Published December 22, 2005
I admit it. I am a traditionalist. I am a conservative. I am sentimental. I am old fashioned, maybe archaic, but I never thought of calling off worship services when Christmas was on Sunday. It just never occurred to me that doing that was an option, and it wasn’t an option as long as my mother was living. I guess my parents just instilled into the fabric of my very being a loyalty and an allegiance to the church that just won’t permit me to accept the notion that calling off church is an option.
Besides that, I was raised up in the era of the 5-point record system and Sunday School attendance pins. If you ascribed to the 5-point record system you had to: (1) Be present, (2) Be on time, (3) Bring your Bible, (4) Study your lesson and (5) Bring an offering. In order to earn a Sunday School attendance pin you had to be present in Sunday School every Sunday during the year. I have known people who attended Sunday School every Sunday for more than 25 years.
Christmas came on Sunday in 1949 and our church leadership called off the Sunday evening service and my brother and I were playing on our grandmother’s front porch when he fell out of the porch swing and he broke his arm. My father said, “If we had been in church like we are suppose to this would never have happened.”
When I was pastor of Newport Baptist Church in Newport, N.C. in the mid 1960s we had an unusual snowfall on a Saturday. That night some of my deacons were trying to discourage me from having our regularly scheduled activities the next morning.
During the midst of several persuasive calls Robert Powell drove to my house to make sure we were having Sunday School the next morning. He had 27 years of perfect Sunday School attendance and was contemplating driving 25 miles to New Bern to attend Sunday School if I weakened to the pressure and called it off. We had Sunday School and worship and I reluctantly called of Sunday night services.
That is my background and I know what some of you are thinking. You are thinking of the words of the Lord to Judah and Jerusalem in Isaiah 1:12-14: “When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at our hand, to tread my courts? Bring up no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and Sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me: I am weary to bear them.”
And it is true that form without substance is vain. Scheduled services without true worship must truly grieve the heart of God. To hold a form of godliness and deny the power thereof – well, it’s blasphemy. If it’s wrong to call off worship services on Christmas when it comes on Sunday, it must be doubly wrong to have services that are haphazardly thrown together or even professionally designed, perfunctorily observed and soon forgotten. And I fear that we are far more guilty of the latter than the former.
Some churches say that they have not cancelled their Christmas services, but have rescheduled their services to Christmas Eve or some other time. There may be great wisdom in such a decision and I do contend that the church exists for those who are not yet a part of the church; and it may be unlikely that unbelievers will come to church on Sunday morning if it happens to also be Christmas, but I can’t help but wonder if closing the doors of the church on Christmas Sunday is not a concession to our consumer-oriented society.
While we must be careful not to be bound by powerless forms and meaningless ritual, not all traditions are bad; and we must remember that generally comfort and convenience are antithetical to commitment and faithfulness.
I asked Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Director J. Robert White what he thought about the churches that have decided not to have worship services on Christmas day. He replied, “Let’s just suppose some loving parents planned a wonderful birthday party for their precious child and extended invitations to a goodly number of the child’s friends and the day of the party arrived and the hour of the party was noted, but nobody showed up.”
Unfortunately, there is a celebration party held for Jesus every Sunday and most church members fail to show up. It is nothing less than tragic.
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