January 24, 2021

Another Look: Evangelicals and Special Seasons

Easter Lily 1

Note from CM: We’re giving Michael Spencer the week off. Instead, I will revive this post from my early days of writing for him.

This was one of the first posts I did for Internet Monk, back in 2009.

I wrote it in the early days of attending a Lutheran church, having left pastoral ministry in a non-denominational congregation, bouncing around and trying to find my footing in the post-evangelical wilderness.

One thing that impressed me about our congregation was the seriousness with which services were planned for particular seasons and occasions. The colors, banners, vestments and decorations, the music, the readings, and the extra services people attended reinforced that these were special days, that they deserved a priority place on our calendars, and that our worship was going to be shaped by the gospel story of Jesus and not of our own devising.

I’ve done some editing to update the post, but it still sets forth the same questions.

And oh, yes. This week is Holy Week, and where I live it once more coincides with spring break. And I’m leading services at our church. Wonder who will show?

♱ ♱ ♱

When I ministered in suburban evangelical churches (nine years in one as a “worship pastor”), there were two times each year when I struggled most against the infiltration of American secular culture into the church. These two times also happened to be the main feasts of the church, Christmas and Easter. One would think that, of all times in the year, Christians would keep these two seasons sacred, but what I have found is —

1. The way people approach these seasons is defined more by individual and family traditions than by church traditions.

In our busy and mobile society, the holidays are travelin’ times and family get-together times first and foremost.

As a pastor and worship leader, I encouraged our people to follow the liturgical calendar to some extent. Inevitably however, we had to push special Christmas events earlier into December in order to successfully “compete” against family gatherings and programs. Or, we found that Holy Week and Spring Break (the true holiday?) conflicted, so that we almost always had to announce and celebrate the resurrection before commemorating when Jesus went to the Cross! 

Christmas Eve and Good Friday services were usually poorly attended. Ash Wednesday? Lent? No chance. Forget about planning additional gatherings or service opportunities during Advent or the time around Easter. The extra effort involved in putting together special ways of commemorating the great events of our faith seemed wasted when we considered how few would participate or attend.

I know that seems like I’m emphasizing how many people attend as a measure of success, but from a pastor’s perspective it’s more than that. We are called, as Paul said, to labor until Christ is formed in our people (Galatians 4:19), and folks simply taking off at the most important times of the year is discouraging.

2. Patterns of worship in some congregations vary little from the way worship is practiced during other parts of the year.

One pastor with whom I worked insisted that, except for some decorations and maybe a couple of different songs, worship on special days would be exactly the same as on any other Sunday. His reasoning was that more unbelievers would attend services on those days and that we should therefore show them what the church is like all the time. He usually did not change his message but continued the Bible book series he was teaching, the band played mostly the same praise and worship songs, and the “feel” of the service was consistent with other Sundays.

I always thought he missed the point of worship and the importance of God’s family celebrating Jesus and his works in these special seasons. We also missed the opportunity to use the seasons as special opportunities for the spiritual formation of believers. And I disagreed about special days having a primarily evangelistic focus, believing that we are primarily to reach unbelievers in the world, not in the worship services of the church.

In my experience in evangelicalism, whenever the church calendar has a face-off with the family calendar, school calendar, or community calendar, the church calendar usually loses.

I have had countless discussion with church leaders about this, and I wonder what you think.

Here are a few questions these things raise for me, especially when I look at it from a pastor’s perspective.

How far should we go in accommodating culture?

On the other hand, are there times when the church should simply insist that “this is what church is, and this is what we do to fulfill God’s calling in Christ,” exhorting our people to make the services of the church a priority? And if we do this, how do we avoid becoming legalistic or overly critical about it?

Then again, shouldn’t we also affirm the goodness and sacredness of being with family, enjoying life and blessings such as travel and seasons of refreshment?



  1. Richard Hershberger says

    Spring break coinciding with Easter is not an accident. The public school calendar has the church calendar built in, though nowadays we are discreet about it. “Winter break” isn’t a problem, since Christmas is the same date every year, but some mental gymnastics are required for spring break to just happen to fall at Easter.

