During the last five days before Christmas, at least 55,000 people were planning to attend the eight multi-media worship services at Willow Creek Community Church.
The leaders of this famous megachurch outside Chicago can be precise about this number because that is how many people had, at mid-week, visited WillowCreek.org and claimed seats in the 7,200-seat auditorium. A few solo seats remained.
"We don't sell the tickets, of course," said spokesperson Cally Parkinson. "Most people really like the E-Tickets. It's convenient to know that you'll have a seat and it helps us prepare for all of those people in the church and the parking lots."
These 75-minute Christmas services began on Tuesday night and continued through the popular Christmas Eve triple-feature at 12:30, 3 and 5:30 p.m. This is, as Parkinson likes to say, the Super Bowl for this "seeker friendly" congregation.
Any way you look at it, 55,000 people is a big Christmas. Willow Creek's leaders are used to that. They are not, however, used to handling a barrage of questions -- primarily from journalists -- about their decision not to hold a Christmas service on Christmas Sunday.
Many other big congregations decided to use the same strategy, which meant the "Churches Shut Doors on Christmas" headlines spread nationwide. The timing was perfect, in a year when the "Put Christ back in Christmas" debates were bigger and louder than ever in the public square.
"I think the whole Christmas wars story was being driven by TV talk shows and politics and we just turned into the next day's story," said Mark Ashton, who serves as "pastor of spiritual development" at Willow Creek. "Ironically, when all is said and done, this could turn into the biggest outreach event that we've ever done as a church."
Willow Creek has, as a rule, never held services on Christmas Day, he explained. The exception came in 1994, which was the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday. After hosting the usual throngs in the pre-Christmas services, hardly anyone -- which at Willow Creek means 1,000-plus people -- returned that Christmas Sunday. This is serious, since it takes 1,000-plus people to operate the children's ministries, youth groups, food services, bookstore operations and parking lots when the megachurch opens its doors on an ordinary Sunday.
Thus, Willow Creek's leaders decided to create a 12-minute DVD this year containing a story -- entitled "Emmanuel: God With Us" -- about a young woman in Chicago struggling to understand the meaning of Christmas. The church produced 25,000 of the DVDs for home use by families on Sunday.
"We don't think that we're skipping worship on that Christmas Sunday," said Ashton. "What we're doing is decentralizing it. ... We're hoping to end up with 20,000 mini-services in homes in the Chicago area and all across America."
The goal, for Willow Creek leaders, is finding a way to create the most "spiritual experiences" for the most people this Christmas, he said. It helps that most megachurches are not tied to the ancient traditions that steer other flocks.
In a statement released to critics, Willow Creek leaders explained that in their community, the "normal Christmas rhythm is to celebrate Christmas with a Christmas Eve church service, then spend Christmas Day with family and friends. Most nondenominational churches reflect this same pattern. Some liturgical churches, like the Episcopal or Catholic churches, are tied closely to a church calendar. They always celebrate Christmas Day as a high point on their calendar. So if they departed from this tradition, it would be a big change."
In other words, Willow Creek remained true to its own goals and its own philosophy as a church. Keeping the doors closed on Christmas Day was not a change in a worship tradition -- it was an expression of a modern reality.
"Our goal is to serve people in ways that make the most sense and have the most spiritual impact on their lives," said Ashton. "It's not just a matter of giving people what they want. It isn't just consumerism. We challenge the socks off people with the messages they hear while they're in our services. ...
"But we also notice how people vote with their feet. We notice when they want to attend services and when they do not. We take that into account."