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: