Friday, December 23, 2011

Churches to Close On Sunday

Nearly 10% of Protestant churches in the US will be closed this Sunday. And why? Because it is Christmas.

Heavens. What are these churches going to do when Easter falls on a Sunday?

The logic here is baffling to us. Christmas is a good reason to go to church; Sunday is a good reason to go to church. How is it that the combination of the two somehow becomes a reason to stay home? And what sort of pastors accept this reason?

Apparently, Lutheran ones. Over the last few weeks, we've observed a couple of online discussions of this phenomenon, including one among our Lutheran colleagues. At least a few of them it seems, will be among the nearly 10%. We find this profoundly shocking.

At the WSJ, David Gibson offers a mildly outraged op-ed piece on the subject, which tries to locate the problem in a conflict between beloved domestic traditions (stockings hung by the mantle with care) and public ones (going to Mass). That's certainly the gist of it; pastors are deciding to cancel worship because they don't expect large crowds.

This, to us, is the core of the problem -- and make no mistake, we do consider it a problem. Parish churches are not, generally speaking, summer chapels. By this we mean that the implicit contract made by churches (and their pastors) both wit members and with society at large is that they will hold services, at the very least on Sundays and holy days. The service in question need not be especially grand; read some lessons, preach a sermon, confect a sacrament and off we go.

Okay, yes, we confess that over the years we have ourselves polled the parish and opted to transfer a few holy days, including big ones. The Epiphany and the Ascension are especially vulnerable. But Christmas is different; it is the second great feast of the church year, and for many Christians secretly the greater of the two. For some people, it possesses an emotional power which can bring them to the heights of exaltation, or provoke a profound depression. There may not be many people in worship on Christmas Day, but those who show up do so for a reason, and it seems cruel to abandon them.

As for the Lord's Day, which is in fact a feast more central -- more essential, in that it touches directly upon the churchs' esse, its being -- than either Easter or Christmas, the idea of simply shutting the church down when it could be open seems to fall somewhere between bad judgment and sacrilege. Are we so entirely governed by the logic of the marketplace that we will abandon our most fundamental duty simply because we don't expect a crowd?

Beyond the one point, Gibson's thinking is a bit muddled -- none of this has much to do with either the Puritans or St. Augustine; he seems to elide the distinction between holding a service that is shortened or goofy ("the Jingle Bell Mass") and holding none at all -- but he does make one point that every pastor ought to hear clearly:
Perhaps it's a bit puritanical to insist that believers dump their cherished family traditions to march off to church on Christmas morning. But it's also self-defeating to complain about keeping Christmas holy when churches close on Dec. 25.
There's the real point, right there: if you close the church, you lose the right to complain that nobody comes.


LoieJ said...

This was a new feature on one of the networks this morning. The pastor who was interviewed gave a wishy washy answer, all over the place, about how not having church gives families time to spend together. Huh? Like they couldn't spend time together in church? Like they aren't spending time together when they skip church the other Sundays? They talked about polling their membership.

Our small town church will have two Christmas eve services and one on Christmas morning. We usually have only one service on a weekend, ie Sunday morning, attended by about 100 - 140 people. I would expect that Christmas morning won't have a huge turnout. We won't be there because we will be at the church where our daughter is pastor. And her church is tiny, but she will also have the three services.

I have to admire the Roman Catholics, although one could say that they work their priests too hard because of the shortage of good men (they should ask the women...) The RC churches near here have Sat evening and Sunday morning services EACH week in two towns, with just one priest, even though turnout is small always.

mark said...

Right. Well, see my comments over at the Pietati post regarding Advent.

Anonymous said...

well said.