Whether virtual, outdoors or in-person, the way USMB congregations celebrated Christmas may have looked a little different in 2020. Guidelines related to the coronavirus pandemic varied from place to place, but in each location, whether offering options, doing outreach, or worshiping online or outdoors, congregations found creative ways to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Some churches, like Community Bible Church (CBC) in Olathe, Kan., and Kingwood Bible Church in Salem, Ore., offered options to allow as many people as possible to participate.
CBC planned an outdoor Christmas Eve service with a livestream.
Although CBC has offered in-person Sunday services and a livestream since summer 2020, the church saw greater in-person attendance at five outdoor services, says staff pastor Russ Friesen.
“As Pastor Aaron (Halvorsen) and I were thinking about a Christmas Eve service, which is normally a high-attendance event, we considered the idea of going back outside to allow for more people to safely gather,” Friesen says. “Of course we had no idea what the weather would be, but we pressed forward with the idea.”
Despite below-freezing temperatures and a 7-degree windchill, 75 to 100 people gathered in the church parking lot near a stage in a sheltered area.
CBC provided hot cocoa and handwarmers. The service included selections from The Jesus Storybook Bible and Christmas carols and ended with CBC’s traditional candlelighting, although Friesen says everyone quickly learned butane lighters don’t work below freezing.
“So, it was a combination of a handful of lit candles and a number of phone flashlights while we sang Silent Night, closing with Joy to the World,” Friesen says.
Kansas and local guidelines limited large gatherings with exceptions for religious institutions, provided social distancing and masking efforts were in place, Friesen says, adding the service was shorter than usual and involved fewer people.
“It was received pretty well by those who came and endured the cold,” Friesen says. “The hot chocolate and handwarmers were a big hit.”
Even the livestream had a higher than average number of views, he says.
As for whether CBC will celebrate Christmas Eve outdoors again, Friesen says he hopes it’s not needed.
“We have no regrets, but we’d prefer not to deal with potential winter weather,” he says. “People missed seeing how amazing the worship center looked, so we look forward to hopefully doing a more traditional indoor service for Christmas Eve 2021.”
Kingwood Bible Church (KBC) also offered in-person and virtual opportunities, as well as outreach.
Before Christmas, the KBC congregation delivered gifts to neighborhood families, including the Gospel of John, a children’s Christmas storybook, candy and a letter, says lead pastor Nathan Ensz.
In Oregon, restrictions for church gathering numbers were lifted in mid-December—social distancing and masks remained requirements—leaving little time to plan.
“The Christmas program and Christmas Eve service are both expected at Kingwood,” Ensz says. “I really didn’t know if we could pull off a Christmas program in time, but people (were) excited to participate, wanting some sense of normalcy.”
KBC held an in-person Christmas program with a livestream.
“The evening included music from various age-brackets, poetry, Scripture reading and a virtual video recording from our children retelling the story of Jesus entering our world,” he says. “The night brought people together, providing much needed love and laughter.”
Ensz also emailed a short Christmas Eve devotional to the congregation.
“A COVID-19 Christmas is unlike any others we have celebrated, so it provided an opportunity to try something new and unique,” Ensz says. “A virtual devotional won’t happen every year, but perhaps once every few years is appropriate. A simplified Christmas program brought just as much love and laughter, proving to be healthier for those involved. That part I’d definitely like to do again!”
Outreach as main focus
For some churches, including Redemption Church in Owatonna, Minn., and The Life Center in Lenoir, N.C., outreach was a main focus.
Redemption donated more than 400 pairs of socks to the homeless. Senior pastor Christian Kohs says the effort wasn’t a result of pandemic-related concerns as much as it was about reaching out to those impacted by COVID-19.
“We have someone in our church family who knew the needs of the homeless, especially amidst the Minnesota winter and a tough 2020 for many due to COVID-19,” Kohs says.
Redemption placed a Christmas tree in its lobby with ornaments listing a variety of items, such as toys, underwear and blankets, for the congregation to purchase and put under the tree for homeless people in need.
“We got a few thank-you cards (and) numerous pictures of people accepting them while we handed the stuff out,” Kohs says. “It was great.”
As Redemption continues to grow, Kohs says the church plans to continue a yearly outreach. Redemption was unable to work with the local hospital for its usual children’s outreach as a result of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, The Life Center (TLC) congregation collaborated with five churches to distribute more than 3,000 new and used coats to the local ministries. TLC also donated a box of food from the local farmer’s market to families in need for four weeks in December.
In Omaha, Neb., the Stony Brook Church (SBC) congregation planned a virtual Christmas Eve service. Given guidelines pertaining to social distancing and masks, SBC leadership limited in-person attendance to the worship team, audio/visual team, pastor and Kid Life ministry directors and their families, and sought ways to intentionally engage online viewers, says administrator Melissa Hanna.
Leaders planned a light-related theme, with candles and light bulbs filling the stage, and SBC asked the congregation to have candles at home too. To help with engagement, leaders alternated between music and messages, Hanna says.
“Knowing that the church family was at home lighting their own candle (while singing Silent Night) was an incredibly heartfelt feeling that is hard to express,” Hanna says. “People much prefer to meet in person; however, having the primary focus of including the online viewer in each step of the service did make it well received.”
Outdoor narrated nativity, scavenger hunt
Some churches, like Ebenfeld MB Church (EMBC) near Hillsboro, Kan., and Zoar MB Church (ZMBC) in Inman, Kan., offered opportunities for people to get out of their homes and participate in their vehicles or outdoors.
EMBC hosted a live nativity drive-up two nights in December. Attendees waited in their vehicles to view the show, tuning their radios to a designated FM station to hear narration while watching a reenactment of the Christmas story, including live sheep and a donkey.
“We felt if any year needed this, it was definitely 2020,” says Collin Quiring, one of the organizers. “(We) had an ample crew that was willing to come to bat and make sure everything was done and done to the best of our abilities, all things considered. From livestock, to costumes/set work, logistics and traffic, everyone pitched in.”
According to Quiring, 184 vehicles or approximately 550 people, came to one of 20 performances in the church parking lot. Sunday’s turnout was more than expected, Quiring says.
“We ended up shaving a wee bit of time off of each performance so we could move cars faster,” he says. “We decided beforehand that we would stay until the last cars went through. We had planned to go for two hours and do eight shows but ended up going for close to three hours and did 12 shows the second night.”
Quiring says Ebenfeld is planning to do a live nativity again in 2021, which might become a tradition.
“God is good, and he wanted his message to be heard,” Quiring says. “That’s what those two nights were all about.”
Meanwhile, ZMBC offered a self-guided Christmas Journey scavenger hunt using Scripture and devotional readings to tell the Christmas story at stations around town.
Pastor Dwight Carter says ZMBC’s Christmas Eve service is one of its highest-attended services, so he sought a way to allow as many people as possible to participate, given guidelines on capacity and masks. Carter says he assumed many community members would not attend an indoor service.
“We decided a scavenger hunt family activity would be a fun activity that families who weren’t involved in our church could participate in without any pressure,” he says.
Five stations set the scene for the story.
“We included clues to find the next station, but also just a map for those who didn’t want to participate in the scavenger hunt idea,” Carter says.
Approximately 45 to 50 groups of people went through the Christmas Journey on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
“There were quite a few community people that we heard from that loved it,” Carter says. “The only negative feedback we heard was from people who complained that we weren’t doing our traditional Christmas Eve service.”
Carter says while the church may do a scavenger hunt again, it likely will not replace its regular programming.