Cancelling The Lord’s Day After Christmas?

There are reports (documented in the comments below) that various ostensibly evangelical congregations are cancelling worship services this Lord’s Day. This has become something of a pattern in recent years. It seems that people, including the congregants, pastors, and church staff are so exhausted from the various Christmas-related activities (e.g., live nativity scenes, Christmas plays, Christmas parties, special worship services) that they are just too tired to meet for public worship on the Christian Sabbath. It should be obvious why this is wrong and that it reflects a confused set of priorities. One fears, however, that it is not obvious so bear with me as I try to explain.

How Things Became So Confused

Above I wrote “ostensible evangelicals” because that is how many of these congregations self-identify. Yet it is no longer clear what the word evangelical refers. In 1989 David Bebbington offered a fourfold characterization (known as as Bebbington’s Quadrilateral): Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism. Evangelical theology and piety is said to be bible-centered (though “biblicism” denotes rather more than that, and not in a good way), cross-centered, conversion-oriented, and activist. There is much truth in the quadrilateral sociologically and historically, inasmuch as it does reflect what modern evangelicalism became in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Those of us with strong connections to the Reformation, however, will notice that characterization of evangelical is rather different from what characterized evangelicals in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Bebbington’s quadrilateral has more to do with the movement(s) known as Pietism than it does with the Reformation.

Of the four characteristics, however, perhaps activism and conversionism best explain how Christmas chaos has come to supersede Sabbath rest for so many evangelicals. In the 18th century, among evangelicals, under the influence of pietism (not to be confused with piety), Christianity came to be considered chiefly a matter of personal religious experience. In Recovering the Reformed Confession, I called this the QIRE, the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience. What came to matter most in the 18th-century revivals (the so-called First Great Awakening) was whether one has the right sort of religious experience.

This view of conversion is quite distinct from the Reformation notion of conversion, which tended to have more to do with progressive sanctification, what the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) called the putting to death of the old man and the making alive of the new (see Heidelberg 96–98). In the Reformed view, new life is the mysterious gift of the Holy Spirit, who ordinarily works quietly through the preaching of the gospel (see Heidelberg 65). It does not necessarily entail any thrashing about, floating across rooms and the like. Indeed, if one begins thrashing or floating, should it occur in a well-ordered Reformed worship service, one is likely to be gently escorted to a quiet room to await counseling from a minister or an elder.

Activism is other characteristic highlighted by Bebbington that helps explain how Christmas has come to marginalize one of the 52 holidays actually instituted by Jesus. Another word for activism is busy-ness. The Pietists were one part quietist, waiting for the right sort of religious experiences, and one part activist, doing things in the service of the Lord. Contemporary evangelical piety is very busy. There are home Bible studies, fellowship groups, youth groups, college groups, young adult groups, short-term missions ad infin. In the modern period being an evangelical can be exhausting.

The Reformed Alternative

The Reformed vision for the Christian faith and the Christian life was rather different. Their idea of the Christian faith was a rather fuller account of Christian doctrine. Certainly the cross was at the heart of their message but they confessed much more about the faith. They began with the an account of Scripture, God, Humanity, Christ, Salvation, Church (and sacraments), Last things, and the Christian life. All those things were said to be properly essential to the faith. We preached the cross but we also preached the law in its pedagogical use, the gospel that included Christ’s substitutionary, active obedience and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone. We preached the law and the gospel with a view with the expectation that God the Spirit sovereignly and freely uses that message to give new life and true faith to his elect. We did it with the expectation that Christians united to Christ would grow in grace. Under that rubric, we also preached the moral law in its second and third uses.

All this preaching went on in the context of the visible, institutional church. This is one many characteristics of the Reformation lost by modern evangelicals since the 18th century. The Reformed conviction was that the Lord Jesus instituted a weekly holiday. We have called it the Lord’s Day and the Christian Sabbath. They are essentially the same thing.

