Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas and the Status Quo in Churches

I sometimes hear evangelicals condemn churches and pastors for being accomodating to culture in their ministries. From having church-wide Super Bowl fellowships on Super Bowl Sunday, to using contemporary style music during worship services, some Christians loudly condemn the church's adoption of cultural habits or practices to reach people for Christ. I propose in this post that the adoption of cultural mores and norms to communicate the message of Jesus Christ is precisely what the inspired Scriptures mandate we Christians should be doing.

It is what Paul did in Acts 17:19-30. He went where the people of his culture gathered. He learned what the people of his culture liked. He met people in their comfort zone, and then he delivered to the people of his culture the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.

The apostle wisely made the distinction between cultural traditions and gospel truth. The former changes; the latter does not. Methods are amoral. Truth is eternal. Paul determined to use the best method he could to bring the good news to the lost.

Paul and the early apostles followed the New Covenant commandment to love others as Christ had loved them (see John 13:34-35). In love for the people of Athens, Paul stood on Mars Hill and quoted pagan poets (like Aratus). But before he could quote the pagans, he had to read them. Paul walked with comfort and ease among the philosophers of Athens. He conversed with them on their turf, in their language, and with a singular purpose. Paul met the pagans of Greece on their playing field in order to give them Christ.

Christians throughout the ages have adopted cultural norms to communicate Christ. An illustration of this principle would be the use of music in church worship. The early Christians sang Psalms acappella. Eventually instruments were introduced into worship, and even though we now consider the organ a traditional instrument, when it was first introduced into the church, it caused an uproar because it was an instrument “from the saloons.”

When Charles and John Wesley sought to communicate the gospel to the people of their day, they took bar tunes (songs sung in pubs of England) and changed the words to communicate Christ. This was scandalous! "How dare the Wesley boys use bar ditties in the sacred house of God!" said some. These “bar ditties” are what we know today as hymns.

The early apostles, as well as Christians throughout the ages, have adopted cultural mores to better communicate the message of Christ. Again, the message never changes, but the means by which the message is conveyed BETTER CHANGE or Christians will never have a new audience. Sadly, more than a few evangelicals in our day attempt to crystalize the methodology through which the message is communicated. Someone once said:

Everything that is in place was originally considered a good idea.
Everything that is in place was originally somebody's good idea.
Everything that is in place began as a challenge to the status quo.
To complicate matters: In every organization there is someone standing guard of the status quo.

The challenge for pastors is to recognize the status quo in our churches, patiently challenge those who guard it, and find new and creative ways to communicate the gospel to people in need of Christ. Though it is not always easy to lead others to adopt the customs of culture in order to reach people with the good news, it is a practice rooted in Scripture and in history.

Let's use Christmas as an example. Before Christ was born in Bethlehem--most likely in the late spring of 4 BC-- the day we now celebrate as His birth, December 25, was actually a day of pagan celebration. It was the day the sun reached its lowest point on the horizon, and afterwards would begin its rise (i.e. 'the winter solstice'). The Romans rejoiced that the winter cold and darkness was ending, and they celebrated "the return of the sun" on December 25. According to historian Melissa Lauber, on December 25 "a huge log or  a whole tree, the Yule Log, would be cast into a bonfire. Roman revelers would dance and sing around the fire, hoping to awaken the sun from its slumber.”  

This Roman celebration of the sun occurred every year during the time Christ walked the earth. The week long festival, beginning on December 17 and culminating on December 25, was called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of light, for the ascension of the sun on the horizon meant the return of more daylight. December 25 was the highest holy day of Rome. "Everyone feasted and rejoiced! Work and business were for a season entirely suspended, and houses were decked with laurel and evergreen. Visits and presents were exchanged between friends, and clients gave gifts to their patrons. The whole season was one of rejoicing and goodwill and happy indulgences,” writes historian J.M. Wheeler. The Romans called the actual day of December 25 "The Day of the Unconquerable Sun."  This pagan festival was deeply ingrained in the pop culture before, during, and long after Jesus died and rose again.

However, during the reign of Emperor Constantine (AD 306-337), Christians began taking and using the pagan customs of Saturnalia as an opportunity to tell others about Jesus Christ. It was through the intentional efforts of early Christians in using the customs of their culture as a vehicle to deliver the message of Jesus Christ that we Christians today have what we know as
"Christmas." Imagine being a Christian two thousand years ago in a culture where people are celebrating the resurrection of the Unconquerable Sun ("s-u-n"). It's a no-brainer for Christians to say to their lost friends, "Look, you're worshiping an inanimate object in the sky. Let me tell you about the Unconquerable Son of God - Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and lived and died and rose again - a  real resurrection - for your sins and for mine.

