Starting around six months ago, there began a flurry of exchanges among worship leader Facebook groups, email groups, and online forums. “What is your church doing for Christmas Day this year?” The subtext of the dialogue was largely, “Are you going to have a worship service or not?” There was at least a small amount of panic about how this could all possibly work. People aren’t used to going to church on Christmas Day. But many are very used to their tried and true family traditions. (“We always open presents on Christmas morning.” “We always have Christmas brunch together with the family.”) Interestingly, worship leaders like me feel a little bit of anxiety precisely because many people hold their family Christmas traditions as more sacred than corporate worship. We might even actually use the word “sacred” (!). The dilemma that 2011 has created brings up a very important issue about where corporate worship falls on the totem pole of our Christmas tradition hierarchy. It’s very uncomfortable to talk about.
My concern here is not to lay on guilt. If we truly are a follower of Jesus, we’ve been set free from guilt by the meritorious work of His life and the cleansing blood of His death. Because this good news has settled the guilt-issue, we’re freed up now to ask questions that help us live out our response to the gospel, in gratitude.
That said, my main question about this issue is, Why is it not even a consideration for some people and families that they should flex their usual Christmas traditions around their local community’s corporate worship? What is it in our doxological DNA (the makeup of our theology of worship) that is lacking such that some of us might not even pause to question whether our setting aside of corporate worship is the right decision?
We might defend our actions by articulating a theology of the family. We might say, “We read all throughout the Bible about how much God cares about the family…from Abraham, to Moses, and on through to the New Testament.” Some might even talk about how events such as the family celebration of the Passover meal give us precedent to have “family worship” on high holy days such as Christmas. These arguments are okay. They remain unconvincing to me, personally, because I believe that the Bible drives us to embrace a new theology and concept of what a family is, informed largely by the theology and concept of what the church is. This episode, in particular, convicts me (Matthew 12:46-50, NIV):
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Is this just another example of hyperbole, similar to eye-gouging and hand-dismemberment? Perhaps. Even so, Jesus here makes a profound statement about the community of faith as it has been culminated in the new covenant. This doesn’t so much diminish the importance of the nuclear, blood-lined family as much as it elevates the new community around Christ to a surprisingly high place. Think of how shocking Jesus’ statement would be back then in a culture that is even much more family-oriented than ours is today.
As flimsy as the theology-of-family-argument seems to me, my concern is that many do not even approach this depth of thinking. The issue is probably that people approach neglecting corporate worship with little to no thought at all.
We need to inject discussions like these with heavy doses of why corporate worship is important, life-giving, spiritually formative, and vital to our soul’s nutrition.1 This approach emphasizes the positive aspects. We also need to inject discussions like these with the sobering statements of Scripture, like Hebrews 10:24-25 (NIV):
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
This statement is not merely a gentle suggestion. Any student of the book of Hebrews will tell you that the epistle can be structured around five “warning passages.” The above-quoted passage stands just prior to the fourth warning (Hebrews 10:26-39). When you read all these warnings, you get the sense that the Author is not fooling around.
The net effect of all these considerations (admittedly barely touched on) is that corporate worship takes precedence over family Christmas traditions. Family traditions are not at all bad things, but there come moments in life where we are forced to bend our allegiance away from a good thing to a better thing…an ultimate thing. Corporate worship is one of those ultimate things in life.
Perhaps you’ll have to shuffle the family traditions to new times of day. As hard as this might be (it’s very likely that some people in your families don’t share your faith or values and would be put out by your “hyper-religiosity”), imagine the impact this could have on your family, if done in the right spirit. If you have kids, it’s an opportunity to teach them the joy of sacrificial obedience in response to Christ’s sacrificial obedience of His Father’s will that He should take up the cross. It’s an opportunity, in a radical way, to make crystal clear that Christmas is principally about Jesus.
And, if Christmas truly is about Jesus, what better place to be on Christmas day than with the people of God, gathered around the throne of the Father (Revelation 4) and the Lamb (Revelation 5) in the power and presence of the Spirit, accompanied by the heavenly hosts, the very ones present at Christ’s birth, singing, “Glory to God in the highest!”
1 For other posts which tease out the theology, uniqueness, and importance of corporate worship, see:
Zac, I was really challenged by your post, but I have a couple of questions regarding it. I was hoping to hear your response. They are mostly situational questions, and I just really want to get to the heart of the principle that your post teases at.
1. By your logic shouldn't we have a service on Christmas morning every year? Not just on Christmas eve?
2. What if a person is sick, is that a reason to miss corporate worship?
3. Are there acceptable reasons to miss church? If so, what might they be?
I hope these do not come off as angry, because that is not my intention in the slightest. I agree with your post, but I have some lingering doubts about it. Perhaps I just don't want to hear what you have to say and if that is the case then your point is proven. Maybe my family's traditions are an idol that I need to handover to Jesus. But at the same time I can't help but wonder about those questions I have asked.
I hope this finds you doing well and in good spirits. We miss CCPC and can't wait to come back. Thanks for the challenging post!!
Of course, if we were in a truly liturgical or high-church tradition this would be moot. They worship on Christmas day no matter what day of the week it falls on. I believe the Lutheran church down the street from us worships on Christmas day like this. I recall a few years ago on a Friday they still had Christmas day worship.
1. In my opinion, not necessarily. The Bible points to one day a week…the Sabbath, once Saturday, but in the new covenant moved to Sunday because of the resurrection. On Christmas, we should celebrate Jesus, no matter what the day. But on Sunday, we should celebrate Jesus in a corporate, gathered manner, whether or not it is a special day. My argument is more for the sacredness of Sunday with respect to corporate worship…rather than Christmas, in particular. Still I think it's a great practice to worship as a church on Christmas day, even though our church doesn't practice it.
2. Yes it is a reason. The sick, infirm, and home-bound, I believe do get "special treatment." This is why, though I'm not okay with things like "private communion," in-home communion to the home-bound is something I practice.
3. I know what you're asking; I just happen to think it's the wrong starting place. It's like asking, "Are there acceptable reasons to not eat regularly?" Spiritually speaking, if worship truly is one of God's main prescriptions for our spiritual nourishment, this alone is a compelling reason to be a part of the gathered, worshiping body. But, I'm pretty open as to how that looks–from cathedrals to living room couches, as long as you have a definable ekklesia, you can worship anywhere!
Still, yes, I think there are exceptions. I hesitate to try to make a list, because as soon as I do, there will inevitably be a scenario I will miss. Furthermore, I don't know that there's reason TO make a list. I'd rather stick on the positive side and keep advocating for the merits and benefits of worshiping regularly with the local body.
I'll add one more thing to this. It's a great little paradigm that applies to so many things we're tempted to make into "law." Lest we slip into it here, I think this is a worthy thing to think about, via Justin Taylor and Douglas Wilson (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/12/14/two-ways-to-look-at-christian-liberty):
"The way others are to view your liberty is not the same way that you should view your liberty.
Other Christians should let you do what you want unless the Bible forbids it. That’s how we guard against legalism.
But you should use your liberty differently—you should be asking what the reasons are for doing it, and not what the reasons are for prohibiting it."
Thanks for so carefully teasing this out zac. Great thoughts. I hope that your Christmas Morning is full of great rejoicing!
Trusting you are having a Christ conscious Christmas that will extend into next year! "Providentially', stumbled across your blog here. Curious about your definition of "Private communion". It is something we do periodically, but you could argue, "You are a clergy person"..I have no problem in expending the 'right' to the priesthood of all believers. I don't think such occasions should be a substitute for wider gatherings, rather, contextual expressions of koinonea.
Jerry, thanks for the question. "Private Communion" is an area of big difference between a lot of thoughtful folks. For my understanding of Scripture, because the Lord's Table is something intended to be practiced in community among the gathered local assembly of Christ's Body, it is natural that where it occurs is in the public gathering of God's people. Any other venue doesn't seem to be the best or most ultimate fulfillment of what this practice is supposed to be. I think there are great and important exceptions, governed by the "rule of love"…home-bound, shut-in folks, or hospitalized folks, to name some specifics. Personally, I wouldn't feel comfortable celebrating Communion at a wedding, unless the wedding was in a context of the whole body of believers gathered for worship and we were all partaking together. Hope that helps!