Christmas in England versus Christmas in the USA

It’s been an interesting few days with little time for blogging and which has included, among other things, being at a church service in England and also one in the USA.

I’d be interested in what responses you have to these descriptions – aesthetically, theologically, missionally, culturally etc. And how does your culture and context shape your response?

Service 1

was in a large and very old Church of England in an historic English town on a freezing cold December night. It was a Christmas carol service, the evening of the first Sunday of Advent. The church stood in the town square. You could only walk or cycle or park some distance away.

We were welcomed with a warm smile just inside the arched stone entrance and given an order of service. We sat on hard wooden pews in a quiet atmosphere. If anyone talked, it was in whispers. The nave was half-full with maybe 150, mostly older, people; the balconies were empty.

The church was decorated with candles. The lights were turned off as we sat each with a lit candle supplied with a little circular cardboard wax collector. Little pools of light illuminated the beautiful carved wooden choir and high beamed ceiling. The order of service contained music, poetry and readings. The singing was led by a large choir of robed singers drawn from the church’s children, youth and adult choirs. The music was eclectic (I only knew one or two of the hymns) and quite demanding to sing. It started with chanted song. All the songs were drawn from previous centuries. The only other instrument was the organ, the organist hidden away somewhere from view.

The choir started seated high up on the back balcony and then slowly paraded down the nave to sit in the choir singing as they went. There was no sermon as such, just a short five minute reflection by the robed clergyman inviting us to worship the God of the incarnation. At the end the clergy and choir paraded out down the nave, with a large golden cross held high at the front. As we left, there was opportunity to give a donation to Christian relief work that the church supported in Africa. Outside, around the church were the graves of past generations of worshippers.

Service 2

on the second Sunday of Advent, was at a huge and growing American megachurch of over 15,000 people located in the South-West. The church’s campus stretched over several blocks, populated with numerous administrative and ministry buildings including centres for infants, young kids, high school kids and a purpose-built youth auditorium. Each one of these buildings could cater for 100s. Every one was buzzing with life and each ministry was being run in a super-efficient way by an army of volunteers and staff.

The main worship centre was surrounded by a bookshop, restaurant, coffee shop. Outside there were large grass play areas and sports fields filled with kids out playing in the warm sunshine. There were seats and tables outside in the shade for talking and relaxing. And all of this was encircled by giant car parks, staffed by attendants directing traffic. Beside the church was a small hill, topped by a large cross, underneath which was a replica of an empty tomb.

Technology was everywhere: parents could sign in and collect children with an electronic tag; the entire service was being recorded and rebroadcast in separate campuses from a separate control room. It would later be repeated exactly ‘in the flesh’ twice more in this campus.

On our walk in, we were greeted at least three times by smiling teams of welcomers. We were warmly invited to fill in a new visitors form giving contact details and given a free lunch voucher for doing so, as well as a new visitors bag. Without fail, everyone was friendly and glad to welcome a visitor. Inside, giant screens filled the vast amphitheatre of the worship centre, flanking a large stage on which a worship team of drummer, bass guitarist, keyboards, lead guitarist and two attractive female singers were later to appear. On the screen a digital clock was counting down the seconds to the start of the service.

The seats were soft and comfortable, no hard pews, robed clergy, stone flags, wooden choirs, vaulted ceilings or cruciform architecture here. There were thousands of people filling the space. As the clock hit zero the lights dimmed and the band suddenly launched into a set of three worship songs. The style was contemporary Christian music, the tempo was upbeat, joyful, extrovert, professional, emotional and personal. The screens flicked seamlessly from one image of the band to the next, just like TV coverage on The Late Late Show. The final song of the set had little discernible Christian content but was connected to the theme of the sermon on standing for what you believe.

You were encouraged to greet those around you before a woman led a beautifully presented short reflection on the power of community before communion was served by attendants. Little plastic glasses filled with juice, with a clever little tray with hard-baked pieces of bread, were circulated. It was up to you to participate or not. What communion represented was not explained. You drank and ate as it passed, replacing the empty glass in the holder. The whole operation for thousands took perhaps 3-4 minutes.

The preacher spoke for about 28 minutes, perfectly timing the whole service to exactly an hour. He drew out, at high-speed, principles for witness and evangelism from the book of Esther, challenging listeners to make a difference for Christ in their lives and workplace. His style was personal, engaging, direct and urgent. This was preaching calling for response and courage to put Christ first whatever the cost. The sermon was part of a series going through the whole Bible. There was no mention of Advent or Carols. Christmas services would be focused on the week before the 25th with multiple services across three campuses, expecting a total of around 32,000 people.

