Why You Should Go To Church This Christmas Sunday
Image above is from an Anglican Christmas service at Westminster Abbey. "O come let us adore Him," sings the congregation. But some Protestant churches are choosing not to open their doors for the faithful to come adore the Christ Child on his birthday, because they doubt many of the faithful will show up, according to this piece in The New York Times. Excerpts:
StoneBridge Christian Church in eastern Nebraska is known locally for hosting a big annual fireworks event, which this fall included 15 food trucks and portable firepits for making s’mores. But it’s the Christmas season that is “our Super Bowl,” said the church’s executive pastor, Mitch Chitwood. This year, the church’s four locations in the Omaha area will host four “Jingle Jam” family parties in December and nine services on Christmas Eve, complete with classic carols, Christmas-themed coffee drinks and a festive photo booth in the lobby.
What they will not have is church on Sunday, Dec. 25. On Christmas Day, StoneBridge will offer a simple community breakfast, but no religious services.
“We still believe in the Sunday morning experience, but we have to meet people where they are,” Mr. Chitwood said.
"The Sunday morning experience"?! The Sunday morning experience?!? In those four words are a huge part of what's wrong with American Christianity. More on that in a second, but first:
Six years ago, the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, practically no one showed up for services at StoneBridge, Mr. Chitwood said.
“Christmas morning and Sunday morning are sort of in tension with each other,” said Timothy Beal, a professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University. “Most people who are churchgoers think of Christmas morning not as a religious time but as a family time: stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later.”
I'm not surprised by that, because I was raised in this kind of culture, but I'm shocked by it, because Lord have mercy, Christmas celebrates the birth of the Savior! When I returned to Christianity as an adult, I was shocked to think about how churchgoing was optional at Christmas (our church had Christmas Eve services every year). It shouldn't be that for any Christian: Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or whatever. You should be in church on Christmas. This is non-negotiable. Christmas morning and Sunday morning are only in tension with one another because Christians have their priorities screwed up.
One more quote from the piece:
“Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and it ought to be a day you spend with the family of Christ,” said J.D. Greear, the church’s pastor, who was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2018 to 2021. “But I don’t want to be the Pharisees of this generation, where I turn it into some kind of rule that there’s never an exception for.”
How on earth is it Pharisaical to expect Christians to show up to worship on the second-most important holiday on the Christian calendar? I don't get it.
Or maybe I kind of do. I wrote in this space recently about getting into several arguments on a recent press tour to the ancient Christian sites of Turkey. My antagonist was an American Pentecostal who knew nothing
|}||"-- not one thing -- about older Christian traditions, specifically, Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Our arguments always went back to him thinking that 21st-century Pentecostalism was normative. We squabbled over lunch about whether or not church in the Metaverse was the future of Christianity. He said yes, as he was an enthusiast of it. I told him it was impossible for sacramental Christians. He refused to accept that. I quickly realized that he simply did not understand what worship is for Catholics and Orthodox. For him, worship is about elevating one's feelings in a pious way -- and if you can get that emotional high in the Metaverse, it's no different from getting it at the megachurch, in meatspace. He truly could not comprehend why this doesn't work for Catholics and Orthodox, and thought that I was some kind of, well, Pharisee.
It ticked me off, because this guy didn't know what he didn't know. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it's probably the case that more American Christians understand the faith more or less as that guy does than how I do. The worship service is fundamentally different for non-sacramental Protestants than for us sacramental Christians, for which there is no substitute for being physically present. For Protestants like him -- and by no means do I mean all Protestants! -- worship is about coming together to receive information and to experience emotional uplift. That's it. He has never conceived of it being anything else. That's why he rolled his eyes, literally, when I told him that during Covid, we Orthodox Christians who had to satisfy ourselves with watching the liturgy on video did not see this as in any way the equivalent of being present in church for the liturgy. Unsurprisingly, this man's theology of the Christian life had no respect for traditional modes of prayer. For him, everything was liquid. Whatever one did to feel the presence of God was sufficient. This is why he considered "going to church" in the Metaverse to be no different than going to church in real life. They were the same thing!
As I said, I grew up in this kind of mentality. My folks regarded church worship the way many people regard going to the gym: as something you do when you feel the need, but not a requirement or discipline. In the spring of my junior year in high school, I was home from boarding school for Easter break, and told my dad that I didn't want to go to church on the holiday with my mom and my sister, because I didn't think I believed in God. He was furious. Well, I said, why aren't you going to church with the family, then? Why are you going wild turkey hunting instead? He had no good answer for that, though he did say, feebly, that he can experience God just as much in the woods as in church. I pressured him into making a deal with me: I won't give him grief about going hunting instead of to church, if he would agree to let me stay home and read the Bible for an hour. He agreed to that, angrily. After that point, I never took seriously a single thing he said about God. Years later, when I told him that I believed in God once again, and that I was going to become Catholic, he protested that "the Drehers have always been Methodist." You can imagine how little that mattered to me. I kind of wince today at how cavalier I was about his feelings back then, but see, this is what you get when you think of churchgoing as an option for Christians, not as at the center of one's devotional life as a believer.
Happily, the Times story has been getting lots of pushback on social media from other Protestant pastors, who rightly see that if you place anything other than being present on church to worship God on the day of the Savior's birth, you have your priorities wrong. It has never been easy for my family to rise out of the cheerful chaos of Christmas wrappings on the living room floor, and weariness from early-morning gift-opening, to get dressed and go to the liturgy for an hour and a half, but there was never once any doubt for us that that's what we must do. I've written before how, when the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia sent us a priest to Starhill back in 2012, the priest told us that it was ROCOR's practice that anybody who wished to receive communion on Sunday morning has to come to vespers on Saturday evening, as preparation. This is not standard practice in other Orthodox churches, and we chafed against it. But we did it out of obedience. Plus, my children's mother and I knew that it was crucial to demonstrate to our children that serving the Lord was the most important thing any of us could do, no matter how much it felt like an inconvenience on a Saturday evening. After not too many months, we all came to see the value in keeping this discipline, though it is to my discredit that when our ROCOR mission closed down, and we started going to an OCA parish in Baton Rouge, I personally fell away from this discipline. I was not sinning by so doing, but it did feel that something was incomplete about my worship.
I know families, even Orthodox families, who don't mind missing church on Sunday when their child has a sporting event scheduled for Sunday morning. I didn't realize that sports leagues did that until we were living in Philadelphia from 2010-11, and our younger son's peewee baseball league had games on Sunday morning. We told his coach that our son would not be able to participate in those games, because we would be in church. This marked us out as weirdos, even among other churchgoing families on the team. It was odd that a family would choose to be in church rather than at the baseball diamond. So be it. America is a post-Christian nation now, but as for our family, we were going to serve the Lord, even if it meant our kids had to be outsiders to the culture.
I don't say that in a self-righteous way, though I'm sure some will interpret it like that. It's just that I can see how the subordination of religious life to the liturgies of post-Christian American culture is badly eroding the faith. I love what the Presbyterian pastor Kevin DeYoung told the Times:
For some critics of this flexible spirit, having Christmas fall on a Sunday presents a stark example of something many Christians have heard about countless times over the years: the choice between the spiritually thin cultural Christianity of stockings and eggnog and the “true meaning of Christmas” — a day to celebrate Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem.
“We’ve all heard sermons on ‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’” said Kevin DeYoung, the pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, N.C., which belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America. When churches cancel their services, he hears that message as something more like: “Hey, it’s Christmas, and Jesus may not be the reason for the season.”
In a society in which Sundays are no longer demarcated by blue laws and quieter rhythms, churches face increasing competition year-round from events like youth soccer tournaments. It’s hard for a pastor to tell people they should prioritize church over other, often worthy activities if the pastor capitulates on Christmas Day of all days, said Mr. DeYoung. He posted “a plea to pastors” online in 2016 urging them not to cancel, which he recirculated this year.
He's right. The ongoing task of all of us, Christians in particular, is to rightly order our loves. There is nothing at all wrong with loving the gift of being at home with family on Christmas morning. All of us do! But love of that good must be subordinate to love of Christ -- and that means being in church on Christmas Day, giving him due worship with the community of believers. This is something on which I believe one cannot compromise without surrendering something essential to Christian faith and practice. You begin by showing your children that some things are more important than being in church on the birthday of Christ, then it's a natural progression to believing that it can be more important to do other things on a normal Sunday than go to worship services, to believing that you should only go to church when you feel the need -- and eventually to the practice of the presence of God in formal worship ceasing to matter much at all. And then, what's left? A wispy sentiment where there once was faith, and after that, in the next generation, nothing at all.
The religion scholar Stephen Bullivant has a great new book out, Nonverts: The Making Of Ex-Christian America. Here's an excerpt from a Grid magazine interview about the book, in which Prof. Bullivant points out that the US really has seen a swift collapse in the faith among the young (and not just the young), but says that contrary to what some people like to believe, it's not about conservative churches holding to now-unpopular doctrines having to do with sex and sexuality:
And of course the internet, Bullivant added. That was happening at about the same time, and it gave people access to communities of people also questioning their faith. Bullivant particularly saw this when interviewing ex-Mormons and ex-evangelicals.
“If you’re raised in small-town Texas or Idaho and everyone you know is some kind of Christian, you’re in a kind of bubble. And then with the internet, you start getting support groups online with thousands of members and that helps erode those bubbles,” he said.
One thing Bullivant said is overemphasized when it comes to examining why people leave the church: shifting cultural values.
As people’s opinions in the U.S. changed on women’s roles in society, abortion and same-sex marriage, it was absolutely difficult for the churches to deal with, said Bullivant. They thought it meant “alienating large segments of people” who didn’t agree with the church’s stances on issues.
But, if you look at the Episcopal Church, which has changed along with the culture, its numbers are tanking, said Bullivant. Churches shifting with the times doesn’t seem to “fill the pews.”
“When Catholics say, ‘The reason young people are leaving is because they disagree with the church on abortion and contraception,’ they do disagree with the church, and abortion and contraception, and gay marriage and all sorts of stuff,” he said. “But it’s very unlikely that if the church changed those positions, or softened them in a pastoral way, that those people wouldn’t leave or that they’d come back or anything like that.”
I've seen this a lot in my life, coming from a socially conservative part of America. It's simply not true that all, or even most, people who hold socially conservative views are churchgoers. Again, my own birth family was a good example of this. We didn't stay away from church because it was too conservative or too liberal. We stayed away because we didn't see churchgoing as an important part of our lives as Christians. In truth, we were nominal Christians, but we would have sincerely denied it -- in part because so many other conservative people like us were also only Christmas-and-Easter Christians. Like so many others, we got out of the habit of regular churchgoing (or rather, never took up the habit). We were good examples of Kierkegaard's observation that when people come to believe that being a Christian is like being a citizen of one's country -- something that exists automatically, without any intellectual and emotional engagement, or choice -- then Christianity ceases to exist. America has finally begun to live this out, with not only the children of Baby Boomer parents, but more broadly:
A couple of weeks ago, new demographic data from the UK showed that for the first time, self-identified Christians are a minority in Great Britain. On current trends, the US will reach that dismal milestone by 2070. And, as Prof. Bullivant points out, we have no evidence to support the claim that young people who walk away from practicing the faith in their twenties will return as they get older and start families.
Christianity isn't simply a matter of affirming theological propositions. It has to be a way of life, or it won't endure. Over the many centuries of Christendom, generations of the faithful built structures -- in law and in culture (including in art and architecture) -- that bounded society by Christian teachings, however badly observed they were by the flesh-and-blood faithful. But those structures cannot ultimately survive the loss of belief in the religion that built them. If you don't believe me, go to the ruins of Greco-Roman temples, and ask yourself what happened to Zeus, Athena, Artemis and all the others. I can't recommend strongly enough historian Edward Watts's book The Final Pagan Generation, which tells how all this happened in the fourth century, right under the noses of pagan elites who thought that the Christian thing was just a blip, and that Rome would always be faithfully pagan, because it always had been. Most of us older Christians are like the Roman pagans who were older towards the end of the fourth century, in that we have a false sense of security about the Christian faith in our culture. Millennials and Generation Z Christians are clearer about these things, in general, much as both Christians and pagans who were younger in the late fourth century did.
I met a Catholic in Rome who was under the impression that my book The Benedict Option was a counsel of defeatism and cultural retreat. Nope. It's about how we Christians must radically change our lives -- individually, in our families, and in our church communities -- so that we can dwell faithfully in aggressively post-Christian society. Anybody who reads that book and takes its message seriously will understand that Christians who decline to go to worship services on Christmas day is a condensed symbol of secularization. So many of us console ourselves with the idea that it doesn't really matter to God if we miss church on that day, because it's so much more pleasant to stay at home in pajamas around the fire with family and presents. Well, it may or may not matter to God, but it matters a very great deal to us, and to our children, whether we realize it or not. In his great 2004 essay, "The Church As Culture," which was foundational to the Benedict Option project, church historian Robert Louis Wilken wrote:
In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.
Yes, and the number of those Christians include the millions of professing believers who will shrug and rationalize not going to church on Christmas Day. Read Wilken to understand why.
Finally, I saw yesterday this Wall Street Journal story reporting data showing that younger Catholic priests are more conservative than their flocks. Excerpts:
Research on Catholic clergy by the Austin Institute has found that younger Catholic priests and priests ordained in more recent years tend to be noticeably more conservative than older priests on a host of issues, including politics, theology and moral teaching. The Survey of American Catholic Priests has found that since the 1980s, successive cohorts of priests have grown more conservative, according to a 2021 summary report.
Regarding the church’s prohibitions of contraception, masturbation, homosexual behavior and suicide, the impossibility of women’s ordination to the priesthood, and the necessity for salvation of faith in Jesus, each successive 10-year cohort of priests supports church teaching more strongly than the one before it. Those ordained in 2010 or later are the most conservative of all—and the least happy with Pope Francis, with roughly half disapproving of him, according to the Austin Institute survey. The Vatican didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“People are looking for answers and stability,” said the Rev. Daniel Hess, who was ordained in 2011 and is dean of students at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati. “There actually is a treasury of teachings and of truths and of deeply Catholic content that is part of our inheritance that was not even shown to us or known, and it’s sort of being rediscovered. So I think in some ways that leads to a certain traditionalism or conservative approach.”
While young priests hold on to tradition, Catholic laity have been moving in a more liberal direction. A 2021 survey for America magazine by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found that more than 52% supported the ordination of women as priests, 62% said priests should be allowed to bless same-sex relationships and only 38% were very or somewhat opposed to euthanasia or assisted suicide.
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The Rev. Benjamin Petty, who was ordained in 2019 and serves as campus chaplain at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said, “Today’s society has this aggressive sense of nothing’s really true unless you make it up yourself.” He added, “So the church and her teaching and her consistency and moral voice is this place of stability, place of security, place of safety to receive something good and old."
According to the Rev. Ezra Sullivan, an American who was ordained in 2011 and teaches at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, the youngest U.S. priests are a postmodern generation disillusioned with the ideas of progress and religious pluralism that found favor at Vatican II. Instead of focusing on interfaith dialogue for the sake of social justice, these priests are more likely to stress the reinforcement of Catholic identity and the winning of converts, said Father Sullivan, author of “Alter Christus,” a new book about the priesthood.
Such attitudes distinguish those priests from Pope Francis, views of whom vary sharply by age. Almost 80% of priests ordained before 1980 “approve strongly” of the current pontiff, compared with 20% of those ordained in 2010 or later, according to the 2021 survey. Nearly half of the younger priests disapprove of the pope, either “strongly” or “somewhat.”
“What is remarkable is that these men, who were indoctrinated into total loyalty to the pope, so easily dropped this loyalty when a new pope was elected,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican,” who was ordained in 1974. “Now they are only loyal to the pope if he agrees with them.”
The Jesuit father Tom Reese has it wrong, and wrong in a predictable way. These young priests are "loyal" (a problematic term!) to the Pope insofar as the Pope agrees with the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church -- which is as it should be! Until Francis's pontificate, it was impossible to consider that a Roman pontiff's orthodoxy would be in doubt, but here we are. The loyalty of these younger priests are to the deposit of faith, not to the person of Francis, or any other pope. Which is as it should be! Liberals of Father Reese's generation have played an enormous role in destabilizing the Catholic faith. Given that there doesn't seem to have been a "Francis effect" of liberal young men flocking to seminary, it will fall to these younger priests to shore up the faith against the ruins of our post-Christian times, and to shepherd their flocks into spiritual disciplines that will keep them from falling off the side of the mountain path, into the valley of disbelief below. Same is true of younger Protestant clergy. I mean no disrespect to megachurch nondenominational pastors like Mitch Chitwood, he of the "Jingle Jam" hootenanny, but conceiving of church life as a service that must be tailored to the felt needs of the consumer, rather than as a liturgy that gives meaning, structure, and purpose to the lives of church members, is the way of spiritual suicide.
So, friends, whatever your confession, please go to church this Christmas Sunday. You need it, for one thing, and for another, your kids are watching, and learning from you.