Church tradition

Have yourself a megachurch Christmas

During the last five days before Christmas, at least 55,000 people were planning to attend the eight multi-media worship services at Willow Creek Community Church.

The leaders of this famous megachurch outside Chicago can be precise about this number because that is how many people had, at mid-week, visited and claimed seats in the 7,200-seat auditorium. A few solo seats remained.

"We don't sell the tickets, of course," said spokesperson Cally Parkinson. "Most people really like the E-Tickets. It's convenient to know that you'll have a seat and it helps us prepare for all of those people in the church and the parking lots."

These 75-minute Christmas services began on Tuesday night and continued through the popular Christmas Eve triple-feature at 12:30, 3 and 5:30 p.m. This is, as Parkinson likes to say, the Super Bowl for this "seeker friendly" congregation.

Any way you look at it, 55,000 people is a big Christmas. Willow Creek's leaders are used to that. They are not, however, used to handling a barrage of questions -- primarily from journalists -- about their decision not to hold a Christmas service on Christmas Sunday.

Many other big congregations decided to use the same strategy, which meant the "Churches Shut Doors on Christmas" headlines spread nationwide. The timing was perfect, in a year when the "Put Christ back in Christmas" debates were bigger and louder than ever in the public square.

"I think the whole Christmas wars story was being driven by TV talk shows and politics and we just turned into the next day's story," said Mark Ashton, who serves as "pastor of spiritual development" at Willow Creek. "Ironically, when all is said and done, this could turn into the biggest outreach event that we've ever done as a church."

Willow Creek has, as a rule, never held services on Christmas Day, he explained. The exception came in 1994, which was the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. After hosting the usual throngs in the pre-Christmas services, hardly anyone -- which at Willow Creek means 1,000-plus people -- returned that Christmas Sunday. This is serious, since it takes 1,000-plus people to operate the children's ministries, youth groups, food services, bookstore operations and parking lots when the megachurch opens its doors on an ordinary Sunday.

Thus, Willow Creek's leaders decided to create a 12-minute DVD this year containing a story -- entitled "Emmanuel: God With Us" -- about a young woman in Chicago struggling to understand the meaning of Christmas. The church produced 25,000 of the DVDs for home use by families on Sunday.

"We don't think that we're skipping worship on that Christmas Sunday," said Ashton. "What we're doing is decentralizing it. ... We're hoping to end up with 20,000 mini-services in homes in the Chicago area and all across America."

The goal, for Willow Creek leaders, is finding a way to create the most "spiritual experiences" for the most people this Christmas, he said. It helps that most megachurches are not tied to the ancient traditions that steer other flocks.

In a statement released to critics, Willow Creek leaders explained that in their community, the "normal Christmas rhythm is to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas Eve church service, then spend Christmas Day with family and friends. Most nondenominational churches reflect this same pattern. Some liturgical churches, like the Episcopal or Catholic churches, are tied closely to a church calendar. They always celebrate Christmas Day as a high point on their calendar. So if they departed from this tradition, it would be a big change."

In other words, Willow Creek remained true to its own goals and its own philosophy as a church. Keeping the doors closed on Christmas Day was not a change in a worship tradition -- it was an expression of a modern reality.

"Our goal is to serve people in ways that make the most sense and have the most spiritual impact on their lives," said Ashton. "It's not just a matter of giving people what they want. It isn't just consumerism. We challenge the socks off people with the messages they hear while they're in our services. ...

"But we also notice how people vote with their feet. We notice when they want to attend services and when they do not. We take that into account."

Merry tropical Christmas

At first light, the little ones would sneak out of bed to look for telltale signs of night visitors bearing gifts.

Cookies and milk? Most children in these Hispanic homes gathered hay or fresh grass before sundown and left it with water in clear sight. Camels get hungry and thirsty, you know, especially when traveling long distances on tropical nights.

Members of these families would have exchanged a few gifts on Dec. 25, at the Feast of the Nativity. As the decades passed in Florida, they may even have added a visit from St. Nicholas. But they would have visited neighbors for caroling and parties during the entire 12-day Christmas season.

Everyone knew that the traditional day for gift-giving was El Dia de los Reyes Magos, which marked the arrival of the three kings from the East with gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Christ child.

Christmas wasn't over until Jan. 6, when the camels ate the hay.

"There's no question that -- along with the weather -- religious traditions played an important role, if not the most important role, in shaping Christmas down here up until World War II," said Kevin McCarthy, an English professor at the University of Florida.

"That was before air-conditioning and mosquito control opened the state up to the whole world. Combine that with interstate highways and everything changed -- forever. Christmas down here started looking like Christmas everywhere else."

Stop and think about it. Most of the world celebrates Christmas in the tropics or during what is summer in the Southern Hemisphere. But when most people dream of a "merry little Christmas" they imagine tastes, smells and sights from frosty winter festivities in Europe and North America.

So it's hard to imagine palm trees and Christmas, unless they are in sacred images of shepherds, sheep, camels and kings near Bethlehem.

But McCarthy was able to find hints of what a tropical Christmas was like before the spread of shopping malls that resemble fake versions of New England villages swaddled in blankets of snow. The result was a breezy volume of history, tales, recipes and photos entitled, logically enough, "Christmas in Florida."