    On a different note, I find it very odd that Christmas Eve services are poorly attended. Traditionally in the mainlines, Christmas Eve and Easter are the two big days when the nominals show up. Good Friday is less surprising. Any midweek service is likely to get thin attendance. Back in the day, Good Friday was a quasi-holiday, especially in areas with a large Catholic population. Society seems to have pretty much moved past that.

    As for how much the Christmas and Easter services should resemble other services, there is a delicate balance. I attend the Christmas Eve early family service at the local Methodist church, where my wife and kids go. It has little that distinguishes it from a school holiday concert. The Christmas and Easter services at my own, Lutheran, church are the liturgy with seasonal music and some extras. Christian worship consists of Word and Sacrament. Move away from that and you have something else.

    • idk, Christmas Eve was always about family to me, and I don’t mean your “church family”. It’s a night of rest, of which church rarely provides. And the few times I remember going to a Christmas Eve service growing up, they got weird…like, let’s all light candles and circle the sanctuary and hold hands and sing the Doxology. It seemed to be church just for the sake of being church, maybe having a special kids session when all the kids come up to the stage and get candy and the pastor says something special to them while all the parents ooh and aah at their little ones with the pastor…

      idk. I like not having church on Christmas Eve. Or Christmas Day. Mandatory attendance is discouraged.

      • Yeah; I feel ya’. As a kid it was weird. Cool weird, because candles = fire = cool. But as an adult I attended a Lutheran Christmas Eve service in a very beautiful gothic church. It was pretty epic. We didn’t have kids at the time, and afterwords we stopped at a sushi restaurant because it was the only restaurant open on Christmas Eve. We are pretty damn sure we conceived our first on that night! So, it ended up being “inspirational”. 😉

    • Christiane says

      Can’t remember more beautiful childhood Christmases than the ones when it snowed when we went to midnight mass . . . yes to candles and seasonal hymns, yes to the beauty of worship together with family on the night of all nights, and yes to the ‘newness’ of the Story which is told each year to a new flock of children and is celebrated with Scripture readings . . . that it happens again and again and again is good: for the things pertaining to Christ are timeless and mysterious and are able to retain a ‘newness’ for the sake of all souls now living and all souls to be born in future

      . . . midnight mass: it is as if we also were present in Bethlehem in spirit on that night

  2. turnsalso says

    So I must ask, did any of our American readers see “The Passion” (no, not that one) on FOX yesterday? I found it to be a powerful and refreshing presentation of our story. Rather than being hokey, the intersection of popular secular songs with the story of Holy Week (there’s your connection to today’s post!) actually emphasized and colored it in, I believe. It was a refreshing production that put a million maudlin church pageants to shame.

    Anyone else?

    • My wife put it on while I was doing a crossword puzzle in the kitchen so I overheard about the last 15 minutes. It sounded pretty good and not politically correct. I was surprised. It didn’t cater to the “don’t specicifically use the word Jesus” contingent. It wasn’t vague.

      • turnsalso says

        We saw maybe the last half hour or so, starting right around St. Peter’s third denial. I was pretty surprised by the openness as well, but FOX loves controversy, so it kind of fits that they of all networks would take this project on.

        • Yes I was aware of that but I think this might be one of those cases where you say, “if they are not against us… ” Seems the gospel was being preached, whatever the layers of motive .

      • Richard Hershberger says

        I am bemused by this use of “politically correct.” Could you point me to some comparable production that avoids the word “Jesus”?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Richards Topical Encyclopedia, mid- to late-Fifties edition. Had it on our bookshelves when I was growing up, courtesy of those door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen of the period.

          I remember reading it cover-to-cover as a kid, and noticed they NEVER used the word “Jesus” — always some circumlocution like “Founder of Christianity”.

          Looking back, I found this kind of odd, as this encyclopedia dated from the same Nifty Fifties that was allegedly the Godly Golden Age of America where everybody prayed in schools and went to church.

