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When Christmas falls on a Sunday

When Christmas falls on a Sunday

Church Vitality

Your church has probably been busy this month with the build-up to Christmas morning. Chances are, you have been busy too.

Perhaps members of the congregation were involved in giving the message of Advent as a regular part of December services. Many churches have food and clothing drives, or other service projects, to help those in need. Maybe the choir gave a concert, or members put together a play to commemorate Jesus’ birth.

There probably is a candlelight service or something similar planned for Christmas Eve to prepare people to be open to the meaning of the day. Church staff has been putting in extra hours. Volunteers have looked at a full calendar. That doesn’t even include all the regular family duties of shopping and preparing to meet with family on Christmas Day.

Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller of Memorial UMC leads children holding glow sticks during a Christmas pagaent. This year the church, which is one of the oldest in the conference having been established in 1822, has the added challenge of undergoing renovations to the historical structure where services are held.

Most of the time it ends up being a joyous, albeit exhausting, time of year to celebrate one of the most important days on the Christian calendar.
But when the big day falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, many churches throughout the Florida Conference face an additional challenge. Pastors grapple with how to hold a regular Sunday service on a morning when many members went to church the night before or are meeting family obligations by traveling.

Their solutions are as varied as the churches themselves.

At the First United Methodist Church of Hawthorne, located in north central Florida, attending worship is, as Rev. Stacey Spence put it, “part of the culture here.”

That means regular Sunday school followed by worship – especially on Christmas morning.

“Sunday morning is not just part of the routine with our church. Sunday morning is a way of life here,” she said. “We live in a rural area where people are faithful to church attendance. We’re a small church with about 98 active members, but we have members who go back generations here.

“So, we’ll have a candlelight service on Christmas Eve, and I expect we’ll have about 120 in attendance. My guess is we will have about 55 attend on Christmas morning, and those who can’t come have already let me know they’ll be traveling. People here always let you know if there’s a reason they can’t attend. If I don’t hear from them beforehand and they’re not in church, I know they’re sick.”

That theme also holds at Bartley Temple UMC in Gainesville, where Rev. Mary Lee Mitchell understands what her congregation wants and expects: business as usual.

That means regular Sunday school classes. It means a regular service.

An angel tree at Cornerstone UMC in Naples, displays one of many activities during Advent that often create full calendars for church volunteers. And yet, in the spirit of Christmas, it's a time many participate in with joy.

“In an African-American church like ours, the people expect to be in worship on Christmas morning,” she said. “In our case, we have about 175 in regular attendance, but on Christmas we may have a little more than we normally do.

“My job is a little bit greater on that morning because we will have people attending who aren’t normally there with us. I want to give them something to hold on to.”

No Christmas Eve service is planned at Bartley Temple, and she may cut her sermon a little short on Sunday morning to give worshipers time to get home to their families and the plans for the remainder of the day.

“I want to be respectful of people’s time, but if I don’t preach long enough, I’ll hear about it,” she said with a laugh.

Memorial UMC in the historic community of Fernandina Beach faces a different challenge. It is the oldest Methodist church in the state and has a large congregation with a special emphasis on children’s ministry. Its sanctuary also is undergoing major renovations forcing all services into the fellowship hall.

Three distinctly different candlelight services are planned for Christmas Eve, including a Communion service with harp music at 11 p.m. Partly because of that, the three regular Sunday morning services will be combined into one with a special Christmas morning theme.

“We’re encouraging kids to come in their pajamas,” Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller said. “We will have a blessing of the toys. I suspect the music will be predominately Christmas carols. It will be interactive and generational most likely. Maybe not what you would call a traditional sermon.”

It doesn’t have to be traditional to be meaningful, though.

“I’ve been involved in several Christmas morning services, and they generally are a lot of fun,” she said. “People who come to church on Christmas morning want to celebrate Jesus. That’s what we will do.”

A combined service also is the plan at Cornerstone UMC in Naples. A single worship hour starting at 11 a.m. will replace the normal 8:15 and 10:15 a.m. services.

“We are simplifying things. We feel that will give everyone an opportunity to get up and do what they do on Christmas morning and still get to church,” Rev. Roy Terry said.

But after holding two Christmas Eve services and a month-long build-up to Christmas morning, the challenge for pastors is to present a fresh message that focuses on the meaning of the day.

“You don’t want your sermon to become rote by Sunday morning,” Terry said. “You have to be intentional to continue what you’ve been building to all month so that the story you tell on Sunday is not the same message you gave on Christmas Eve.

“For me, the big thing is that we don’t want to NOT worship on Christmas Day. And while we are simplifying things, we don’t want to operate our worship out of convenience.”

--Joe Henderson is a freelance writer based in Brandon.

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