Churches may celebrate differently on Christmas Day - Word&Way

Churches may celebrate differently on Christmas Day

"You mean we have to go to church Christmas Eve and Christmas morning?"

Many worship leaders know their own children likely will ask that question this year. They also know quite a few families in their congregations will answer, "No." So, some churches struggle with how to balance reality and reverence when Christmas falls on Sunday.

Even the "we've-always-done-it-this-way" guideline fails to provide much help for some churches.

"Because Christmas is on a Sunday only every six years or so, it seems we forget what we did the last time Christmas was on a Sunday," said Allan Aunspaugh, minister of music at Second Baptist Church in Liberty.

Scaling back

With teachers in short supply — and church officers who have no desire to keep records of low attendance — many congregations report plans to cancel Sunday School.

"Our church would never consider not having a service on Christmas Day, but we will scale the activities back a bit," Aunspaugh noted.

For many congregations that offer multiple worship services on typical Sundays, Christmas Sunday morning means a single worship service — most often a blended format if the church normally provides separate traditional and contemporary worship experiences.

"We're keeping it simple — no choir, no praise team, just a simple Christmas service…. We're scaling back. We're not expecting huge crowds," said J.K. Weger, worship pastor at Woodlawn Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.

However, when Woodlawn church leaders discussed canceling services altogether, they agreed that was not the answer. "It's one of the most sacred Christian holidays on the calendar. It would be disrespectful to shut the doors that day," Weger said.

Be the church

Leaders at First Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, began nearly a year ago discussing how to handle Christmas on Sunday.

"This is the day we observe Christ's birth. We decided to do it well, and do it big," said Dan Baker, minister of music.

While the Amarillo church is canceling Sunday School, it is planning two Sunday morning worship services, as well as a Christmas Eve family-oriented service. "We're calling on the church to be the church on Christmas Day," Baker said.

That's the broad consensus among church leaders nationwide. A recent LifeWay Research study of 1,000 Protestant pastors found nine out of 10 plan to have worship services on Christmas Day. And nearly two-thirds — 63 percent — plan to hold worship services both on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

Sensitivity to families

Still, worship planners cannot help but put themselves in the place of parents whose children want to stay home and play with newly opened presents — not sit still in a pew for an hour.

"We have to face the reality of families who don't want to struggle to get kids dressed and come to church," said Brad Jernberg, minister of music and administration at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas.

"But we never considered completely canceling church. We felt strongly we should worship together, but we recognize the reality of what it means on Christmas morning."

Even so, the church found a way to call members together for worship and send them out to serve.

"It's a tradition here for members to prepare and package Christmas day dinners for delivery to homebound members," Jernberg said.

This year, some volunteers will arrive prior to the worship service to prepare the meals. Everyone will gather for worship, and after the service, more volunteers will take 50 to 75 meals to shut-ins.

The event is part of an ongoing Advent emphasis at Cliff Temple on "The Greatest Gift Ever Delivered," Jernberg noted. In services each Sunday, the church highlights a particular way Cliff Temple gives back to the community and the world.

Casual and flexible

Worship leaders at First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, don't know how many people to expect at worship services on Sunday morning, Dec. 25, but they are pretty sure the ones who show up will wear jeans and sweaters, not their Sunday finest.

"It will be a less formal time — not a coat-and-tie kind of service. That lack of formality will be reflected in the way the service is led," said Todd Wilson, pastor for worship and music.

That's by design, he noted. "With Christmas falling on Sunday, it means we have to be a little more creative and do something young families may respond to."

At Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va., homegrown bluegrass musicians who now perform professionally in Nashville, Tenn., will lead a lively worship service on Christmas morning. Mike Parnell, pastor of the church in south central Virginia, said the musical group — twin brothers and their niece — will offer about 45 minutes of Christmas music accompanied by acoustic guitar, banjo and mandolin.

"I'll do a brief sermon, and then we're going home," he said.

The musicians grew up at Beth Car — the twins' mother still attends there — and played locally until a few years ago, when they moved to Nashville. There they've developed careers as session musicians — artists who are available to work with bands in recording sessions.

"They're almost always home at this time of year, and typically they'll play on a Sunday in Advent," Parnell said. "This year, we decided to expand that and let them lead most of the service."

Although Piney Grove Baptist Church in Mount Airy, N.C., is canceling Sunday School for Christmas Day, it will replace its single service with three worship experiences, said pastor Mark Reece.

"In lieu of Sunday standard worship, we're having three 15- to 30-minute communion services at 10, 10:30 and 11," he said. "We're doing it in our chapel instead of the sanctuary and hope it will cater to the smaller crowds we anticipate for Christmas."