          • Britannica it ain’t…

          • Richard Hershberger says

            I’m not familiar with it, but the 1950s was the heyday of “liberal theology,” which more or less is Christianity with the religious parts taken out. Liberal theology is pretty much a dead letter nowadays. For all that John Shelby Spong is used as a bugaboo to this day, I have never heard liberal theology espoused either from the pulpit or privately. But it survives in a tacit assumption that anyone who votes for a Democrat is a liberal, and therefore if this person goes to a church, it must be a liberal church, espousing liberal theology. I suspect that this is why when an Evangelical realizes he can’t stomach the Republican Party anymore, he tends to self-identify as a “Progressive Christian.”

          • So-called Secular Theology was influential in Protestant mainline, and even Catholic, seminaries in the 1960s and 70s, Richard. It shaped the personal spirituality of many clergy, and influenced liturgies in many denominations. I think many Christians today would consider it “liberal theology”.

        • Well I did think of that after I typed it. Of course if you’re talking about the passion you have to use the word Jesus. I suppose the point I was getting at is that it was very specific to Christ and the cross as opposed to a vague higher power type thing aimed at appealing to the broadest TV demographic, offending the least. Seasonal reflections of warm religiosity and Easter gaiety. When my wife turned it on they were describing the agony that would result from having your feet nailed to a post and trying to support your weight so as not to be asphyxiated. It was pointed I guess was my point.

          • Richard Hershberger says

            What gets me is the idea that a network TV show (or a movie distributed to multiplexes) with an explicitly Christian topic–especially Christmas or Easter–is anything out of the mainstream. To the contrary, these have been around since forever.

            I think the tricky part of this is that these productions come in two varieties. Those with something interesting to say will inevitably be considered “controversial.” Those inclined to gather the tiny band of the faithful into an armed camp will count these productions as evidence that Christianity is under siege. (I am thinking specifically of The Last Temptation of Christ, which was roundly condemned by people who had not seen it and who had no intention of ever doing so.) The alternative is forgettable Sunday school pablum. I generally assume any random production will be the latter. On the rare occasions I am wrong I can go back and see it later.

    • My husband watched for about 15 minutes and then moved on to something else. He said it was not to his liking at all.

      • turnsalso says

        Interesting! What about it was disagreeable?

        I notice that for me it seemed to check all the boxes that would normally cause me to roll my eyes (turning pop songs about romance into pop songs about Jesus, ads for Christianese subculture in the commercials, historical setting turned into modern setting…) and yet, I didn’t roll my eyes once. I found it to be anything but the “forgettable Sunday school pablum” that Richard described above. Maybe it was the spectacle, or my deep and abiding love for everything Tyler Perry does, but I choose to attribute it to the Holy Spirit this time.

      • I’m not sure what he didn’t like, exactly, he just said it was “lame”. I had no interest in watching. I thought it sounded very, well, “lame.” But then, as a rule, I just don’t get anything out of dramatizations of the Bible.

  3. We are the family that travels for holidays. We don’t live near our families (well, mine is mostly gone now, but even when they were alive) and we didn’t have kids, so we were the portable ones while the rest of the family got to stay put.

    My family attended church, so we would go to their church’s special services. My in-laws did not, so we didn’t attend when visiting them. Had a church reached out to at least seem open to non-local visitors at that time, I may have gone by myself.

    As long as we’re a transient society the holidays will be travel times, until the time that the society is so secular even those holidays won’t be celebrated anymore.

    Your attendance issue may also be related to the commercial culture not closing during the times of your services so people are at work. Would we give up the convenience of shopping on Sunday to be able to have special times like we used to?

  4. Michael Bell says

    A side note: Tim Horton’s, the Canadian coffee giant, has a “Roll up the Rim to Win!” contest right around this time of year. I believe the timing of coinciding with Lent is more than coincidental. Give up coffee for Lent? Not in Canada!

    • Christiane says

      Best coffee I ever had in my life was almost fifty years ago in Montreal. We were on our honeymoon and every morning we ordered coffee and pastries from the hotel kitchen room service . . . it was at the old elegant Windsor Hotel in the heart of the city, now sadly no longer in service . . .

      in those days, my husband and I were used to ‘American’ light-roasted coffee, so the darker roast in Montreal was a treat for us, especially . . . a few years later, when we were stationed in Washington D.C., I found a little coffee shop on Wisconsin Ave. near M Street in Georgetown that had different kinds of coffees and I was ‘re-united’ with my beloved dark roasts . . . many fond memories of the good Canadian coffee in Montreal and I don’t blame anyone for not giving coffee up in the colder climate of that beautiful country which was homeland to my father as a child. 🙂

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Give up coffee for Lent? Not in Canada!

