I slipped into the pew with my wife and two sons. Looking around the church, a dreadful thought crossed my mind: in less than a decade this service will no longer exist. Why? Perhaps 20 people had gathered and few were younger than retirement age. In a matter of years it will only make sense to forego the whole thing. For the rector who has one less service to organize, that might be a relief. The priest who led the service remarked about the incredible numbers of people who had attended services the night before. But I was filled with sadness. Let me tell you why.
It was exactly 20 years ago that I experienced something as a believer and as a young father that changed the way I view and experience Christmas. It was our first Christmas in England and in the Anglican Church. Growing up in a different denomination and in America, I’d never experienced going to church on Christmas morning. We always attended Christmas Eve services. Once I became a believer, they were particularly powerful experiences. The only time after I was married that we attended church on Christmas day was the rarity of it falling on a Sunday. And to be honest, we only did so because I worked for the church and it was expected of me.
What we experienced in 1996 was nothing less than amazing. As a family we went to church together on Christmas morning, and it forever changed the way we want to experience Christmas. We got up that morning, had breakfast and allowed our three small children the luxury of opening their stockings before getting dressed for church. We headed to church that morning, opened the doors and were amazed at what we saw. The entire church family packed the place! By that I mean all the active members of the church were there and some had brought extended family or friends. There was hardly a spare seat in the place. The service was lively and full of a spirit of true celebration. We sang “Joy To The World” as if we had never sung it before. The service was all-ages-oriented, and the sermon proclaimed the good news in a way that every generation could appreciate. There was no question as to why Jesus came to the earth by the time we left the church. And leaving was no hasty matter either. People lingered after the service exchanging cards, gifts, and hugs. The joyful spirit in the air was nothing less than stunning. We probably stayed longer than we did most Sundays. I then took my wife and three small children back to our house to continue the celebration. We opened gifts and shared phone calls with grandparents and ate entirely too much food.
The focus of our day was simply Jesus. It was possibly the first truly Christ-centered Christmas we as a Christian family had experienced. Having taken the time to worship our Lord first set the stage for the entire day. No longer was it about presents, but about presence. In previous years our joy was in seeing the enormous eyes of our children as they opened the very gifts they had wished for. Now, our joy was in the Lord Jesus and celebrating what God had done for us. We realized in that very first year that we never wanted to experience Christmas again without starting off worshipping God with our church family. Every year since then we have made a priority of getting to church first thing on Christmas morning. That has been challenging a few times in our years since we left England, but we keep the tradition. Why? Simply because worshipping God on Christmas morning changes everything about Christmas day.
The Christmas day service is near extinction… with the exception of once every 5, 6, or 11 years depending on the calendar when it actually falls on a Sunday. So many of our congregations see just a handful of people attending on Christmas day. This year we find Christmas on a Sunday. Perhaps this is the perfect opportunity to start a new tradition for families. The tradition is one that worships God first and then celebrates with gifts after worship. We can do this fairly easily in 2016 but should make it a priority in 2017 and the years following. The challenge is helping church members see the value in placing worship as a priority for Christmas. For those of us who have had their Christmas experiences radically changed, it’s not a challenge. For those who have not yet, it’s a matter of persuasion, but it is very much worth the effort.