For generations, the Christmas season had a uniquely Catholic flavor in the tropics. In Florida, Christmas began in 1539 when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his soldiers gathered with 12 priests for Mass at a site in what is now Tallahassee. These were, said McCarthy, the first Catholic Christmas rites in North America.

Meanwhile, several Southern states embraced Christmas long before the holiday was accepted up north.

"New England Protestants, especially the Puritans, had Christmas banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659," McCarthy noted. "The most Southern state of all ... was Florida, a land settled by Spanish Catholics and therefore more willing to celebrate the nativity of Christ."

In addition to religious traditions, another simple reality shaped Christmas in the American tropics. Settlements were small and remote. Most early Floridians were poor and they learned to celebrate with whatever they found around them.

They didn't have fine meat so they made do with local fare, no matter how humble. In the 1870s, an early settler near Hypoluxo was forced to improvise a main course for his neighbors. He settled on a feast of possum, "which he had fattened on sweet potatoes for over a month," noted McCarthy.

Settlers in the tropics didn't have snow, so Santa Claus arrived by boat. This led to a beautiful tropical tradition -- decorating boats with strings of lights and then parading them along the coast at night. A few people even decided that Christmas trees looked especially beautiful under water.

One thing led to another. Christmas was Christmas.

"They didn't have Christmas ornaments, so they used seashells, sand dollars, starfish or driftwood," said McCarthy. "They used native scrub pines, since that was all they had. They couldn't have a Christmas that looked like New England, so they improvised. They came up with Christmas traditions that made sense where they were. ...

"But the forces of homogenization have been a work for a long time now -- TV, movies, advertising. A lot of beautiful things, a lot of beautiful traditions have been lost down here."

Worship for sale, worship for sale

In the beginning, there were the Jesus People.

They had long hair and short memories and they emerged from the 1960s with a unique fusion of evangelical faith and pop culture. They loved fellowship, but didn't like frumpy churches. They trusted their feelings, not traditions. They loved the Bible, but not those old hymnals.

So they started writing, performing, recording and selling songs. The Contemporary Christian Music industry was born.

And, lo, the counterculture became a corporate culture, one that was increasingly competitive and relentlessly contemporary, constantly striving to photocopy cultural trends. Out in the mega-churches, the definition of "worship" changed and then kept changing -- Sunday after Sunday.

Even though this industry "makes claims for musical diversity among its ranks, it is primarily a reflection of current folk, pop and rock styles," noted veteran pop musician Charlie Peacock, speaking at a recent conference on "Music and the Church" at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "Even today's successful modern worship music is composed of these and does not have a distinct style of its own."

The "bandwidth" of worship music today is actually quite narrow, he said, even if black gospel and "urban" music is included. This reality is especially obvious if the industry's products are contrasted with the dizzying array of church music found around the world and across two millennia of history.

Today, the bottom line is almost always the financial bottom line.

While believers lead the companies that dominate Christian music, secular corporations now own these smaller companies, noted Peacock. Clearly this is shaping the "Christian" music sold in religious bookstores and mainstream malls. But this corporate culture is also affecting worship and the heart of church life.

"The industry cannot be expected to always have the best interests of the church in mind," Peacock told nearly 500 scholars, musicians, entrepreneurs and clergy. "Christians within the companies may. But the overriding ideology of the system is to serve the shareholder first."

Serving the shareholders means an endless stream of new products, fads and artists -- just like in the secular world. The new always vetoes the old and the saints don't use credit cards or own stock. Thus, CCM is dominated by pop, rock, urban and new worship music. Classical Christian music is below 1 percent on the charts.

Most worship leaders are trying to blend these radically different musical elements, reported pollster George Barna, describing a survey of Protestant worshippers, pastors and "worship leaders." Sometimes the easiest solution is to have different services for different audiences -- a strategy the Barna Research Group found in three out of four churches.

Thus, the GI Generation attends a different service than the upbeat Baby Boomers or the mysterious young faithful of generations X and Y. The result looks something like an FM radio dial.

"What we know about Americans is that we view ourselves first and foremost as consumers," said Barna. "Even when we walk in the doors of our churches what we tend to do is to wonder how can I get a good transaction out of this experience. ... So, what we know from our research is that Americans have made worship something that primarily that we do for ourselves. When is it successful? When we feel good."

And sometimes people feel bad. According to the pastors, only 9 percent of the surveyed churches were experiencing conflict over music. But it's possible to turn those statistics around and note that 90 percent of all church conflicts reported in this study centered on musical issues.

Is peace possible? Peacock concluded that it will be up to ministers and educators to argue that there is more to worship than the niches on a CCM sales charts.

The industry can play a valid role in shaping the content of Christian music, he said, even in "contributing to the congregational music of the church. Still, the industry is at the mercy of a consumer with narrow tastes. Until this changes, it can't possibly function as a definitive caretaker and should not be asked to.

"This means that the stewardship of Christian music from the Psalms, to Ambrose, to Bach, to Wesley, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and more, belongs to the church and the academy."