What to Expect This Christmas

Mary Frances and Steve Matthews, Senior Missional Consultants for The FaithX Project

Welcome! This week we thought we’d do something a little different for our blog. Steve Matthew and Mary Frances, both FaithX Senior Consultants, are going to dialogue about what church might look like this Christmas.

MARY:  Hey Steve, looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic. When I was a new pastor 22 years ago, it was pretty much expected that the church would be full on Christmas Eve. We were a smaller congregation with an average weekly attendance of about 90 people.  For Christmas, we rolled out the red carpet and planned big choir hymns, special music, live animals, and decorations for days. On Christmas Eve our building was full to the rafters at both the 5 pm and 10 pm services. But, even within a few years into my ministry, I started to notice a few empty pews here and there; the extra seats in the narthex weren’t needed anymore. We were busy but not jammed packed. And, ever since we added Church Unaffiliated to our Neighborhood Insight Report, I’ve been thinking about this more and more. The national average for unaffiliated is now 60% which means 60% of people claim no connection to a particular church. They may still say they are Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopal but they don’t attend church regularly. So, what does that mean for the biggest night in the church year? Do the old traditions still stand and three generations bundle up and head off to church or should we expect to see fewer people in the pews this year?

STEVE: I’m glad to be a part of this conversation, Mary. I think it’s safe to say that there may very well be fewer people in church for the holidays this year. Your experience as a Lutheran pastor reflects current trends (even before COVID). In 2021 Gallop (who has been tracking church attendance trends for over 80 years), noted that in 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999. Jeffrey Jones writes, “The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.” These statistics may help us understand that this is the water we are swimming in if attendance is down this year. I wonder what this means for the way we plan for Christmas next year. I don’t believe church attendance at Christmas and Easter (and the other 50 weeks a year) is bound by statistics, so what new behaviors might we need to try on in order to adapt and pivot for the sake of our neighbors? Any ideas?

MARY: In the big picture, I think things are going to be more challenging for the church before it gets better. You are right, people aren’t attending out of a sense of obligation or tradition anymore. There is a whole list of reasons why people don’t attend church.  And yet, I don’t think that means that all is lost. Even though many people say they can pray anywhere, according to a Pew Research study, people still come to church because they feel closer to God, they want their children to have a good foundation of faith and they feel it makes them a better person. I think you asked exactly the right question: how can churches adapt? Well, I think it comes down to a few key points.  First, be authentic. Certainly, the word is bandied about, perhaps too much, and yet there is something to it. My little church from 22 years ago set its sights on being the next Willowcreek but of course, that would never work. Instead, we had to set our sights on being the most welcoming, inclusive, service, and community-oriented church anyone had ever seen. And that church really became the little church that could!  If your church is liturgical, be great at liturgy. If your church is about community, be great at building community.

Second, related to the first….once you know who you are AND what God is calling you to do and be in your corner of the world – live into that. Clear mission, vision, and values guide the direction of a church but also tells your neighbors, and your community, who you are, and what they can count on you for. We think people choose a church based on parking, sermons, coffee hour, and children’s programming but the bottom line is that people choose a church when they align with the mission of the church. Churches need a good way to share that clear mission as they invite people to Christmas services.  That’s my two cents….what do you think?

STEVE: I agree totally, and I wonder what it would be like to shift the way we spend some of our energy. Is it possible to offer really good Christmas worship that is aligned with our values in ways that take less effort? Would this free up some energy to explore some new ways of living into Christmas – some safe-to-fail experiments in partnership with our neighbors outside the walls of the church? Can we see ourselves honoring our mission and values as a worshiping community within the walls of the church and in new ways through relationships being forged with our neighbors? Bottom line: All is not lost, but responding in non-anxious, intentional ways will help us find new paths to increased vitality.

MARY: Absolutely! So a blessed, non-anxious Christmas to all no matter who shows up in your pews next week.