Churches prep for Christmas
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer
By Mary Kaye Ritz
Yesterday morning, Stephen Clear was hanging lights from a high truss that swayed like a rocking boat. Soon, that truss would hold a 12-foot cross, giant wreaths and a red velvet backdrop — against which an 80-person choir will sing today for First Presbyterian's "Citywide Christmas Service" at the Hawai'i Convention Center.
"Every year, we try to improve it," said Clear, president of Aatco, a staging company hired by the church.
When it comes to mounting a Christmas service — from a candlelight service to a multimedia extravaganza like this one — Hawai'i churches also build on experience.
For many evangelical churches, the goal is to draw in the faithful while also leaving time for family celebrations. This year offers a strategic choice: Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday. Will members turn out, or should the holiday extravaganza be held on another date?
Some, like New Hope Christian Fellowship, added a service for tomorrow night; others, like First Presbyterian, will hold their Christmas Eve service at their new Ko'olau golf course location, hosting their major citywide service today in the convention center.
Meanwhile, Catholic, Episcopalian and orthodox Christian churches can count on an additional surge of parishioners on Christmas Day.
Christmas is not taken lightly at Hawai'i's largest churches.
First Presbyterian's enormous annual service in Honolulu draws all denominations of Christians, both residents and visitors. The event is punctuated by music: The church's 32-piece orchestra, including members of the Ho-nolulu Symphony, will accompany the choir at two separate services.
Planning takes six months, said executive director Ron Mathieu. It costs about $10 a head to put on, and the church recoups nothing, since money taken in from the donations will be given to charity. This year, most will go to missions and at-risk AIDS children in Africa.
The service is expected to draw about 3,300 people. The number of those in attendance has grown by 20 percent every year, said Dan Chun, First Presbyterian's senior pastor.
That is, until last year, when the church held its service on Christmas Eve, a Saturday. Attendance dropped by 700.
Last year, attendance was down at Protestant churches for Christmas services, held on a Sunday, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research reported. In contrast, attendance typically goes up for churches with a tradition of holding Christmas Day services. Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopalian churches often report an attendance surge, from a third to double the average Sunday numbers.
Ralph Moore, pastor of megachurch Hope Chapel Kaneohe, said the Christmas morning turnout last year was lower than for a normal Sunday, but he was still glad the service was held.
"It was a total 300 people — way down for us," said Moore. "But that's 300 people who would've been disappointed" if the service was canceled.
In contrast, the Rev. Liz Beasley, spokeswoman for the Episcopal diocese, said her church, St. John's by the Sea, saw about a 50 percent increase in attendance last Christmas Day. That's typical for the diocese.
Some Mainland megachurches went so far as to take Christmas day off last year, holding no Sunday services. Leaders at such enormous churches as Willow Creek in Illinois posited that Christmas, even when it falls on a Sunday, is a day for families.
Lively scuffles over the secularization of Christmas ensued, reported The New York Times, in a debate local church leaders, including Chun, monitored.
None of Hawai'i's largest congregations canceled services last Dec. 25, though "we had that discussion," said Mathieu.
Do you cut services if they're less attractive to your congregation? Mathieu sympathizes with the choice to do so. "It's a matter of scratching people where they itch," he said.
Lessons learned last year went into decisions for this year, as Christmas falls on Monday.
Some churches, such as First Presbyterian, moved their big services to tonight, a date thought to be more attractive.
"For many people, service on Christmas Eve conflicts with family parties, most of which are composed of people who don't go to church," Chun said. "By having it the day before, churchgoers invite their unchurched friends to come."
Others stay the course.
New Hope will have a Christmas Eve service, and the church will keep to a normal weekend schedule, with one added Christmas Eve service. Last year, the church had a Christmas service.
Elwin Ahu, a pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship predicted the Christmas Eve service will be "huge": "It's one of the biggest days for us."
Several evangelical groups here host a Christmas Eve service or production of some kind, often encouraging members to bring non-churchgoing family and friends to experience the spiritual aspect of the season. But they don't plan a Christmas Day celebration or service.
This year, Hope Chapel, New Hope Christian Fellowship, First Assembly of God and Word of Life are all holding some kind of event tomorrow night, be it a candlelight service or Christmas production. They don't have Monday events scheduled.
Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and orthodox Christians will make Christmas an extra churchgoing day — in fact, one of the biggest churchgoing days of the year.
Practicing Catholics such as Ronald San Nicolas will take his family to Mass two days in a row — one for Christmas, the other for the regular Sunday obligation.
"This Sunday and every Sunday, we mark the celebration of the day of the Lord's resurrection, which takes precedent, so there's no such thing as canceling," said San Nicolas. "That's the core, sacred teaching and tradition in the Catholic church."
First Presbyterian churchgoer Ty Aldinger will be taking his family to services — but not on Christmas Eve. They're attending the citywide service tonight.
"I find that to be not only convenient but relevant, a nice way to be able to combine traditions of church with traditions of family being home for Christmas," he said.
When he heard about the San Nicolas' family and their two-day churchgoing tradition, he made a "huhn" sound, a word eclipsing surprise and heading straight into "no kidding?" territory.
"It's amazing how each of our respective religions, even Christian, have different ways (of celebrating)," he said.
Accommodating family needs is a key factor for some church communities.
"We have traditionally have not had worship on Christmas Day, so that would be a family day for the staff as well as the congregation," said First Presbyterian's Chun.
"We believe family is important, as well," said New Hope's Ahu. "It takes a lot to present a service. We want to make sure our volunteers are rested and spending time with family."
Some say the philosophy goes beyond the family factor. First Assembly of God's John Rogers, the senior associate pastor, calls it part of the "growing edge to the convenience of church."
"It's influenced by our culture," Rogers said. "...There's a growing conflict, in my mind. It's a statement on what is becoming more important in society. I don't think the choice is between attending church and Christmas. It's between having more leisure time (and attending church)."
Evangelical groups answer the problem by exploring different ways to worship, Rogers said.
Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University who has studied the changing nature of today's churches, says the choices reflect our cultural mores.
"What people are obviously juggling is Christmas as a family holiday and Christmas as a time of worship," Ammerman said. "... It also highlights of changing nature of holidays for American families, with increasing distances to be together, weaving together multiple strands of family."
With blended families scattered and unable to get together in one place, people are more likely to piece together the holiday, she said.
"It's a sense of patchwork celebrations across several days. ... Churches are in many ways falling into improvising dates, in order to catch the complicated lives people are leading."