With the Christmas season upon us, area churches are finding new ways to celebrate the holiday and offer space for rest and reflection, rather than stress and exhaustion.

Elmira Trinity United Church is no stranger to changes, as the church is pursuing significant redevelopment. They understand there’s a need for many churches to adapt to the needs of their congregation in these changing times, and that includes how they celebrate Christmas.

Karen Ross, the church’s temporary administration assistant who also wears many other hats for the church, explains this fall they changed from one worship service on Sundays to two, to accommodate their members. That will carry over for their Christmas Eve service, which will include a 6 p.m. and an 8 p.m. service.

The band will provide the music for the first service and the choir will lead the music for the later service.

“Six o’clock tends to be the more family-oriented one, families with young kids rather than 8 o’clock,” Ross explained.

Because it falls on a Sunday they won’t have a worship service on Christmas Day, but will do so on Jan. 1 as an informal carol sing.

They’ve already been busy with Christmas activities this month, as the Trinity Choir participated in the Community Carol Sing at St. Teresa of Avila Roman Catholic Church, as well as performing with the St. James Lutheran Church Choir for the Liona Boyd concert.

The church also spreads out the Christmas activities by holding their Christmas pageant in January, which is written by the church’s children. It will be extra special this year because their new minister, Rev. Sue Campbell, will be having her first worship service at the church that day, on Jan. 8. She’ll be here for three years.

Ross says it’s hard to say if they see people at church on Christmas Eve who don’t come the rest of the year – a common occurrence at many churches – but she does see more multi-generation families in attendance.

“I would say the church is reasonably full on Christmas Eve because it is an opportunity for families to come together. At Christmastime you have more families that have come back home, so especially with young adults who have gone away and they come back home,” Ross said.

They don’t do anything specific to try to encourage those members to come back throughout the year, except to let them know they’re always welcome and keep communicating with them year-round.

“That’s an ongoing challenge. Certainly we keep in touch with our church newsletter and we have the website, we have our weekly bulletin that goes out via email,” Ross said.

She notes peak membership at all churches, regardless of denomination, was in the 1960s during the Baby Boom.

“It’s just how churches are prepared to adapt to those churches. And I would say at Trinity we’ve been evolving,” Ross said.

St. Jacobs’ Calvary United Church has also found adapting an integral part of maintaining a vibrant church life. Minister Drew Maxwell explains it was three years ago that they decided to dial back the Christmas activities at the church, for the better of their congregation.

“You’ve got staff parties, you’ve got all your family things, you’ve got all of your shopping, you’ve got all of those things going on and so we realized for a number of years we were trying to run an advent study and different events in the evenings at the church and we ended up realizing it was just stressing out our people. There’s the pressure in churches to do something big at Christmas,” Maxwell said.

He said they wanted the church to be a place where people could come to be still, which wasn’t possible when they were rushing from event to event.

“You would think people would go, ‘oh, we really miss this,’ and it hasn’t been that at all. It’s not like directly people notice, but what it does mean is that the things that we do have more of a community feel about them. It’s not as frantic, we don’t do anything that’s demanding a lot,” Maxwell said.

Some changes they’ve made have been moving the Christmas pageant to a Sunday morning, creating a birthday party for Jesus for the kids, including a bouncy castle, and hosting an evening of cookies and carol singing. He says the Christmas pageant had more of a celebratory feel to it instead of it being an event.

The church isn’t immune to those members who only come to the Christmas Eve and Easter services. Instead of amping up the services those days, they keep the same tone to provide an authentic service which would happen any given Sunday. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]
“Then the advent devotional has been probably the biggest thing in the last two years. So around November you start asking people what kinds of things help you prepare for Christmas, what’s been meaningful for you. And we have written that up and kids put their drawings in and we pull that all together and then we send that out on an email blast every morning,” Maxwell said.

It’s similar to a daily devotional and he says it’s allowed people to get to know other people in the church.

Like Trinity United, they also will do two services on Christmas Eve. The first one is for little kids to help them learn the Christmas story. It’s an interactive play where characters engage with kids and the kids get to be part of the play. The services will be at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

“We move from trying to make it a big deal with lots of hoopla to creating space even within the service to just encounter Jesus and create stillness and space,” Maxwell said.

He notes they’re not typical of a United Church in terms of their congregation demographics. There are many young families, all the way up to seniors.

“Somebody was actually commenting the other day that it actually feels like a really well-rounded church,” Maxwell said.

In terms of the members who only attend service on Christmas and Easter, he says there used to be the idea that if you somehow created the perfect special event you’d be able to keep those people coming back on Sunday the rest of the year. Their thinking shifted a few years ago that instead of doing that and trying to be something they’re not, that instead they would have the same tone and the same worship on Christmas Eve that they would any other Sunday.

“Ultimately, if people are going to be drawn here it’s because they’re going to be drawn to this is a place where I can encounter God and there’s a sense of peace and his presence, rather than trying to create a program that might hook people in to something that you’re actually not. And that’s been really freeing and coincidentally actually has been more effective.”