Inside the minds of holiday-only attenders.
John Huffman, Jr.
October 1, 1999
Every pastor encounters them: the Christmas and Easter faces that appear in church only on the holiest of days. It’s easy to grow cynical about the once-or-twice-a-year crowd. On the other hand, holidays provide the opportunity to touch the lives of the “under-churched.” John Huffman’s perspective, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, offers insight and hope.
How do I feel about Christmas and Easter attenders?
I am excited to see them. I have a great desire to observe someone come to life-saving faith in Jesus Christ and then become active in the community we know as Christ’s church. That’s why on Christmas Eve and Easter, I try to present the very essence of what it is to be born again spiritually by the power of Jesus Christ.
I try to understand them. There may be valid reasons why some people come only on holidays.
Perhaps they have had traumatic experiences in church—even Christians can be cruel. Some may have been burned out by committee work. Perhaps the church didn’t really preach Jesus Christ and was just a social club. Some have even been spiritually abused by an overeager family member who has tried to force them into the faith.
Others may have suffered a major personal tragedy that has rendered them emotionally incapable of sitting through a worship service.
I have a dear friend who quit attending after her mother died. She told me: “I can’t maintain my composure when I hear those familiar hymns sung. I break down sobbing and embarrass myself.”
Eight years ago, when our daughter Suzanne died, it was very difficult for my wife, Anne, to come to church. During the next few months, she had to make her own lonely odyssey of grief, dealing with it her way, as I did with mine.
I needed to be in church. Anne needed a bit of distance before she could reenter.
She says, “Going to church to worship God, to sing ‘How Great Thou Art,’ was salt in the wound of my broken heart! Protest to God and worship are often contradictory, so I stayed away for several months.”
She has in some ways moved beyond me since returning, using her professional training as a psychoanalyst to lead grief recovery workshops within the community of faith.
For many young people who leave the church during their college years, another reason is the need for spiritual autonomy. They need to stand back, reflect, to make certain they are not just jumping through religious hoops. The faith needs to be theirs personally. Many eventually find a fresh, personal dimension to their faith in Jesus Christ and return to church, where they grow and serve, but not necessarily to the congregations of their youth.
For others, it is simply a case of rebellion against God. These persons stay away because they don’t believe in God or they are very hurt by something God has allowed them to experience. Or they may know they’re living with some area of unconfessed sin and they don’t want to be hypocritical.
Some people have never really understood what the Christian faith is all about. These two festive holidays are like the theater previews of coming attractions: they are interesting, they whet the appetite, but they are not the movie.
Christmas and Easter are not designed as an end in themselves, but to encourage a person to a full-time, 365-day-a-year commitment of one’s life to Jesus Christ—finding forgiveness, meaning, and strength to live one day at a time, knowing that the name of one’s higher power is Jesus Christ!
I am sad. I know that as much as we all pray and work, some will simply not take seriously the claims of Jesus Christ. There are those who may continue to attend for a period of time. Some will be radically converted. Others will drift back to their old lifestyles. This breaks my heart. Yet, even Jesus taught that not all will respond positively.
Finally, I am hopeful. Every Christmas and every Easter there are some who come home to Jesus. They see beyond the civic and religious festivities to the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
They come to understand that there is a God who created them with purpose and meaning. They come to understand that no one is perfect. They come to understand that God took human form in the person of Jesus Christ, to die for our sins and to be raised from the dead in victory over sin and death. They come to understand that one needs to receive freely the gift of God’s grace that cannot be earned by religious activity, even church attendance.
They come to understand that God, knowing we cannot go it alone in the Christian faith, places us in his local community called the church, where we grow through worship, Bible study, fellowship, and service to others. And they enthusiastically join us in the realization that every weekend is Christmas and Easter, for every Sunday we celebrate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!
John Huffman, Jr. has since 1978 been pastor of
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church
600 St. Andrew’s Road
Newport Beach CA 92663
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal
*Permission to reprint granted to 2PU by the author.
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