December 5, 2020

Another Look: Evangelicalism and Special Seasons

By Chaplain Mike

Note from CM: This article was originally posted on Dec. 2, 2009. As we prepare to mark Advent and Christmas again this year, I thought we might revisit it and discuss how our churches approach special seasons.

When I ministered in suburban evangelical churches (nine years in one as 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 holy 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. 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.

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 it 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, for one thing. And the importance of God’s family celebrating Jesus and his works in these special seasons. And the opportunity to use the seasons for the spiritual formation of believers. And the fact 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.

Open Mic Discussion
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 we do to fulfill God’s calling in Christ,” and exhort the people in our congregations to make the services of the church their priority? And if we do this, how do we avoid becoming legalistic or domineering over our congregations?


  1. You didn’t even mention the effect of sports–as you live in Colts territory, as I do, you know to plan around games. You are on to a big problem in some places. I am glad to be a UM with the opportunity to follow the Church year.

  2. I think pastors’ views of this can be skewed by the fact that the church is their business. But the church’s job is to fit people to be christians out in the world — at those family gatherings and football games. So getting bent out of shape by people putting those events before the church would be sort of like my getting upset because people would rather graduate and get jobs than come to my classes ad infinitum.

    What could the church do to support people faced with these holiday events and help them prepare to be christian at them? In my experience, weight watchers does more to prepare people for the real challenges of the holiday than most churches do.

    Now I’m also wondering what church would be like if it had a concept of graduation, rather than a model based on permanently retaining the attendees at about the same level of knowledge and authority. In my business, the idea that people will graduate and have to use the skills we’ve taught them holds our feet to the fire. What would it be like if churches had a similar objective?

    • I am not a pastor, so it’s not only pastor’s views that are skewed, as you put it. When December 25th falls on a Sunday, I wish my church would stay open to worship. Unfortunately, many low-church, protestant denominations close down like we’re a business.

      I agree and disagree with your argument. I disagree with the graduation concept as far as liturgy is concerned. Has a Jewish man or woman not “graduated” because their family continues to observe the ritual of the Passover Seder year after year into their adulthood? Of course not. The difference is, the Jewish tradition has made their liturgy and divine memory a vital part of their family home practice.

      I agree that the church’s job is to fit people to be christians out in the world — at those family gatherings and football games. Ritual does not take precedence over a Christian’s relationship and involvement with the world. But, I would suggest that the divine memory is part of that “fitting.”

      So where does the middle ground come in? I personally wish churches would not only focus their services on the traditional themes surrounding the church calendar during significant times of the year, but that they would also teach their congregation how to celebrate those themes as a family at home. Then those who had pressing family functions to attend would have the tools to still participate as a family, at home, as their schedule allows; while those who are able to attend the so-called “extra” services would still have the opportunity to doso.

      Either way, I really dislike the argument that a Christmas or Easter service should be just like any regular service. I wouldn’t go to a Jimmy Buffett concert because it’s familiar or he sounds like some other artist. I would go because it’s uniquely Jimmy Buffett. So why do we assume that people don’t want what’s uniquely Jesus? Isn’t that why they show up in the first place?

  3. I have no suggestions for this one, Chaplain Mike. It sounds like the labour of Sisyphus to me, particularly as you say regarding the tradition of everyone travelling long distances to be home in time for Christmas.

    I imagine then that the four Sundays of Advent would be even more important? Because you can’t count on anyone turning up for Christmas Day services, and the week before you might as well forget about, then the last Sunday in Advent would be particularly important as the last opportunity to have everyone in and concentrating on the spiritual aspect?

    Good Friday is always a quiet day in the church anyways, since there’s the Stations of the Cross at around 3 p.m. and then an evening service of the Celebration of the Passion (Liturgy of the Word, Veneration of the Cross, and Mass of the Pre-Sanctified). The Holy Saturday Vigil is the big one here.

    No chance of getting people in for Ash Wednesday or a Maundy Thursday foot-washing?

    • Argh, brain freeze (the weather has turned very cold over here suddenly). Ash Wednesday is of course at the start of Lent; I was thinking of the Wednesday in Holy Week, which in Ireland was called Spy Wednesday (and which Wikipedia helpfully informs me is called Holy and Great Wednesday by our Orthodox brethren).

