By Chris Moon
Churches are making a variety of changes to their Christmas Eve traditions to accommodate social distancing needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And pastors are doing so while wondering when life finally will return to normal.
“It’s been crazy,” said Ross Frisbie, senior minister at Tonganoxie Christian Church in Kansas. “I never thought by December we still would be dealing with this, and even more so now with cases going up. It’s crazy. I’m looking forward to normal.”
Frisbie said his church will have three Christmas Eve services while offering churchgoers three options by which they can attend those services—in-person, drive-in, or online.
People can RSVP to attend a 3 p.m., 5 p.m., or 7 p.m. service in-person. Each of those will be capped at about 100 people.
The church also will set up a screen outside where people can view a livestream of each service from the safety of their cars. The church has two FM transmitters to broadcast audio from the service into each vehicle.
And, of course, people will be able to view the services online at home.
In a normal year, Frisbie said, 500 to 600 people would attend the church’s Christmas Eve services. (The church averaged 317 in weekly worship attendance in 2019, according to Christian Standard’s annual survey.)
Because of COVID-19, TCC will dispense with the cherished tradition of having its children’s choir perform during Christmas Eve services.
Frisbie said the drive-in idea is a holdover from early in the pandemic. The church used that method as its first step back toward in-person, Sunday morning services.
The congregation has been “really flexible,” Frisbie said.
He said many in the church continue to stay home and worship online. The church now offers classes by Zoom. And the church leadership team makes monthly calls to everyone in the congregation.
The church continues to learn as it forges ahead in these strange times.
“You can’t make a whole lot of plans, because you probably will have to change them,” Frisbie said. “But I’m super proud of our team, all of our ministers, deacons, and elders. They’ve all rolled with the punches. They’ve all done what they can do.”
A SCALED-BACK NATIVITY
In Milledgeville, Ga., Northridge Christian Church was forced to scale back its living Nativity during the Christmas season. The Nativity is an annual church tradition dating back 68 years, lead pastor Mike Waers said.
“We just didn’t feel like it was very safe to do this year,” he said. “A lot of people weren’t willing to volunteer for it.”
The Nativity typically requires about 120 volunteers. It is a big fellowship activity, and the church didn’t want to encourage gatherings like that during the pandemic.
And so the church opted for a micro-version of its living Nativity this year—they’ll have Mary, Joseph, angels, and shepherds, but no animals. The Nativity will serve as the backdrop of an outdoor Christmas Eve service that will include music, preaching, and Communion.
Typically, the church—which averaged more than 1,000 in weekly attendance before the pandemic—would have had three indoor services, one on Dec. 23 and two on Dec. 24.
A single outdoor service, however, will allow the church to make people more comfortable about the environment, since COVID-19 is less likely to spread in an outdoor setting.
Also, the church can allow as many people to attend the service as desire to do so. There will be no cap on attendance.
“I think everybody understands why we’re doing it,” Waers said. “That’s kind of a key in helping them get to that point. We’re trying to take the time to encourage them that this is a different season.”
Waers was in the Dominican Republic last spring when the first wave of news about coronavirus lockdowns was taking place. He thought it would be a two-week passing phenomenon.
Now, it’s Christmas.
“I did not have a clue,” he said.
LOOKING FOR ‘NORMAL’ AT CHRISTMAS
In Tulsa, Okla., Osage Hills Christian Church is hoping it can continue an annual Christmas Eve tradition still in its relative infancy.
For about 60 years, the church never held a Christmas Eve service. Three years ago, that changed. The church has held such services the past two years.
“All of our staff grew up with a Christmas Eve service,” said senior pastor James Wright. “For us, there’s that nostalgia. There’s that tradition to slow down and refocus and worship. In the midst of it all, let’s just stop for a moment and remember.”
And so the church never talked seriously this year about taking a break from its new tradition. Instead, it is trying to balance holding the service in person versus online—depending on the concentration of COVID-19 case counts in Tulsa.
Wright said Tulsa is a “hotbed” for the coronavirus right now.
Currently, the church is planning an in-person service at 10 p.m. The church is experimenting with a late-night candlelight service this year, thinking it might allow families to finish up their traditions at home and then come to the service.
There are no attendance limits in place in Tulsa, but worshippers are required to wear masks and to socially distance.
Osage Hills Christian Church has been averaging 143 people during the pandemic, down slightly from its pre-coronavirus numbers.
“This year, it feels like one of the most normal things to do is to have a Christmas Eve service,” Wright said.
He said some people have told him Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas this year because of all the changes to life during the pandemic. Finding a tradition to help anchor the season and to remind the church of the meaning of Christmas is important.
And so the church will be singing “Silent Night,” and there will be candles.
“Slow down for a moment,” Wright said. “Can we re-center on why we’re doing all of this?”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.