How to Make Me a C&E Christian

By Bob Hiller

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As a pastor, one of my favorite parts of the Christmas celebration is our candlelight services on Christmas Eve. Now, I am no big fan of the song Silent Night (you can read about my misgivings here), but I am a sucker for singing it in a darkened sanctuary filled with candlelight and saints. I also love the fact that the church is filled with so many faces I don’t usually see. We welcome back college students, old members who moved away and have returned to see family, and, of course, the dreaded C&E Christians. You know them, right? The “Christmas and Easter” only crowd. These are the folks who only darken the door of our church on the high holy days. Their attitude towards church, it would seem, is like my attitude towards Silent Night: I don’t want much to do with it, but love the nostalgia.

These are people who, truth be told, I worry about as a pastor. They are in need of the gospel more than twice a year. They need to hear God’s Word for the sake of their souls (and bodies)! Wandering from the Word too often is dangerous to one’s faith. They need our prayers. However, I also worry because they are the butt of too many church jokes. They are reduced to yet another demographic we are to target on Christmas Eve and Easter in an effort to draw them back in. Very often, they are a group demonized and belittled by the church. But is this fair?

I was happy to see at least one blog this year on social media in praise of the C&E crowd. There is something to be said for their faithfulness to tradition. Honestly, it is good news that they are there! I mean, the devil certainly wants them somewhere else at those times. Getting within earshot of God’s Law and Gospel is never good for his purposes. So, before we knock them too much, perhaps we should rejoice in their attendance at all.

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There is something more we need to think about when it comes to C&E Christians. As a church, and as pastors, perhaps we must recognize their lack of attendance as a sermon to us. Why do these folks attend only on Christmas Eve and Easter? Sure, we could say they are here purely for nostalgic or family reasons. But, that excuse gets us off the hook too easily. The better question is: Why did they stop coming in the first place? Could it be that they come on Christmas and Easter because, at least then, they know they will be hearing of Jesus?  At least then, they know, they’ll be getting the gospel? At least then they have something worth attending? Could the problem truly be that we pastors have just, as brother Koch says, stopped giving them something worth getting out of bed for on Sunday morning?

I have gone to church my whole life and I am a pastor now. So, I cannot speak to why people leave church. I cannot put myself in their shoes. Nor would I presume to. However, I can tell you what would drive me from church. This last summer I had a call to serve in a position that would take me out of the parish. My family and I were going to have to find a church. I told Steph (my dear wife), “If we don’t find a Lutheran church that preaches Christ, we may have to look for another church!” I was truly worried. Granted, I am frustratingly (sinfully) judgmental and picky. But I need Jesus. So does my wife. And I have responsibility to make sure my kids receive the gifts. So, if I go to church to hear of Jesus, to be absolved, to feast with the saints, and I get something else, I’m not sure I’m firing up the car in the Sunday AM.

I get the C&E Christian, I think. Why would I want to go to church for any other reason than to receive Christ? As I thought about finding a church last summer, I thought of some things that would keep me from going. So, in an effort to help (or at least spur a conversation) I thought I would give you some tips on how you could make me a C&E Christian. (Please Note: This is not a “How to welcome visitors” guide. There are lots of those. I can be welcomed anywhere, but I go to church for specific reasons.)

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1) Prove How Entertaining You Are- You could replace entertaining with “hip,” “cool,” “progressive,” etc. I can be entertained in hip, cool, and progressive ways anywhere (especially on Sundays during football season). If you get me with entertainment, you have to keep with it. Once I’m bored, I’m out. I don’t need to go to church to be entertained, but absolved.

2) Don’t Moralize Me-Now, don’t hear me saying, “Don’t preach the Law.” Of course you must. I even need to hear about how the Christian life is different. The trouble is, too often the baptized life is preached as just a higher form of morality. Recognize I get moral demands everywhere else, every other day. My family, my job, my government, my friends, even my dog all make demands of me and expect me to be something. I know I need to do and be better. But, the constant reminder from the pulpit is what drives me away. At least on Christmas and Easter I hear about God’s love as something given outside of me. Let’s start there and not stop.