Contrary to what you have heard, Jesus was not the reason for the season in the beginning.

Nowhere in Scripture is the date of Christ's birth mentioned. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians ever seen celebrating the birth of Christ after that first Bethlehem morning. Yet, for centuries Christians have used the pagan customs of Saturnalia to teach others about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Christians, don't be afraid to change. Don't be afraid to take cultural norms and adopt them as your own in order to share Christ. The celebration of Christmas ought to be an annual reminder to us that Christians throughout the ages have adopted pagan customs as their own to give the message of Jesus Christ to a people comfortable in their culture.




Anonymous said...

The challenge is to find ways to redeem pagan traditions without them turning into syncretism. (our challenge overseas)

BTW:..I think you mean Jan 2? as a conclusion to the holiday? Not Dec 2?


Wade Burleson said...

Thanks, Jen! Typo. Got it fixed! December 17 to December 25.

Appreciate the comment and the comparison to mission work.

Unknown said...

That description of 'Christmas' is what I've heard before. I tell my children Jesus time wasn't during Christmas time & explain we don't know. Thank you, Wade.

Kristen said...

This is one of the wisest blog posts I've ever read on this topic-- and it applies to so many other things than Christmas. Most things having to do with human-to-human relations are products of passing cultural norms. As long as we uphold love and righteousness, changing things like marital customs (from male authority to full equality) will help spread the gospel, whereas holding women to the customs of the first-century world manifestly hinders it.

Lee Wiser said...

Your article reminded me of when, as a young believer, I was told that guitars were inappropriate instruments for worship. I'm grateful that things have changed, I like being the "old guy" in the worship band.

Anonymous said...

Adapting to the culture of people we wish to reach, is based on a wise communication and education principle. It is a link between the known and the unknown for the hearer. Paul was flexible with regard to culture in spreading the Gospel, and said he had become all things to all men, in the hope of winning some to faith in Christ. Thanks for pointing out again that when we find our identity in Jesus Christ, we are set free to use all human culture as a means to an end in presenting the Gospel. For example,in the Southern Hemisphere the 25 December is round about the time of their summer solstice, so the symbolism will be used in a different way than in the North; Christ has come for all seasons of life.

B Nettles said...

I thought Apollo (and before that Helios) was the god of the Sun for the Romans. Saturn was god of light.

Also Dec 21/22 is the solstice, not Dec 25, even back in 20 AD (checked with astronomical software).

Anonymous said...

Churches in our area that are willing to adapt to culture and to change are looking very different from what that meant 25 years ago.

The boomer's beloved praise bands and choruses are being replaced by contemplative worship, chants and hymns, and smells and bells.

I wonder if we aging boomers will support this use of cultural relevancy or hold onto our rock and roll culture?

Time will tell.


Wade Burleson said...



The root of the word "contemporary" is temporary.

Each generation will face their own test.

Wade Burleson said...

Bill Nettles,

You are correct. Saturnalia was the god of light, not necessarily the sun, but the Roman celebration was for the return of "light" caused by the sun. I have corrected the post. Thanks and a hat tip!

Rev 21:23 said...

Read Jeremiah 10. We are told NOT to do it. We cannot change a demonic practice into a heavenly one. Obey the Scriptures. It's that simple. He commanded His People, throughout ALL of our generations to observe His Feasts and Sabbath, because they are Prophetic Shadows of what will transpire in the future. You have got to "come out" and separate yourselves as He says in His Word. We do not tell Him how we are going to do things. He tells us. Listening to this teaching is a must. Please feel free to ask me any questions. And, please understand, I was doing these things too, before He opened my eyes. MANY True Believers have also stopped their participation in these things. Here is my email address for any questions. Please know that I post this out of a heart of love and understanding. Remember, He will tell those who think they were serving Him but were not to depart from Him, because He did not know them. In other words, there is a difference in having a personal relationship and just being religious. His Sheep know His Voice, and no other voice will they follow.

David Thompson said...

I think, now more than ever, it's critical for Christians to find ways to get in sync with the rapidly changing, and diverse culture. I like the "bar ditties" part of the post. I struggle with what to hang on to from past traditions, and embrace from new experiences, without losing site of doing the right thing.

Nicholas said...

Unfortunately David, it is a myth that the Wesleys used "bar music." See the following article: