December 9, 2005
Closed for Christmas: The Ghost of Christmas Past
The media frenzy over the decision of megachurches throughout the country to close their doors on Christmas day doesn't seem to be dying down, and numerous articles are framing the action as unprecedented. But is that accurate? Although likely unaware of it, megachurches such as Willow Creek and Mars Hill may actually be more in line with church tradition by not conducting worship services on December 25th than those who choose to keep their doors open.
Few seem to remember that America's Puritan ancestors were stridently opposed to the celebration of Christmas. They saw no biblical support for the holiday, and believed the festival was a pagan ritual masquerading as Christian. Even as late as 1855, newspapers in New York reported that Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches would be closed on Christmas Day because "they do not accept the day as a Holy One."
The Puritan distain for Christmas had such a hold on American culture that by the 1860s only 18 states officially recognized the holiday.
This brief history lesson should remind us that Christmas has not always been embraced by the church, and the decision by megachurches to not worship on December 25th may not be as unprecedented as some in the media would like us to believe. The more intriguing aspect of this story may be why megachurches are closing. So far I am unaware of any church that is closing on Christmas because of its strong Puritan convictions.
The headline on the cover of the Chicago Tribune said that Willow Creek was closing on Christmas "so members can focus on family." However, Willow spokeswoman Cally Parkinson said, "Church leaders decided that organizing services on a Christmas Sunday would not be the most effective use of staff and volunteer resources." While you've got to give them credit for a nice spin, it would appear that operational pragmatics rather than family values is what's behind the decision. Might the staff--paid staff and, more importantly, the volunteer staff--just want to celebrate Christmas at home?
Before you start writing your critical comments, consider the factors. A megachurch worship service on Christmas would require finding hundreds of volunteers willing to sacrifice their holiday to usher, perform, care for children, and direct traffic. And don't leave out the financial costs of operating a mega-facility - water, heat, electricity - it's not cheap.
As Willow's spokeswoman said, given the lower attendance expected on Christmas, it's not the most effective use of resources. Ironically, the economy-of-scale thinking that has made megachurches possible may be precisely what is preventing them from opening their doors on Christmas day.
Of course, there are others who see a more sinister motivation behind the closures. David Wells, professor of history and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell, says:
"This is a consumer mentality at work: 'Let's not impose the church on people. Let's not make church in any way inconvenient.' I think what this does is feed into the individualism that is found throughout American culture, where everyone does their own thing."
Dr. Wells is not the first person to accuse megachurches of consumerism, but his comments do raise another historic question - does the closure of churches on Christmas mean the church in America has finally admitted defeat in its battle with secular forces over Christmas? Does it signal the church has laid down arms and joined forces with the enemy - consumerism, materialism, and individualism?
America's opposition to Christmas finally weakened in the early 20th century with the rise of Santa Claus in the secular pantheon. Old Saint Nick became a marketing juggernaut for retailers, who by the 1920s had embraced Christmas as the premier season for shopping. Church leaders no longer objected to Christmas on grounds that it was a pagan celebration. Instead their concerns shifted to the ungodly materialism they were witnessing in the name of Christ.
The New York Times conducted a survey of Christmas sermons in 1931 and reported a common theme: "the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism." Another popular sermon of the period railed that Advent had become little more than a "profit-seeking period."
Few will hear these kinds of sermons in 2005. Instead Christians in the media are demanding more material consumption in Christ's name. The American Family Association is pushing to boycott Target for not using the words "Merry Christmas" in its marketing strategy. And Fox News anchors Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson have started a "Christmas Under Siege" campaign that lists retailers who use the maliciously anti-Christian phrase "Happy Holidays." (Interestingly, Fox News's own website was selling "O'Reilly Factor Holiday Ornaments" on their "Holiday Collection" shopping page until bloggers pointed out the hypocrisy.)
Strangely, the historic outcry of churches over the materialism of Christmas seems to have reversed. Now it appears that evangelicals are upset when rampant materialism in December is not explicitly associated with Christmas - how times have changed. Perhaps the values guiding the American church this Advent would appear more Christian and less consumer if more church leaders were visited by the ghost of Christmas past.