Home Commentary Stay Home Or Go To Church? Believers Face Tough Choices This Christmas

Stay Home Or Go To Church? Believers Face Tough Choices This Christmas


Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.

By Terry Mattingly

Rather than preparing for a joyous Christmastide, believers are making tough decisions about how to celebrate during a season some call COVID-tide.

What about that beloved Christmas cantata or children’s pageant? Government regulations about singing vary nationwide.

All those parties and dinners on the December calendar? Church officials may shut them down or, perhaps, look the other way.

The most emotional question: What about Christmas Eve, with glowing sanctuaries full of families gathered from near and afar dressed in festive holiday attire? In most churches some members will be allowed inside, while others stay home – as during 2020’s Holy Week and Easter – holding candles while facing computer screens.

No one knows what will happen, especially in Protestant flocks where holiday traditions are more flexible and evolve from year to year.

Nevertheless, about 50% of American adults who typically go to church at Christmas hope to do so, according to a study by LifeWay Research in Nashville. In fact, another 15% of participants in the online survey said they were more likely to attend a service this year. However, 35% of typical churchgoers said they’re more likely to stay home.

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“About 50% of America are saying, ‘We’re going to do what we’re going to do,’ ” said Tim McConnell, LifeWay’s executive director. Since this survey was done before the recent coronavirus spike, “that makes things even more unpredictable” than they were already.

The survey results seem deceptively ordinary, but tensions emerge in key details. The survey focused on believers, and the unchurched, but included an oversample of self-identified evangelical Protestants.

“It’s easy to look at these numbers and see that half the people say they will be having Christmas as usual. Then there’s another group of people who say they plan to do even more,” he said. “Then you look at the bigger picture and there’s that other third that’s missing. That’s probably the large group of Americans who are older and at higher risk.

“That’s some important people in our families and churches – like grandparents. That’s some important people who are not going to be having a normal Christmas, whatever ‘normal’ means right now.”

Here are additional details from this survey, which was conducted in September:

* In America as a whole, 93% of adults will celebrate Christmas, in one form or other, a percentage that has changed little in LifeWay surveys for a decade. Catholics (98%) and Protestants (95%) are most likely to do so. However, 81% of believers in other faiths said they would celebrate the holiday in one way or another – along with 88% of the “religiously unaffiliated,” or “nones.”

* Women are, as a rule, more active in religious life than men. Thus, the survey found that 94% of women said they planned to celebrate the holiday, as opposed to 91% of men. In what appears to be a nod to COVID-19 risks, only 87% of Americans 65 or older said they would observe Christmas.

* In light of travel restrictions and other risks, 35% of those surveyed said they expect to spend less time with family this Christmas. Nearly half (47%) indicted that their plans remain the same, while 13% said that they were planning to spend more time with family than usual. Once again, older Americans – 43% of those 50-64 and 38% of those 65 and up – expected to spend less time with family this year.

* Evangelical Protestants were the most likely survey participants to say that they planned to “do even more” this Christmas – including traveling to visit family (18%), give more gifts (15%) and focus on spiritual “reflections” (39%).

McConnell noted that different groups of Americans – in churches and otherwise – tend to “check off the Christmas box” on their calendars in different ways.

In some regions, it may be possible to move some services and musical events outdoors. Others will focus on finding new ways to connect people at home to events online – like Harvest Church in Eugene, Oregon, which has prepared “Christmas Eve in a Box” kits with candles, ornaments, a Bible, hot cocoa and candy.

“Many churches have been especially innovative during this crisis,” said McConnell. “I think we’ll see more of that this Christmas … even though many churches don’t have a reputation for being innovative when it comes to technology.”

Terry Mattingly writes this weekly “On Religion” column for the Universal syndicate. Republished with permission of the author.