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Churches cherish return to live worship services

The Rev. Bob Thomas starts the opening prayer during a Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary of Community Alliance Church on Friday.

Churches across Butler held religious services for hundreds of families to celebrate Christmas Eve Friday, some after canceling services last year due to pandemic restrictions.

Churches of all denominations practiced traditions in person focused around the same event: the birth of Christ.

First English Lutheran Church on Main Street was able to have only an online service last year. Pastor Kimberly van Driel said church members are excited to be worshiping again in person.

“I look forward to being back in person, and I look forward to the story. It's the story of God's grace and love,” she said.

Van Driel said last year, when church members couldn't celebrate together, the church worship team created lyric videos for the service with congregation members submitting photographs of their families. This year, the church offered a family-friendly service and a traditional service.

“At the children's service, the little ones will come forward, and we give them a bell to ring for 'Angels We Have Heard On High,'” van Driel said. “We make as big a racket as we possibly can. I enjoy that service because it's fun to be with that level of energy.”

Dan Ledford, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian on North Main Street, said at this year's Christmas Eve service the church operated with COVID precautions as the new normal.

“We're operating like this is the reality now. Mostly we've been providing options for people. We have a large enough sanctuary that we can spread people out and maintain staggered seating,” Ledford said.

Ledford said, the church's message during the service was “A different kind of Christmas” to reflect on the present differences compared to Christmases past.“We're recognizing it is different, and that's OK,” Ledford said. “The first Christmas wasn't all celebratory. We're getting the full scope of what Christmas is all about.”First United Methodist Church on East North Street hosted four services at their two locations. Pastor David Janz said he was especially excited to be back after being totally online last year.“I'm grateful we were able to be online, but it's just not the same as being together in a holy, sacred space,” Janz said.According to Janz, the church motto during the pandemic has been to love their neighbor, and so the church was asking people to wear masks to its Christmas Eve celebration.“We want to do our best to love our neighbor,” Janz said. “I'm looking forward to being with brothers and sisters to sing and tell the story of what this night is all about.”As part of the service, Janz said attendees will hold candles during “Silent Night,” and raise them on the fourth verse of the song.“The candle is always lifted, as a proclamation that the light of the world has come,” Janz said.At North Main Street Church of God, Pastor Brandon Lenhart shared that they anticipate a larger crowd at the church's celebrations this year. He said Christmas 2020 attracted 450 people between two services, when its sanctuary fits nearly 700.

Lenhart was most excited to get back to a sense of normalcy at his church this holiday season.“I've been hearing a term called 'COVID fatigue,' and I feel like a vast majority of people are ready to get back to normalcy, especially this holiday season,” Lenhart said.A Christmas tradition at North Main is the singing of “Peace Peace” and “Silent Night” by candlelight.“It's a nice closure, setting the mood for the Christmas season,” Lenhart said.Community Alliance Church, 800 Mercer Road, Center Township, hosted four music-filled services for its congregation Friday.Pastor Joe Floris said in order to space out attendance, attendees were asked to save a seat online. He said if recent attendance was any indication for what to expect this year, they would have more people than Christmas 2020.“We've tried to let people know what to expect and let them make the decision, and not surprise people,” Floris said.The worship service was also livestreamed from the church for anyone who wanted to participate at home.According to Floris, last year's six Christmas Eve services were staged over two days to limit the number of people in the sanctuary at a given time. There also was a mask-only seating section.

“For every church, it became about taking the information given and figuring out what's best for their congregation,” Floris said.Brynn and Roman Bargo said they've been attending Community Alliance's Christmas Eve service with their two daughters since last year.“Coming to this service puts me in the Christmas spirit,” Brynn said. “I feel like it's a piece of normal.”“Church is one of the few places it feels like (normal) can happen,” Roman said.Floris said in the past, the Community Alliance's worship team has provided musical entertainment for families who show up early to the Christmas Eve service. Last year, the team led “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with audience participation.“The worship team always makes it really celebratory around Jesus' birth,” Floris said. “And that's what Christmas is, it's a birthday party for Jesus.”This year, the music-filled service had a message by Floris and included the church's tradition of candle-lit singing of “Silent Night.” Then as a special treat, the church pastors and staff closed the time of worship by singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”“It's kind of like how different families celebrate birthdays,” Floris said regarding different church Christmas traditions. “Every place has its own unique way of celebrating, but the purpose is the same — it's Jesus.”

Congregants worship during a Christmas Eve service. The church had four services spaced out throughout the day.
The choir sings along at the beginning of a Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary of Community Alliance Church on Friday.
Congregants sing and worship during a Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary of Community Alliance Church in Center Township, Pa. on Friday, Dec. 24, 2021.
Congregants sit down for the beginning of a Christmas Eve service in the sanctuary at Community Alliance Church on Friday. The service was also livestreamed online for people worshipping at home.