StoneBridge Christian Church in eastern Nebraska is known locally for hosting a big annual fireworks event, which this fall included 15 food trucks and portable firepits for making s’mores. But it’s the Christmas season that is “our Super Bowl,” said the church’s executive pastor, Mitch Chitwood. This year, the church’s four locations in the Omaha area will host four “Jingle Jam” family parties in December and nine services on Christmas Eve, complete with classic carols, Christmas-themed coffee drinks and a festive photo booth in the lobby.
What they will not have is church on Sunday, Dec. 25. On Christmas Day, StoneBridge will offer a simple community breakfast, but no religious services.
“We still believe in the Sunday morning experience, but we have to meet people where they are,” Mr. Chitwood said.
Mitch Chitwood, pastor of StoneBridge Christian Church, said that attendance was sparse at Sunday services the last time Christmas fell on that day, six years ago. Credit…Madeline Cass
And where they are on Christmas Day is usually at home, in their pajamas. This year, church leaders are grappling with what may seem like an odd dilemma: Christmas Day falls on a Sunday for the first time since 2016, and that’s a problem.
Christmas is considered by most Christians to be the second-most significant religious holiday of the year, behind Easter. But most Protestants do not attend church services on Christmas Day when it falls on a weekday. If everyone from the pews to the pulpit would rather stay home, what is a practical house of worship to do? This year, some Protestant churches are deciding to skip Sunday services completely.
Six years ago, the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, practically no one showed up for services at StoneBridge, Mr. Chitwood said.
“Christmas morning and Sunday morning are sort of in tension with each other,” said Timothy Beal, a professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University. “Most people who are churchgoers think of Christmas morning not as a religious time but as a family time: stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later.”
Mr. Beal’s wife is a Presbyterian pastor, and their usual Christmas Day plans include blockbuster movies and Chinese food. This year, the day will start in church, for a more relaxed service than usual that will meet in a smaller room.
The American church landscape looks quite different from how it did the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. While some pastors stressed the importance of worshiping in person during the Covid-19 pandemic, sometimes in defiance of public health recommendations, some in the same cohort also experimented with sophisticated online productions that have reshaped what it means to “go to church” in the 21st century.
The pandemic radically scrambled churchgoers’ habits, driving many people to digital sources of spirituality — perhaps permanently — and others away from church altogether. That raises the stakes of a high-profile holiday like Christmas, but it also means that staff, budgets and nerves are frayed.
This year, more Protestant churches seem to be making the decision to simply opt out. Though a clear majority will meet in some form on Christmas Day, fewer will do so than in 2016, when 89 percent of Protestant pastors said they were holding services, according to a survey by Lifeway Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. This year, that number dropped to 84 percent.
“It’s a little bit like a birthday,” the executive director of Lifeway Research, Scott McConnell, said. “It would be awkward or offensive to not recognize a family member’s birthday, but we’re flexible on when we get together.” Mr. McConnell attends a Baptist church in the Nashville area, but he and his wife are still discussing whether they will attend services on Christmas morning, he said.
The Catholic Church considers attendance at Sunday Mass nonnegotiable, and the same goes for Christmas Day, no matter the inconvenience of the calendar. (Many Catholics fulfill the requirement by attending late-night Christmas Eve services that stretch past midnight. The trickier year for them was 2021, with Christmas Eve on a Friday, Christmas Day on a Saturday and Sunday Mass the next day.)
Among nondenominational evangelical pastors, who tend to be informal and pragmatic in their approach to church matters, the numbers hosting Christmas Day services are significantly lower: Only 61 percent say they will do so, according to Lifeway’s survey.
For some of the largest congregations, the more popular Christmas Eve services are a major opportunity to attract people in their communities who don’t otherwise attend church. The Summit Church, whose 11 locations in North Carolina draw about 11,000 people on a typical weekend, and up to 20,000 in the days before Christmas, will host at least 17 Christmas services on Dec. 22 and 24, events requiring the services of hundreds of volunteers and staff members.
The church will be closed on Christmas Day.
“Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and it ought to be a day you spend with the family of Christ,” said J.D. Greear, the church’s pastor, who was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2018 to 2021. “But I don’t want to be the Pharisees of this generation, where I turn it into some kind of rule that there’s never an exception for.” He pointed to the Bible’s account of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath, in defiance of local customs about proper behavior on that day.
Canceling church is not a free pass to ignore the day’s spiritual significance, as Mr. Greear sees it. His family will have a small worship service at home using materials provided by the church, and will take a walk in their neighborhood. They will also open presents, which will include a family tradition of an envelope addressed to Jesus, with a donation to a charity or the church inside.
Mr. Greear said the decision to close had an echo in his church’s approach to the pandemic, when the Summit closed its church facilities for most of 2020. “You could almost look at Covid, at lockdown, as a year of an exception,” he said.
For smaller churches, canceling can be a matter of blunt realism: It can be difficult to summon the volunteers necessary to staff a well-attended Christmas Eve service and then another service the very next morning.
“For me, there was a theological decision but also a practical decision,” said Laura Bostrom, the pastor at King of Glory Lutheran Church in suburban Denver, which attracts about 90 people on a typical Sunday. Last year, attendance was extremely low even when Sunday fell on the day after Christmas, and she anticipated that this year would be worse. It didn’t seem right “to get home at 9:30 and have everyone wake up and say we have to do this again for such low attendance,” she said. “I lead with love.”
For some critics of this flexible spirit, having Christmas fall on a Sunday presents a stark example of something many Christians have heard about countless times over the years: the choice between the spiritually thin cultural Christianity of stockings and eggnog and the “true meaning of Christmas” — a day to celebrate Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago in a stable in Bethlehem.
“We’ve all heard sermons on ‘Jesus is the reason for the season,’” said Kevin DeYoung, the pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, N.C., which belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America. When churches cancel their services, he hears that message as something more like: “Hey, it’s Christmas, and Jesus may not be the reason for the season.”
In a society in which Sundays are no longer demarcated by blue laws and quieter rhythms, churches face increasing competition year-round from events like youth soccer tournaments. It’s hard for a pastor to tell people they should prioritize church over other, often worthy activities if the pastor capitulates on Christmas Day of all days, said Mr. DeYoung. He posted “a plea to pastors” online in 2016 urging them not to cancel, which he recirculated this year.
Mr. DeYoung’s church will hold services at the usual time on Christmas morning, albeit with scaled-back music and fewer child-care offerings. Still, he expects attendance to be fairly robust.
“If anything, with an extra-special day we ought to be more eager to worship, not less eager,” he said. Besides, he added, “it’s one more time to sing those Christmas songs before they go away for a while.”