The schedule was based in part on an informal survey of the congregation in northwest North Carolina, Reece said.

"Some of our folks suggested that their visiting immediate and extended family members might find a short communion service attractive, especially since some of…[visitors] come from many church traditions, but wouldn't be as likely to come to a standard worship service," he said.

The flexible format also will accommodate church members' travel plans, drawing some who otherwise might not have worshipped that day, and will encourage people to "come by as they are and not concern themselves about attire," added Reece. The "floating schedule" also will make it easier for families to continue Christmas Day traditions like elaborate breakfasts or lunches, he said.

"I envision families coming on Christmas morning to hear the Christmas story and a short word and receive communion together — a short service, but a meaningful family worship experience," he said.

"This wouldn't work everywhere, but it works well for us since we don't have a Christmas Eve service with communion."

Christmas worship at Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., will be reoriented for all family members, including the youngest, said Adam Davis, minister with youth and children.

"Instead of a sermon, our senior pastor Bob Setzer is writing an original children's story," Davis said. "We will invite the kids up to the chancel to hear and, I imagine, interact with a children's sermon."

Also scheduled is the baptism of one of the church's teenagers. "One of our youth has decided to give his life to Jesus and so we will be baptizing him on Christmas Day," Davis said.

"Our youth have started the tradition of sitting in the front three or four pews on the Sunday when someone gets baptized as a show of love and support. I know that having his baptism will greatly increase the number of youth who will want to attend."

Since Knollwood has also cancelled childcare and children's church with the expectation that they will join their families in worship, "it could be a chaotic Sunday," said Davis.

Christmas Eve worship

The prospect of back-to-back worship services on Christmas Eve and the following morning complicates matters — particularly in churches like First Baptist in Abilene that schedule choral events on Christmas Eve.

"From 11 to midnight, we have a Christmas Eve service with a full choir. It's very large, very involved, and family members who are visiting are invited to come sing with us," Wilson said.

So that means lowering expectations for involvement the next morning. "On Christmas Day, we'll probably have a vocal ensemble," Wilson said.

Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City reports similar plans.

"We're doing an 11 p.m. service Christmas Eve, featuring our organist and musicians from our congregation. It's a Lessons and Carols sort of thing," said Wanda Herron, pastor of worship and arts.

Due to the economy, Holmeswood Baptist is using mostly singers, instrumentalists, dancers and artists from within the church this year, rather than hiring musicians, she added.

"Children — and adults, I hope — are creating art related to the Nativity story that we will display and project during the Christmas Eve service," she said.

Overall, Baptists and other evangelicals — particularly in the South — are less likely than some other Protestants to hold Christmas Eve worship services, LifeWay Research discovered.

Protestant pastors in the South are the least likely — at 62 percent — to hold a Christmas Eve service, compared to other regions, LifeWay found. And pastors who identify themselves as mainline Protestant (87 percent) are more likely than self-identified evangelical pastors (70 percent) to have services on Christmas Eve.

LifeWay Research also learned:

• Only 6 percent of Protestant churches plan to have a Christmas Eve service but no service on Christmas Day, while 28 percent plan to have a Christmas Day service but no service Christmas Eve.

The District Church in Washington, D.C. — a year-old congregation with Baptist ties — will be among the group that focuses on a Christmas Eve service on Saturday and cancels Sunday morning worship. The church, which meets in a school building in the capital's Columbia Heights neighborhood, ministers to Washington's Millennials, the generation born between about 1980 and 2000.

"We have a young crowd, many of whose families live elsewhere," said Aaron Graham, the church's pastor. "We are just having a Christmas Eve service on Saturday night at 5 p.m. and no Sunday services. This is a combination of the challenge of getting access to our school space on Christmas as well as the number of our folks who will be out of town.

"We'll see how it goes as we are only a year into this," he said.

• Full-time pastors (71 percent) and pastors who identify themselves as "part-time" (74 percent) are more likely to plan a Christmas Eve service than bivocational or volunteer pastors (53 percent).

• Apparently, the distinctive religious significance of Christmas is not the only reason churches don't cancel Sunday worship on holidays. Nearly as many Protestant pastors (88 percent) plan to hold services on New Year's Day as Christmas Day (91 percent).

But they and their church members will be somewhere other than at "watch night" worship services on New Year's Eve. Only 26 percent of the pastors surveyed plan for their churches to hold a Dec. 31 meeting.

With additional reporting by Vicki Brown and Robert Dilday