      You should ask Fr. Ernesto what they do for that week 🙂

  4. Well just make it a holy day of obligation, of course… 😉 But if your congregation would view that as legalism, just lie and say that it’s their kid’s soccer game, or an important business meeting. Then they’ll move EVERYthing to attend.

    Probably the best thing a pastor can do is just make frequent reminders that the Christmas Eve/Good Friday service is coming up, that it’s a very important time of the year for Christians, and that it’s a very special thing when Christians come together to worship, so how much more fitting that we do it on the occasion of our Savior’s birth/death/resurrection? Frankly, there’s not much else an evangelical Protestant pastor can do other than make frequent but gentle reminders that it’s coming up and that it’s A Good Thing For Christians To Do.

    • Yep! Sports is the new religion of the middle class! Just make it a Holy Day of Obligation AND a soccer practice…better yet call it a HDO AND a “gifted & talented soccer practice!!!!

  5. I resonate with the entire post, both the trials and the purposeful hope that we may altogether get it at some point. I’m pastoring that church and I’ve been that pastor.

    I have struggled with the emphasizing to the point of legalism (having been involved with some of those legalisms in the past). There’s nothing more for me to do, that I am aware of, than to continue to plod along with the right and consistent message and hope for the hearts and lives of God’s people near me — not just for the salvation of those in need, but for the love and practice of being God’s people in community, which is family, and does not result in simple attendance to an event. So we offer communion (even in our non-denom/low-church tradition) and meet for prayer daily, and we celebrate Advent and the days of Christmas as best we know how, and Lent in its way, and more, and we remind, and offer, and hope, and kindly-cajole, and pray always. And we do this all the while trying to keep in plain sight that the Holy Spirit must do the ultimate work of convincing. Alas, I am not He, though I’ve applied for the position and have volunteered in the position frequently.

    I don’t mean to put it all off and say it’s just a work of the Spirit as if to absolve me from whatever work I am to be about. Rather, I recognize in the work I am to be about, it is only the Spirit which in the end can sign off on it. I don’t always find this encouraging. But I do always find this to be the final answer.

  6. hmmm, we’ve followed the Church year calendar (Lutheran) and while we certainly compete with swim meets, soccer and out of town stuff, Christmas Eve, Easter and other celebration days are packed. It is the peak of what we’ve been doing. It is the day that guests show up, and we pull out all the stops. No, it isn’t an ordinary worship day,, so you wouldn’t see what we “usually” do. Except what we usually do on a particular celebration day.
    Now this year we are a remnant of several churches that have come apart over the past year and we gather all the more eagerly, even on the ordinary days. We long to be together and celebrate, and gather together to note the passing of the church year into the next season. We are mashing together several traditons favorite meaningful bits and talking with each other about why they are important. So I might reccomend that being shaken up is sometimes useful, although dangerous.

  7. Pretty much in every Evangelical church I have ever been to the Christmas Eve service the church has been packed out. Good Friday to a lesser extent.

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

    I think the key word here is “some”. Yes, I have experienced that, but that has been the exception rather than the rule in the circles in which I have troubled. If it happens in a church in which I am established in, I complain loudly and vociferously, and it tends not to happen again!

  8. In retrospect, for the churches I used to attend, it was the only time you where likely to hear the gospel proclamation, that Christ died for me a sinner. The gospel only twice a year, for real? Instead I heard law, law, law, passed along as if it was a gift.

  9. Why not celebrate Orthodox Christmas (January 7, 2011)? 🙂

    • Tell you what, if I had my way, we’d celebrate the 12 Days of Christmastide and have special services of celebration each day!

      • “Like!”

        Since our church does NOT do that, we observe the 12 days at home. Given the theme of both Christmas and Epiphany of Jesus as Savior and King of the entire World, our family spends the 12 days reflecting upon how Christmas is celebrated in other world regions (when possible, with songs and food, as well), remembering that though others may celebrate Jesus’ coming differently, we’re still part of one big Kingdom family.

