For megachurches, Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year with celebration preparations, added services and a fuller house.
Several are expecting a crowd more than 20,000 this week, including Northland, A Church Distributed in Longwood, Fla., and Newspring Church in South Carolina. Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill, meanwhile, has already kicked off its 12 Christmas services and is expecting a total count of 82,000 attendees.
According to a new study by LifeWay Research, released Monday, nearly half of all U.S. households attend special church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas. This crowd includes atheists (2 percent), agnostics (9 percent) and those claiming other religions (22 percent).
At Willow Creek, one of the top five largest churches in the country with more than 22,000 weekly attendees, sharing the message of Christ with a nonbeliever is a core part of its Christmas program.
Senior Pastor Bill Hybels challenged attendees this past week to invite at least 10 people to the services, which began on Saturday and run through Christmas Eve.
Susan DeLay, director of Media Relations at Willow Creek, explained, "Services are geared for church attenders as well as non-church goers. The service conveys the Nativity story in a way that many may not have seen before and our prayer is that people, especially those looking for hope or those who are dealing with fear, will come away with a fresh idea of the hope that can be found in Christ."
Planning for Christmas services began this past summer. This year, the Ill. megachurch is telling the story of Christ's birth through live drama, music, dance and video, using projection technology inspired by the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The script, dance and drama are all original.
"Willow Creek does Christmas services every year and typically they change from year to year, but all services focus on the Gospel message of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ," said DeLay.
Darren Whitehead, teaching pastor at Willow Creek, recognized that the culture often reduces the Christmas message to something secular, sentimental or selfish. But in trying to put the focus back on Christ, he reminded the congregation this past weekend that the Christmas message is a sacred one.
"As followers of Jesus, we cannot fall victim to diluting or reducing what we celebrate at Christmas time," he said.
"If you empty the spiritual meaning of Christmas [and] ... reduce it to talking about talking snowmen and flying reindeer, we do a disservice to the world."
He stressed, "We want to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Christmas is God's annual reminder to everyone that the world is not as it should be and God is redeeming it and restoring it and He began this when He sent the messiah ... Jesus."