(Photo: Willow Creek Community Church)
For many Americans, Christmas time calls for remembering Jesus' birth, giving gifts, spending time with family, and almost inevitably, stress. Megachurches in the U.S. are no different, with many of them preparing an array of Christmas performances and services for attendees, the organization for which begins as early as summer.
Willow Creek Community Church of South Barrington, Ill., one of the largest churches in the U.S, is a prime example, with hundreds of faith-filled volunteers dedicating their free time to the production of 28 Christmas services, including 12 at the central campus in South Barrington, with 11 identical services in English and one conducted entirely in Spanish, and an additional 16 services at the church's five regional campuses.
So how does Willow Creek even begin to orchestrate the manpower needed for such an arduous project?
The church boasts an attendance of 70,000 and 80,000 people for the 12 services at South Barrington alone, with an additional attendance of 16,000-18,000 at the regional campuses.
There are 4,000 total volunteer opportunities at the South Barrington campus alone, and another 1,200 at the regional campuses.
According to Rhianna Godfrey, the producer of Willow Creek's Christmas services, although the season proves stressful, it is also a very gratifying experience.
"The most gratifying aspect of working at a megachurch during Christmas for me is having the opportunity to share the beautiful story of Jesus' birth with thousands of people. For many, I know this is not something they grew up hearing about, and I love the challenge of telling the story in a way that touches the hearts of those who don't know God as well as those who do," Godfrey told The Christian Post.
Susan DeLay, spokeswoman for Willow Creek, recently gave The Christian Post a "behind the scenes" look at what it takes to organize the Christmas season at a megachurch such as Willow Creek.
According to DeLay, the production season for Willow Creek Christmas, which begins in the summer, can be summed up as a high energy, cheerful "work family" bonding time of late nights and last-minute changes, all while each volunteer's normal life of work, children, and Christmas shopping continues.
"It's very high energy. People are more cheerful. Almost everyone is smiling, even those who are experiencing struggles in their lives," DeLay told CP.
"Even though everyone has long to-do lists, it seems people are finding time to greet others before and after services and have conversations that don't feel rushed. The story of Christmas is the one of the best messages in the world and people are reminded of that every time they're on campus."
She added, "Everyone is putting in long hours, experiencing late nights and some sleep deprivation as we find ourselves sacrificing time when we would otherwise engage in traditional holiday activities [cookie baking, shopping, putting up decorations, etc.], but we're all in this together and that strengthens an already strong bond.
"The volunteers at the Christmas services come to church, often after a long day at their place of employment, and they joyfully dive into serving and helping, often for long hours. Overall, everyone is aligned behind the same hope of sharing Christ."
As DeLay explains, preparing for a megachurch Christmas is a spiritually-fulfilling experience, with the programming and production cast and crew gathering together before every service to pray and worship.
Naturally, the holiday season isn't all work and no play. The ministry's volunteer crew also has its fair share of laughs, too.
One such example is the creation of the short film which tells the story of Mary and Joseph, from the time Mary learns she will become the mother of Jesus to the birth.
The short film is played for every Christmas service the church holds.
"When they shot one of the scenes with the shepherds, the little shepherd girl was terrified of the live sheep and she climbed onto the back of an older shepherd boy and wouldn't get off, so he carried her and held onto her for several hours," DeLay told CP.
While each Willow Creek campus has its own unique holiday service, the main campus in South Barrington provides a service which includes a time of worship, Christmas carols, a narrated retelling of the Christmas story using live people on stage as well as in film, contemporary dance, and a message from Senior Pastor Bill Hybels.
The service concludes traditionally every year with all congregants standing to sing "Silent Night."
Willow Creek is a nondenominational evangelical church, and boasts a weekly attendance of 20,000 at one of its six locations, making it the third largest church in the U.S.
Watch Willow Chreek's Christmas 2012 Trailer: