Pope Julius I was not a forward thinking leader. Instead of fixing Christmas on the 25th of December, he could have set the date of Christmas on the last Thursday of the month. That’s what Abraham Lincoln did with Thanksgiving, and it is so much easier to schedule worship services and office closings around Thanksgiving than it is Christmas. The Thanksgiving formula is simple: one big devotional on Wednesday night and close the office for the next two days. Brilliance! The Sunday after Thanksgiving is always nice as old friends and family tend to show up and everyone is calm and well-fed during the worship.
But Christmas is a moving target. When it hits midweek, it’s fairly easy to cancel Wednesday night activities or plan a devotional “a la Thanksgiving.” However, Christmas on Sunday puts church leaders in a Solomon-type predicament where we fear our only option is to make people decide between Christmas at home or keeping their commitment to church worship. Catholics and mainline Protestants have a plan in place for Christmas Sunday, but those of us in the free church, non-liturgical tradition are more concerned about how to staff the nursery rather than the choice of lectionary readings and new choir robes.
Yes, I’m having a bit of fun with our first world problems, but I also want to offer some practical advice to help you think about your opportunities for Christmas and Christmas Eve Sunday. Sticking to a routine without even considering the impact of the holidays is poor leadership. Sticking to a routine after considering the impact of the holidays and deciding that your routine is the best option for your church flock and the community is top-notch leadership. Likewise, making the decision to go with an alternate plan could represent great leadership when certain principles are kept in mind:
- Not all members are simply attenders. Let’s admit it, we take our hardest working volunteers for granted. I am talking about our children’s class teachers, the folks who prepare communion, the audio tech crew, the people who make the coffee, and all the other types of volunteers that I cannot think of at this moment because I take them for granted. These folks are such wonderful volunteers because they enjoy what they do, they don’t demand recognition, and they do not complain. (If they do any of these then that’s a different matter for a future article.) There’s no pride in asking these volunteers to maintain a routine that makes no sense on holiday. We have the ability to adapt, and these devoted volunteers are among the first people we should talk to about developing a plan. Your paid staff are going to get time off during the holidays, so why not the volunteers?
- Show respect to the different family arrangements in your flock. For some of our families, the holidays are structured by divorce settlements. Some of our church members are the only Christian believers in their household. Asking a grandmother to work the nursery on Sunday night when it might be the only time she sees her extended family might be a pastoral failure. She might be reluctant to refuse her sacred duty even though she would prefer to be free of the commitment this one night. Let’s help her rather than make her decisions unnecessarily difficult. She’s not bowing down to secular powers because she wants some time to see her children’s families who can only visit once a year.
- Make it special and meaningful. Should we just shutter the doors when Dec. 25 is on Sunday? No way! That might also be a pastoral failure to our people who have no family outside their church family. Gathering with believers for a celebration on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day doesn’t have to interfere with family gatherings at home or vice versa. What if we concluded the Sunday worship with a family feast? What if we all worshiped together, then gathered in homes and invited others to join us? There are numerous options here. For the last two Christmas Sundays, our congregation has concentrated our Sunday worship into a single 10:30 service. We suspended all classes and children’s worship and evening activities because we wanted everyone of all ages to come together. The first time we made this adjusted plan, many thought the attendance would be light. We were surprised that our attendance on that Sunday was typical. Some people were out of town, but many of our flock invited their out-of-town family, neighbors, and friends. Most of all, the spirit of the gathering was joyous and energetic.
In his 1978 classic book, the Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists celebration as a corporate spiritual discipline. Our rugged individualism makes it easy for us to understand the inward disciplines and to an extent the outward disciplines. I believe we are lacking in our practice of the corporate disciplines. (The others are worship, confession, and guidance.) If we are creative, prayerful, thoughtful, and pastoral we can develop a plan that allows for the corporate disciplines of worship and celebration on Christmas Sunday or, as is the case this year, Christmas Eve Sunday. Making a change is not capitulation to culture. It might just be inspired common sense.