True Worship

Since this is the time of year when many Christians take up the familiar lamentation about how our culture is forgetting the real meaning of Christmas, I read this article the other day arguing that it isn’t secular cultural we should be mad at for being, well, secular.  Rather it’s Christians we should be mad at because they don’t prioritize Church for Christmas.

Which of course, got me thinking.

Growing up, our family tradition was to go to a late-night Christmas Eve worship.  Probably not technically midnight, but maybe 10pm or 11pm.  It was great as kids because we’d get to stay up late and sing some cool Advent and Christmas hymns.  Then we’d get a paper bag with some peanuts and an orange and a candy cane in it on our way out of church.  We had no idea why this combination of things was supposed to be in some way valued, but we’d at least eat the candy cane.

I serve a congregation with a tradition of worship on Christmas morning.  I don’t have any problem with this tradition and am happy to continue it and foster it.  But if I served a congregation who didn’t have a tradition of meeting for worship on Christmas morning, I wouldn’t be inclined to start one.

Some might say this just reveals my lazy, self-centered nature.  I’m guilty of what the article author blames as the demise of Christmas in Christian culture.  But my wife and I have intentionally set up ground rules to buying into (heheh – that’s a pun, get it?) the consumer mentality that does tend to overwhelm all other aspects of the Advent and Christmas season.  The author sets up an either or without an in between and without necessarily questioning the validity of the one pole while presuming the other pole is of course evil.

But here’s my radical thought.  You don’t need to go to church on Christmas morning in order to have a Christ-filled Christmas.  You may not have the technical Christ Mass which the author likes to emphasize, but this is, after all, not a Biblical mandate either.  It’s a tradition, to be sure, and a tradition that had great value perhaps in an age when persecution was rampant.  Perhaps as our culture becomes less Christian on the surface, Christians will once again see value in gathering communally to celebrate the birth of Christ.

I’d argue that while it’s fine to go to Church on Jesus’ birthday, if that’s how you define putting Christ back in Christmas, you’re woefully missing the point and settling for the very surface-level sort of lip service that the author tries to decry.  In other words, the Church should be in the business of teaching people how to celebrate the birth of Christ in their families.  Before church.  After church.  For the whole season of Advent and Christmas and Epiphany (gasp!).  Heck, every day of the year, every day of our lives.  If putting the Christ back in Christmas consists simply of attending the literal Christ’s Mass, we’re actually no better off.  And perhaps, this is actually the reason we’re at this point of apparent Christian decay in our culture.

There is no glory or benefit per se in Church in and of itself.  Yes, we are to continue gathering together as the faithful, to be certain (Hebrews 10:25).  But why do we do this?  Because there is intrinsic merit in this?  No.  But rather because of what Christian community can and should do.  It enables us to hear the Word of God – but this should be something we are doing in daily prayer and devotion.  We receive the gifts of God in his Sacrament, and to be sure this is something that traditionally only happens in Church as believers gather together.  Church should be equipping people to live out their faith in their daily lives, as parents, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, employees, employers, citizens, etc.  Church is supposed to help connect our faith to all the aspects of our life.

Simply equating church with having a Christ-filled Christmas is oversimplification.  And I could conceivably see myself saying to people wondering whether or not they should start a Christmas Day service – No problem, as long as you’re going to sing or listen to the Christmas hymns at home as well.  As long as you’re going to pray together at home as well to give thanks to God for sending his Son into the world.  As long as you’re going to read the Christmas story to your kids and talk about what it means to you so they can learn what a life of faith looks and sounds like by watching and listening to you.  So long as you’re not going to spend the rest of the day focused only on football or food or drinks or whatever other good gifts and creations of God may really fire you up.

In other words, Sure, let’s gather together to praise God for sending his Son, so long as you don’t think you’ve fulfilled your ‘Christian duty’ in this act alone, and the rest of the day is yours to spend without a second thought for God.  Sure, let’s celebrate together, as long as you’re celebrating with your family at home as well.  Because Church is NOT supposed to be a substitute for that most primal and critical congregation of faith, the family.  The Church should strengthen that smaller congregation.  Equip it.  Minister to and with it.  But never set itself up as the replacement for it or to it.

