I remember growing up Baptist, and the biggest ethical dilemma — when it came to corporate worship — was whether you could miss the Sunday evening service to watch the Super Bowl on television. With the arrival of the VCR, the pious at least had the ability to record the game and watch it later. Today, I think Sunday night worship is even less common than the VCR.
As you know, this year Christmas falls on a Sunday — this Sunday. And when a Christmas Sunday shows up on the calendar, it seems that Christians are faced with a similar dilemma of whether to attend worship or stay home with family. Unfortunately, I think the source of this quandary is more cultural than biblical.
In the interest of full disclosure, I firmly believe that every church should seek to gather for worship every Lord’s Day, regardless of what the calendar may label a particular Sunday. I hope to share with you the basis for my conviction and, in so doing, possibly challenge your thinking in this area. My intention is not to condemn anyone who believes differently or induce guilt in those who won’t be in worship this Sunday. My desire is to simply speak the truth in love and encourage others to do what would most honor the Lord (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Let me begin with a simple question: Why do we gather for worship on Easter Sunday? I’m guessing your answer includes celebrating as a church what Jesus has done for us, specifically His death and resurrection. Now, does that apply any less on Christmas? Is there really that much less to celebrate as a gathered body of believers during the culmination of Advent? I can’t recall ever once hearing a Christian talk about staying home on Easter Sunday to spend more time with family, open Easter baskets, or hunt for hidden eggs.
The only difference I can think of is that we’ve become accustomed to gathering for worship on Easter and staying home on Christmas. Because Easter, by definition, is always on a Sunday, we long ago settled that question, and Easter worship has become our practice. I also suspect that if the makers of the church calendar centuries ago had attached Christmas to a Sunday, we wouldn’t face this apparent dilemma every few years but would instead reflexively gather as a church and build our other family traditions around that annual worship service.
Consider two fundamental questions at the heart of this matter. First, why do we physically gather in the same place for worship as a church each Sunday? Seriously, pause to actually answer that because it may help you discern how Christmas fits in this discussion. And second, what is an adequate justification for abstaining from corporate worship with your local church? In fairness, a variety of circumstances may legitimately cause you to miss gathering with the church — anything from sickness to travel… or even a hurricane. To be clear, I don’t think we’re compelled by scripture to gather for worship every Christmas. I think we’re compelled to gather for worship every Sunday, as has been the practice of the church for two thousand years.
We’ve spent the past month celebrating the fact that Jesus willingly left His home in heaven to come be Immanuel — “God with us” — the Savior of the world. As followers of Jesus, we should be so moved by His sacrifice for us and His example to us (Philippians 2:5-11) that we would gladly give up even the Christmas morning comforts of our homes to gather with other believers in worship of our Lord. We are sent in the same way Jesus was sent, called to be light in a dark world, and should therefore stand in stark contrast to the culture and norms of the world around us.
A group of American atheists has strategically placed billboards across the country encouraging people to “Make Christmas Great Again: Skip Church.” While the thought of observing an “Atheist Christmas” is disturbing for several reasons, this is the logical end for a holiday that has become increasingly defined by celebrating family gatherings, wrapped presents, special food, holiday drinks, decorated trees, and sentimental feelings — rather than worshiping God in the flesh. All of those elements can add to our enjoyment of Christmas, but they should never replace our primary affection for the Lord in the manger.
C.S. Lewis commented that if we live at the same level of affluence as our lost neighbors who have our same level of income, then we’re probably giving away too little. I think the same principle holds true for our celebration of Christmas. If Christians and atheists are both skipping church on a Sunday for basically the same reasons, then someone might be missing the point. If we’re celebrating Christmas the exact same way as our lost neighbors, then we’re probably doing something wrong.
However you choose to celebrate Christmas this year, I hope that you’ll do so based on your our convictions and as an expression of your devotion to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6), and I pray that God will graciously bless all of you with His peace this Christmas (Luke 2:14).