Now it's official: The "Have Yourself a Megachurch Christmas" story is going to roll all the way through Dec. 25, which is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (to get technical about it). I think it is safe to predict the presence of the odd network and local news satellite truck or two on the lawns of the more prominent of these superchurches on Christmas Eve, with journalists interviewing the faithful as they enter about their views of the entire affair. Merry Christmas.
Who, I wonder, will be the first to broadcast video clips from the Willowcreek Community Church DVD that this trailblazing congregation is handing out for members to pop into their home entertainment centers on Sunday morning in place of gathering for corporate prayer, praise and, heaven forbid, something resembling the sacraments? (Photos from the church's website.)
Wasn't that a nasty way of wording the current situation?
You see, there are at least two stories of substance lurking behind this little media firestorm. The first is obvious and has now officially been locked into Holy Writ by Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times. Here it is right under the lead, with the headline "When Christmas Falls on Sunday, Megachurches Take the Day Off."
Some of the nation's most prominent megachurches have decided not to hold worship services on the Sunday that coincides with Christmas Day, a move that is generating controversy among evangelical Christians at a time when many conservative groups are battling to "put the Christ back in Christmas."
This assumes, of course, that the moderate evangelicals who huddle in some of these megachurches are the same kinds of people who are out there on the front lines of the Christmas wars. This is highly unlikely, I think. But it is true that this particular battle has pounded a wedge into some cracks in the large, but terribly vague, world that sprawls around under that vague umbrella word "evangelicalism." You cannot say this too often: Not all evangelicals think alike and act alike. Ask Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell.
The other story concerns the decision to cancel worship services at all.
Here, there are two entirely different attitudes at play and Goodstein (and many other reporters) are hinting at a division in doctrine between Protestants and ancient churches, but not really underlining it. However, Goodstein does write:
The uproar is not only over closing the churches on Christmas Day, because some evangelical churches large and small have done that in recent years and made Christmas Eve the big draw, without attracting much criticism.
What some consider the deeper affront is in canceling services on a Sunday, which most Christian churches consider the Lord's Day, when communal worship is an obligation. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was in 1994. Some of these same megachurches remained open them, they say, but found attendance sparse.
This is only part of the story.
Churches that follow the ancient traditions of Christianity and, to one degree or another, honor its liturgical calendar, would never think of not gathering for worship on one of the most important Holy Days in Christianity -- period. Sunday, or Monday, or Tuesday or whatever.
Christmas is Christmas. It's the Christ Mass. You observe it in the early hours of the morning right after midnight and then come back on the day itself. This is part of what it means to be a church.
Or is it? What's the larger question here and this whole episode helps point out the degree to which there are American churches, following the American calendar and its rites, and then there are, uh, churches that are part of the global history and community of Christianity in the broader, ancient sense of the word.
Here's Goodstein again:
Canceling worship on Christmas Day appears to be predominantly a megachurch phenomenon, sociologists of religion say.
"This attachment to a particular day on the calendar is just not something that megachurches have been known for," Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, said. "They're known for being flexible and creative, and not for taking these traditions, seasons, dates and symbols really seriously."
P.S. For coverage of this story from the inside, click here for a new Christianity Today weblog essay.