Just like the family should never, under ideal circumstances, be the substitute for Church.  Just like those folks who insist on worshiping alone in their family or in front of their television instead of plunging themselves into the messy world of congregational relationships are in error.  Just like those who insist that they can worship alone better than they can worship with others are waving a massive red flag about something in their heart or past that the Holy Spirit should be working through to resolve, not reinforce.  Circumstances may dictate that Christians worship in hiding or only as families, but this is the exception to the rule.  The healthiest life of faith consists of a strong grounding at home reinforced with regular involvement in the larger community of faith, where forgiveness of sins, the Sacraments, and as necessary even private or – God-forbid, public – rebuke is possible for serious misunderstandings or misappropriations of the life of faith.

The author is dead on – Christians need to keep Christ at the center of Christmas as well as every day of their life.  The Church should help them do it.  But let’s not oversimplify things to the point where Church becomes the definition of a Christ-centered Christmas.  If you have the ability to gather with other Christians to celebrate Christ this Christmas, by all means do so!  Do it week after week, frankly.  Maybe even do it on Christmas Day at church!  But by all means, make sure that in your private life of faith, in your family life of faith you’re doing it as well.  Don’t assume that just going to Church puts Christ back at the center of Christmas for your heart or your family.  Don’t separate or confuse Church and everyday life.  Keep them both together and in proper relationship.



5 Responses to “True Worship”

  1. True Worship II | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] Faith, Culture, Society, Life « True Worship […]

  2. J.P. Says:

    Thanks, Paul, but I’m going to push back here.

    You’ve accurately identified the dangers of idolizing Christmas Day worship. Sometimes we treat Christmas Day worship as a duty to be fulfilled before we can really start to enjoy Christmas. I also agree that Christmas Day worship is not mandated or “necessary” in a thus-says-the-Lord kind of way. You’ve also wisely encouraged people to consider what they do outside of church to celebrate the Savior’s birth.

    But I feel like in making the argument for not needing to have Christmas Day service, you overstate your cause and then struggle to articulate the value of corporate worship in general. You say that there is no intrinsic value in the corporate Church or corporate gathering. But your later encouragements to go to church seem to betray that statement. Do you really believe that the Church gathered has no intrinsic value? In Scripture, there are far more examples of Israelites and Christians gathering corporately (though that corporate gathering looked much different than now!) than gathering in families. You rightly mention the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments as central to what constitutes corporate worship. Doesn’t that then make corporate gathering intrinsically valuable? Further, God’s gathered people have intrinsic value as the body of Christ. Not over and against private familial devotion, mind you, but in connection with and support for family life.

    You rightly extol the Church’s role in equipping God’s people in their family and societal vocations. Indeed, you honor your fatherly vocation in your private Advent and Christmas traditions. But what about your vocation as pastor? What responsibilities does that entail for helping God’s people to focus on the Christ child? I don’t think the answer to that question must be a Christmas Day service. But I do think that a Christmas Day service could be an answer to that question.

    For those who fail in the vocation as parents to celebrate Christmas at home, but would come to a Christmas Day service, even if out of duty, wouldn’t that still be a great blessing to them? A chance to re-focus their frenzied lives on the Christ-child, and maybe even encourage them in doing so at home? One might say that holding Christmas Day service itself would simply enable them to continue in their failure by fulfilling their crass sense of duty so that they can go home and do whatever they want the rest of the day. I suppose that is a risk. But might it be a risk worth taking, if it means that will be the only Gospel they hear over Christmas? Surely some Gospel is better than none at all. Wasn’t Jesus born into a world where most everyone, save for a few, didn’t notice or care. Even though only the shepherds and animals were there, he still came, beginning to change the course of history while no one was looking.

