‘Christmas Eve in a box’: COVID-19 surge reshapes Christmas worship

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EUGENE, Ore. (BP) – Candles, chocolates, hot cocoa, candy canes, postage-stamped outreach cards, the Gospel, ornaments like the Christmas star that heralded the Baby Jesus. The items are contained in what Pastor Brian King of Harvest Church in Eugene calls “Christmas Eve in a box.”

As COVID-19 cases surge in Oregon and across the nation, Harvest Church is one of many congregations repurposing their annual Christmas celebrations and outreaches amid safety concerns. Harvest Church will distribute about 200 such boxes, enough for each church family and a neighbor to participate in the church’s online-only Christmas eve candlelight service.

“Our approach to Christmas is to say that certainly the virus is real … and science is real,” King told Baptist Press Wednesday (Dec. 2). “But you know what? Christmas is real and Jesus is real as well. And so we want to do everything we can, essentially everything we normally do, just not in person.

“We will still do all the things we normally do in a Christmas season,” he said, including providing Christmas supplies for two families through a partnership with Monroe Middle School and providing gift bags and food for the homeless community.

“My hope is that people understand that they’re loved, that there’s inspiration in the season. So many of us are so discouraged about being at home,” King said. “And so we want to put some joy and light back in our homes, and then couple that with the outreach, and even the responsibility, to know that it matters that we share that same joy with others, that we’re not as isolated as it feels.”

Oregon tallied a COVID-19 testing positivity rate of nearly 41 percent in the past week, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported Wednesday, but the Oregon Health Authority has said the high number is inflated by a backlog of tests. The state’s positivity rate was 17.2 percent for the full month of November. Nearly 77,000 people in Oregon have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and at least 936 have died.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ended a two-week statewide freeze on certain activities Wednesday by instituting an indoor capacity of 25 percent of seating. For Harvest Church, that’s about 37 people at a time.

At Capital Baptist Church in Salem, Pastor John Lipton intends to celebrate Christmas as usual while adhering to Brown’s stipulations. The new guidelines based on seating capacity “makes life a whole lot easier” for Capital Baptist, Lipton said. With a capacity of 250 people, the church can now seat more than 70 at each service.

“We have followed the explicit direction of the governor since the very beginning of this process, which goes all the way back to March 8,” Lipton told Baptist Press Tuesday. “At every step of the way, we’ve deferred to her guidance with regard to faith-based organizations in the shutdown process and reopening. … We’re not a large church.”

Capital’s average attendance of about 80 people before the pandemic has dropped by about 50 percent, Lipton said, and the church accommodated all worshipers by holding two worship services each Sunday and multiple Bible study groups.

“We have celebrated continuously through the many years the Advent season – the four Sundays of Advent leading up to Christmas Eve – and we’ll have a Christmas Eve celebration,” he said. “We’re carrying on as we do every year,” with safety precautions. Lipton is not aware of any COVID-19 cases among the membership, although he knows of deaths from the virus outside the church family.

“We’re doing what we’re told. We’re wearing our masks, we’re washing our hands and we’re trying to stay a few feet away from each other. I’m trying to set the example by doing what I’m told,” Lipton said. “To me, this has nothing to do with civil liberties. I understand the argument, and I certainly am all for the First Amendment to the Constitution, but this is nothing to me about civil liberties. This is about public health. And I’m going to do everything I can, especially because our congregation has a significant number of seniors. I don’t want folks getting sick going to church.”

At New Life Community Church in Indianapolis, Pastor Andrew Hunt is adhering to safety precautions during Christmas and following guidelines set by Marion County, Ind. The church will not hold its annual Christmas concert with the adult and children’s choirs, Hunt said, but will incorporate the celebration into the Sunday worship service.

“We will add to our service on the Sunday before Christmas,” he said. “Anything else we do, we will do via the internet.”

The precautions are in light of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, Hunt said, coupled with a desire to make “everything as comfortable for those who want to be extremely cautious.” The church is sanitized each Friday and locked down until Sundays, and Hunt has utilized livestream, Facebook and YouTube for worship and other events since the pandemic began.

“Attendance wise, it (the pandemic) definitely has impacted us,” said Hunt, who serves on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee. “Praise the Lord it hasn’t impacted us as much financially. God has been good and faithful in that area, but it has affected us attendance wise, and that’s a concern for me as well, because I just believe that there’s a biblical command for the church to meet, and that we need to be in koinonia together, in fellowship together.

The church averaged about 280 in Sunday attendance before the pandemic. When gatherings were limited to 10, the church conducted worship with 10 people and livestreamed to the membership and public.

Johns Hopkins reported a testing positivity rate of just under 12 percent in Indiana for the past week, about the same as the full month of November. Just under 345,000 people have tested positive in the state and at least 5,864 have died.

Ingleside Baptist Church in Macon, Ga., will forgo its annual Christmas musical, instead broadcasting an hour-long compilation of highlights from past celebrations on local NBC television station WMGT, the church said in a Tuesday press release.

The program will air Dec. 12 and 19, will be livestreamed beginning Dec. 13 on LifeWay Christian Resources’ Digital Pass, and will be available on the church’s website beginning Dec. 19.

Johns Hopkins reported a positivity rate of just under 10 percent for Georgia during the past week, about the same as when the pandemic began. Statewide, 476,405 have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 9,515 have died.

“In a typical year, literally thousands of people would gather on our campus in multiple presentations for a joyful musical celebration of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ,” Ingleside Lead Pastor Tim McCoy said in the press release. “However, this is not a typical year. So, given the realities and challenges of COVID-19, this year we have made another plan.”

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