After we left we joined the throng at the food counter; a huge weekly military operation to feed tens of thousands. Later we got a tour of the facility, including seeing clever automated communion juice dispensers filling the thousands of little glasses for the next service.

Some brief reflections to get a conversation started …. please feel welcome to add your own:

A big caveat: I was a first time visitor at both places and so am only going on one experience.

Both services represented wildly different forms of orthodox Christian worship. And this reflects how adaptable Christianity is to its culture and context. You could say that both services were carefully managed and constructed experiences – they just had very different outcomes in mind.

Service 1: The whole service was meditative, embedded within church tradition, low-key and suffused with Christian symbolism. There was a sense of continuity with history and theology and liturgy. I also suspect is asks significantly less of its participants in terms of discipleship, commitment and evangelism but I could be wrong.

Service 2: The industrial size of the church shaped a lot of what was going on. Everything had to be perfectly timed (hundreds of parents had to collect hundreds of kids before the next service; the length had to be exact for re-broadcast etc). While much of Service 1 revolved around inviting you gently to find your place within a living faith tradition, the entire structure of Service 2 revolved around removing any perceived barriers to encountering the gospel: the welcome, the facilities, the architecture, the service, the content, the songs, the convenience, the car park – everything was carefully designed to get you to the experience of church. And from there a lot more was being asked of people – involvement in neighbourhood groups, volunteerism, counting the cost of following Christ and so on. There was little connection to church calendar, the focus was on the individual. And the assumption (I guess) is that the bigger the church the bigger the potential for impacting more individuals.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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5 thoughts on “Christmas in England versus Christmas in the USA

  1. Very interesting and good to think about. Part of me, prefers the first one, because it connects me with those who went before me, partly, because since became a Christian I moved within circles who did not appreciate the heritage that we are part of. In the last few years I have learned a lot from those traditions that I tried to dismiss.
    As I was reading your entry a question came to my mind: which one if those two is actually affecting the culture that they are part of, that as a consequence the places where they are have become better places? I am not talking evangelism, I am talking culture making. One seems far and remove from the world around it, the other one seems closer to the style of multinationals.

  2. Service 1 sounds cool, but for me the value would be almost entirely of a historic/nostalgic nature – a taste of how its been done, a beautiful atmosphere that encourages reflection on saints who have gone before, and on the majesty and mystery of God. My skepticism concerning this style of service comes from a wariness of anything that might communicate a divorce between worshiping God and “real life,” whether to those inside or outside the community of faith.

    The style of service 2 definitely sounds familiar, though I’ve never attended a church quite that large. In my mind, the cultural familiarity and the communication of practical, everyday faith are huge pluses (though this can be at the expense of inspiring an appropriate awe of God). I am also skeptical of very large churches – not because I think it is inherently wrong. It just seems like they sort of attract and hoard gifted leaders that they could be training up and sending out to places that are seriously lacking adequate workers.

    In either case, the question is really about motive. Are the leaders of these congregations doing what they do because they believe it is the best way to love and serve the body and community around them? If they are, it’s just the right kind of service. 🙂

  3. thanks, Ana, Crystal

    Both your observations I think raise the question of what is church for, which I think is a surprisingly tricky one to answer since there are multiple functions of the church.

    Crystal do you know of Marva Dawn? She lives in or near Portland I think and has taught at Regent and has written books on lots of stuff including ‘Reaching out without Dumbing Down’. She did a summer institute at iBI some years ago. Her argument was that church is primarily for the worship of God and other things flow from that but must not replace it.

    I guess a ‘danger’ or ‘challenge’ for the first church is faith as a historical curiosity in a very secular culture. For the second church, the danger of a consumerist faith that revolves around the needs / desires of the worshipper.

    So I really like what you are saying about the ‘fruit’ of each church – postively impacting culture and loving and serving the body and community. I think I’d want to add something along the lines of asking / evaluating if and how the church members are growing and developing in their faith and love for God and others. For if this is not happening, then both the ‘historic’ church and the megachurch are just providing religious services for attenders ….

  4. As an American who has been attending lots of church #2 (both small and large) for nearly 40 years, I wish my family and I could find and settle on a church #1 nearby. I so need quiet. Thanks for the post.

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