Churches Get Creative for a Different Kind of Christmas


The Zant Family with Haygood UMC's newly painted vintage camper, one of the centerpieces of the church's Advent and Christmas outreach.

By Rebecca Wallace

Pastors and church leaders all over the world had no idea at the start of this year how capable they would need to become in the world of video production as the weeks and months of the pandemic continued. In the North Georgia Conference, we’ve seen churches conduct services, concerts, and most recently, even Christmas plays virtually, using technology and creativity to keep worship and fellowship alive.
Simpsonwood UMC in Peachtree Corners took this capability a bit further in order to preserve a more than quarter-century tradition. When they realized months ago it would not be safe to hold their annual "Walk Through Bethlehem" on the church grounds, they decided to produce one with video. But rather than simply doing a virtual montage of pictures as they initially conceived, they enlisted the help of an acclaimed movie producer and created a 10-minute movie instead.
“It’s a dramatic adaptation with intrigue, and I think it’s worshipful and beautiful,” said Simpsonwood UMC’s Rev. John Purrington.
In the whole of the production, nearly 70 people were involved, with staffers and members in the movie and behind the scenes. As much as the members will miss their annual tradition that typically draws more than 3,000 attendees, leadership has come to realize that this year perhaps their gift to the community can be received by even more people.
Simpsonwood UMC plans on airing the “Walk Through Bethlehem” movie during its virtual Christmas Eve 5 pm service and will make it available to any other church that wants to show it during that time (and after) as well. (Email for more on how to access the file!)
Haygood UMC in Atlanta decided to bring out an old camper that was primarily used for storage and decorate it for Christmas. It became such an admired feature that this year, they purchased and renovated a second camper. Since indoor gatherings still are not recommended in Atlanta, the new-to-them vintage camper quickly became a center for fellowship, serving as a sort of hospitality suite with volunteers serving hot chocolate and other refreshments.
As Haygood UMC’s Rev. Will Zant explained, a campfire signals community and warmth, and the people have responded. Seeing how members and neighbors safely gathered during the church’s annual tree sale, the church then incorporated the campsite into Santa visits and weekly Christmas Story readings.
“We knew people would come for the tree lighting,” he said. “With the camper and a campfire, we created a safe environment for people to stay and be in community, live and in person.”
A four-acre athletic field allows the members of Wesley UMC in Augusta plenty of room for gatherings that are also safe. So it wasn’t a stretch to consider moving the church’s annual candlelight Christmas Eve service outside. But the real creativity that will make it a different kind of Christmas for them is that the leadership has done everything they can to replicate how the service would normally look. The orchestra will perform outside, and congregants will have individual communion packets. The service will be held among lit Christmas trees constructed out of old power poles and lots of other decorations and lighting normally reserved for inside.
“We’re bringing it all outside, but while we are adapting to be safe, we have realized that we are making our service even more powerful,” explained Wesley UMC’s Rev. Greg Porterfield. “This has been a challenging year, but we’re not going to let it be the thing our people remember. We want our church family to remember this service; that they raised their light up to God.”

Rebecca Wallace is a communications consultant (and United Methodist) in Atlanta. Rebecca's church turned its annual "Christmas Tour of Homes" community event into a virtual "Tour of Joy!" Just one more example of creativity in this season!

The beautiful light tree at Wesley UMC.