Can you remember the last really good party you were at? What was it like – what kind of food was there, was there music or dancing, and most important for our consideration today, was it a “Christian” party?
As we’re in the middle of the Advent and Christmas season, with an eye towards the new year, I want us to consider how and why we celebrate. I want us to consider what our theology of celebration is. In our personal lives, and in our ministries, we have a bounty of occasions to celebrate. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, weddings, Christmas, anniversaries, New Year’s Eve, children being born, teams winning, graduations, etc. How do we, as Christians, celebrate these occasions? My inkling is that our celebrations are kind of lame, or at least less full, than they can and should be – and this is due to a lack of a theology of celebration.
Why do we need a theology of celebration?
Consider your answers to the questions I posed at the beginning – are the really good parties you’ve been to largely secular or among the body of Christ? It seems to me that Christians have allowed the world to dictate what celebration is all about, as we shrink back at many of the things their parties are about. Please understand this: I am not advocating unbridled debauchery and promiscuity. But in our valid criticism of the sinful elements of worldly celebration, we tend to adopt a framework that pits Christ against culture. While this may be a better response than completely accepting every element of worldly celebration (Christ of culture), it still stops short of what I think our response should be. We should see Christ as the transformer of culture, and understand that excellent celebration is something we need to redeem.
I first began considering this idea of a theology of celebration last October, when I was in Colorado Springs for a week of classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. In one of my vocation formation classes, Dr. Erin Dufault-Hunter directed us to a passage in Deuteronomy 14 that began a shift in my understanding of celebration:
You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year. And before the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the Lord your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the Lord your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the Lord your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice, you and your household.
Did you catch the last few sentences? The people are commanded to take their tithe money, spend it on whatever their appetite craves, and eat it in gratitude and rejoicing before God. I remarked in class, “That sounds like a nice big steak and a glass of bourbon.” And I’m supposed to do this as an offering to God?
When you look deeper at the tithes and offerings commanded in Scripture, this specific one is a unique example, and in general this is not how they’re handled. That would simply be bad stewardship. But in a very real way, celebration and enjoying good food and drink are a way to worship and honor God. If we party non-stop, we are irresponsible – but if our parties fit the occasion, we can go big and honor God in the meantime. The well-known passage in Ecclesiastes 3 talks about “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” – so when it is time to laugh and to dance, let’s do it the best we can! I think celebrating with excellence is one way that we heed Paul’s admonitions to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” or “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
In my mind, a theology of celebration begins with the truth that God created everything and saw that it was good. It involves the truth that we are commanded to celebrate and enjoy the good things of life, while understanding the way Satan has twisted them in the world. A theology of celebration says, “hey, as a follower of Jesus I’m supposed to be displaying joy in abundance, and one way is through celebrating well.” And ultimately, a theology of celebration flows out of the ultimate reason to celebrate: we have been bought back from an eternity of death and separation from God. In their song “Boldly I Approach (The Art of Celebration)” off the album The Art of Celebration, Rend Collective describes this ultimate reason to celebrate very well:
This is the art of celebration
Knowing we’re free from condemnation
Oh praise the One, praise the One
Who made an end to all my sin
We don’t just celebrate because God was gracious enough to give us taste buds when he didn’t have to (how awesome is that!), but we celebrate because of all that God has done on our behalf. In addition, we celebrate because God himself celebrates! In Luke 15, Jesus tells 3 parables about God seeking sinners. He explains the level of celebration when someone comes to repentance: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” More so, the parable of the prodigal son reveals God’s heart of celebration (as well as celebration gone wrong on the part of the prodigal (i.e. wasteful) son). The older brother responds to the party in his rebellious brother’s honor this way: “‘But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” We need a theology of celebration because God himself celebrates, and because we have no better response to his love than to celebrate.
What does this have to do with youth ministry?
While I think a theology of celebration has numerous applications for our personal lives, I want to offer a few ramifications for youth ministry specifically. First and foremost, we have a responsibility to teach our teenagers a proper theology of celebration. As they wrestle with their faith and their existence in a fallen world, we have to help them redeem the good means of celebration God has given us. As we allow God to change and refashion our idea of what celebration is and should be, we have a responsibility to help the same thing happen in our teenagers. Throughout our teaching, are we reminding them of the reasons they have to celebrate? Are we providing chances for them to respond in a celebratory manner, in addition to the times things are more somber?
On a more practical level, if you are part of an organized youth ministry, I’m assuming you have parties of some kind, right? In my ministry, we have 2 Christmas parties in the coming weeks – 1 for high school and 1 for middle school. These are a perfect opportunity to put our theology into action, to celebrate well. Obviously, youth group parties are not the place for the “strong drink” of Deuteronomy 14, but are we killing the “fattened calf” otherwise? We don’t have to blow our budget to celebrate with excellence. It might be as simple as providing something besides pizza when we have meals together. I’m the last person to advocate an entertainment-based youth ministry (I think that sentiment has come across pretty clearly in the blog), but we do have a role in showing teenagers that the body of Christ can celebrate well. We don’t strive to be more fun than the other activities demanding their time, because we will never be, but we do strive to show them that our God is a God of joy and celebration.
As we enter a season of celebration, my prayer for you is that God will transform your idea about what celebration is and should be. I know that I have been incredibly blessed to see the value of celebration and the role it plays in worshipping God. It is incredibly freeing to enjoy the gifts God has given us, have a good time, and do it all for his glory. May you experience the same!
 This article is a really great brief synopsis of Niebuhr’s 5 frameworks of Christ and culture: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevin-wax/christ-and-culture-an-overview-of-a-christian-classic/
 Deuteronomy 14:22-26 (ESV)
 Ecclesiastes 3:4 (ESV)
 Colossians 3:23 (ESV)
 1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
 Luke 15:7 (ESV)
 Luke 15:30-32 (ESV)