Leaders at The Ridge church in Columbus regularly look for ways to meet spiritual seekers and nonbelievers right where they are.
And on Christmas Sunday morning, they figure many of those people will be around the tree in their pajamas.
So one of the biggest Christian assemblies in Bartholomew County will present its Christmas message in an online service only, after two in-person Christmas Eve services, which have been well-attended in recent years.
Lead Pastor Adam Johnson explained the decision amid something of an age-old national debate about whether churches should gather when Christmas falls on a Sunday.
“Since Christmas Day is on a Sunday, we have a unique opportunity to reach people right where they are — in their living room,” Johnson said. “We will have two services on Christmas Eve, and then we are encouraging our church to celebrate Jesus with families and friends at home with our online campus on Christmas Day. Our hope is people will invite others to join them who might never step foot in a church on any day of the week.”
Fewer existing churches will host Christmas morning services than they did in 2016, the last time the holiday fell on a Sunday.
In 2016, 89 percent of Protestant pastors said they were holding Christmas morning services, according to a survey by Lifeway Research. This year, 84 percent of Protestant pastors said they will lead Sunday morning services.
Such polls exclude Roman Catholics because the church’s official position remains that followers should attend Mass.
Half of U.S. Protestant pastors said in the LifeWay survey that a Christmas Eve service is their church’s largest event during the holiday season.
Be that as it may, Pastor Charles Kennedy of Columbus Baptist Church, which will host a Christmas Eve service, still will present the Sunday morning service at 10:30 a.m. Kennedy, known for his especially passionate views on faith, reposted another social media user’s message days ago on Facebook concerning the matter.
It read: “If your church cancels the Lord’s Day service on Christmas, the best present you can get for you and your family is a new church.”
Kennedy first mentioned in a brief interview when responding to his post — “I agree that was pretty strong” — that “people don’t have to answer to me on this. They answer to Jesus.”
But he feels believers honor God with Christmas Day in-person attendance, even if a church might opt for an adjusted or shorter service or a shorter message as he will do.
“For me personally, I think there’s something special about that being the celebration of Jesus’ birthday, and our physically being in church that morning,” Kennedy said.
“I read an article about this topic the other day, and I noticed that one pastor said in the story ‘Well, people didn’t show up in 2016 on that Sunday.’ But, as I read that, in my mind I thought, ‘Jesus was probably there.’
“Seriously, though, if Jesus is truly the reason for the season, then why wouldn’t we want to be in church that morning?”
Senior Pastor Howard Boles of First United Methodist Church chuckled when he mentioned that he has been in active ministry 31 years.
“And so this isn’t the first time Christmas has fallen on a Sunday,” he said. “And my experience has been that you’ve got people that you know are going to be traveling or already out of town with family. But then you also have church members still here in town with extended family with them.
“So my experience has been that we don’t see a big change in attendance, but rather, a change in the faces who are there on Christmas Day.
“Church members tend to bring their kids, grandkids and grandparents.”
And Boles mentioned that a Christmas morning service — at 10 a.m. at First United Methodist — says to those extended relatives that the church is present Christmas Day and any day to serve them as well as others.
But Boles doesn’t believe a church must have an in-person, Christmas morning service. The minister will lead three other Christmas Eve services, and get home about 1:30 a.m. Sunday.
“And then we’ll turn right around and do it all again Sunday morning,” he said, adding that online streaming continues as well for those who wish to stay home. “The sermon will be much shorter — and nobody ever complains about that.”
He added that he loves seeing college students home for the holidays, and others who come to visit on Christmas.
“I don’t feel like people have to be there in the morning,” Boles said. “But for me, it’s more about the pastoral care piece.”