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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Hope College, Holland, MI


A Christless Christmas for Christians

December 22, 2011

I love Jesus. He is my rock and redeemer[1] and, while not a gambling man, I double-dog dare anyone to prove that a life deeply rooted in faith is somehow obsolete. Furthermore, understanding how central it is to one's discipleship, I love corporate worship also.[2] It is a joy to gather weekly with other believers to worship, cast our cares upon, and stand in awe of God almighty while as a faith community. Nevertheless, I must admit that I am not a huge fan of Christmas. Well, okay, before the ecclesiastical police issue a warrant for my arrest, let me rephrase that. I am not a huge fan of how we celebrate Christmas these days, for it seems that no matter their liturgical exuberance even Christ's devotees exclude him from this holiday/holy day, choosing instead to praise hyper consumerism.[3]

Birthed in 1863, Ginghamsburg Church sits in Tipp City, Ohio, just off of I-75 about seven miles from Dayton International Airport. Dr. Mike Slaughter arrived there as lead pastor in 1979 and has co-labored with the congregation to develop what now is a vibrant local and global ministry. Although the resident chief dreamer of this certified megachurch for more than three decades now, Dr. Slaughter is also a noted author. He writes in his latest book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday:

The picture that you have of God has everything to do with the shaping of your faith and values. If your picture of God is distorted, your life perspective will be skewed...God doesn't do magic. Magic is an illusion, meant for entertainment and not for transformation. God came to work miracles in our broken world.[4]

Dr. Slaughter is onto something. The Christian life is not one of optical, physiological, or cognitive illusion--causing distortion to our visual, physical, or mental perception--precisely because God simply doesn't do magic. Contrary to sometimes popular interpretations, Jesus Christ is not a religiously supersized version of Harry Houdini, David Plaine, David Copperfield, or Chris Angel.

During this time of year I often hear arguments to "keep Christ in Christmas" from Christians who are frustrated by the misguided political correctness and skewed notion of inclusivity that has become so popular. I understand why they might be a bit peeved. Affirming the Christness of Christmas publically ought not offend those who pledge allegiance to another religion and conversely Christians must be open to their neighbor's diverse religious and non-religious celebrations of this season. My concern, however, is with Christians, in that, for all of our whining about the despiritualizing or secularization of Christmas, how many of us are the biggest culprits?

In this sense I am not talking about the notorious C.M.E. crowd either; those who participate in Christian community only on the so-called high holy days of Christmas, Mother's Day, and Easter. I am not talking about those who are both in the world and of the world, and have no plans to relocate. No, the indictment that seems most pressing to me is levied against those of us who profess to be "people of the Book" fully affirmative of Jesus' supremacy and deeply committed to our church families, but who nonetheless portray to the world that Jesus is merely an illusionist who deeply desires us to feel warm and fuzzy inside, especially during Advent. This Jesus absolutely loves for us to model conspicuous consumption in his name no less. I know that we don't like to hear this kind of talk, but maybe we need to. In his article "Christmas and the Clash of Civilizations," from the 2011 "Christmas and Epiphany" issue of Christian Reflection, Donald Heinz describes this mess quite well:

Well-wrapped in the modern world, the American Christmas is a sacrament of material consumption that everyone wants a piece of. Consumer capitalism has elbowed out religion to be first in line at the manger scene. Indeed, some scholars now call Christmas the civil religion of capitalism. This new religion of the global market is compulsory for all citizens. While Christian faith is optional, holiday consumption is not. Christmas requires a panoply of accessories on offer by urban outfitters eager to assist us in decking out our true selves.[5]

Christmas must be something very different, much more to us than gift giving (to ourselves and peers who don't need one more item to clutter already disordered garages and closets), cheesy greeting cards (to and from people who we barely communicate with throughout the year's other eleven months), lots of singing, renewed church attendance, and apple cider.

Growing up my family never darkened a church's sanctuary during Christmas or any other day of the year. As odd as it may sound to my preacher's kid colleagues and other lifelong churchgoers, this means that we never went to church nor belonged to a community of faith. We didn't pray together, read the Bible, or do anything else that I would call even remotely religious. Through the years I have come to grips with that experience. Although as an adult my identity in Christ has become of paramount importance to me and faith would be a huge component of our parenting ethic should my wife and I have children, I respect my parent's choice to raise me as they did.

As such, I was raised on a heavy dose of Santa Claus, toys, and feasts of food and family that have become associated with Christmas, so now having been transformed as I have I don't have much of a stomach for it all. In my self-actualized persona, I suppose that the non-conformist in me just can't get with the program. Therefore, Advent isn't the most exciting season for me as a pastoral leader. I love Jesus, I really do. But, I unapologetically have no desire whatsoever to be in anybody's worship service for hours on end. Especially for those familiar with African American traditions of worship during this time of the year, we know that a three-to-six hour service isn't out of the ordinary.

I believe that oftentimes less is more, and so I don't want to help lead multiple services (i.e., Christmas eve, Christmas day and as a continuation New Year's eve, and New Year's day) under the guise of community evangelization when we are really just trying to pad attendance statistics and take in new families to meet denominational quotas. I don't want the church's witness to appear spiritually cheap and profit-driven when we only primarily engage in creative service to the community during the Christmas season, if we do it then at all. I don't want to program people to death as part of the problem rather than the solution, imploring them to come to church when they need to be spending more time with their family at home, and perhaps seeking God about if a vocation of extended work days and commuting is worth the risk of relationship fragmentation.

As I see it, if anything Advent is a perfect time to model the slower, reflective, and more meaningful pace that it would benefit us all to set in following Jesus. Rather than merely feeding the beast of excess and emptiness we should seek especially to tame it during this time of holy celebration. We are to be the architects of godly culture, which requires us being wholly different than mere religious robots beating to the same drum of the heathens that we like to condemn. Sadly, in many ways we are the pot calling the kettle black.

Jesus' birth itself was a miracle, for he wasn't brought into this life in a posh NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) nor was he born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Matthew 2 tells us that God allowed baby Jesus to dodge King Herod's villainous search and destroy mission, and it was done all so that Jesus could be the savior of the world for little 'ol you and me. That is a miracle. In the 1990 film Marked for Death, in an inspired Jamaican Patois accent the head bad guy said, "Everybody waan go heaven, but nobody waan dead."

Ah, so true, so true. As we celebrate Christ's birth, having "become flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood," (as Eugene Peterson's The Message translation puts John 1:14) I hope that we are able to use this special season to be God's change agents. This is only possible, however, if we take Christ's calling seriously when he said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?"[6]


[1] Psalm 19:14.
[2] Hebrews 10:24-25.
[3] See The Trouble With Paris: Following Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008).
[4] Mike Slaughter, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving Like Jesus (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2011), 4.
[5] Donald Heinz, "Christmas and the Clash of Civilizations," in Christian Reflection: Christmas and Epiphany, (Waco, TX, The Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, 2011), 19-26.
[6] Luke 9:23-15.


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