      How about giving up beer and back bacon, eh?
      (I used to listen to a lot of Mackenzie Bros skits…)

  5. Michael Bell says

    I am of two minds about the showing “them what the church is like all the time.”

    One church I attended would put a special emphasis on the church choir during Christmas and Easter. The problem is that the choirs were not very good. On a couple of occasions I thought to myself. “When you have visitors wouldn’t it be wise to put your best foot forward?”

    That being said, on Good Friday my preference is to go to a manline church. They tend to “get” Good Friday. On Easter Sunday my preference is to go to a Pentecostal Church (that is somewhat church year aware and isn’t afraid to sing Easter Hymns.) They certainly know how to celebrate.

    Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!
    Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
    Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
    Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth, reply, Alleluia!

    Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
    Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
    Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
    Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

    Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
    Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
    Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
    Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

    Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
    Foll’wing our exalted Head, Alleluia!
    Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
    Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

    Hail the Lord of earth and heaven, Alleluia!
    Praise to Thee by both be given, Alleluia!
    Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
    Hail the Resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

    King of glory, Soul of bliss, Alleluia!
    Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
    Thee to know, Thy pow’r to prove, Alleluia!
    Thus to sing, and thus to love, Alleluia!

  6. I stopped by the Episcopal Church in Cadillac yesterday to see where it was. This is the church that according to their website has a contemplative service first Sunday of the month, which I would like to try, but a friend tells me they are also going thru an interim pastor meltdown so I don’t know. In any case, their sign said they are having their Easter service at 2:00 pm next Sunday, everyone welcome. That likely includes even me and I may well go. Two o’clock in the afternoon is reasonable and doable. Nine in the morning is not. Sorry, Paul, maybe I’m just a slacker, but talk about someone other than Jesus manipulating my spiritual formation does not make me want to set my alarm clock.

    Christmas and Easter didn’t happen at the two most significant natural religious times of the year in the northern hemisphere by coincidence. The winter solstice and the spring equinox are observable, measurable events that make a huge difference in our lives, in our very survival on earth. Jesus honored them by being born in increasing light, and then being reborn into new life along with daffodils and flirting birds. Maybe not so much chocolate rabbit eggs, probably even less binge drinking in Fort Lauderdale or Cancun, but these also celebrate the season in their own way.

    No one here mentioned the equinox yesterday. It’s kind of forbidden in the church, pagan you know, and all that comes along with those awful Canaanites and Babylonians and New Agers. I find it much more relevant to my quest for continuous resurrection life than the liturgical church year calendar I’ve got up on my wall. Daylight affects me physically, mentally, and emotionally, and the tide moves in and out as our mother Earth breathes in her yearly cycle. Increasingly I am finding the church calendar to be out of sync and artificial, but not so much the lectionary. I still find that three year cycle of Scripture absorption meaningful and useful.

    Is our purpose and duty here to honor and lift up Jesus week by week, or is our purpose here to live out the resurrection life he made possible here and now, moment by moment. Do we make the kingdom a better place to live by spending as much time in church as possible, or by loving God in our neighbor? Someone is going to tell me I need to do both. Well, yeah, and I could push a peanut with my nose if that would help. I like the part where Jesus says I will know the truth and the truth will make me free, but then I’m probably some kind of radical, if not a heretic.

  7. Christiane says

    I know that there are some fundamentalist evangelicals that turn away from celebrating portions of the Church Year and who brag about it, saying that for Christmas they are not going to change their sermons’ topics . . . I think they must relent a bit when it comes to Easter morning . . . how could they not ?

    One example recently of a discussion on a Southern Baptist blog I follow was entitled “Why I Encourage People Not to Observe Lent”. The author gave this as one main reason for his advice: ” Lent is not in the Bible, nor anything resembling it.” The article is followed by many comments, mostly agreeing, but some that differ in their opinion(s) and it is all a very interesting look into the phenomenon of how fundamentalism wrestles with the traditions of the Church that are widely held among most Christian people.

    Out of compassion for the author, I went to his own blog and gave a listing of sacred Scriptures that are meaningful and often read during the Lenten season. My comment was removed from his blog, so I took that to mean he did not agree with me, although I hoped to help convey that the Scriptures are celebrated and read aloud in Lenten services by the wider Church. Well, at least I tried to comprehend the other point of view and to share my own, and I think that was important to do. There are different levels of tolerance for the great traditional observances of the Church among those who have turned away from ‘tradition’, but it is good to try to share with them why those traditions are not alien to the content of the sacred Scriptures, in my opinion.

    • No easier way to get hated than to point out inconsistencies.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      There is an old strain in some versions of Protestantism against celebrating Christmas. This is partly based on an argument that the Bible doesn’t tell us what time of year Jesus was born, so assigning a date to is is unbiblical. On a related note is the argument that Christmas is Popish. Finally, the pre-Victorian Christmas was a pretty raucous affair. Think of those songs about wassailing, and the fine line separating that from extortion.

      The New England Puritans were in the no-Christmas category. They made a point of ostentatiously treating it like any other day, going to work and to church exactly like any other day.

      You see this tradition surviving in some strains of modern Evangelicalism, but my sense is that it is pretty rare nowadays. It also runs against the pleasures of being outraged of being greeted in an unapproved manner.

      None of this applies to Easter, whose timing is pretty clear from the text.

      As for Lent, it is explicitly in reference to Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness. The claim that there is nothing resembling it in the Bible is simply proud ignorance.

  8. Steve Newell says

    How many “evangelical” churches will have Maunday Thursday or Good Friday services? These are two of the most significant days in the Christian church and many churches don’t place enough importance to hold services. This is in the same vain of not having Christmas Eve or Christmas Day Services.

    I know this sounds harsh but how many have “Eater Egg Hunts” or had the “Eater Bunny” come to visit their churches but they don’t hold services during Holy Week?

    The historic Church Year and corresponding readings in the common lectionaries help us to keep focused on the main thing: Christ.

  9. Dana Ames says

    Our school district has spring break in the middle of the semester. If Holy Week falls in that calendar week, fine, and if not, you’re out of luck as an observant Christian, unless you’re okay with the dreaded Unexcused Absences. In my county, the high end estimate for regular attendance at a worship service (Christian or Jewish) is 15% of the population.

    When I was a child, spring break was always the week after Easter, to accommodate people who wanted to travel; in addition, school was never in session on Good Friday. Some businesses closed for Good Friday afternoon, and most had no problem with employees who wanted that time off to go to a church service.

    I have friends in my book group who served as Baptist missionaries in Uganda for many years; they come from an extraordinary family who are anything but Fundamentalist, and really do accept people on their own terms – the complete opposite of the stereotypical Baptist. They often offer the book group the gentle reminder, based on their experience abroad and here in the US, that Culture Always Wins.

    It sometimes astonishes me (though I understand that pov from having been in that place for some years) how Evangelicals can ignore the history of Christianity, including worship practices that were common long before the Big Bad Catholic Church moved in, spoiling the “first century church” and displacing the Holy Spirit…. The first thing I did to try to answer the questions I had when I was in the Wilderness was go back in time to the writings of people of the ancient Church, before that supposed “spoilage” took place, looking for how scripture was interpreted closer in time to the events it records. That was my actual first step out of Protestantism. I think Newman is right, except I went east, rather than reverting.

    The other thing some Evangelicals do to try to avoid anything Romish or “corrupted” (again, I understand because I did this) is to latch on to the Jewish feasts, of course with Christian understanding about their meaning. Somehow the Jewish feasts seem purer than the celebrations of the Christian calendar, and those special days are okay.

    The thing is, as much as some Evangelicals deny that there really are no “special days” (except perhaps Easter), the vast majority are fine with birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, etc…. Human beings will make ritual, and that includes finding “special days” – if not in church, then by some other means. One of the things I discovered on my journey is that ritual is not a dirty word; it is the way humans make sense of, and participate more fully in, the unseen aspects of life.


