Willow Creek Community Church, one of the largest churches in the Chicago area, will be closed Sunday, Dec. 25 - because it's Christmas.
Though thousands of the faithful usually flock to the church and its satellites on Sundays, Willow Creek is joining other evangelical megachurches across the nation this year in choosing not to worship as a congregation on Christmas Day.
Instead, they will urge members to focus on family at home, rather than filling the pews.
"At first glance, it does sound contrarian," said the Rev. Gene Appel, the senior pastor of Willow Creek. "We don't see it as not having church on Christmas. We see it as decentralizing the church on Christmas - hundreds of thousands of experiences going on around Christmas trees. The best way to honor the birth of Jesus is for families to have a more personal experience on that day."
It's not that the church does not value the birth of Christ. Willow Creek organized almost a week of worship ending Christmas Eve, and total attendance is expected to top 50,000. The church also produced a short DVD designed to reinforce the theme of the Christmas services and help viewers process spiritual questions that might cross their minds during the holidays.
The Rev. Appel says family has always been at the heart of the Christmas story: the tale of a mother and father celebrating the birth of a babe in a manger.
In the Augusta area, this will be the first time Stevens Creek Community Church, of the Willow Creek Association, has not held services on Sunday, said the Rev. Marty Baker, the lead pastor.
He found a "nasty gram" on his answering machine after word got around that the Martinez church would be closed Christmas Day. The caller identified himself as a pastor and said that "he is putting it on his church prayer list," said Dr. Baker, who is expecting more than 1,000 people total at the 5 and 6:30 p.m. services on Christmas Eve at the church.
"On Sunday morning, mark the season, but do it in your own home in your own family," he said he told the congregation.
Christ is just as strong in the midst of a home as he is on Stevens Creek Community Church's property "because he lives in your heart," he said.
If West Town Community Church of Evans, another association member, had as many people volunteering for an entire week before Christmas, it might respond the same way, said the Rev. Rod Addison, the pastor.
Willow Creek's volunteers would have had no Christmas without the break Sunday, he said, but "just because they do it, we don't automatically follow them. We are not robots."
The 150-member West Town will hold candlelight services at 4 and 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve , and have a one-hour service at 10:30 a.m. Christmas Day at the church, 779 N. Belair Road in Evans.
"We will not have any other kinds of things but nursery care to minimize volunteer needs," the Rev. Addison said.
Some scholars say that letting people decide what is convenient for them on one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar is an example of American evangelical Christianity run amok.
"This speaks to the dilapidated state of evangelical faith today," said David Wells, a professor of historical and systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston. "That we would think that going to church is getting in the way of celebrating Christmas - that the family celebration shouldn't be impeded by having to go to church - it seems to me that our priorities are upside down."
Staff Writer Virginia Norton contributed to this article.