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Beulah Alliance Church in Edmonton, seen Dec. 16, 2020, will celebrate Christmas services completely online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

After the sermon ends on Christmas Eve, the lights of Central Community Church are turned off. Hundreds of congregants, holding candles in their hands, begin to sing Silent Night. Pastor Matt Shantz lights his candle from the Christ candle on the stage. He then walks to a congregant in the corner of the sanctuary and lights their candle, and that person lights the one next to them, and in this way, they pass the light. When the carol reaches the last note, the building is filled with candlelight.

Moments later, children cram onto the stage and hear a Christmas story.

But this Christmas, congregants of this Chilliwack B.C. church will record themselves singing Silent Night and lighting candles in their homes. Hundreds of such videos will be woven together by the church’s technical team and be presented in a virtual service on Christmas Eve.

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“It’s going to be so different this year. And we’re trying to just embrace that,” Mr. Shantz said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted in-person services at places of worship since March. Even though many provinces in Canada allowed faith-based organizations to open over the summer (albeit in a limited fashion), the second wave of COVID has prompted some provinces to tighten their restrictions again, with B.C. and Manitoba implementing the toughest measures by banning services in church buildings province wide.

That imposes unique challenges for churches as Christmas — one of the most important celebrations in the Christian calendar — is approaching.

During the 99 years that Beulah Alliance Church in Edmonton has existed, it has weathered plenty of crises, including the Depression and the Second World War. But this is the first year it’s gone through a change such as this, says Keith Taylor, Beulah’s lead pastor.

This week, the church will, for the first time, host its Christmas Eve services exclusively online. Mr. Taylor has prepared a message of hope and encouragement “during a time when I think people are feeling fatigue, feeling a little frustrated because they can’t be together as they normally would with loved ones, so we want to reach out to that.”

In 2019, 7,000 in the community joined Beulah’s Christmas services, held in three buildings and languages. The size of the gatherings made it impossible to consider given the Alberta government’s current restrictions, which limit faith services to 15 per cent of fire code occupancy for in-person attendance.

Keith Taylor, lead pastor at Beulah Alliance Church, in Edmonton, on Dec. 16, 2020.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Taylor, who has been pastoring the congregation for three decades, says he will miss the sight of thousands of people lighting candles and seeing the faces of children and families together; however, he notes, this year, it’s probably safer to bring Christmas to people’s homes.

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St. John the Baptist Dixie Anglican Church, located in Mississauga, Ont., has been posting its Advent vespers online. Its large choir is missing; instead, the services include just four clergy and musicians, all masked and physically distanced, leading hymns and liturgy. “We may quibble with exactly how the government is responding, and I don’t think any of us are completely satisfied with that,” says the church’s priest, Rev. Daniel Brereton.

But as cases continue to escalate across Ontario, Rev. Brereton says closing his church down over the holiday season is a good Christian response to loving others.

Besides virtual Christmas services, places of worship have been finding other ways to connect and celebrate with their communities.

Broadway Church in Vancouver is breaking a Christmas tradition that has lasted 52 years: its Singing Christmas Tree performances, which feature a live theatre production consisting of a 100-voice choir, an orchestra, drama and acrobats. In previous years, the church typically attracted 20,000 guests over 10 performances in December.

But early in the summer, members of the church began to brainstorm ideas for how to shift away from the live show. The result is a Christmas movie called Home, produced by several of the church’s staff members.

The 35-minute film follows several people on Christmas Eve, all of them facing their own hardships: a widowed father missing his wife and family; a workaholic husband putting a strain on his marriage; a military family suffering from separation; and a young girl who’s feeling lost. Eventually, all of them find their way home for Christmas.

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The church’s video director, Jody Hill, directed Home, with worship pastor Paulo Santana acting as producer. They said they wanted to make a film that people could relate to and that would portray real life during this season. “[It] is about finding that connection and finding that place back where everybody belongs together,” Mr. Hill says. “And because we are a faith-based organization, there is that thread of finding your way home to God, as well.”

Derrick Hamre, lead pastor for Christian Life Assembly in Langley, B.C., says one of the biggest challenges for churches to prepare for Christmas events this year is the fast-evolving health orders. “The challenge has been to constantly adapt – literally almost every week,” he says. But he adds that his church wants to partner with the pubic health authority, not work against it.

The church finalized details of a Christmas event, held the second week of December, just two weeks before it began: a drive-through light display that travelled through the “village of Bethlehem,” with scenes and a prerecorded retelling of the Nativity.

Mr. Hamre likened the minutes-long experience to a “Disneyland ride” and hoped it would serve a dual purpose: to remind the 3,000 members of his church about the roots of the holiday and send a message of hope to the broader community, which includes more than 150,000 people.

At the Hillside Baptist Church on Vancouver’s North Shore, the theme centres on joy. Roughly a dozen of the church’s young members are busy preparing and recording a Christmas skit – featuring Mary, Joseph and other characters from the Nativity story – that will be streamed on Christmas Day.

Hillside is located in Lynn Valley, just a block away from the Lynn Valley Care Centre, the site of Canada’s first COVID-19 outbreak in long-term care; 20 residents died. For the past 15 years, Hillside and three other local churches have delivered Christmas services at the facility – something that won’t be possible this year. “That part feels weird – that we can’t include them this season,” says Hillside’s pastor, Jeff Schuliger.

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He says the care home’s staff reached out to his church earlier this year, asking whether the congregation would be willing to send letters to Lynn Valley residents. Many Hillside members have been doing so since October. Now, the centre is asking for Christmas cards, too.

“I feel that this creativity has actually been good to help combat some of the loneliness and anxiety that most people are experiencing,” Mr. Schuliger says.

Some churches have actually seen an increase in attendance after stepping up their online presence. At St. John the Baptist in Mississauga, Rev. Brereton says his congregation has typically been about 200 people, but these days, his online services are getting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of views.

One of the reasons people are choosing to attend virtual services is that it’s so easy, Mr. Schantz says. “The barrier is so low. ‘I’m not willing to walk into your church building, but I’ll click this link.’”

Mr. Shantz usually preaches at four or five services at his church on Christmas Eve. He feels strange and mixed emotions as the holiday is around the corner.

“Part of me is sad, because it’s one of the beautiful traditions of the church,” he says.

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“But the other part of it is the church in history has faced even far greater obstacles than we are, and has thrived. So there’s something about getting to tap into our tradition that no challenge stops Jesus in the church, and we get to be a part of some of the creative opportunities that exist for us.”

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