A couple weeks ago, our church hosted a Christmas program targeted to families. As I was mingling with the numerous guests, I shook hands an exceedingly hyperactive (possibly sugar addicted) grandchild and his righteously perturbed grandmother. The furled brow, red face and scowl gave the whole dilemma away. All of a sudden, a twinkling glow came over grandma’s face as the wheels started turning in her head. She whispered in the grandchild’s ear just loud enough so that I could overhear: “You better behave … Because Santa’s watching you right now.” Then she winked at me and chuckled.
She winked. Because I’m “in on the joke.”
As a pastor, I wasn’t sure how to respond: Do I pop this kid’s Santa bubble in the middle of a church Christmas program? … Do I call out grandma to the carpet? … Do I bang my head against the wall and pull out the remainder of my hair? Alas, I went with another response instead: “Maybe we should talk more about Jesus to our kids.” Grandma gave me a shrug in response.
It’s that time of year again. And I’m not talking about Christmas (although that’s almost upon us). I’m talking about the non-stop talk radio and blogosphere diatribe about the “war on Christmas.” It’s Bill O’Reilly and other talking heads chattering on FoxNews about how it’s offensive to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There’s always sensationalistic and provocative news stories about manger scenes being removed from public property or public schools removing Jesus from music programs. This year, the hot topic on the Christian blogosphere is the New Jersey group posting atheist billboards about Christ-less Christmas across the country. So Christians pine away for the days of Linus reciting the Christmas story to Charlie Brown instead of Jesus being portrayed as the 2,000 year old virgin on the Family Guy. We’re told that we’re in the midst of a cultural war … And Christians are conceding ground to the nameless atheist horde out to maim and destroy sweet baby Jesus. Now Kirk Cameron has swooped in to save the day with his movie “Saving Christmas.” Like modern-day Don Quixotes, we’re charging at windmills with all of the bluster we can muster.
The “war on Christmas” amounts to Christians pursuing the wrong target. Sure, there are some atheist groups are out there invoking provocative lawsuits to remove manger scenes from public property and posting intentionally antagonistic billboards. However, Christ and Christmas have largely become uncoupled because of a growing lack of religious belief in our culture. The number of persons self-identifying as having no religious belief is the #2 form of “religious belief” in America … And is rapidly growing. The “nones” (as they have been dubbed by the statisticians) are a label-less sector of society: Neither formally atheistic or agnostic … Just not having any religious belief in particular. According to 2002 Pew Forum research, 19.6% of the U.S. population identified themselves as having no religious belief. And the shift is generational. One in three “millennials” (a/k/a young adults) have no religious affiliation whatsoever. And so the “war on Christmas” really is more of a collective shrugging of the shoulders of a growing non-religious generation than an actual organized military campaign with generals and infantry. Christmas is becoming less religious simply because people are becoming less religious.
The bigger problem with the “war on Christmas” is that the manner that Christians celebrate Christmas is largely no different than an increasingly irreligious culture. In 2014, U.S. consumers are projected to spend $602 billion dollars in holiday retail sales. 2014 Gallup projections indicate that average U.S. adult will spent $720 during the 2014 Christmas season. And I can assure you that Christians are out there fighting for Walmart Black Friday televisions and Old Navy $2 gift scarves alongside the “nones” and the pagans. While I understand that the tradition of gift giving might possibly have begun as an homage to the account of the magi and Christ from Matthew 2, those dudes were offering an act of worship to the newborn king, Jesus. In contrast, we’re just giving overpriced tchatchkies to grandma, sparkle embellished holiday greeting cards to friends we routinely contact on Facebook and stomach pain inducing fruitcake to our next door neighbors because … Well … I guess that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? We’re not magi, people.
