True Worship II

Thinking further about this, it came to me that it isn’t just a matter of people deciding not to go to church any more on Christmas that is at issue.  Once again, it’s a complicated subject.  One that is complicated to great extent by our mobile culture and our oft-cited idea that one can (or even should) work and live wherever they want.

I’ve ended up doing this more by hook than by crook.  I understand the appeal of living in different places and seeing different parts of the world and learning about culture and food and all sorts of ancillary aspects of God’s amazing creation (and sometimes our sinful twisting of it).  We recently bid farewell to a young woman headed for multiple parts of the world over the next six months, after living four years away from her family so she could attend university and then another two years after that as she waited to figure out what her next moves (heh) in life would be.

But this mobility is a somewhat new phenomenon, historically speaking.  It used to be that in general, you stayed where you were raised.  In great part because work and family were more closely intertwined, and so the odds of going away from home and finding work were much smaller for most people than the odds of already having work at home.  Most people didn’t go off to work, but lived and worked all in the same or closely related setting.

Family members were more apt to stay put, which meant you had larger networks of extended families all in the same location.  Which meant that Christmas worship wasn’t something that was separate from all your other Christmas traditions – it was a part of them because practically all of your extended family was going to be at church as well.  Church was a more natural part of the larger family celebration of Christmas (or Easter, or just an average Sunday).

Now that’s not as often the case.  Most of the members in my congregation have to travel somewhere else to be with their kids and grandkids for the holidays.  Or their family has to travel to them, often from multiple locations around the country, which of course is hard to coordinate and often doesn’t happen.  Our Sunday Happy Hour Crew is mostly still of the age (early 20’s) that they go home to be with their parents for Christmas.

This sounds at one level as though not much has changed.  Family is still together on Christmas, so they should naturally be at church, right?  Sure, I can agree with that.  Except that mom and dad’s church may not be son and daughter’s church.  Or it may be the same church with a new pastor.  Or the pastor may be the same, but son and daughter were whisked away to children’s church every Sunday and never formed relationships with the pastor or the other adults in the congregation, so effectively their parent’s church really is a different church from the one they went to, even if the location and the preaching pastor is the same.

All of which continues to contribute to a sense that church really isn’t part of the family’s Christmas observance, even if technically they were all at church together before.

I’m not advocating throwing our hands in the air and saying well that’s that, we might as well cancel our Christmas worship.   There are plenty of people who still incorporate church as part of their Christmas day celebration.  There are still a few who will wander out on Christmas by some indefinable prompting even if they don’t go to church the rest of the year.

And while people may relocate away from family more often these days, this highlights the important aspect that church can play as a new family to transplants.  Few of my parishioners were born and grew up here.  Most came from elsewhere, generally in their 20’s with spouses and children in tow.  But they found a home away from home, a family away from family in their congregation.  I visited a woman in the hospital who is 91-years old.  She was sitting and talking with a woman she has been best friends with for 60 years.  Many of the people in my congregation have known each other for more than half a decade.  They are family to one another, which is an incentive for them to come to worship regularly.  They’re getting to see their family that they didn’t get to see most of the rest of the week.

Just like people did centuries ago.

The rise of the Church and particular celebratory observances was facilitated in great part by the fact that families – extended families – would all go together.  It was part of their tradition (and if they were Roman Catholic, also an obligation on their part!) together.  While we can lament that this is no longer the case, we should at least acknowledge that this will have an impact on church attendance patterns on holy days.  And we should, as the church and parents and grandparents, be encouraging our kids and grandkids to plug into congregations where they live, so that they can begin building the relationships that will serve as surrogate family to them all the rest of the year when they don’t travel home to be with Mom and Dad and the rest of the clan.

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