Pastors suggest hybrid Christmas services as COVID upends plans for many churches


Christmas services will be different this year, many pastors have said, as they plan both their sermon message and whether to hold in-person, online only or hybrid services.  

The Barna Group found in a national survey of Protestant senior pastors that nearly one-half, 45%, plan to hold Christmas services both in-person and online, while 23% expect to have services both in-person and available on-demand so families can watch sermons at their convenience. Only 4% said they plan to have services exclusively online. The remainder of pastors, 29%, said at the time of the survey (conducted March 20–Sept. 28) that they hadn't decided on their plans for church services this year. 

The survey also asked pastors about their sermon topic this year, and whether it would be the same or different from previous years. The response was that 13% said it would be different, 26% said it would be the same, and 44% said their message is always different and would be so this year as well. Some 16% said at the time that they hadn't yet decided. 

Facing a wide range of COVID-19 restrictions and concerns, leaders of a large Los Angeles-area church said fellow pastors should consider using a combination of the three formats — livestream, in person, and on-demand — for their services.

“When online is the only option, it seems exhausting,” Aaron McRae, senior pastor of Hillside Church in Rancho Cucamonga, California, said on a recent episode of Barna’s ChurchPulse podcast. “When it’s an option among other options, it seems to be something that feels like, 'That’s a viable thing for me to choose on any given week.'”

While many churches are becoming more comfortable with streaming services live, some leaders wonder how to approach having Advent and Christmas services available online for later viewing.

Hillside Executive Pastor Brian Wurzell said the key question this season in on-demand circles is: “How do we set up a landing page that literally walks our people through, and in some ways, sort of hand-holds our folks?” 

Wurzell, who's in charge of weekend services at the church, said its online ministry during the pandemic has been effective. People have received Christ through its online presence, and leaders have flown to other states to baptize converts.

That comes as 76% of pastors responding to the Barna survey expect their church’s Christmas evangelism and outreach to be disrupted this year as many local and state governments continue their restrictions on certain physical gatherings.

Wurzell said there can be an up-side to the down circumstances. “There’s probably people who’ve been praying for their relatives for decades. … They’re never going to set foot in the brick and mortar, but through an on-demand experience, it could be one of the greatest evangelistic opportunities we’ve ever seen,” he said.

Bolstering his view is a finding in another Barna survey that 76% of those attending an online service during the COVID-19 lockdowns said they get a reasonable sense of meaning from their church’s customs observed by watching online. 

In what Corey Nieuwohf, founder of Connexus Church in central Ontario, Canada, termed “the first digital Christmas,” McRae said his congregation would have a service “more family-centric and friendly, almost Christmas special-ish.”

The keys are to be personal and flexible, Wurzell advised. The church will miss its choir’s usual appearance singing inside a local mall, for example, but he and McRae have ideas on how to replace the outreach.

“Having a flatbed truck bring musical cheer through streets of our outdoor mall” could spread the Gospel more widely and allow for targeted invitations to come to services online or in person, he added.

Modern churches often seem to target perfection in worship experiences, but Wurzell said his view is that the small details of what Hillside is doing aren’t as important as letting people know they are welcome in its church family.

“For me, it’s less about glorifying what we’re doing, and it’s more about inviting people in,” he said.

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