Analysts Predict Biggest Christmas Church Shopping Season Ever
Churches sharpen seasonal services to nab annual worshippersCategory: Church
ANNAPOLIS, MD – Christine Eagen sits at the table in her neatly decorated suburban dining room with an open phone book, a wall calendar, a notepad and a laptop. She circles church listings in the phone book with a red sharpie, visits their Web sites on her laptop and pencils in their names on her calendar between November 25th and December 24th, all the while taking copious notes.
“There are so many churches in the area, and we have such a limited amount of time after Thanksgiving,” Eagen says, pausing for a moment to shush her two young boys at play in the adjoining family room. “We try to cram in as much research in as we can during those weeks, but it really becomes a mad dash to the big decision for Christmas Eve.”
Eagan is part of a growing number of Americans who spend a significant amount of time in the weeks after Thanksgiving looking for the perfect church to attend on Christmas Eve or the Sunday before Christmas. A recent study by the Pew Research Institute reports that roughly one-third of Americans say they attend church just once a year, and more than two-thirds of that group choose the Christmas season for their lone pilgrimage. Analysts are expecting American Churches to see the largest-ever group of Christmas-only congregants this year, and they expect these Christmas church shoppers to attend an average of three Sunday services between Thanksgiving and Christmas in the quest for their perfect Christmas church.
“These annual worshippers are becoming less and less content to drag the family down to the corner church at the last minute,” said Robert Holmes, president of the Center for the Study of World Religion – a London-based religion think tank. “Americans are spending weeks and even months picking out the perfect gifts and decorating their homes to create that idyllic Christmas; it seems ridiculous to expect them to risk walking into a big fat dud of a cantata and a lame candlelit congregational singing of Silent Night. These folks want some sizzle in their season.”
That much sought-after sizzle is not going unnoticed by church leaders, who are expected to be especially busy decking the halls and pumping up the production value of their Christmas programming this season in hopes of catching the eyes of the yuletide-only worship set.
“The past few years, we’ve noticed more and more locals slipping into the back pew during worship those two or three Sundays after Thanksgiving,” said Neil Moorehouse, pastor of celebratory arts at Golden Heights Community Church outside of Louisville. “Let’s just say these aren’t really the type of people you’d expect to see in church, so we know they’re there to scope out the music and the decorations. This year we’ll be ready for them.”
Moorehouse has hired a local barbershop chorus and a troop of actors to augment the talent pool for their Christmas services. He’s also planning to book some newspaper and radio ads to generate some buzz. Moorehouse is even talking openly about touching that third rail of church Christmas decorations.
“Of course we’ll have the big tree and the tastefully rustic manger scene, but let’s face it; people want Santa,” Moorehouse said. “I’ve really been leaning on the Elder Board about it this year, telling them the story of the generous Saint Nicholas and suggesting that we have him kneeling in front of the manger to make a real cultural statement. I’m hoping this will be the year that the fat man finally makes his appearance.”
Holmes thinks that the considerable expenses being incurred by Golden Heights and countless other American churches this Christmas season could be the best money they spend all year.
“Not only are people in the giving mood around Christmas, they’re in the end-of-year giving mood,” he said. “I’ve talked to many pastors of large American churches who are planning to incorporate building fund messages into their Christmas pageants. There may have been no room at the inn, but they want to make sure there’s plenty of room in the contemporary worship annex for years to come.”
“If we’re only going to get these people once a year, you can bet that they’re going to get a subtle, yet solid sales pitch,” he said. “We have no problem getting our worship through giving on at Christmas time. It’s when we pull out our A-list offertory music, and if you come to Golden Heights, it’s not your imagination; you really do smell a hint of holiday spice potpourri in the offering plate.”
For Eagan, the hunt for the perfect church is just another chore on the growing Christmas to-do list.
“It’s a lot of work, but I really think it’s worth it,” she said. “If we’re going to go to church just once a year, we’re going to make sure it’s extra special. We’ve got a whole lot of services to attend to make sure we get it right.”