    Rant done.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Yow – now you’re talking :-) Thank you for the very thoughtful response.

      My response was to the original article I linked to, about how Christmas Day worship is somehow the be-all-end-all of putting Christ back in Christmas. I disagree with that premise, but don’t mean to discount or negate the beauty and value of Christmas worship. For me it’s an issue of whether we approach this as a matter of Law or grace. It’s a matter of how we live out the freedom we have in Jesus Christ.

      What resulted was perhaps a somewhat lopsided talk about how Church isn’t necessary on Christmas, which as you point out is not strictly true nor the precise point I wanted to make.

      Church *does* have intrinsic value. We have the witness of the Old Testament priesthood and worship community, the example of the communal life of Jesus and his disciples, and the direct exhortations and examples of the apostles on this, in addition to 1900 years of post-apostolic practice. My intent is not to delegitimize public worship in any way. Church is where the public administration of the Sacraments takes place, where we are fed and nourished through communal study of God’s Word (hopefully skipping over some of the errors we might be prone to falling into with a strictly family-based church). Church is necessary as is the family in terms of passing on the faith and demonstrating it in action. While the family may have to sometimes function as representative of the whole Church when corporate worship does not exist or is illegal, it should not displace it when corporate worship is available.

      What I was more concerned about was the idea that only in corporate worship do we rightly keep Christ in Christmas. I think this slips too far the other direction, something Lutherans like to pride themselves on avoiding but frankly do in lots of other smaller ways all the time.

      I see a symbiotic relationship. The Church exists to support and encourage the family, and to provide the Sacraments and teaching of God’s Word. I believe that a Christian family should naturally be plugged into a local congregation, supporting those works and whatever other works might be helpful and useful not just to their immediate family but to the congregational members as a whole. But I sometimes hear pastors talk as though individuals and families exist to support the programmatic goals and intentions of the congregational or pastoral leadership. As though if the leadership team plans a bunch of stuff and nobody in the congregation is interested in coming or supporting it, that they’re bad parishioners. I am uneasy with the top-down idea of Church and the way the Church has swallowed the current cultural fad of leadership as the greatest spiritual gift (perhaps displacing evangelism, which in turn perhaps displaced speaking in tongues). My approach to my vocation is more of a bottom up approach, which undoubtedly means I’m a crappy leader, and I certainly feel like that at times!

      Yes, the pastor has a vocational role to play in how to best equip his parishioners for a life of faithful response to the grace of God the Father’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. I believe this is best accomplished through weekly worship and study to anchor them in their walk of faith until they are called to glory or Christ returns. There are certainly other things that might also be helpful and useful, depending on the particular community. But I’m disconcerted with the idea that unless people are coming to church multiple times a week for multiple different programs and functions, they are somehow being derelict in their membership or even their life of faith. The life of faith is lived out in congregational life, but not *only* there, and what I see a huge need for is to assist people in understanding that life of faith outside of the church – in their jobs, with their neighbors, and with their family. In my particular current context, most of my parishioners know how to live out their life of faith in the congregation and participate faithfully in worship and study. But those things need to get connected to their life of faith out in the world, so to speak. A Christmas Day service towards that end is all well and good, and I’m happy to do it and even enjoy it. But I would stop short of insisting it was a *requirement* to keep Christ in Christmas. I don’t think it’s nearly that simple, even if it can, as you rightly point out, be helpful.

      As for the potential good of hearing the Gospel on Christmas morning for C&E folks, I won’t argue that at all! But that wasn’t really who I was thinking of in my response to the original article, which I presume not to be aimed at cultural Christians or Christians in name only or C&E Christians, but rather to those who would consider themselves to be (and others would likely consider them to be as well) strong Christians with an active worship life.