  10. Your questions are good ones, CM, and me-thinks there are no easy, nor correct, answers, even if some here think there are. Answers are probably as varied and contentious as trying to figure out if church worship is strictly for the believer, or for the non-believer to come and perhaps encounter God and Jesus in meaningful way (perhaps for the first time). Answers to these questions probably drift into using the word “should,” which is a word I hate and which tends to bring with it judgmental-ism. “Your church should offer Christmas eve services” or “Your church should do Easter THIS way”…well, those don’t fly with me. Most pastors probably feel they’re being guided by the Holy Spirit; who am I to say they aren’t.

    One thing that strikes me about special Christmas and Easter programs is that it requires people sacrifice their own time to help the church in its preparation and presentation of those services. It’s one thing to say, “A church should provide special Christmas eve services”, but it’s another to then demand members of the congregation (and even church staff) to “come help.” I tend to give people/pastors/churches grace whenever they do NOT do something special as it means they’ve avoided the ever-annoying “we’re looking for volunteers”. Personally, I wish my church did a little more during Advent and for Good Friday/Easter preparation, but since I’m not jumping up and down to help…well, there’s the answer.

    We’ve been to Christmas eve services in the past and have loved them, but for the past 10 years or so we’ve just stayed at home and enjoyed the family company. In the interim, some of those family members have since passed on, so we’re glad we had time together even though we missed out on Christmas eve services.

    Because of Spring Break travel plans, we’ve missed an Easter service or two. Likewise, we’ve sometimes scheduled our trips to AVOID missing the Easter service. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to be judged one way or the other.

  11. This post was a little curious to me, perhaps because I am in mainline church and we have always celebrated these special days. I can’t imagine them being moved around to accommodate people who prefer to travel. What I didn’t see here was any mention of how much effort goes into offering all that special music, flowers, special decorations, etc. As a church musician, I can assure you that the choir busts their butts trying to get ready for any and all special events. Thankfully, in recent years our Christmas Eve services have been reduced from 4 to 3, so we can head home a little after 10:00. Easter is still a full 4 services, though the choir doesn’t sing for the sunrise one. But we also sing on Good Friday, so that makes up for it. Of course there are those who have family obligations, especially on Christmas Eve. The rest of us just carry on.

    • You’re exactly right, Ann. As a pastor, heck even as a choir member, it was easy to resent those frolicking on a beach somewhere while we, their brothers and sisters, were working our tails off.

  12. Burro [Mule] says

    I notice that the secular calendar is pretty highly favored in a lot of churches, Mothers’ Day being an especial favorite, followed by Super Bowl Sunday, Veteran’s Day, the 4th of July. In more “progressive” churches, Earth Day gets a nod.

  13. We are still in a church that does not follow the Church calendar, excepting, of course, Christmas and Easter. We, at one point, were in a church in which the pastor would not hold sunrise services because his belief was that those services sprang from pagan sun worship. For the same reason, he would not refer to Easter as Easter because it was a corruption of the word “Ishtar”, the name of an ANE fertility goddess.; he always used the title “Resurrection Sunday.”

    I’m not sure how to answer your questions other than to say “yes”, “I don’t know”, and “yes”. I have, however, thoroughly enjoyed and been blessed in the past couple of years by attending liturgical churches that follow the traditional church calendar.; coming from a tradition that does not, I’ve found it to be an enriching and moving experience.

  14. Before our evangelical church (which we no longer attend) had midnight service on Christmas Eve, we would go to the Lutheran Church around the corner. We, like others, would travel on CE to family during the day, but could be home in time for that late service. We loved it. Then our evang/Baptist church started one–we went there a few times then stopped–because the pastor (as on sundays) couldn’t STOP talking….story, after story, etc…waaaay past midnight and we had young ones/teens.
    Now we are the Lutheran Church full time, walk there every sunday morning, and we always go to the Maunday Thursday service.
    IDK….for years did not attend Easter services cuz had to travel to family that day.

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