The Rev. Mark Johnson, senior pastor of Calvary Church in Springfield, jokes he's told more people not to come to church in the last year and a half than he has in his whole life.
"You don't like saying that," Johnson said, "but when you understand the situation they're in, (you tell them not to) feel bad about this, just stay at home, listen online and we'll stay in touch with you."
Johnson was speaking about the COVID-19 pandemic and people staying away from services because of health concerns.
Johnson and other area pastors are in different straits than they were last Christmas. Last year, many congregations had to put a pause on in-person worship services, or try some more out of-the-box thinking.
A year ago, the Rev. Joseph Ring, pastor of Our Saviour Catholic Church in Jacksonville was taking reservations for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day masses because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While churches can have full in-person services for Christmas, some are requiring or asking people to wear face masks and requesting that people not gather inside the church for socializing after the service.
Christmas services can mean larger than normal attendance for churches, including out-of-town visitors, and an expanded schedule for services.
Busboom said his church has four Christmas Eve services, many meeting different age groups.
Acknowledging that many people still aren't coming to church in-person or might be mindful of the larger crowds, three of those services will be streamed on the church's YouTube channel.
For the Rev. William DeShone Rosser, pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Springfield, the pandemic has meant pivoting to earlier and short services to limit the time of exposure.
Rosser said 40 to 50 percent of his church people are back in person with the rest viewing online,
Acknowledging that worship is designed to be "an experience, not just a viewing," Rosser insisted that the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for the church "if it can recognize what's going on.
"Worship as we used to know it is no more," Rosser added. "Our younger generation is not attending church like previous generations have."
The Rev. Roy Newman, pastor of Fresh Visions Community Church in Springfield said the pandemic has caused the church to regroup. His church had some services online but now is trying to be more strategic and intentional in its delivery.
"We're personally trying to identify with the audience that's online, being mindful that this may work good for the audience here (in the sanctuary), but we also want to be mindful of those tuning in," Newman said. "How we prepare the message, the songs. We want to make sure (those online) aren't second-class citizens or just an afterthought."
Rosser said before the pandemic, the church looked at having a more visible online presence as "a six-month priority. When COVID hit, it became a next-week priority."
For pastors, Rosser added, "we not only had to be the star of the show in some cases but be the producer and the executive director."
Busboom said in the midst of the pandemic trauma, there is a certain segment of people who have turned to the church as "a place of normalcy and rest. It's a place where they're getting refilled."
For others, "they're so exhausted from work and school and managing kids and just dealing with everything that they've opted to stay home. Maybe that means worshiping online, connecting with the church in a different way they used to because they don't have the mental energy or the physical energy to fit church into everything else they're trying to manage."
Rosser said he is concerned with a portion of the congregation that isn't ready to come back in person because of their own health or out of concern for others' health but doesn't like the online version, "the die-hard die-hard-I need-to-be-there-and-if-I-can't-be-there-I-don't-even-want-to-watch-it-on-TV people."
"There has always been a certain amount of people who go to church, who are engaged but they're there because that's where they're expected to be on Sunday morning. With COVID, this gives them an out. Do they still participate? We still have a good number of them participating financially. When we have online Bible studies, they'll participate. We had some who don't come to church on Sunday coming to our Thanksgiving dinner to participate. They're still a vital part of the life of the congregation, but they're not ready to get back into the actual Sunday morning portion of it. That's going to be a problem for a lot of churches (going forward)."
Johnson said he expected more robust attendance for Christmas services. He said at this point, people are more intent on moving forward with life.
"There are a lot of people who are still staying segregated at home, watching online because of their concerns," Johnson said. "They gave some freedom back and people have taken advantage of that and we're doing a lot of things to allow people, hopefully in safe ways, to connect with other people."
Ring said he is watchful of the COVID numbers and is trying to keep mitigations in place. He said he seldom gets blowback over issues like mask-wearing.
"We're glad to be able to be together (at Christmas)," Ring said. "Again, it's an improvement from before. It's not where we want to be. It's not the old normal. We keep the faith and trust in the Lord. We're still a people of hope, still a people of faith. That's what has sustained us through the pandemic. We certainly don't want to give up now. That's what sustained our ancestors and their struggles and the people waiting for the coming of Christ."
Busboom said especially this year, with the pandemic and the political polarization that has divided so many households, that the church can offer a message of hope.
Busboom said he is also aware that with the pandemic, churches at Christmas services will see new faces or members they see infrequently.
"For them, I have one shot to preach the good news," he said. "That's what I want them to leave with. I don't want them to leave with feeling judged for only being there that one time. I want them to hear the good news, that God loves them, that they are a child of God and regardless of whether they're there one time or every Sunday that they belong and there is something for them."
Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/@StevenSpearie.
Christmas Eve and Christmas services
St. John's Lutheran Church (ELCA)
2477 W. Washington St., Springfield, www.stjohns-springfield.org
Christmas Eve: 3 p.m., Playful Praise worship (pre-school and families) in Parish Life Center; 4:30 p.m. Traditional in sanctuary (streamed on YouTube channel); 7:30 p.m. Contemporary in Parish Life Center (streamed); 11 p.m. in Sanctuary (streamed).
Christmas Day: 10 a.m. in Sanctuary.
501 W. Hazel Dell Road, Springfield; 1730 W. Jefferson St., Springfield, www.calvaryspringfield.org
Christmas Eve: 2 p.m. (Jefferson); 4 p.m. (Hazel Dell, online) and 6 p.m. (Hazel Dell, online)
Our Saviour Catholic Church
453 E. State St., Jacksonville; www.oursaviourparish.org
Christmas Eve: 4 p.m. (interpreted for hearing impaired, livestreamed), 6 p.m.
Christmas: 9 a.m. (interpreted for hearing impaired, livestreamed).
Westminster Presbyterian Church
533 S. W al nut St., Springfield, www.wpcspi.org
Christmas Eve: 5 p.m. Children's Service; 7:30 Service of Lessons and Carols
Christ Episcopal Church
611 E Jackson St., Springfield, www.episc.org
Christmas Eve: 6 p.m.
First Baptist Church
410 West Third North Street, Mount Olive
Christmas Eve: Noon (prepackaged communion)
South Side Christian Church
2600 S. MacArthur Blvd., Springfield, www.southsidechristian.com
Christmas Eve: 5 p.m., 7 p.m. (livestreamed)
Abundant Faith Christian Center
2525 Taylor Ave., Springfield, www.abundantfaith.org
New Year's Eve Celebration, with Fresh Visions Community Church, 10 p.m., (Taylor campus)
This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Springfield IL church doors are open wide this Christmas