In his hilariously (and surprisingly) on-point SNL monologue, Chris Rock recently ripped the so-called “Jesus birthday season” in America: “It’s America, we commercialize everything. Look what we did to Christmas … Christmas is Jesus’ birthday! Now I don’t know Jesus, but from what I’ve read, Jesus is the least materialistic person to ever roam the earth. … Jesus kept a low profile and we turned his birthday to the most materialistic day of the year … Matter of fact, we have the Jesus birthday season. It’s a whole season of materialism.” See Rock’s comments at the 5 minute mark in the video below:
In 2013, Pew Research conducted a poll regarding cultural beliefs about Christians, including Evangelicals. Here are the findings:
- 90% of Evangelicals stated that they were gathering with family and/or friends on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
- 90% of Evangelicals stated that they were exchanging Christmas gifts.
- 87% of Evangelicals stated that they were putting up a Christmas tree.
- 72% of Evangelicals stated that they were exchanging Christmas cards.
- 71% of Evangelicals stated that they would attend a worship service on Christmas.
If you’re a “half glass full” person, the positive is that nearly 3/4 of Evangelicals stated to a research that they’re planning on attending worship. (And the key word there is “planning.”) The negative is that more Evangelicals place more emphasis on family gatherings, Christmas gifts, Christmas trees and even Christmas cards than corporate worship. To add insult to injury, the same poll asked Americans what they look forward to most about the Christmas season. The number one answer (at 69%) was spending time with family and friends. Religious reflection / church was a far, far distant number two (at 11%).
The truth is that Christians are generally the most hypocritical at Christmastime. We bark and whine about a couple hard-hearted atheists putting up billboards but fail to consider how our obsession with Black Friday shopping at Target is just as harmful. Wearing our finest ugly Christmas sweaters, we frenetically crisscross Christmas parties while dressing naked trees, swilling fresh eggnog and choking down gingerbread men. We’ve got on our track shoes to pick up a hot deal on the flatscreen at Wal-Mart. And we often skip worship services during December because “we’re just too crazy busy.” And so the question is begged: Do Christians really look at different from a culture obsessed with rampant consumerism between Halloween and New Years Eve?!? In the end, atheists are right to point out the inherent inconsistency of our dogmatic political correctness regarding the words “Merry Christmas” while we are snorting our addiction to materialism like cocaine. We are quick to point out the speck in non-religious folks’ eyes while we have a massive pre-light Christmas tree lodged in our own eyes.
So does this mean that we should burn our ugly Christmas sweaters, dump out our eggnog, stomp on the gingerbread men and form an occupy Target movement? No … Frankly, I love eggnog too much. Here’s the point: Christians are so quick to pounce and mug anyone daring to utter the ghastly words “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” … But our consumerism betrays our own troubling heart condition as followers of non-materialistic Jesus. We’ve fully bought into the “Jesus birthday season,” and we use Jesus’ birthday as a smokescreen for our love of the gods of Samsung, Keurig and Abercrombie. We might even love the shopping head rush of the Jesus holiday season more than we love worshipping Jesus. If Christmas is about worshipping the incarnate Jesus, then worship.
Last year, I proposed having a Christmas eve service for the first time, and received an awkwardly odd question from a senior church member in response: “Why do we have to have a worship service on Christmas Eve?” I struggled with how to respond to a question from a Christian on why we should worship Jesus on Christmas Eve. I can’t even remember what response I fumbled through. But I do remember that the church member replied: “Well … I hope the service isn’t that long.”
Right. Don’t spend too much time worshipping Jesus around Christmas. Got it … Worship less.
If you really want to celebrate the birth of Jesus, here’s a humble suggestion: Don’t neglect the church …. worship Jesus (Hebrews 10:24-25). Read the Biblical story of Jesus’ incarnation to your family. Humbly and lovingly share why you trust in Jesus with a non-believer, because Christmas is actually one time of year when people are most receptive to the Gospel message. Go participate in “genuine religion” like helping widows, orphans and the poor in their distress (James 1:27). Forgive your neighbor (Matthew 6:14-15). Love your enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). Give to the needy without drawing attention to yourself (Matthew 6:1-4). And store up some treasure in Heaven instead of the Old Navy sweaters that moths eat and the Black and Decker tools that rust destroys (Matthew 6:19-24).
Church, you have one job at Christmas time … Let’s get it right. If Christians really want to “put the Christ back in Christmas,” we could use a lot less war and a lot more worship of the incarnate Christ.