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Canons of convenience: Churches face choices for worship on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day

 

Last year, some megachurches got tongues flapping fast when they decided to cancel worship services on Christmas Day -- which happened to be Sunday morning.

This year, churches face another Christmas "what to do" decision, because Dec. 24 lands on a Sunday. So congregations big and small must decide whether to offer both Sunday morning worship and a full lineup of Christmas Eve services -- or whether that's just too much.

Some people want a traditional late-night Christmas Eve service, with a choir and communion and candlelight.

Last year, some megachurches got tongues flapping fast when they decided to cancel worship services on Christmas Day — which happened to be Sunday morning.

This year, churches face another Christmas “what to do” decision, because Dec. 24 lands on a Sunday. So congregations big and small must decide whether to offer both Sunday morning worship and a full lineup of Christmas Eve services — or whether that’s just too much.

Some people want a traditional late-night Christmas Eve service, with a choir and communion and candlelight.

Some families with young children want to go to church early and get home before the kids crash.

Some congregations schedule pageants, cantatas, and choir rehearsals wall-to-wall — working hard to offer something really special during the holiday season.

And what about worship on Christmas Day?

Joe Small directs the Theology, Worship, and Education program area for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). When he was a pastor, serving churches in New York, Ohio, and Maryland, Dec. 24 fell on a Sunday at least twice.

“We did Sunday morning like usual, we did Christmas Eve Sunday evening, and we always had a small and lightly-attended service on Christmas Day, no matter what day it fell on,” Small said. “We did the whole nine yards,” with a different sermon on Sunday morning than on Christmas Eve.

Some people might say that’s too much — last year, when some megachurches closed on Sunday, they argued that families want to celebrate Christmas at home, not necessarily spend more time at church.

But “it wasn’t that long ago that Presbyterian churches had worship every Sunday morning and worship every Sunday evening and worship every Wednesday,” Small said. The call for scaling back when Christmas falls on Sunday “is just a mark of how the canons of convenience have kind of overwhelmed us.”

This year, some congregations are categorizing all their Dec. 24 worship services as Christmas services. For example, Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian, a megachurch in San Diego, will offer eight services on Dec. 24, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., ranging from contemporary to a traditional service with communion.

Others are going for the less-is-more approach — including some small congregations anticipating that older parishioners may not want to come out for a late-night Christmas Eve service.

At Townville Church near Anderson, S.C., celebrating Christmas is always a little bit flexible.

This is a small rural congregation, with about 85 people, many of them living on winding roads around nearby Lake Hartwell. This year, Townville will have one Christmas Eve service, at 11 a.m. Dec. 24.

“We rarely have night services,” because many of the congregants are older and don’t want to drive at night, said Pastor Minnie Sue Douglas. The Christmas service will be traditional, with “fantastic music,” she said.

And Douglas said she’s learned through the years that her congregation wants a sense of community and an honoring of Christ’s birth — but they’re flexible about exactly how that happens. Some years, when Christmas falls during the middle of the week, Townville doesn’t necessarily celebrate Christmas on Christmas. They’ll have Christmas services the Sunday before or the Sunday after — having Christmas worship, but also giving people a chance to celebrate at home with their families.

Some years there’s a casual Christmas Eve meal. The congregants read the Christmas story from the Bible, eat sandwiches and treats in the fellowship hall. Some Christmas mornings they gather with the kids in their pajamas for hot chocolate — a sense of togetherness that can be especially important for people who live alone.

“I think they’re looking for something real” at Christmas, Douglas said. “That family gathering” — casual but meaningful — “has worked pretty well.”

At Fourth Church in Greenville, S.C., the approach is more traditional — with regular Sunday morning services followed by candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

Allen McSween, the pastor, said he expects that many parishioners will come to worship that morning, for the last Advent service, and then come back for a different Christmas Eve service at night. The last time this happened, “I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who came again,” he said.

And McSween is willing to work hard to provide a distinct Christmas Eve worship service because he knows that for some folks, that may be their only visit to a church all year.

“You have to assume … that this is the only time they’re going to hear the Christmas message of the gospel,” he said. “Christmas Eve in particular is when the church really needs to open its doors wide to the shepherds and angels who just might turn up at the altar.”

While having distinct services morning and night means more work, McSween tries to accommodate the needs of choir members and other volunteers by having a variety of music. A smaller group will sing during morning worship — so while Fourth church will offer four services on Dec. 24, choir members won’t have to sing at all four unless they choose to.

McSween said he’s learned that bigger isn’t always better. The best worship service his congregation had last year, he said, came during an ice storm when the power went out, but the roads stayed clear. They worshipped in the dark with just a piano and candlelight, with everyone gathered up close and with the choir sprinkled around the congregation.

“It was just wonderful,” McSween said. “It will be remembered as one of the richest experiences we’ve had in years. … It says a whole lot about simplicity in worship. And it’s something, because of our expectations, we can’t pull off unless there’s a crisis.”

First Church in Annapolis, Md., also will hold different services on the morning of Dec. 24 and on Christmas Eve, but there the Christmas Eve service traditionally is not a preaching service. If Pastor Bill Hathaway preaches that night, he’ll keep it short — focusing on carols, telling the Christmas story from the Bible, and offering communion.

And each of the Christmas Eve services at First Church has its own personality. The earliest will last just about a half-hour and is geared towards families with preschoolers. At the next service, the children’s choir will sing. And the late-night service is a communion-and-candlelight service, “definitely with an adult in mind,” Hathaway said.

It doesn’t end there.

The congregation’s Christmas pageant is always held on the Sunday closest to Epiphany — a casual celebration with no rehearsal. As people enter the sanctuary, they can grab a headscarf to become a shepherd or a halo to be an angel. (The kings are arranged for ahead of time). The children’s choirs sing, and the congregation responds when prompted.

“It’s a way to do something without having the huge production,” Hathaway said.

At Christmas, “I have a sense that people are looking for a place of quiet and holiness, and are looking clearly for an alternative to the culture making Christmas into craziness and consumption,” he said. When they come to worship, “folks really have a high hope that they will enter into holy space and a mysterious time. So to respond to that, we need to slow down, provide some quiet, provide music. … Let people enjoy the moment and not overload it with words.”

So what kind of message should pastors preach at Christmas?

“You ought to talk about the incarnation,” Small said. “Talk about something that’s awe-inspiring. … It’s the kind of power that just makes your jaw drop.”

 

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