Reviving Christmas cheer in dark times

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Key Points:

  • United Methodist churches once again face a Christmas season darkened by pandemic and sorrow.
  • But congregations are finding creative ways to safely revive old traditions and celebrate Christ’s birth.
  • While times are dark, pastors point out that God brought love’s pure light into a troubled world not so different from this one. 

Last year, the Rev. Birgitte Thaarup French had the unpleasant experience of turning visitors away on one of Christianity’s biggest holidays.

“We did Christmas Eve online last year just to be safe,” said French, senior pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Tennessee. “And there were people calling the church, asking ‘When are you open? When is worship?’” 

The congregation decided, “Let’s not do that again.”

Forget snow. We’re all dreaming of a COVID-free Christmas, just like the ones we used to know.

But with hospitalizations on the rise and the more contagious omicron variant menacing the globe, churches once again face a Christmas darkened by pandemic. Many congregations across the U.S. also are grappling with the aftermath of violence and deadly tornadoes.

Children and women at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Tenn., perform as the angelic host during the church’s living Nativity this year. For the second year, the congregation held a drive-thru Nativity to help people stay safe from COVID-19 while sharing the Gospel message. Photo courtesy of St. Paul United Methodist Church.  
Children and women at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Tenn., perform as the angelic host during the church’s living Nativity this year. For the second year, the congregation held a drive-thru Nativity to help people stay safe from COVID-19 while sharing the Gospel message. Photo courtesy of St. Paul United Methodist Church.

Still, United Methodist churches are finding creative ways this season to remind people that Christ’s light shines in the darkness — and the darkness has not overcome it.

“If our Scripture and faith teaches us anything, it is that Christ came for times such as this,” said the Rev. Jill Colley Robinson, dean of the New England Conference cabinet.

This year, St. Paul United Methodist Church plans to hold its Christmas Eve worship outdoors — where worshippers will have a clear view of the stable and manger used in the congregation’s drive-thru living Nativity. 

The church expects to welcome plenty of visitors.

Worshippers will sing carols, hear the familiar account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2:1-20, join in Holy Communion and end the service with the cherished tradition of singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. Outside in the crisp night air, the worshippers will be able to spread out and sing with gusto. 

“We’re asking people to bring their camping chairs and blankets,” French said. “Of course, if it’s terrible weather, we’ll go inside. But we’re just going to try it and see.”

A camel is part of the fun of St. Paul United Methodist Church’s living Nativity. The church borrows animals from a farmer in Tupelo, Miss. More than 430 visitors came through this year’s drive-thru Nativity. Photo courtesy of St. Paul United Methodist Church. 
A camel is part of the fun of St. Paul United Methodist Church’s living Nativity. The church borrows animals from a farmer in Tupelo, Miss. More than 430 visitors came through this year’s drive-thru Nativity. Photo courtesy of St. Paul United Methodist Church.

Members of First United Methodist Church in Waukesha, Wisconsin, are contending with more than the coronavirus. On Nov. 21, a man drove into the community Christmas parade — killing six people and injuring more than 60.

No one at First United Methodist Church was hurt physically. However, many were at the parade and left traumatized, said the Rev. Susan Bresser, the church’s senior minister.

“They keep showing up because God keeps showing up,” Bresser said. 

Throughout this Advent season, Bresser and other church leaders have tried to help people work through their grief. The city also has distributed blue lights that people can hang outside their homes as a symbol of unity

That’s especially fitting, Bresser said, since blue is also an Advent color. 

“Advent blue, for me, is the color of hope, expectation, anticipation,” she said. “Something is coming — something that’s lifesaving.”

Her church’s Advent theme this year has been about coming home to God, and Bresser hopes this Christmas Eve feels like a homecoming whether people join in person or online. 

St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Tenn., plans to make room for visitors at its outdoor service this Christmas. It’s among the churches trying to avoid having people pack in too close in a time of pandemic. Photo courtesy of St. Paul United Methodist Church. 
St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lakeland, Tenn., plans to make room for visitors at its outdoor service this Christmas. It’s among the churches trying to avoid having people pack in too close in a time of pandemic. Photo courtesy of St. Paul United Methodist Church.

Dr. Bob Ford, a physician and pastor in the Mississippi Conference, is keeping an eye on COVID case numbers around Vicksburg. He has told members of his small congregation that they may need to be flexible with their Christmas plans.

He had prepared to hold two Christmas services at Porters Chapel — a 30-minute evening Advent service on Dec. 23 and a longer daytime service on Dec. 24 for people who do not want to drive at night. 