3) Give Me Jesus, Then Take Him Away- Dr. Rosenbladt used to say that one of the big problems with John Wesley was that he preached the gospel to non-Christians, and then took Christ away once you were saved. “He gave Christ with the right hand and took him away with the left.” If you preach the gospel of God for sinners on Christmas Eve, please do the same thing on, say, the third Sunday in May. Don’t give me Jesus to set me free from my guilt and shame, only to invite me in to a more spiritualized form of the same. The church is not to act like the witch from Hansel and Gretel, inviting me in with something sweet only to devour me with guilt.

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I don’t need church to get mere morality, entertainment, and guilt. I can find that anywhere. I need Jesus. I need to be forgiven. I need to have my sins attacked. I need to be driven back to the cross. Even if I hate it, I need it to be done to me. So do you. There’s no other reason to go to church!

This Christmas Eve, let’s not pile on the C&E Christians, but instead, let’s listen to their sermon, their cry for Jesus, and then deliver Him for free with love! And, hey, let’s do it next week too…and the next week after that…and…

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5 thoughts on “How to Make Me a C&E Christian

  1. “Wandering from the word too often is dangerous to one’s faith.” What you said here is true, and in my own experience in life, even brief times of neglect of prayer and reading scripture can cause us to stray a bit. The feeling of being disconnected from the Lord also gives us a feeling of emptiness and vulnerability. I believe the active work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer draws us back from these spiritual deserts of our mind and heart….lest we wander too far away. I don’t agree with all of your comments in this blog, but I respect your point of view, which reflects much truth. Why people become C&E Christians is tied directly and clearly to apathy alone. Some of the causes are nothing more than the tepid excuses people make within themselves to break friendships, act with cruelty in response to perceived offenses, avoid certain situations….the usual flimsy reasons tied often to human irrationality…( but of course…we think ourselves to be entirely rational in many of these cases) . As far as being overly critical of a pastor’s sermons as an excuse to avoid worshipping at a specific Lutheran church….this is absolute vanity. Of course, some pastor’s preach better than others, some are characteristically too entertaining, but unless they are talking heresy….just worship with the congregation, utter the liturgy, sing the hymns, fellowship with the members….why? Simply because it is not about YOU! It is about Jesus….and pride causes us to sit in a pew and if you are a pastor…you may think you could do a better job than the guy up there. I am not a pastor, but I have heard good and bad sermons, and even generally good preachers have off days and their messages don’t resonate. In all, be a bit more empathetic, especially kind to fellow Christians. We are all unfinished works which God has to mold. God bless you. Merry Christmas.

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    1. I can tell you from experience that point #3 (give Jesus with the left hand and take him away with the right hand) can be absolutely devastating and can drive people far away from the church.

      You mention apathy as the reason people stop going to church. In some churches the necessity of proving that one really has saving faith is constantly peached from the pulpit. Members of the congregation are constantly saying things like, “I don’t know if so and so is really saved because I don’t see enough fruit in their life.”

      When you confess your sin to a brother or to the pastor, they respond with things like, “Are you really repenting of your sin?” “Are you sure you’re really a Christian?” “You’ve bee a Christian for how long and you still struggle with that sin!?!”

      After 10 years in a church like that, I would say I was driven to apathy by being too involved in the church. I felt the need to prove I was a real Christian to the members of the congregation by serving in the church so much that I was constantly exhausted. I felt like I was never living up to the standards of what a “genuine saving faith” looked like. If I made Jesus my Savior, but not my Lord, was I really a Christian?

      Years of punching myself in the head, contemplation of suicide, cursing myself, constant self-examination, and check-lists of what “real saving faith” looked like drove me to harden my heart and become embittered against the church. I almost gave up on the whole thing altogether. My reasoning was that if I had done all that I had done, but still didn’t really have saving faith, then I was never going to have real saving faith. Might as well live a selfish, self-centered life in the present if I’m going to be damned anyway.

      The Lutheran (though sometimes in other circles) emphasis on Law and Gospel is what attracted me to Lutheranism about 6 – 9 months ago, and for the first time in 8 years I’m actually excited about going to church again. I love it.

      Christians come to the church because they need the gospel and the sacraments. If the church is not giving them the gospel and the sacraments, there really is no reason to come.

      I believe worship on Sunday morning isn’t all about me, but it is about what Christ has done for me. The church is where we receive Christ’s gifts. If the church only preaches the gospel on Christmas and Easter in the hope of converting unbelievers who may be present, then those are the only times of the year that I want to go to church.

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