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Arkansas churches prepare for socially distanced Christmas Eve services



Arkansas – Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this Christmas is sure to be like no other. Arkansas churches are having to get creative in order to hold their annual Christmas Eve services, but it hasn’t stopped them from thinking outside the box. Although this year will be different, church leaders agree the reason for the season hasn’t changed.

Pleasant Valley Church of Christ off of Rodney Parham in Little Rock typically hosts their annual candlelight Christmas Eve service in their church building.

Since it isn’t safe to gather inside, the church is inviting Arkansans to join them for an outdoor, socially distanced candlelight worship service at War Memorial Stadium on Christmas Eve. They partnered with the Arkansas Department of Health and Little Rock Parks and Recreation to make sure central Arkansans still get to enjoy a safe alternative to a regular candlelight service. They submitted their plan to the ADH back in August, and can safely hold up to 18,000 people at War Memorial.

“It would have been very easy to just say, you know what, ‘it’s too risky, let’s just cancel, let’s move on,’ but we love this city,” Involvement Minister Stuart Cash said. “We thought that it was important that we continue with the Christmas Eve service to remind everybody that there is hope and that this season that we’re in will soon pass and you know, we can move on from that.”

Masks and social distancing will be required. Gates open at 4 p.m. Cash said they’ll have a live nativity scene, hot chocolate, cookies, a photo booth, and other family fun activities.

The first 150 guests to arrive will receive a free fleece blanket. The service will start at 5 p.m. and will feature worship music and a message from preacher Jonathen Storment. Cash said all are welcome to attend.

“This is a great reminder each year that Jesus Christ loves you very much, and he died for everybody.”

Cash knows 2020 has been a difficult year for many but said there is hope to be found in Jesus.

“During the year when there was poverty, there was oppression, there was genocide, God chose during that time to, to come into this world as a human, he chose that year, there was a lot of mess going on, but I think it relates very much to what we’re going through in 2020,” Cash said.

He said a lot of people may find themselves searching for truth and purpose, and said anyone who needs a message of hope is welcome to come just as they are.

“Listen, we don’t care what your past looks like, what you’re currently struggling with, what’s your temptations are because truth is, we’re all in those same situations, we all have temptations, we all struggle.”

For those who cannot make the Christmas Eve service, PVCC hosts two services on Sunday mornings at their church at 8:15 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Masks and social distancing are required, but those who aren’t comfortable with in-person services can also join them online.

“Once you’re ready to attend, you will be welcomed with open arms, no questions asked, come home,” Cash said.

Over at North Little Rock First United Methodist, Pastor Lynn Kilbourne said they typically have three Christmas Eve services: a smaller, more intimate service in the chapel at 2 p.m., a contemporary service at 5 p.m., and a traditional service at 7 p.m. in their sanctuary. This year, they’ll still offer three services, but none will take place in their building.

“Two of those will be drive-in worship services in our parking lot, where participants will be encouraged to participate in the service from their cars and able to tune in on an FM radio station,” Kilbourne said. “We will be offering an online service at seven o’clock on our Facebook Live on our Facebook page for Facebook Live, and then offering that service on YouTube afterward.”

In order to make the service as traditional as possible, Associate Pastor Annie Lankford worked to prepare worship bags complete with liturgy, bulletin, candles, and communion. Lankford said it’s a way people in both drive-in services and those who choose to worship online can have the items with minimal contact.

“It’s all there together and has been blessed, so it is it’s wonderful for people who are alone, as well as those who may have a few people there with them,” Pastor Lankford said.

The pastoral care committee is delivering backs to those who are homebound, and anyone attending via Facebook live or for the drive-in service can pick up their bag outside the church at their convenience.

“You’ll be able to have the carols as you either sing the lyrics at home or tune in on Facebook Live, but also to have a communion and a candle for the candlelit singing of Silent Night,” Pastor Kilbourne said.

While much has changed amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pastor Kilbourne and Pastor Lankford agree, the reason for the season is the same.

“God saw the suffering and the brokenness of the world, and in order to heal the world, in order to bring hope to the world, in order to bring salvation and forgiveness of sins, God became one of us in Jesus Christ,” Kilbourne said. “We celebrate that on Christmas, that in the midst of the brokenness, in the hurting, Jesus is born anew in our world, in our hearts, and in our lives.”

Pastor Kilbourne said Christmas eve serves as a reminder that God’s love began in the manger over 2,000 years ago. While 2020 has been a difficult year, Pastor Lankford said she likes to remind herself and others that the birth of Jesus is a promise fulfilled by God.

“We were all broken, the world is broken,” Lankford said. “We’re not perfect, but in God’s eyes, we are, and he sent, he sent the Christ child to remind us of that.”

After the year we’ve had, Pastor Kilbourne said many have questioned where God is amid these tough times, but there is hope to be found.

“The word of hope at Christmas is that God is in the manger, is that God is born into our world, that God has not left us alone in our suffering and in our pain, but that God sees our pain, and God wants to join us in our pain to bring us through pain,” Pastor Kilbourne said.

Those unable to make the Christmas Eve service are welcome to join NLRFUMC online on Sundays, and should look out for more drive-in worship services in the future.

The Catholic Diocese of Little Rock will also host Christmas Eve mass.