The Fight Before Christmas

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Where's the Christmas cheer? First, some Evangelical activists fired at major retailers who were opting to say "Happy Holidays" to their shoppers rather than "Merry Christmas," complaining that Christ was being taken out of Christmas. Now, other Evangelicals are taking Christmas Day out of the church with the controversial decision of some influential congregations—led by the Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, one of the most prominent megachurches in the U.S.—not to hold services on Christmas Sunday.

Christian blogs are full of unseasonably vitriolic postings, full of Scriptural references, theological arguments and appeals to common sense. Evangelicals are attacking other Evangelicals in the media. And the debate within the Evangelical community is giving the rest of America a rare look at the divisions that do exist, usually quietly and below the surface, of the 65 million-strong Evangelical community. It is a reminder that this group, so often labeled the "religious right", is diverse both in theology and methodology. The church is in fact many churches, this bloc is no monolith, and this argument, says Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, "shows we're still all very human."

The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday was in 1994. Leaders at Willow Creek Community Church, a congregation in the affluent Chicago suburbs where about 15,000 people worship each weekend, said that attendance wasn't great. This year, they decided to try "an experiment in decentralizing the congregation on Christmas morning," says senior pastor Bill Hybels. If you want to sing some carols and share the Christmas peace at Willow Creek on Dec. 25, you'll have to do it alone, out in the church parking lot. "In our community, people—particularly seekers who may not normally attend church—are more like to go to Christmas services in the days preceding Christmas with their friends who invite them," says Hybels. This strategy leaves them "free to celebrate Christmas day as they so choose."

Willow Creek is not the only church that won't open. Across the country, hundreds of congregations like Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Tex., Discovery Church in Orlando, Fla., and Granger Community Church in Granger, Ind., have decided that it's not worth it to marshal the resources to hold services on Christmas Sunday. Sunday School teachers get a break, as do ushers, the choir, the musicians and, of course, the pastors.

These congregations have not canceled Christmas. Willow Creek will have eight services in the five days before Christmas Sunday, with up to 60,000 expected to attend. According to Hybels, worshipers at those services will receive DVDs, which they will be encouraged to watch on Christmas Day with their families. The message: "God is with us everywhere."

Still, that "family values" argument—that this day can be an opportunity for Christian families to worship together at home—carries little weight with some critics. "The church is supposed to be brothers and sisters in Christ—the primary family. These churches are putting the wants and needs of the physical family first, not that spiritual family," says Ben Witherington, a theologian at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. "Our society is narcissistic enough. We don't need to encourage more me-focused behavior."

Haggard, who is also pastor of the 11,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., says his church "would never not have church on a Sunday. Christians have been doing it for 2,000 years." At the same time, he says, Willow Creek is showing the creativity and innovation for which it and Hybels have long been known. "Willow Creek is communicating that we're in an era when the church meets in a variety of ways," Haggard says. "This is what makes American Evangelicalism so great. We're so diverse. The meaning of Christmas is more important than the church service itself. The message is more important than the method."

But if the Christmas message is to herald Jesus' arrival—Evangelicals are known by that name for a reason—then some critics wonder how it helps to close a church's doors. "It does muddy the message if, for convenience and pleasure, people are taking church out of Christmas," says Ed Vitigliano, a spokesman for the American Family Association, which has led the boycott against retailers who use "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." A pastor at a church in Pontotoc, Miss., Vitigliano's church will be open on the 25th. "Part of celebrating Christmas should always be keeping the focus on Christ."

The impact on what is supposed to be Evangelicalism's core mission worries many believers, and raises concerns that should, some say, be discussed long past Christmas Sunday. "This is a terrible witness and a tacit admission that church is not important to us," says Witherington. "To Joe Secular, we might as well have put a white flag up on the church's front lawn."

Others worry that the fight may be more damaging than any impact from what they're fighting about. ""The central point is not what hour of what day the congregation gathers corporately to celebrate the birth of Christ," says Willow Creek's Hybels, "but rather that in our hearts and lives we allow the coming of Christ to transform us." On his blog, Louie Marsh, pastor of a small church in rural Arizona, quoted the Apostle Paul from the Book of Romans, who wrote, "Who are you to judge someone else's servant?" "I do know [that] this isn't something we should be fighting about," Marsh blogged. "Let's just focus on serving God the best we can."