The Problem of Secular Holidays & Worship Services

May 9, 2016

While I can no longer remember what patriotic holiday prompted the event, there is a worship service that I will never be able to forget. The worship leader stood, held his hands out to the congregation, and lifted them while saying, “Let us stand and worship.” The song that followed, the words of which the leader immediately began to sing: “My country, tis of thee…” The congregation joined in, and my cringe brought about by the horrible juxtaposition of words and music is still happening even to this day.

I know what happened. The worship leader wasn’t in that moment intentionally confusing religion and country. He was using the same words he always did to instruct the congregation it was time to sing, and he hadn’t adjusted his vocabulary to the fact that what came next was not a hymn nor a worship song but in fact a patriotic song. It was a mistake born from trying to integrate a secular holiday into religious worship, and while this

might have been the clumsiest attempt I’ve ever seen, this kind of bad blending happens many times in many congregations every year.

Saint Hallmark, Patron of Greetings Cards

mother's day holidays in worshipA “Hallmark holiday” is a term placed on holidays perceived to be created for commercial purposes, as opposed to being created to remember a historically significant event. Depending on your level of cynicism, you might use the term quite freely with most holidays. But it isn’t fair to classify all holidays in this way. Some holidays, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, were established shortly after the turn of the century, and were the result of a legitimate desire by children to honor parents, in spite of their current level of commercialization. Others, like Boss’ Day, seem to be ripe for labeling, but it took Hallmark 17 years to even begin offering Boss’ Day cards.

When I look at the history of secular celebratory holidays, I notice a similarity. Whether it be International Children’s Day, Grandparent’s Day, Administrative Professionals’ Day, or any of the holidays mentioned above, usually someone or some group is trying to recognize the efforts of a potentially underappreciated individual or group. This, in a way, is similar to many military and veteran related holidays. I’m sure the thought process has become something along the lines of, “With 365 days in the year, surely we can spend one day celebrating the efforts of X,” and, thus, we keep making more recognition days.

Planning a Worship Service Around Go Skateboarding Day

Clearly, just like religious holidays, secular holidays fall into major and minor categories. International Talk Like a Pirate Day isn’t going to motivate your neighbors to get a block party together. However, Memorial Day probably has an established routine for many people. Since the celebration of many secular holidays can serve as a cultural touchstone, it can often feel like the church must find a way to participate if it wants to be culturally relevant. However, how do you do that in a way that doesn’t come across as telling your congregation to worship your country (and how do you make sure you aren’t worshipping your country)?

To anyone involved in planning a service that is attempting to be connected to a secular holiday: don’t force it. If it isn’t easy to connect, don’t try to make the connection. For example, yesterday was Mother’s Day, and for the Roman Catholic Church there is often a strong emphasis on the Virgin Mary. That seems like a pretty good way to allow your service a nod at the cultural touchstone without having to name your sermon “The 4 Habits of a Godly Mother” and performing One Heartbeat at a Time as the offertory music. It will also save your congregation from the embarrassing plea I’ve heard several times throughout the years: “We promise there will be something for those of you who aren’t a mother.” If you’re having to convince people that the worship for next Sunday will, in spite of the secular holiday, still be relevant to everyone, you haven’t been doing a good job separating the religion from the holiday.

Cosplay, Zeitgeist, Holidays

When I was younger, for a time I possessed the attitude that the church needed to focus on religious holidays alone and leave the secular holidays to Hallmark. The aforementioned worship service did nothing to help my condition. However, completely ignoring cultural events isn’t good for the church. While they shouldn’t be the connective fabric of your congregation, cultural touchstones like holidays and other events allow you and your congregation to relate to people not in your congregation, and that’s important. The problem is when you go all in on every cultural moment you think is going to be significant, because many of them aren’t.

It’d be much better for churches to get into the practice of giving something like the Star Wars rebirth a nod as opposed to spending 4 weeks “cosplaying.” The advent of topical sermon series has spawned a million awful religious themed pop culture puns. Attempts by churches to tap into the zeitgeist are usually done clumsily, and social media has done nothing but exacerbate the problem of making everything seem like it could be a big deal. Even Buzzfeed doesn’t always go viral, so your church should stick to what it knows and tone down its attempts to connect to pop culture. It is the same with holidays too.

By also toning down the patriotic and celebratory secular holidays in our worship services, we can remain just as culturally relevant without obfuscating the lines between the religious practice and the cultural event. No individual should walk away from any service without understanding explicitly what the service was about. And let’s make sure it’s about Christ.

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