    • Buford Hollis says

      That’s not an “Orthodox” thing so much as a Julian-calendar thing. The Armenians (who are different from Orthodox) celebrate Jan 7, but most of the Greek world (except Athos and a few “old calendrist” groups) uses the Gregorian calendar.

      That said, it would be a good solution. Leave Santa to Dec 25 and give Jesus his own day.

  10. I’m not sure I see the conflict. Christmas is the celebration of Christ’s birthday. I would celebrate it joyously with whomever God brings through the doors. And this fantastic birthday party, if we don’t kill it with legalism, exudes evangelism. Party on!

    • I guess I’m looking at it from the standpoint of a pastor or worship leader, Libby. If many of your key people who usually lead worship and half your choir is out of town and many of your musicians not available, the party can be pretty humble. Not that I’m all opposed to that. I just hate to see so many folks miss out.

      • I see what you mean. Our congregation is small and attendance varies, but if the priest and one other person is there, the liturgy can be served. It can’t be about numbers. What does it say if a church needs a certain number of people to show up for a special service? Doesn’t that seem to say that the work is only worth it if there is a good turn-out? Or that the “show” is only good if the full choir is there? If we could stop viewing church as a capitalist enterprise, we would not be so worried about numbers.

        I think it’s a terrible shame if churches change the church calendar to accommodate a culture which is very broken. I think we need to stand firm – which is not being legalistic, just faithful – and keep our holy days as the Church has done for hundreds of years. The seasons of the church are such a blessing to us. So much the better for us to bend our ways to the Church than to give our faith priority only when it doesn’t conflict with our “lifestyle.”

      • Chaplain Mike,

        Wasn’t the party at the stable in Bethlehem pretty humble? My encouragement to pastors would not be to worry about it. God makes good parties.

  11. I don’t know the answers, CM. Wish I did. Think how much more rich and meaningful our faith, culture, etc. would be if we actually celebrated according to the ancient patterns…

  12. Buford Hollis says

    One of the reasons Christianity was able to arise in the first place, was that it provided a trans-imperial symbolic system in an age where local religious identities no longer sufficed. Today, as we go through a similar era of mobility and integration, Christianity will just have to find some way to adjust to this. Given that people are going to be moving around during the holidays, either they will find some way to reach out to the temporary visitors, or just lie low during the holidays. And why not? There’s nothing sacrosanct about Dec. 25, you know.

  13. I understand the leadership perspective of wanting to enrich ministries for special events when holiday attrition makes it a struggle to even maintain them. However, I really don’t see it as an obligation for believers to attend their home churches services during those times. There are many reasons for a person to travel on the holidays, and I doubt most of them involve traveling for the sake of traveling. Many are people who go home to their believing families and conduct their own home service. Many return to their families and go to their church service for tradition’s sake.

    I don’t think you guys mean to look down on people who leave town for the holidays, but it could easily come off that way. Also, it’s the responsibility of the pastor/leader to give the people who serve with them lead time and advanced notice so they can plan around it. In fact, my pastor asked our worship team if they planned to travel for christmas back in October and again last week.

    Anyway, this is still interesting food for thought. A lot of servants and pew-sitters would benefit from seeing this topic from the leaders’ perspective. In fact, I would guess that most don’t even realize that it IS an issue.

  14. I’m a pastor in a mainline denomination. Been there four years. We celebrate the church calendar, and I highly value it as a useful tool for spiritual formation. But this year I’ve finally had enough. I’m tired of fighting the Advent fight – waiting for Christmas hymns, a candlelight service on top of Christmas Eve for those who won’t show up on C.E. The whole thing. While I value the calendar, I’m not sure it is worth the fight anymore. I’m tired. Thanks for the post, I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    • I feel for you in your weariness.

      I’m curious, when you still “fought the Advent fight,” what, then, did the Christmas season look like? Did your church observe the seasonal 12 days and end with Epiphany?

      I ask because my church observes Advent, but then when Christmas comes, it just ends. It’s very anticlimactic; especially since our worship leader refuses to sing Christmas songs except during the C.E. service. She has a great dislike for them, for some reason. So I was just curious if your congregation just doesn’t appreciate Advent, or if they don’t feel like they get Christmas when Advent is done. Does that make sense?

  15. My husband and I grew up in small-town central Ohio at a time when most people were born, raised,lived and died with-in 50 miles of most of their extended family. Come Christmas and Easter the churches were full….and there were those who commented on and shook their heads at all the folks who only came to church twice a year.

    Today we live in an area that used to be one of those small Ohio town and today is the second fastest growing county in Ohio. We, like almost our entire church family,raised our kids away from grandparents and cousins. The weekends before Christmas, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day..yes, they were often times of travel and family get-togethers. And there are those who comment on and shake their heads at all the young families “not making church a priority” around the holidays.

    I am on staff at our church. I work in Kids’ Ministry so I know how it feels to need to prepare (read: recruit volunteers at a very busy time of year) for your usual 250 kids “just in case” but knowing full well that many of them will not be there.

    However, I simply am not prepared to suggest that the ‘proper’ thing for a young family to do would be to make attendance at “our church” a priority while Grandma sits home alone on Christmas.

    My husband and I had it easier than most because both our parents lived in the same county and were still married. We didn’t have to juggle multi-state journeys or navigate the rocky waters of step-families.

  16. 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 we do to fulfill God’s calling in Christ,” and exhort the people in our congregations to make the services of the church their priority? And if we do this, how do we avoid becoming legalistic or domineering over our congregations?

    I think you’re going to run into the problem of “Go to church and do these things or you’re going to Hell.” With no disrespect toward the Catholic church (and a fair understanding I can name a dozen Protestant churches to match), the real question becomes, “So whactcha gonna do about it?”

    Don’t get me wrong. I remember the first time I went to a Sunday night service instead of a Sunday morning one, or a Saturday night one. I remember the first time I wore jeans to church.

    I’m not the most rebellious person in the world (if anything, I’m at fault of passive rebellion, which is a cousin to passive aggression). But if I don’t know you, and you start telling me if I don’t do X I’m in sin, you very well better do it in the spirit of grace and truth or I’m very likely to raise every hackle on my neck and dig my heels to China. (I may even comply, but it’d be the passive resistance deal again.)

    I’m just saying, I suppose my first question would be how the church staff would intend to enforce such a thing. And even if they did, I’m not sure how much it’d ensure spirituality as much as ensure butts in the pew. Y’know?

    And in the end, I think my overall critique is that while one can regulate the motions, one cannot relegate the heart. To be sure, pastors should do everything in their power to cultivate hearts tender to God. But in the end they’re not the Spirit. Know?

  17. “We unanimously believe, teach, and confess that the ceremonies or church rites which are neither commanded nor forbidden in God’s Word, but have been instituted alone for the sake of propriety and good order, are in and of themselves no divine worship, nor even a part of it. Matt. 15:9: ‘In vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men’. We believe, teach, and confess that the congregation of God of every place and every time has the power, according to its circumstances, to change such ceremonies in such manner as may be most useful and edifying to the congregation of God. Nevertheless, that herein all frivolity and offense should be avoided, and special care should be taken to exercise forbearance towards the weak in faith. 1 Cor. 8:9; Rom. 14:13.” (Epitome of the Lutheran Formula of Concord, Section X: Church Rites Which are [Commonly] Called Adiaphora or Matters of Indifference)

    What matters is the gospel. Holiday observances should not present anything that adds to, distracts from or contradicts the gospel. They shouldn’t put up obstacles to receiving the gospel message. They should take time to clearly explain parts of the service which may be confusing or awkward to outsiders or visitors. They should present Jesus as the answer, not laws, morals, principles, denominations, leaders, or pastors. They should not be mere entertainment, sentimentalism, or therapy to attract an audience and/or new church members. The church and its rituals and services are not the answer. Jesus isn’t just the reason for the season; He is the reason, period.

