Pastors, It’s OK to Cancel Christmas Sunday

by Scott Mehl
The chorus of public figures and social media voices “pleading” with pastors to not cancel their church services on Christmas Sunday has predictably begun to swell. But if we’ve learned anything over the last three years, shouldn’t it be to not overstate our personal convictions and needlessly put fellow pastors in the position of having to defend their localized decisions to their people against a backdrop of national and online pundits? We have developed the amazing ability to turn matters of wisdom and conscience into battle lines that divide the church. Christmas morning doesn’t need to be another one of them.

Six years ago Kevin DeYoung wrote an article “pleading” for churches to not cancel their Christmas morning services. Back then I wrote the following to pastors in response, and I find that it’s even more needed in our current moment today.

Dear brother pastor,

I hope that you don’t feel guilty if you’ve canceled your Christmas Day services. We’ve canceled ours too.

There are many good reasons to hold a church service on Christmas morning when it falls on a Sunday. There are also many good reasons to not hold a church service on Christmas morning when it falls on a Sunday. But it is a gross overstatement to “plead” with pastors that they do one or the other.

We should plead with pastors to preach the Word. We should plead with pastors to shepherd their flocks lovingly and graciously. We should plead with pastors to be theologians. We should plead with pastors to love Christ above all else. It cheapens our pleading to plead with pastors to do something as biblically debatable as not canceling services on Christmas morning.

Because this gray area was stated as such a stark black and white by Kevin, let me give you a few thoughts on his points and why we (as a 400-person, urban church) will not be holding services on Christmas day.

  • Christmas Eve will facilitate a church-family gathering for our people who are in town, Christmas morning would not. In a transient, urban setting the majority of people in our church will be traveling out of the area (even if just to the suburbs) for Christmas. Christmas Eve provides the best logistical opportunity for as many of them as possible to gather together. Repeating that gathering 12 hours later only demotivates their attendance even more, when many would just pick one or the other to attend.

  • Visitors in our city will not be looking for a place to worship. Of all of my non-Christian and nominally Christian friends, I do not know of one of them who will be looking for somewhere to worship on Christmas morning. Those that will be looking for somewhere to worship will be looking for it on Christmas Eve. The vast majority of them wouldn’t attend a Christmas morning service even if I invited them. However, they would definitely accept an invitation to come over to my house and celebrate instead. Visitors won’t be looking for a place of worship on Christmas morning, they will be looking for a place for community.

  • Church services are a gift, not a god. This is why we will be taking our family to gather together with the church on Christmas Eve and enjoying our family and friends on Christmas Day. Gathering together in the form of a formal worship service every week is important!  So is gathering together and teaching your kids how to redeem the culture’s Christmas traditions in light of the coming of the humble Savior. We rearrange our family schedule for corporate worship. And that is exactly what we will be doing on Christmas Eve. It doesn’t prove anything to do so again 12 hours later, and may actually miss an opportunity to redeem Christmas traditions with your kids in a way that is not hurried or needlessly hectic.

  • It’s Christmas for crying out loud! As Kevin wrote, “It’s the day we celebrate the incarnation, the birth of the Messiah, the entrance into our world of the second Person of Trinity.” Don’t we want to make that the center of our celebrations and our homes? Why try to make things busier and more hectic when the focus ought to be on whatever draws our attention to the glory and person of Christ? I’m not sure how to do that best for every church family in every town/city, but I do know that there’s no “one size fits all” answer.

  • We should worship in all of our contexts. Repeating a service 12 hours apart may communicate to our congregation that the primary place for worship is the church building. We all know this is not true. Worship as the gathered community is important (as I’ve said), which is why it would be a travesty to cancel your weekend services all together. However, whether you hold them on Saturday night or Sunday morning (or both) is far less consequential. And giving our people space and the tools to facilitate worship in their homes is an important discipleship opportunity.

Probably the most discouraging line I read from Kevin was when he wrote: “let’s not kid ourselves to think that we can encourage everyone to have a meaningful, thoughtfully prepared do-it-yourself service at home.” I would imagine that this doesn’t accurately reflect his opinion of the people in his church family. I know it doesn’t in mine. We should have enough faith in the impact of our teaching, shepherding, and discipling throughout the year (as well as the power of the Holy Spirit) to trust that we don’t need to manage their celebration and worship both Saturday night and Sunday morning. We should also realize, for those in our church whose hearts break for their non-Christian family and friends that the most missionally-minded context for at least one of those celebrations will probably be their homes.

Of course, all of this is assuming that what we’re doing Saturday night is having an actual worship service, and not just a Christmas pageant or sing-along carol session.  I agree with Kevin that corporate worship is important and that skipping a weekend dishonors our glorious Savior.  I’m just not sure it’s “plead worthy” that we make sure that happens Sunday morning in addition to Saturday night.  

And, pastor, whatever you decide to do this Christmas, I hope that you don’t feel guilty because of what others have decided to do. My prayer is that you would make a decision that would facilitate your church and your family celebrating and glorifying Christ the best.
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