Whereas 90 percent of Americans of all creeds will celebrate Christmas in 2013 — including 80 percent of non-Christians — Pew found that only about half view Christmas mostly as a religious holiday, and a full third of the population considers it to be primarily a cultural event.
The gradual erosion of religion’s role from American celebrations of Christmas .... is especially pronounced among 18- to 29-year-olds, who are less likely than older Americans to attend Christmas religious services or to believe in the biblical miracle Christmas is said to celebrate: that Jesus was born of a virgin.Even so, churches will burst this Christmas with the once-a-year attendees. I know our church, which has a robust ASA as it is, will be close to standing room only for the Christmas Eve family service and for midnight mass. Many will be there for the cultural connection, rather than an overt belief. And many will be young.
Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, a young columnist reflects on the role of church in this context:
One of the worst-kept secrets, particularly among members of my generation, is that secular people go to church. They may not go weekly, and they may not participate in the life of a parish, but they do find certain expressions of their spirituality in the back few pews.
Often, these times and places are well-known and shared: a weekly vespers service here, a Taize service there. The promise of beautiful music, of a place of quiet, of a safe space for one's thoughts, is enough to bring many people through the door. A tremendous sense of both peace and reverence can be taken away from hours like these. Like the Magi, there's a sense that something powerful and meaningful goes on here and that such power and meaning must be taken in.I've certainly written enough about this, about connecting with the space and place, even if not a "believer". I know I am not the only nonbeliever in the church we attend. (I'm just the most open about it.) And if the slogan is, "whoever you are, wherever you are on the journey of faith", then welcoming people without belief, and being content just to have them there if that's what they want, is part of it. That's radical inclusion.
And another part of it is to let them come and go.
Older parish members often express great interest in this seemingly elusive population of young people. On their minds: How do we convince young people to stay here, to join us every week? How do we bring them into the regular work of this community? What are we doing wrong that they don't find us attractive or meaningful?
Though extraordinarily well-intentioned, I've come to believe these questions are the wrong ones. They express a desire to serve the spiritual needs of young adults on terms other than their own. They conflate offering hospitality, which is essential to any church, with someone taking us up on that offer. They represent a kind of focus on results, on numbers, which isn't an appropriate measure of the richness of a spiritual life.You know the thing, because you've seen it: middle-aged folks trying to be more "hip" for the youth (and too often, turning off their older members). Sure, we'd all like them to come back. But the author suggests that maybe this is what church is for.
No one truly knows today which churches will sustain social prominence for the next 50 or 100 years. As times get tough, we may need to let go of schools, offices and buildings that are part of our cherished history. But the primary spiritual obligation of the Christian -- an open door to our neighbor -- costs relatively little. The church that loses formal members and tithing but provides a service to its community, provides the mystical body of Christ in its neighborliness, may not be a failure. It may instead be returning to the church's roots.This is the "if you build it they will come". Because, they are coming. They are coming for the deeply spiritual experience, the music, the quiet space, the ancient liturgical rhythms. They are coming for the traditions even if they only come once a year.
So, when your church burgeons to overflowing at Christmas, don't get annoyed at the people who don't know when to stand or who are sitting in your favorite pew. Direct a welcoming smile at the new faces. Make them want to come back,even it it won't be till next Christmas.