Closed on Christmas

Scot McKnight has some thought-provoking comments on the closing on Christmas controversy. I think Scot's got a better handle on the context of this story than some other bloggers— Ben Witherington and the Internet Monk

Manya Brachear at the Chicago Tribune did a nuanced piece on the controversy, which was better than most of the mainstream coverage--making the point that Willow Creek, for example, has extensive Christmas Eve services planned.

It's not that the church does not value Christmas, the day set aside to commemorate the incarnation of God on Earth. Willow Creek is organizing almost a week of worship ending Christmas Eve, and total attendance at the services is expected to top 50,000. The church has also produced a short DVD designed to reinforce the theme of the Christmas services and help viewers process spiritual questions that may cross their minds during the holidays.

A few thought to add to Scot's:

This whole Christmas closing controversy illustrates how differently megachurches organize their worship life. (Todd Johnson pointed this out several year ago). Sunday services at churches like Willow are more like revival/evangelistic tent meetings-- focused on outreach. Most of the traditional "church" functions--like worship, sacraments, prayer—have been moved to mid-week services or to house church like small groups. Their church life doesn't revolve around Sunday worship--whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure. But you can't understand this story without understanding the way megachurches operate.

The other thing is this. There are a lot of people out there who have stopped going to church, as Martin Marty noted a few months back. While Barna and Gallup polls show up to 45 percent of Americans claiming to go to church on Sunday, researchers who study actual church attendance paint a much different picture--showing that closer to 18 percent of Americans actually show up each week.

What does that mean? Well, if the percentage is 45 percent, then about 120 million Americans would be in church each Sunday. If it's 18 percent, more like 50 million people are in church -- a difference of about 70 million people. Churches like Willow Creek are trying to get some of those 70 million back into the pew--and that's not a bad thing. So when they hold outreach events, their goal is to woo people back to the regular practice of coming to church. We can argue about whether their methods are appropriate--and whether they are calling people to the kind of committed discipleship that Jesus asked for. But we've got to acknowledge the context as well.


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