This year has been a stressful one. It seems nothing is normal, and we don’t even know if there will be a new normal. COVID has affected so much of what we do as a church—including our celebrating the Christmas season. Here are some ways I suspect church will be different this year:
- Fewer members will travel to be with family over the holidays. I know personally this decision is a difficult one, but many families will choose to stay at home this year. That decision will bring a unique grief to many—and, an opportunity to minister to them.
- Outreach to members will be even more important this season. Some will be hurting because of the choice not to travel (#1 above). Others have personally dealt with COVID in the past nine months and grieve lost loved ones. Many are just COVID-weary and lonely. One of the best gifts we can give them this year is intentional attention.
- Some congregations still not meeting in person (or, who decide to move online in the next few weeks) will celebrate Christmas together virtually. The reality of the influence of COVID may become most evident when churches don’t gather during both the Easter season and the Christmas season in 2020. That’s even hard to imagine.
- Many traditional holiday church events will be postponed this season. Depending on the church, events like small group meals, holiday parties, Christmas musicals, and holiday banquets will not be on the calendar. Traditions will be disrupted.
- Churches that are gathering may welcome back members who haven’t attended since COVID started. They won’t be, though, members who simply aren’t comfortable attending with a large crowd; they’ll be fringe members who fell out of the habit of attending. Christmas will remind them of their responsibility.
- Churches will have to determine whether they plan to have a Christmas Eve service. For some congregations, the Christmas Eve service is a highlight of the year – both sacred and fun, well-attended and joyous. To not have the service this year will be painful.
- Those churches that have a Christmas Eve service will likely require reservations. Spatial distancing and capacity limits will require more intentional planning than years past. Some churches will add services on Christmas Eve to provide sufficient space.
- Some small group parties will be on Zoom. As a pastor, frankly, the large number of Christmas parties usually wears me out – but it’s still good to celebrate with the church. This year, we may find ourselves creatively celebrating through the Internet.
- Congregations will have more opportunities to minister to hurting people in the community. The struggling economy has led to increased needs. People are hungry and hurting financially. Families are exhausted from home schooling. Even healthy relationships have been strained. The stress has resulted in despair for many. Now is the time to give greater attention to addressing these needs.
- Pastors will be even more weary because of the season. This season is usually busy and hectic, but many of us come into this season already exhausted. We want to celebrate, but we’re tired.
Nevertheless, one truth remains the same this year: God has come to us. No matter what we face, we have that story to tell!
Christmas Eve or whenever church has traditionally gathered to celebrate Jesus’ birth will be a high-risk time of the year for churches which do not have digital services and whose congregations do not have internet access. I suspect that most rural churches fall into this category as do small urban churches in poor neighborhoods. Because worship services are the principal ministry of these churches and many of them have a a strong tradition of gathering to celebrate Jesus’ birth, they are likely to have some kind of Christmas celebration in which members of the congregation and others gather at the building where the church usually has its meetings. While I live on the outskirts of a small college town with some light industry, the county in which I live is rural. The county is divided over the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to wear face masks, social distance, and take other safety measures. Last week county and municipal officials were pleading with local businesses to enforce mask wearing on their premises. Yesterday the state had the highest number of new COVID-19 cases to date. My county which has been classified as a red-zone county due to the high incidence of virus infections had its twenty-fifth death. My niece reports a similar situation in her parish in Louisiana. In Louisiana counties are called parishes. It is a part of the state’s French heritage. Because they live in a rural parish, the local residents believe that they are safe from the pandemic. They refuse to wear face masks, social distance, and take other safety measures. They throw house parties despite the governor’s restrictions on gatherings. While my niece did not mention it, I suspect that some churches may holding in-person services without restricting the number of people in attendance at these service. This has been a problem elsewhere in the state when the governor asked churches to restrict the number of attendees at in-person services and subsequently to temporarily suspend in-person services due to the high incidence of infections. One Pentecostal church sued the governor. When the state courts did not rule in its favor, the church took its appeals all the way the US Supreme Court but the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal. Due to similar circumstances in their state a number of churches are likely to risk an in-person service to celebrate Jesus’ birth. They may have few alternative options as is the case of most rural churches and small urban churches in poorer neighborhoods. One of the consequences of this decision may be an increase in COVID-19 cases in their county, which will be traceable to that Christmas celebration. They need to be prepared for the fallout from being the nexus of a cluster of new cases. I am not unsympathetic to the plight of rural churches and small urban churches in poor neighborhoods during the COVID-19 pandemic. One option that pastors in a rural county or a poor urban neighborhood might want to explore is holding a joint Christmas celebration on a local radio station if the county or the neighborhood has one. While many rural families and poor urban families may not have internet access, they often do own a portable AM/FM radio. Such a celebration does not have to be elaborate—carols, a solo, a message, and prayers.