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. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
Christmas is on Sunday this year. That means that our Baby Jesus' family will have to get an early start on gift-opening so that we can be at church by 9:30. We'll have to drag Josh away from his new toys, no doubt leave wrapping paper and opened gifts strewn around the living room, so that we can get out the door in time. It won't be a usual Christmas morning spent relaxing with family. Whatever plans we make for Christmas day will have to be made around worship with our church family.
In short, Christmas on Sunday asks us to take the focus off ourselves and focus our attention where it belongs.
We Americans don't do that well, especially when it comes to the time and place realities of our faith. We have the idea, as Americans, that what matters is the condition of our hearts. Church attendance is a matter of indifference to us for precisely that reason: we feel that we can worship God anywhere and so don't feel like we're missing something important if we don't make church on a particular Sunday. Especially on a Sunday like the one that's coming this week. For most of us, it just won't be convenient to be at church on Christmas day.
Recently, a lot of ink has been spilled over the controversial decisions of several large American evangelical churches to cancel their Sunday worship services on Christmas day to allow members to spend that time with their families. One church said that having services on Christmas "would not be the most effective use of staff and volunteer resources." A spokesperson from that church went on to say, "If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?"
Since the doors of their church will be closed? Not very likely, I would say.
Oh, it's not that this church doesn't know their people. From the standpoint of efficiency and the effective use of resources, I'm sure they and other churches that are choosing to cancel services are making the right decision. I guess my problem is that I don't think efficiency should be the point.
To be fair, the churches that are canceling services on Christmas are all having frequent services during the week leading up to Christmas, including on Christmas Eve. But from the earliest records of the church's history that we have from the New Testament, the church has referred to Sunday as "the Lord's Day," the "first day of the week." It was the day upon which he rose from the dead, and so it quickly and naturally became a special day for the church to gather in worship and unite around the body and blood of the risen Savior.
The world we live in will tell us that church attendance is always a waste of time. It is always inefficient. It is time that could be spent doing good deeds or catching up on "to-do" lists or exercising our bodies or spending important moments with family. Even among those who believe in Jesus Christ, the prevalent opinion seems to be that meeting together with the church is somewhat less important than kids' athletics or work or recreation or several dozen other urgent responsibilities and activities that tend to crowd Sunday worship out of our schedules.
Which brings me back to Christmas. Increasingly, even believers have bought the cheap Hallmark sentimentality and profit-driven cynicism of America's secular "holidays." Our world celebrates the Holidays as a time of peace and goodwill while denying that the peace and goodwill to which they aspire has anything to do with Christ "born of a woman, born under law." And this year, when December 25 falls on the Lord's Day, too many American churches are missing an opportunity to bear witness to our world that Christmas is about more than presents and lights. About more even than family gathered to exchange gifts, take pictures, sit around a table together, and rediscover their love for each other.
I know that those churches who choose not to gather for worship on Christmas morning aren't trying to exclude Jesus from Christmas, just as surely as I know that not every Christian who gathers for worship that morning is doing so out of a desire to include him. I don't wish to try removing specks from the eyes of other churches when my own church has logs of its own to deal with. But, I also know that "small" decisions like how we spend our time one Christmas morning out of ten matter. I know that we can worship God anywhere and I know that going to church doesn't necessarily equal worship. But, I also know that to choose not to gather with the church on the Lord's Day is to adopt the values and priorities and assumptions of the world around us at some level.
Christmas calls believers to celebrate Christ's becoming human and living among us while waiting in expectation for him to come again. One of the ways we wait in expectation is to join together on the Lord's Day to worship God and encourage one another "and all the more as you see the Day approaching." To choose to spend our time in this inconvenient, inefficient way is one way of saying to one another and to the world that we are waiting for "the Day." And it's a good way to remind ourselves that nothing in our lives is more important.
So Josh, Laura, and I will be at church on Christmas morning. Not because the church pays my bills, but because I can't think of a better way to celebrate Christ's coming while sharpening my anticipation for his return than to meet with his people to worship.
See you there, I'm sure.