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With Christmas on a Sunday, some churches will alter their routine

Megan Blake, from right, Julie Smith and Becky Holcomb play handbells at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Megan Blake, from right, Julie Smith and Becky Holcomb play handbells at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa.

The last time Christmas and Sunday collided was in 2005.

Back then, when churches across the nation scrambled to make a decision between holding services and closing for the day, open doors led to half-empty pews. Shut doors resulted in a backlash.

The collision will happen again this year, prompting churches nationwide to alter their typical Sunday routines.

While Catholics and Episcopalians consider Christmas a Holy Day and attend service regardless of where it falls on the calendar, Protestants tend to view the day as time for family celebration and feel less obligated to the church, research shows. Most who attend church do so on Christmas Eve.

About nine of 10 churches will host some type of Christmas Day services this year, says a nationwide poll conducted by LifeWay Research, a Tennessee-based Christian research group. Still, most churches will adjust their schedules in anticipation of diminished attendance.

Throughout Tampa Bay, churches are planning to fit worship in where they can. Some will take off Christmas Day. Some will open for one service instead of two or three, or host evening services.

First United Church of Tampa on Fowler Avenue will go the route of a Christmas brunch. The casual event will include prayer and Scripture reading. The turnout may not be great, pastor Bernice Powell Jackson said, but she thinks it's important people know they can come to church on Christmas.

"I know we have people in the congregation and in the community who don't have family to spend the holiday with and many of them will join us," she said.

Many churches are using holiday themes to get people out from under their Christmas trees. In south Tampa, Hyde Park United Methodist will host a Blessing of the Toys to serve families.

"Children can bring toys and we will say a prayer over them," said Jim Harnish, senior pastor. "It's going to be a smaller service, but we are going to try to capitalize on the intimacy and warmth."

In Clearwater, First Christian Church will complete a month-long holiday sermon series on Christmas Day.

"We are hopeful that people will come out to hear the conclusion," said Mike McGinnis, senior pastor. "We want to take time as a church to worship our God and celebrate the birth of Christ."

Instead of its usual two Sunday services, Maximo Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg has decided to hold only its 11 a.m. service.

"It gives people a chance to open their Christmas gifts and still make it to church … hopefully," the Rev. Bobby Musengwa said. "Sundays, when we come together for a service, we are coming together and worshiping God. Think of the irony of canceling worship services altogether. It's Christmas, let's cancel service. Let's not worship him."

Approximately 74 percent of Americans say they consider Christmas a day for religious observance, LifeWay reports. Still, 67 percent say much of what they enjoy about the holiday is unrelated to Jesus. Locally, pastors say both elements are important.

First Baptist Church of Riverview pastor Jeff Knight doesn't mind mixing Christmas with Sunday. In 2005, he saw his church mostly filled on the day, and with new faces.

"Those who are out of town are replaced by those who come with guests," Knight said.

Father Len Plazewski at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa said Catholics like that the holiday falls on a Sunday.

"It's kind of easier for us," he said. "It's more difficult if it's on a Monday or Wednesday because you have to go to Christmas Mass in addition to Sunday Mass."

Area churches closing on Christmas Day will offer multiple Christmas Eve services, which are an annual tradition. Grace Family and Crossover Church in northern Hillsborough are among those starting services on Dec. 23. Crossover also held a community outreach event on Saturday. The church will close Christmas Day so pastors can spend time with loved ones.

"We felt like let's get together Christmas Eve with our church family and then have Christmas Day with our families," said lead pastor Tommy Kyllonen.

Pastors say they are curious to see how people respond to the Christmas Sunday conundrum. Bloggers already are debating, as they did in 2005, whether churches should close on a Sunday, much less a Christian holiday. A common argument is that pastors, like anyone else, shouldn't have to work on Christmas.

Next year, the holiday will fall on a Tuesday.

Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or swhitman@sptimes.com.

With Christmas on a Sunday, some churches will alter their routine 12/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 17, 2011 11:06pm]

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