      At the end of the day I believe that corporate worship equips the saints for the work that the Lord has prepared in advance for them to do. I believe a rather large chunk of this should be looked for outside of the Church rather than within it. This isn’t intended to make Church obsolete, but to clarify what the point of corporate worship is, and why Church should be so valuable to people. Worship should be at some level an outgrowth of the needs of a local community for how to receive God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament. If a group decides they don’t need to worship on Christmas Day, but worships on Christmas Eve instead or some other way, so be it. So long as Christ is being kept at the center of what they’re doing and why, not just for the duration of worship but for the other 166-167 hours per week.

      Is this helpful?

  3. J.P. Says:

    You are totally right that the original article is a bunch of hogwash. Thanks for the response to my (unfair?) concern that you were leaning (though certainly not jumping in!) to a view too far on the other side. The dialogue is highly enjoyable.

    Your paragraph on the symbiotic relationship is spot on. Getting families to see church life and family life and work life as a part of an organic whole into which the message of Christmas speaks is the difficult key to the Christian life. Jesus is Immanuel at home and at work just as much as at church. What might it mean to work and raise a family as if the reality of God’s presence with us were a given? And how to help God’s people embrace that life in its multifacetedness?

    Like you, I tire of the top-down approach. Programmatic, cookie-cutter ministry is often the result. That has its advantages, I suppose, but the liabilities are not worth it. My recent experience in a largely volunteer-led church has shown me the value of patience in congregational development. It more readily leads to depth and authenticity, though it certainly won’t be considered a model for “visionary leadership.” Of course, this bottom-up approach can have its own liabilities that make church bureaucrats squirm (organizational messiness, theological elasticity), but in my experience they are worth the risk because in the long-term they lead to real, substantial growth.

    At the end of the day, the Christmas Day service isn’t really the core issue, but rather, how do we as pastors think less about people getting involved in “church,” and more about helping people see God’s involvement in and for a through them every moment of every day in every place.

    MERRY CHRISTMAS, by the way.

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      I’m sorry I didn’t see your reply sooner. With all that you have going on right now, I hardly expected you would be maintaining a theological discussion here! Then again, perhaps the distraction has been useful. My prayers – and the prayers of my congregation – are with you and your family for healing and peace and preparation. If there’s *anything* I or we can do, please let me know.

      This has been a week of being reminded that ministry is complicated any time you move it beyond the boxes that we as the institutional church are accustomed to. A week of being reminded that sometimes doing different things isn’t safe. It opens us up to criticism and examination. Not that these are wrong or bad things, but they aren’t always pleasant. But I believe this is part of the Christian life that we – particularly ministers – are called to. Preaching and teaching in the comfort and security of the Sanctuary is, by and large, easy. It’s a ritual we are familiar with and our parishioners are familiar with. Where things get messy, complicated, misinterpreted, misconstrued and misapplied is when I end the service with “Go in God’s peace to serve the Lord” with the actual expectation that this is what they are called to do. This is the work of the saints (Ephesians 4:11-16) that the Church and those who serve within it are called to prepare our people to do. This is the work of the Church. Not to become as big as possible, but to equip people for the work of God that God himself has prepared in advance for them to do (Ephesians 2:10). Coming to Church is part of that, an important aspect of the equipping process, rather than the end goal in and of itself.

      I pray that you have been prepared for what you are having to endure right now. What you are having to support your wife and children through as you struggle to deal with it yourself. I pray that your experience in the last decade, the people in your life, the Word you have received and shared strengthens and protects you in this time. That it speaks comfort and promise as it always has, but now with an urgency and immediacy that will sustain you all. That you are both able to model for your children how a Christian suffers, which is fundamentally different from the way any other person suffers, trusting not just that the suffering will end or a better day will dawn, but that in offering ourselves to God in the midst of the suffering, He can and will change us here and now, fitting us better for eternity. You are yourselves, as a family and individuals, living out what God created his Church for. To be equipped in the midst of sorrow and struggle as well as joy and celebration.

      And, FYI, your video message drilling in on living out the reality of Advent through the events of your life is dead on and beautiful. I just wish it wasn’t so hard.

      I love you, brother. Merry Christmas.

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