RALEIGH — On the first Christmas, the Holy Family was turned away from the inn for not having reservations, and it looks like in 2020, many North Carolinians without reservations this Christmas will likewise find themselves out in the cold as churches try to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and comply with government mandates.
There are thousands of churches across North Carolina, and each of them is confronting unknown territory this year — gathering their congregations for the most-attended service of the year while also keeping them socially distant during a pandemic. For many churches, both big and small, this has meant going completely virtual by streaming cantatas, pageants, midnight masses and all other Christmas activities, with only a masked skeleton crew physically present.
Some churches have decided to have in-person services, though, and have introduced a strategy more familiar in dinner parties than church — the RSVP. Churches are largely making the seats available on a first-come-first-serve basis online, but for others who feel that set-up doesn’t quite fit the holiday spirit, they are instead opting for a lottery system, with the “winners” getting to attend Christmas services.
Elevation Church, based in the Charlotte area and one of the 10 largest churches in the country, will have services in multiple campuses across the state. On their uptown Charlotte location page, you’re met with a box saying, “Reserve your spot. Joining us for Christmas? Let us know and we’ll save you a spot.” Their COVID-19 page says they are “limiting our capacity to ensure social distancing in our auditorium and overflow areas” by only using every other row of seats. This strategy for social distancing eliminates much of the usual seating and amplifies the need for using the reservations.
In south Charlotte, the nation’s largest Catholic parish, St. Matthew, is also requiring reservations. Most years they have 20,000 people attend their Christmas services. “At the 4 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass alone, we have 4,000 present during normal times. However, these are not normal times,” a church representative says in a video on their website. Instead, this year they will only be using their Ballantyne campus, and the sanctuary will be filled to 25% of its capacity.
St. Patrick, the Charlotte Catholic Diocese’s cathedral a few miles from St. Matthew, is adding multiple services, each with reduced capacity. They ask those wishing to attend “to be flexible as to the Masses we choose and open to being assigned a second or even third choice.”
Across the state, in North Carolina’s other Catholic cathedral, Holy Name of Jesus in the Raleigh Catholic Diocese, they also used a lottery system.
The cathedral made the announcement, saying, “The Faithful may enter a lottery for up to six tickets to attendance at one of the masses. Tickets will be general admission, and attendees over the age of 2 must have a ticket to enter the Cathedral.”
The lottery was completed on Dec. 18, and after a few cancellations, they made additional tickets available through Eventbrite on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Summit Church, a large evangelical church with campuses around the Triangle area, whose pastor, J.D. Greear, is the president of the influential Southern Baptist Convention, also required RSVPs, which “will be confirmed at the door.” They held services early, on Dec. 17 and 20.
Instructions on the Summit site asked anyone with symptoms of illness to stay home and to be aware that, “You are saving seats for a modified worship service with enhanced safety protocols where you’ll be asked to wear face masks, social distance, and follow specific entry/exit instructions.”
Vintage Church, another large, multi-campus evangelical church in the Triangle that is part of the Southern Baptist Convention, told NSJ they will be having services online as well as at all four of their campuses. One campus will require an RSVP and the main downtown campus will be having an outdoor “Christmas Eve Walking Service” across the street from the church in Moore Square. Participants will walk through “socially distanced portions of what will resemble a traditional Vintage Church Christmas Eve worship service. It will have a variety of song, scripture and story along with festive lights, luminaries and opportunities to respond.”
North Carolina isn’t all big cathedrals and megachurches though. Many in small-town North Carolina attend more intimate congregations, like those of the United Methodist Church. The UMC’s North Carolina Conference bishop, Hope Morgan Ward, sent out a directive to the churches under her care not to plan indoor gatherings with over 10 participants during the Christmas season. This number is the same as the limit set by Gov. Roy Cooper for non-religious indoor gatherings.
“Our churches are religious bodies and could claim legal exemption from the Governor’s guidelines,” Ward wrote in the directive. “However, our love for our neighbors and our concern for their well-being leads us to urge restraint in gatherings. The chilly weather today is a reminder that gathering outdoors will be more difficult in the months of winter. Virtual gatherings are a gift to us in this time, in order to do no harm.”