By contrast, modern evangelicals have tended to see the visible church as one option for fulfilling the mission of the church but certainly not the only or even the primary agency for fulfilling Christ’s mission. In early-21st century evangelical theology and piety, the church has increasing come to be seen in therapeutic terms. It’s a place where people go to get an emotional lift and to find tips for self-help winsomely expressed by understanding leaders. Add to this the post-Victorian commercialization (and sentimentalizing) of Christmas and in such a context we can see how Christmas, a time when the culture seems to be at least tangentially interested in Christian themes, has come to be so important and so exhausting that Christians need a rest on the Sunday after Christmas.

To busy evangelicals, confessional Reformed piety offers rest. We may appreciate the secular aspects of Christmas (the lights, the good wishes, etc) and the theological truth of the incarnation and virgin conception of our Lord while demurring from the Santa-ization of Christmas. In truth, almost as soon as God the Son incarnate was born of the Virgin Mary, the powers of this world sought to murder him and indeed, murdered many infants in the attempt. Jesus was not joyless but he was also suffered all his life (Heidelberg 37) on behalf of his elect.

The creational Sabbath that he instituted, which he administered under the Mosaic (Old) covenant on the last day of the week (Saturday) he transformed by his resurrection on the first day of the week as the Christian Sabbath. This was the day on which the Christians met and worshiped (twice). This was the practice of the apostles and the early post-apostolic church. They knew nothing about the exhausting pace of “evangelical” activity that we know today. They knew nothing of Christmas. They knew about the Lord’s Day. They knew about the preaching of the Word, the use of the sacraments (Acts 2:42) and the use of church discipline (see Matt 18; 1 Cor 5). They prayed. They held fellowship meals but they did not so exhaust themselves so as to be unable to gather for public worship. They knew that it was through the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10:14) that God the Spirit operates to bring his elect to new life.

As heirs of the Jewish Sabbath tradition, they knew the pitfalls of legalism (i.e., the making up of rules about the Sabbath) but they knew that God had instituted the Sabbath in creation (Gen 2:1; Ex 20:8–11) and not at Sinai. They knew that the pattern of work and rest in built in the nature of things.

There is an alternative. It is a pattern of regular work and rest. It is a wonderful relief from the modern evangelical pattern of frenzy and collapse symbolized by the cancellation of public worship. There is a better way. Jesus was born for us sinners. He obeyed for us sinners. He was crucified, died, buried, and raised for us sinners. He ascended where he rules from his throne. He has earned our rest and invites us to enter into it by grace alone, through faith alone. He invites us to gather with his people and to “kiss the Son” because “blessed are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 2:12).

Find a place to worship this Lord’s Day here.


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  1. I stopped calling myself an evangelical a long time ago, and encourage everyone to do the same. It is meaningless. Confessional, Reformed, they still work, but even they are slipping.

    My Christmas prayer is for Christmas to go away. I think that the secularization should finish off Christmas, but every year it hangs on to its fake religiosity. I know you stopped short of this, but it would be good if more pastors would start speaking out on this.

    Merry last-Sabbath-of the-old-year,

  2. Why not celebrate the Lord’s Day faithfully week by week and also celebrate Christmas? I see no necessary conflict. I enjoy a time of celebrating the person and work of Christ throughout the year via a church calendar. The actual dates may never be known but having a fixed time the entire church celebrates the birth of Christ and the resurrection is a special. Sure secularism and commercialism has a way of taking over, but that shouldn’t deter Christians from keeping Christ as the focus. But yes, the Lord’s Day is the ordained weekly way, while these other days are mere customs. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for allowing their traditions to break the commandments of God. So as long as these man made traditions like Christmas and Easter do not usurp the place of the Lord’s Day as the commanded ordinary day of worship I see nothing wrong with them.

    • The standard presbyterian and reformed answer to the question is to say that the church of Jesus Christ has 52 God ordained days to preach all about the life of Christ, not to mention much much more.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    The link to reformed churches is thoughtful.

    What is the remainder of this sentence in your post? This is at the end of the first paragraph, Reformed alternative:
    We did it with the expectation that Christians united to Christ we would also preach the law in its . . . .

