A couple of decades ago, one of the best sources for religion-beat stories about church life was a researcher named Lyle Schaller.
Schaller was -- yes, this sounds a bit odd -- a United Methodist expert on evangelism. He was the rare mainline Protestant leader who was actually interested in why some churches gained members, while others were losing them.
Back in the mid-1980s, I interviewed him about the difference between so-called "Easter Christians" -- people who only show up at Easter -- and "Christmas Christians." I bring this up because of an excellent Religion News Service feature by Adelle Banks that ran the other day about churches that hold "Blue Christmas" services in the days leading up to Dec. 25. Journalists need to file this story away for future reference.
Hold that thought. First, let's return to Schaller. This is from the tribute column I wrote when Schaller died in 2015:
The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said. ... Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."
Christmas, he stressed, was a chance for actually evangelism and healing. It has become one of the most painful times of year for many people in an America full of broken and hurting families.
The lengthy Banks feature focuses on that angle, as well as people facing Christmas after the death of a loved one. Here is the overture:
WASHINGTON (RNS) -- The church was festooned with a green wreath above the altar cross and rows of red and white poinsettias. But the lights were dim and the candles were ready, along with small packets of tissues placed strategically in each pew.
The Blue Christmas service at First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., was just what Charles Pugh, who worshipped alongside a couple of dozen others, needed that cold night in the nation’s capital.
Pugh, a Washington musician who visited the church for the special service, is estranged from his family. “I miss my family very much and my father passed away a month and a half ago and I was unable to see him,” he said before the liturgy began.
The service was one of several events in the Washington area and many more across the country that have marked one of the longest nights of the year.
Now, in this case, the service was being held in a progressive Baptist church just blocks from the White House. Thus, the rite was both liturgical and informal at the same time. For example:
The people gathered, young and old, some sniffling, some stoic, and responded to a liturgy with the words,”Why am I so troubled? I will put my hope in God.” They sang “What Child is This?” and listened to a bass soloist’s rendition of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” And they heard a testimony from the Rev. Paul Clark, a church consultant who recalled the death of his mother during the 1984 Christmas season and described the fresher grief of coping with his own recent diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
“We’re all born to live, to love and to die,” he said. “Between the birth and the dying the question is what do we make of it?”
Banks traces these services to Christmas memorial rites held by hospice groups and hospitals. Now they are spreading into other church networks -- including United Methodists, Lutherans and Episcopalians. People attend who are wrestling with everything from divorce to infertility, from the loss of a job to the death of a beloved cat.
What happens in these services? Different church are developing different traditions.
The key for journalists is to find out if this trend has reached nearby congregations. This would be a much better than normal story to localize during the season of Advent, 2018.
I would start with calls to hospice groups and counseling centers. For example:
Reid Temple Restoration Center, a Maryland counseling facility started by an African Methodist Episcopal congregation, featured a “Wall of Remembrance” where attendees could place photos of relatives during its recent “Celebration of Life, Love and Remembrance.”
D. Fredrica Brooks-Davis, executive director of the center, said the celebration featured gospel musicians, with a singer performing Kirk Franklin’s “My Life is in Your Hands” and liturgical dancers ending the program with “This is My Wish.” ... Participants were able to stand and name the person or persons they were remembering, whether they died recently or long ago.
“When people are standing and they see others standing with them and they turn their candles on, it brings about a sense of unity,” Brooks-Davis said of the event in which participants are provided battery-operated candles.
When I read this piece the first time, I kept waiting for the Catholic shoe to drop -- since Catholics have played a central role in hospice efforts from coast to coast.
Banks followed up on that angle, as well:
The Rev. Andrew Menke, executive director of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship, said there’s no official Catholic liturgy for such a service, but some parishes have them.
“It would be up to a pastor to decide that there’s a need for something of this nature, and to decide on the best way to try to meet that need,” he said.
That is another angle to check out next year. If Catholic liturgists developed a rite for this -- perhaps a special set of Vespers prayers and songs -- this story could become a seasonal item in many newspapers.
Valid, poignant Christmas-angle news stories are hard to find. Reporters should file this excellent Banks piece away for future reference.