Pandemic on Christmas Eve forces churches to innovateMissions and Outreach Worship
For many families in The United Methodist Church, Christmas Eve is not complete until they hold lighted candles high and sing Silent Night at their houses of worship. The service is a chance to reunite with friends who visit from out of town, and to prepare their hearts to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
However, sigh, COVID-19 continues to cause havoc and disrupt traditions.
Resident Bishop Ken Carter is keenly aware of the difficulty local churches face in the Florida Conference.
"Pastors, staff and lay leaders live in the tension of wanting to gather in this season, to remain safe and not to contribute to the spread of the virus," he said in a recent email. "In this way we express love for God, our neighbor and ourselves.
Houses of worship are consistently ranked among the top three to five settings for greatest risk."
Tough choices must be made in the name of safety.
"As we move through the Sundays of Advent and toward Christmas Eve, know that the way of offering the gospel that will reach the most people is through online and digital formats," he said.
"It also happens that this is the safest way, now. I recommend that you continue to place your greatest energies in offering creative, faithful worship in online formats."
Because each church is different, this situation forced pastors to find creative ways to maintain both tradition and safety.
For Magrey deVega, pastor at Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, that meant offering multiple worship options on Christmas Eve and strictly limiting in-person gatherings.
"We know our primary worship mode for most folks will be online," he said. "We've elevated our services there. Our team has done a marvelous job. "There was never a temptation to tone it down, particularly with our online service growing.
"We have people watching from six continents, and there many locally who have never set foot on our campus. But we also know there are people who want to be on-site on Christmas Eve, and we're trying to accommodate that. It's not a full worship service for those accustomed to a full service, but it will still be meaningful."
So, yes, this unsettled time demands creativity and flexibility.
But a candlelight service in your driveway?
Why not! That's one of many worship options offered at First UMC at Winter Park.
"This is a unique and relational way that our church family can connect with each other and their neighbors! There will be carols, candle lighting, fellowship – all while remaining physical distant and safe," Marketing and Communications Director Dr. Sarah Skidmore said.
Her church took a proactive approach under the banner of The Pandemic That (Almost) Stole Christmas. That theme was chosen, Skidmore said, to nurture spiritual development and connection during this time of physical distancing.
"This year, Christmas Eve will look different," Winter Park Senior Pastor David Miller said in a video to the congregation. "This year in the pandemic, things will go differently. We will not be meeting in person on Christmas Eve."
About 3,500 people normally attend in-person the multiple Christmas Eve services at Winter Park. That number would have been reduced to just a few hundred this year.
"Who gets to come, and who does not," he said. "Who gets to decide? Is it first-come, first-served? That doesn't seem fair."
So, the church will offer multiple online services, along with a toy drive to support the need for outreach during this time.
The dance ministry plans a special pre-presentation of The Nutcracker that Skidmore said was "creatively prerecorded, meeting all safety and distancing procedures.
Englewood UMC is staying virtual as well, offering four Christmas Eve services. The church will offer a drive-thru living nativity where attendees also can offer a food donation to help stock the Englewood Helping Hand food pantry.
Its 29th annual Christmas feast will be pick-up only, with delivery available to those who are homebound.
First UMC Oviedo has two in-person options: a 4 p.m. outdoor service where attendees are asked to bring lawn chairs or blankets for social distancing, and a traditional candlelight service at 6 p.m. with limited attendance and mandatory registration.
On Christmas night, Oviedo offers a Drive Through Bethlehem.
Hope UMC in New Port Richey gives three options. There is an online-only family service at 5 p.m. followed by a candlelight service at 7 p.m. with in-person and online viewing available. An 11 p.m. candlelight service is in-person only.
Reservations and masks are required.
First UMC Lakeland plans two indoor services and two services on the church lawn, but is remaining flexible.
"We ask people to socially distance and wear masks outside and they have done very well with this each Sunday morning," Senior Pastor David McEntire said. "If the virus precludes gathering indoors we might add an outdoor service."
The indoor services require reservations and will be capped at 20% of capacity. UV lights have been installed in the church air conditioning system. Masks, of course, are required and there will no congregational singing.
The church also ordered orange glow sticks for all services to eliminate passing the flame. Both indoor services will be live-streamed.
Back at Hyde Park, deVega and his team plan for six shortened online services on Christmas Eve, along with a pair of services at Tampa's downtown Portico in front of the Homeless Jesus statue.
The Homeless Jesus statue at the Portico in downtown Tampa.
"Music, lighting of candles, a sermon – about 40 minutes," he said.
But there is still the dilemma of what to do for people who need that in-person connection. They came up with a way.
"Around the fountain on our campus, for anyone who wants to come, we will have a brief, 10-minute candle lighting ceremony," he said.
"People can come on to the campus, masked, grab a candle, hear a brief message and a recording of our music group singing Silent Night. During Joy to the World we will lift our candles to the sky."
After that, the sanctuary will be open for individuals who want to go inside and pray – with proper distancing, of course.
"We hope will scratch the itch of those who want to be indoors, but do it safely," deVega said.
Like many churches, Hyde Park also plans a Blue Christmas service online Dec. 21.
"It's the longest night of the year," he said. "We think the demand for this will be bigger than it usually is year after year."
Hyde Park also plans a drive-thru Nativity, but with a twist.
"We want the birth story birth story interweaved with what's happening today. Fear. Economy. Students struggling," deVega said. "So, we'll alternate our eight stations between the olden times and today. This will make people pause and think."
Different churches, different congregations, and different ways of telling the timeless story of Jesus' birth.
"This is a time of innovation," deVega said.
The delivery may be unusual, but the message is the same.
Oh come, oh come Emmanuel.
Joy to the World.
Christ is born.
Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for flumc.org.
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