Video: The Christmas divide

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/22/2005 7:41:01 PM ET 2005-12-23T00:41:01

The Christmas divide: Should this Sunday be a family day or one spent in worship? Some churches have made that decision for their members already, canceling services on Christmas. It's a move, some believe, toward consumerism and away from faith.

You have to get to the 7,000 seats at Willow Creek Church in the Chicago suburb of Barrington, Ill., early. They tend to fill up fast.  But this Sunday, the cavernous auditorium will be empty; the pulpit, dark.

Like several dozen mostly large, evangelical churches across the United States, the usual Sunday service is canceled here because it's Christmas Day.

“I just think that it's a good idea,” says Willow Creek Church member Lainie Ozburn, “I wouldn't want to come here. I would rather be with my family.”

It was a lesson the church learned the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, 11 years ago — when most members stayed home.

“Instead of having a centralized gathering on Christmas Day,” says Willow Creek’s Gene Appel, “we're envisioning thousands of decentralized gatherings around Christmas trees and living rooms and family rooms.”

In many churches, Christmas Day services are the years' busiest — often standing room only — fueling debate over the decision to cancel.

At the River Oaks Baptist Church in Texas, Sunday without worship, especially this Sunday, is unimaginable.

“To all of a sudden decide not to have that worship experience on Christmas Sunday,” says River Oaks’ Dr. Jim Lemons, “just seems to be a little inconsistent if not hypocritical for us in the church.”

Some see it as a decision of convenience, playing into what they say is the increasingly secular nature of the holiday and the business of Christmas, with less emphasis on its religious meaning.

“This is the most important day in the Christian calendar,” says Southern Methodist University theologian Dr. William Abraham. “They think people don't want to come to church that day. I think they do.”

Back at Willow Creek, the church will hold three Christmas Eve services and has an offering for those wanting something more Christmas Day:  an inspirational DVD the church says reinforces the message of Christmas that looks like something you'd find in a store — one more sign Christmas, the holy day, is also a holiday.

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