  4. Dr.Clark,
    Do you have any resources. On the biblical shift from worshipping on Jewish Sabbath to Christian Sabbath on Sunday? I have family members who are heavily in the Hebraic Roots Movement who uphold many TORAH laws under Mosiac covenant that are still abiding today in the new covenant (i.e. Jewish Sabbath keeling, Food laws). They are an unorganized movement but it’s a growing movement I’m seeing online and the conversations I’ve had with them. A lot of them are coming from American evangelicalism and then trying to find “purer” roots in this Hebraic movement. I bring them to letter to Hebrews especially chapters 8,9,10. But they really don’t see the old covenant obsolete. They only see the Levitical Priesthood obsolete but not all the laws such Jewish Sabbath keeping, ceremonial laws, civil laws, etc.

    • Daniel,

      There have been movements like this since probably AD70 or so. There is a biblical discussion of the Sabbath in the book, linked in the article above, Recovering the Reformed Confession. see also the resources linked below the article.

      The evidence from the New Testament is quite clear. we may be certain about when the early Christians gathered for worship and only from the New Testament but also from early Christian practice, which was consistent. They met on the first day of the week, Sunday.

      The bigger question is why people do not recognize that the Mosaic (old) covenant is temporary and not permanent? The great thing here is that the Holy Spirit has actually inspired a response to this question: the book of Hebrews. This is the major burden of Hebrews, to persuade those who were tempted to go back to Moses of the superiority of the new covenant. you’re is a complete audio commentary on the book of Hebrews:

      Office Hours: Complete Audio Commentary On Hebrews

    • I have family members who are heavily in the Hebraic Roots Movement who uphold many TORAH laws under Mosiac covenant that are still abiding today in the new covenant (i.e. Jewish Sabbath keeling, Food laws). They are an unorganized movement but it’s a growing movement I’m seeing online and the conversations I’ve had with them. A lot of them are coming from American evangelicalism and then trying to find “purer” roots in this Hebraic movement.

      I’ve seen this too. There could be emotional reasons for this new heresy: evangelicals are tired of the chaos of their worship and daily lives and want something of a religious calendar and a set of rules for worship. Real Protestantism has good answers to these problems, if real Protestantism can be found where they live. Even that’s a tough row to hoe depending on their circumstances.

  5. Those social media posts made me want to cry. Especially the DiscoChurch one.
    Thomas Watson on the Fourth Commandment would do them some good.
    As it did me in 2015. Wish I had read it earlier.
    Brilliant blog post, brother.
    God bless

  6. Thanks for including the link to the DiscoChurch. I really like that name. It captures so accurately and completely both the worship services and the theological bent of “Evangelical Churches” today. At least these people are being honest about themselves. My prayer is that other churches would display the same honesty. That includes both those who claim to be evangelical but also, and far more importantly, those that in name claim to be Reformed but could not be recognized as such by a visitor to their services or one listening to their sermons, or one reading through their various publications and papers.

    • I attend a PCA church of about 120. I often wonder how long it would take for anyone to even hear the word “Reformed” let alone be aware of any Reformed distinctives.

  7. Summit Church NC is JD Greear’s church. He was the 62nd president of the SBC. PCA ministers love quoting him. I can’t help but wonder if “no church on Sunday” will be the next trend in the PCA.

    To Greear’s point about giving staff a break, there’s no reason church needs to be a spectacle or 3-ring circus requiring hundreds of staff on Sunday morning. Hymnals/psalters, a bulletin, and a preacher should get it done. Maybe I’m just too used to worshiping in small churches. Maybe the problem with his is that it’s simply too big.

  8. Dr. Clark. See the response from Hilton Head Island Community Church when they were asked about canceling Lords Day service on their Facebook

    Hilton Head Island Community Church we had services on Dec 22 as well as Dec 24. Today was an opportunity for people to gather in smaller groups to worship on the Lord’s Day with the guide provided. Where 2 or more or gathered, the Bible tells us He is in our midst. Happy New Year!

    It is amazing how many churches have no true theology regarding the Lords Day. Thanks for all you do.

  9. Bebbington’s Quadrilateral: “Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism.”

    I think the root problem is that we are not really crucicentric.

    Hence the feverish, extra-biblical hoopla (i.e., “activism”).

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