  18. Let’s face it — the Christmas season is a hectic, chaotic time for families in American culture. There’s just no getting away from it. And if you pack on a weight of obligation to attend or participate in numerous special holiday services and programs on top of everything else, you’re really just adding to the stress. It’s kind of like trying to instill love and devotion toward Christ by making people write off “I love Jesus” a thousand times with a strict deadline. They might do it if enough pressure is applied, but they’re not going to be feeling all warm and fuzzy toward either you or Jesus by the time they finish the assignment.
    Maybe it’s just my whacked way of thinking, but, rather than putting so much emphasis on getting families to “go” to church during the holidays, perhaps it would be a better thing if we as church leaders encouraged them to “be” the church in the midst of their family gatherings and celebrations. Just imagine if every Christian father in this country took the time to read Luke’s account of Jesus’s birth to his family on Christmas Eve night. Imagine families stopping to give gifts of praise and thanksgiving to God before opening their presents Christmas morning. And imagine families including purchases for people in need during their holiday shopping sprees.
    I could be wrong on this, but I think that kind of thing would do more to turn our culture back to the real reason for the season than a non-stop, 24-7 church service marathon from late November through mid-January.

  19. 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 we do to fulfill God’s calling in Christ,” and exhort the people in our congregations to make the services of the church their priority?

    I don’t think the church should accommodate culture much at all. Wherever fulfilling God’s calling in Christ is at issue, I hope the Church will insist on the full measure. But are those “extra” church services legitimately part of God’s calling? The liturgy and the liturgical calendar are definitely good things, but the words “midnight service” are not found anywhere in the Bible.

    To the extent that Christians gather as families and observe the holidays with kindness and gratitude (yes, like the Cratchit family!), I don’t see what special services can add. Maybe proponents of the liturgy are asking for too much.

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

    If I could come at it from another direction–I’m Episcopalian but when I was a child we often lived places where the Episcopalian church was not the best (no Sunday school, usually, and/or lame preaching), and ended up going to a local Baptist or Assemblies of God or non-denominational church instead. But my parents were still Episcopalians at heart, and at Advent and Lent they started doing Evening Prayer with all us kids, teaching us the Gregorian chants and letting us pick the opening and closing collects, doing the readings, etc. It doesn’t take long to do (which is good when the youngest is 2 years old and not likely to sit still for long). And we lit the Advent Candles, learned about the Jesse tree, etc.–it helped focus the season on Christmas, rather than Santa and all that.

    As a pastor, what are your family traditions for bringing Christ into your life at Christmas? What about other members of your congregation, what do they do? Could you encourage that throughout the season, at a grass-roots level, rather than focusing on the big hoopla celebrations on The Day?

    Doesn’t have to be evening prayer of course; it could be daily devotions of any sort, or having a family tradition of the Christmastime Helping out at the Shelter, or weekly calls around the extended family just to pass on “I love you”, or an email list discussing the weekly Advent readings, or who knows what people come up with.

  21. Scott Miller says

    And Christmas Day services are almost nonexistent in evangelicalism, sometimes even if it falls on Sunday (!!).

  22. Perhaps a cross of what I was involved with, as a Southern Baptist, and what I do now.

    Have your big celebrations, such as a Christmas musical before everyone leaves, and a simple service when there are missing folks.

    But, don’t forget to encourage the travelers to go to church where they are.

    I’ve gotten used to the Catholic Church that is nearest my cousin’s place, when I visit there. (Including when to leave for the Christmas Eve Mass, so that I get a seat. GRIN)

  23. donald todd says

    I remember the day that I understood that we give Christmas presents to those we love (or even merely like) because God so loved the world that He gave us His only begotten Son. The influence of the three Persons of God is so profound that it influences us, seemingly unknowingly in many cases. We were given a Gift and we responded by imitation.

    My participation in the service is not based on the clergy or the choir. It is because I want to be there. I want to be there on Christmas, on Easter, and all the other times I go. I want to participate with those who are there because they want to participate. God is worthy of my response, however poor it may be. CS Lewis noted that sometimes we must act the part, and in the acting of the part, we’ll find the requisite virtue or emotion begins to accompany it. He noted a soldier acting brave or a husband acting as if he desired his wife. The same might as easily be true for those who arrive at church emotionally arid. And if the virtue or the emotion does not arrive? God is worthy when we are unable to respond. Merely being there is sufficient if that is all we can do.

    Not being clergy, I don’t have the onus on me that I suspect some of the respondents have. I might suggest that they prepare in part by not overpreparing. His burden is light. It appears that they picked up a heavy burden. Share it out and let it go.

    Just in case, Merry Christmas.