Christmas comes on Sunday, but some churches are closed


Here's how this Sunday is supposed to unfold at the Chase household.

Young Chase plans to get up early to make waffles and sausages - the traditional Christmas breakfast for her Lutherville family. After breakfast, 11-year-old Hannah will read the story of the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. Then the Chases open presents. Later, they will welcome the extended family; Hannah and 13-year-old Sarah will join cousins in a musical recital.

Not on the agenda this Sunday is church.

"It seems kind of strange in a way for me that we're not going to have any services," Young Chase said.

The family's congregation, Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, where Tim Chase is director of operations, will be closed Sunday. After five services on Christmas Eve, the nondenominational church will send staff and volunteers home to spend one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar with family.

"This is something we really did banter back and forth on," said Pat Goodman, senior teaching pastor at Grace.

"All of us felt like, gosh, is it OK not to do something on Christmas Day? Are we doing something really wrong?"

Grace, which can draw more than 3,000 worshipers on an ordinary weekend, is one of the growing number of churches nationwide to close on the day Christians celebrate the birth of their savior, Jesus. With the holiday falling on Sunday this year, leaders of the mostly evangelical mega-churches are choosing to add Christmas Eve services instead of mounting large-scale productions on consecutive days this weekend.

"These churches are so huge that they require an extensive work force to pull off a Sunday morning, in terms of parking, in terms of managing visitors, in terms of just functioning as a church," said Bill J. Leonard, dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University.

"Just as shopping malls close down so their employees can have a day off, this is one way of giving the elaborate volunteer constituency a day of rest as well."

Other churches planning to close this Sunday include the influential Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago; North Point Community Church outside Atlanta; Southland Christian Church near Lexington, Ky.; Mars Hill Bible Church near Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Fellowship Church outside Dallas.

They stand in contrast to Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and many mainline Protestant churches, high-liturgical traditions that often add services on Christmas to accommodate increased attendance.

"Many more people are coming to Mass at Christmas, and we're just delighted to see that," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore. "It's important because we have the Christmas Gospels. ... Theologically, it's a very rich occasion."

Nancy Ammerman, a professor of sociology of religion at Boston University, says closing on Christmas fits two features of "mega-church culture."

First, she wrote in an e-mail message, "These organizations have tried to emphasize strong families. They want people, including fathers, to spend time with each other and to make the home a faith-infused place. ... So, telling families to celebrate Christmas at home simply builds on this notion that families can worship together and, by doing so, will be happier and stronger as a family."

Second, Ammerman wrote, "Megachurches are simply not big on liturgy and high holidays. Most have designed their worship and their buildings in ways that downplay the traditional Christian symbols. Few structure the calendar around the liturgical seasons. And most feel that they can take great creative leeway with traditions to make them more accessible to people who are `turned off by church.'"

The Christmas closings have drawn criticism from some evangelical Christians.

Robert K. Johnston, a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., cherishes childhood memories of Christmas morning services, followed by pancake breakfasts and caroling.

"Christmas has increasingly become a day of family gathering," said Johnston, a minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church. "Rather than seeing the church as a larger family to which you can bring your individual families to increase the celebration as together we remember our lord and savior, the church has become more an entertainment venue.

"We are losing one important dimension of what the church should be: namely, a community."

Leonard, of Wake Forest, contrasts the closings with the campaign by some Christians this year to pressure retailers to greet customers with "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings."

"Christians still, no different from first-century Christians, struggle with their relationship to the culture in which they find themselves," said Leonard, a Baptist minister. "These debates over what to say at the shopping mall and whether or not to have church on Christmas Sunday just illustrate that very dramatically."

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