There has been a flurry of blogging about (mostly) mega-churches that have opted not to have a Sunday service in light of their attention to Christmas Eve services. Most of the blogging has been negative, some of it sharply so. Iâ??m thinking here of Ben Witheringtonâ??s blog â?? and Ben is a friend and a fellow NT professor. He has been forthrightly against the mega-church decisions, and he has drawn a number of comments along the same line. Steve McCoyâ??s blog also has had a similar set of comments. I set up a poll on my blog to see what is going on â?? and it suggests that more than mega-churches are doing this. (I remember as a little guy that my Baptist church, which didnâ??t give into much, did not have a Christmas service one Sunday morning, but I could be wrong. Memories are hardly infallible.)
Let me take the view that we should be a little more charitable in the discussion (and drop some of the caustic, belletristic, and condemnatory language). And let me make a mild case in defense of the mega-churches and smaller than mega-churches doing what they are doing: considering the Christmas Eve service to be their worship service for the week.
As Protestants, we begin with the Bible.
First, letâ??s ask this question: Does the NT teach a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship service. I think the answer to that one is pretty easy. Besides being a topic no one in the early Church apparently considered, we have to put its lack of interest in this topic in the context of OT legislations about feasts. Hereâ??s a fact consider: evidently, God thought a bundle of days were so important for the Jewish calendar that he gave laws both on the necessity of their annual celebration and he told them just how to celebrate that day. And Israel did just that.
Hereâ??s something else to think about: evidently the same God didnâ??t think the same of Christmas, for there are no legislations about keeping but one â??holidayâ?: the Lordâ??s supper.
No one, to my knowledge, can argue or is arguing that the mega-churches are violating a biblical Christmas sacrilege. No one should can stake a biblical claim for Christmas being the most significant day of the year â?? Iâ??m not sure what one can say about such a topic from the Bible.
Second, letâ??s ask a question at the heart of the discussion: Does the NT teach a Sunday morning worship service? Well, the evidence isnâ??t what some are making it out to be. We need to be fair here: there is a distinction between what is taught and what is mentioned or hinted at as something practiced. And there is no clear text legislating that Christians are to meet for worship on a Sunday morning.
And it ought to be observed that there is, whether some will admit it or not, no clear connection between Christian worship on a Sunday and the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of â??restâ? while the Sunday was a time of â??worship.â? (See here A.G. Shead, New Dict. of Bibl. Theol, 749-50.) Not one shred of evidence here. In fact, the Apostle Paul says in Col 2:16 that oneâ??s judgment about Sabbaths ought to be kept to oneself â?? or at least it ought not to be used as an instrument of judgment. (I have a hard time, and you probably do too, thinking Paul is letting ordinary Christians render judgment about when they were to â??attend worship.â?)
There are, however, clear indications that Christians met on Sundays, the first day of the week: Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2. Iâ??m not sure what Rev 1:10 means, and no one ought to be dogmatic about it, but I tend to think it is close to meaning â??the Lordâ??s day (when on the first day of the week we gathered for the Lordâ??s supper).â?
And there is the warning in Heb 10:25 that Christians ought to meet regularly with other Christians, though the author does not say this was to be on Sunday â?? we can assume it was, but it is an assumption.
This leaves us with this: no strong correlation between Sabbath and Sunday; no commandment to worship together on Sunday; the evident practice, however, of meeting on Sundays for worship and fellowship. The precedent, as Joe Thorn rightly says on Steve McCoyâ??s blog, is there; there is, however, no commandment. And Col makes me wonder if it is appropriate to correlate Sunday worship with Sabbath practice.
Third, let me assume that many who are blogging and commenting about this issue are low-church Protestants where local churches make such decisions â?? that is, the local church pastor and board of elders/deacons/whatever, as leaders of a congregation, make the decision about whether or not there will be a worship service on Sunday morning. If we believe in such a theory of church government, then we get decisions like this and we have to trust those elders and pastors and churches to make good decisions. I like Craig Leeâ??s comment over at Steve McCoyâ??s site in this regard. We might at this point just trust our brothers and sisters to do what is good.
Fourth, let me poke some in the eye here: what Iâ??m reading is that there is too much identification of â??worshipâ? with Sunday morning and too much identification of â??being the churchâ? with â??attending a Sunday morning service.â? I find this pretty surprising in that so many are making the case, pretty solidly I think, that â??churchâ? is not something done on Sunday mornings but something we â??areâ? and â??are all through the weekâ? â?? climaxing at the Lordâ??s table and in Sunday worship.
Fifth, let us consider that many of the messianic Jewish Christians of the first century would have naturally transferred their views of what to do on a Sabbath from the Sabbath to the Lord Jesus Christ, though they did not leave a trace in the NT that they saw the Sunday as the replacement of that Sabbath. I consider it highly likely that messianic Jews would have celebrated Sabbath (starting Friday night, we might add) and perhaps also Sunday morning. Hard to know in light of the paucity of evidence.
Sixth, by the time of
Ireneaus Ignatius some Christians (we shouldnâ??t pretend to think he speaks for all) gave up Sabbaths for the Lordâ??s Day (Magn. 9:1). Justin Martyr is clear: it was a Sunday (Apol. 1.67). Constantine pulled the curtain on any other view. Emperors can do things like that.
Seventh, letâ??s get to some pragmatics: a significant issue for mega-churches is that there is not sufficient space for a Sunday morning service. Now this might say to some that they ought to distribute the goods and not be so big, but to the saints who like mega-churches there is a space issue. Many mega-churches have multiple services because they canâ??t handle having everyone gather at once. This, after all, is a cause of rejoicing for all of us: to have too many Christians to house all at once is a good thing because it bespeaks multitudes of believers. I like that. You might contend that churches shouldnâ??t get bigger than they can handle; well, then, make that argument. Willow Creek one year had about 60,000 attend Christmas services â?? I think their auditorium holds about 7500. They canâ??t handle all 60,000 on a Sunday morning. Letâ??s make sure that the beef with mega-churches is not envy. And in the process let’s not disrespect those pastors of smaller churches as if this Sunday cancellation is only a mega-church issue.
Eighth, I think it is unfairly insulting to our brothers and sisters to say that mega-churches, tout simple, are consumeristic and selfish and focused on getting rather than getting. I doubt many who say such things know much about what actually goes on in mega-churches.
Ninth, another issue involved for many churches: the performance nature of the Christmas Eve service is so intense that there is nothing left for another service. Again, you might fight hard against the â??performanceâ? level and concentration (cantata, musical, theatricals, whatever), but argue that that and not that churches have lost their soul if they cancel Christmas Sunday services.
So, my suggestion is this: letâ??s be a little more charitable in light of what the NT does and does not say. Letâ??s permit our brothers and sisters, once every seven years, to make decisions that we might not approve of but know that they answer to God, that we answer to God, that it is about worship of God and incarnating the gospel in our world for the good of others and the world.