For now, he still has the short Dec. 23 service scheduled. But instead of a traditional Christmas Eve service, he plans to open the church doors on Dec. 24 so people can come and go. His hope is that families come to pray and receive communion at different times throughout the day — the better to avoid packing people into one long service and thereby increasing the virus’ spread. 

Ford, who serves on the Mississippi Conference Pandemic Task Team, stressed that the coronavirus remains an ever-present concern. He personally has seen the toll the pandemic has taken on local health care workers.

“I don’t know how much more these people will be able to take and not break,” he said. 

Like United Methodist leaders around the world, Ford is encouraging people to get vaccinated, wear masks and socially distance. He also is encouraging churches to improve their ventilation systems. 

After Christmas Day

God rested after a busy week, and conferences across the United States are hoping to help pastors rest after the Advent and Christmas rush.

Multiple United Methodist conferences across the U.S. are providing online services that churches can download for Dec. 26, the first Sunday of Christmas, or later. Among them is the New England Conference. 

“We felt very strongly that we need to be supportive of not only our clergy, but the people who have taken up the responsibilities for technology in the local church,” said the Rev. Jill Colley Robinson, a district superintendent and dean of the New England cabinet. The hope is to give these pastors and volunteers a day off, she said. 

This second year of pandemic has been wearying for pastors and their flocks across the United Methodist connection. But, as the Gospels remind Christians, Jesus came into a world also darkened by violence, deep social divides and seemingly endless illness. 

“He was born into the world for times such as this and lived through incredible challenge and incredible danger, and he brought the grace and the forgiveness and the hope that we all long for,” Robinson said. “These are the moments when our faith is tested, but it is also when we find out what its true strength really is.”

Korean United Methodist Church of Santa Clara Valley in San Jose, California, is not taking any chances. The church plans to have a special online service on Christmas Eve, while keeping its smaller Christmas Day service with in-person and online options. 

The Rev. Hyok-In Kwon, the church’s senior pastor, said the Christmas Eve service would have a format like a talk show, highlighting the church’s missions. People will be able to participate both online and by phone. Kwon expects higher participation than the church would see in person.

Just as Christians wait for the light of the Lord during Advent, he said, they also are waiting for light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. “The key to the question we have to ask during this time is not when it comes, but how we wait for it,” he said. 

He plans to preach on the need for people to use these days to love and comfort each other as Jesus taught his followers. While it’s important to have fellowship as a family of faith, he said, the church is also called to disperse in all directions to be Christ’s hands and feet.

“We don’t visit the church to find light, but we ourselves have to be light,” he said. “That way, the church shines, and the light can shine wherever our steps reach.”

Like St. Paul, Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, is another sizable congregation that plans to worship outdoors on Christmas Eve. Belmont is organizing one service at a nearby public park and then another in its sanctuary that also will be available online. 

“We know that some of our people are just not ready to come back,” said the Rev. Paul Purdue, the church’s senior pastor. So, he said, the church has adapted to meet people’s needs — whether it’s by embracing new technology or going outside. That flexibility has helped the church reach new people.

“It’s kind of the Old Testament prophet’s idea that out of the stump comes the new shoot,” Purdue said. “God is always re-creating and reinvigorating.”

Joy has a way of sneaking in, even in troubled times. 

Amid the isolation of the pandemic last year, Esther Taufa and Lesila Leger established an online young-adult ministry at Pittsburg United Methodist Church in northern California. Now, that ministry — called Café Agape — is gathering both online and in-person, drawing about 50 new people to the church.

The ministry closed out the year Dec. 12 with an in-person and online Christmas service centered on Isaiah 9:6. To celebrate the everlasting father and prince of peace, worshippers were required to wear masks and requested to wear their ugliest Christmas sweater or best bedazzled outfit. 

“Young people are seeking a place of belonging,” Taufa said. “And we’re this place where they can just come how they are and not be judged by how they dress or who they are.”

St. Paul, near Memphis, also has seen its attendance grow in this time of pandemic. 

French, the pastor, said the congregation was open to a Christmas Eve outdoors in large part because the church offered outdoor Wednesday night services this summer. The church would have children and youth activities starting at 4 p.m., and then food trucks would come at 5:30 p.m.

“We set tables and chairs outside, and people from our neighborhood just came and ate with us, and they brought their kids,” she said. “Because of that, we have gained some families who now attend with us.” 

The church’s drive-thru living Nativity, in its second year, also is a draw for the community. More than 430 people participated in this year’s drive-thru on Dec. 11-12. 

“Our church’s attitude hasn’t been, ‘we can’t’ but ‘how,’” she said. “So I feel we are in a good place to continue to do church work.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.


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