not easy being green”–but it is beautiful. Rather than wasting a lot of time and energy trying to be relevant, why not just dare to be the church. And know that you’ll have to ease some of us along and teach us a new language. But if you’re faithful to that language, not sacrificing it for the sake of “relevance” or growth, you might be surprised who shows us ready to hear an actual word from the Lord on a Sunday. They might even decide to put that word into action the other six days of the week as well. If you don’t believe me, just go down to your local coffee shop or happy hour bar and just ask a young adult yourself. Tell the truth, be authentic, and don’t worry if it makes you look a little green. “Authentically green” is a good color for the church.