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An Exclusive Christmas Eve

Nativity photo by Patrick Sweeney/Flickr

An Exclusive Christmas Eve

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By Deb Conklin

Last night I had a experience that gave me a much deeper understanding of why so many of my friends are so adamantly anti-church. I attended the most disturbing Christmas Eve service that I have ever experienced, and it was, sadly, in the church where I am the pastor.

This fall my Liberty Park Church chose to share our building with a new congregation that needed a larger, and better space. We did this in part to help our budget, but we also did it because we thought it would be a joy to have larger congregation with lots of families and music and energy sharing our building. I knew that this is a more conservative fundamentalist congregation, but I failed to appreciate how ungenerous this pastor and/or congregation truly is.

Over the fall, we’ve had a pretty good relationship. We’ve shared the space, with a bit of overlap and a lot of grace. The relationship has been cordial, and I had hoped we had developed mutual respect.

When Christmas Eve services came up we discovered that all of our congregations were accustomed to a 7 p.m. service on Christmas Eve. We talked it over and decided to try a joint Christmas Eve service, rather than getting people to adjust schedules that might have already been planned. My congregations (I have three) have been sharing Christmas Eve service for several years. For us, it is a time to celebrate the nativity. We tell the Luke 2 story, with Scripture and Carols, and close with Silent Night by candlelight. The other pastor said they do some music (he calls it worship), read the Luke 2 story, and have communion. It sounded like we did a pretty similar Christmas Eve.

I don’t usually do Communion on Christmas Eve because it is a service to which people bring families and friends, some of whom may not be totally comfortable with communion. For us, Christmas Eve is a time for including people, not excluding, for sharing our common story, not highlighting our differences. But I was willing to give it a try. I asked the other pastor about communion, explaining that our tradition has an “open table.” He did not understand what that meant, so I explained that we believe that Christ is the one who invites to the table, not us, as a result, we welcome anyone who seeks to know Jesus as Messiah. He explained that he usually reads one of the texts about the last meal in the upper room. He mentioned that he sometimes reads from I Corinthians rather than from one of the Gospels. We had a bit of a discussion about Paul’s comments about eating “ in an unworthy manner” or “without understanding the body” and I thought we had an understanding that he would not go beyond the biblical text. While the text can be challenging, it has several possible understandings with which I am comfortable. The most obvious having to do with the context: Paul is chastising them for not sharing a common meal, and for allowing the communion meal to be a source of division between those who have much and those who have little.

I have had many experiences of sharing worship with congregations that are more conservative, even fundamentalist. And it has been my experience that, when we make even minimal effort, we can find common ground upon which to worship together. I trusted that, particularly on Christmas Eve,  the other pastor would want to celebrate those things than we genuinely share as we celebrate the birth of Christ together.

Sadly, this pastor took this as an opportunity to make my congregation uncomfortable. At a Christmas Eve service that was not supposed to include a sermon/message at all, he managed to: bring up both Biblical inerrancy and the rapture; repeatedly mention Jesus as the one and only, exclusive, way to salvation; (mis) interpret  Paul’s admonitions in Corinthians; insist more than once that the bread and juice were merely symbols; and insert an altar call into the middle of communion, between serving the bread/crackers and serving the juice. And those were just the most glaring ways in which he made a point of bringing up virtually any areas in which he disagrees with one of the mainline traditions.

My folks, even some of the quieter, more conservative, ones were deeply disturbed. Some were so uncomfortable that they chose not to participate in communion. I learned after the service that one couple had chosen not to come because they were much less trusting that I – and were much more accurate about how it would go.

And so I find myself spending Christmas Eve wondering why. Why would any pastor lead such a service on Christmas Eve at all? Why would you not want to invite anyone who might have seen the lights or heard the carols and wandered in, to experience the mystery, even the magic, of  the Christmas story? And why would you intentionally set out to make deeply uncomfortable the congregation that has opened its building and its spirit to you?

I understand why someone would not want to risk having a repeat of this experience, why they would never again darken the doors of a “Christian” church. This is not how I expected to spend my Christmas Eve. I am unable to call up the mystery and the magic that this night brings to me. During the Christmas Season – tomorrow and next Sunday – and as we celebrate Epiphany, my congregations and I will figure out how to reclaim the mystery together. Today we will start our healing. But, for last night, I grieve.

 

Deb Conklin

About Deb Conklin

Rev. Deb Conklin’s wheels are always turning. How can the church make the world a better place? How can it make Spokane better? Her passions are many, including social justice in the mainline tradition, emergence and the post-modern and missional church.

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  • MHilditch

    So sorry, Deb. What a sad story. What a missed opportunity by your pastoral colleague who seems more focused on keeping folks out than helping them in. But, as always, a learning experience for you, my sadder but wiser friend. Maybe the most important piece is: remembering for next year? May the rest of your Christmastime be a warm blessing!

    • Pastor Deb Conklin

      One sad part is that we had a ‘guest’ who was totally put off by the experience. It was hard on my whole congregation. One question I will be asking this pastor is, was it his goal to ensure that we never again did a joint worship? Or did he just not care that he was disrespectful?
      I have thought for a long time that fundamentalist Christian churches have been blaming liberal churches for a phenomenon that is actually caused by fundamentalists – the decline in main line churches. Last night reinforced that belief. I have met so many people who refuse to even consider attending a service at my church, or other ‘liberal’ churches, saying they have no use for church, based on experiences they’ve had. The very people who would be able to enrich their spiritual journey within the mainline tradition are unwilling to take the risk because they’ve been hurt by an experience such as this one.

  • bruce

    But what if you firmly believed that the Bible was inerrant and that Jesus is the only way to salvation? What if you seriously feared that people would miss the rapture if you didn’t tell them? Then making people upset and uncomfortable is a small price to pay for saving their lives. Chemotherapy is painful, but it if saves the patient’s life it is worth it. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not saying any of these things are true, I’m just saying to see things from the point-of-view of Christian fundamentalism. They believe what they believe just like you believe what you believe. Does it hurt anyone to listen to something they don’t agree with? Isn’t that what Christmas is supposed to be about? Love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that what Jesus said? If you and your congregants don’t respect their beliefs, then aren’t you doing the same thing to them that they did to you?

    • Pastor Deb Conklin

      The Christmas story is not about the Rapture. Even if you believe in the Rapture you don’t preach about it every time you worship. And you don’t start every sermon by taking about Biblical inerrrancy. Even by his own beliefs you don’t have to believe that Jesus is the only way, you just have to believe in him. You don’t have to believe in the rapture to be raptured. You just have to believe in Jesus Christ. Since there was no basis for thinking there was anyone in the room who didn’t believe in him, there was no reason for reciting a long list of beliefs that were not shared by the congregations worshipping together.
      For years, my congregations have been doing a joint worship in the park every summer with Bethel AME Church, Emmaus Church, and (sometimes) Jacob’s Well. All of these pastors agree with some (and perhaps all) of the things that this pastor named. Yet they do not insist on going out of their way to list/emphasize them when we worship together. We respect one another enough to preach on those Christian core teachings that we share rather than focusing on those we don’t.
      And I don’t know of any one who teaches that salvation requires one to believe that the host in communion is merely symbolic. As far as I know no one has ever suggested that you go to hell for believing that Christ somehow meets us in the sacrament.
      I often listen to people who believe differently than do I. And I respect those beliefs – and acknowledge that they could be correct. But I would never use a joint worship to beat then up over the places in which we disagree. SO no it is not the same thing at all.

      • bruce

        Thanks for the reply!

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