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Local churches welcome, even 'celebrate' the 'Christmas-and-Easter Christians'

MILLCREEK — In the sanctuary of Christ United Methodist Church, 15 teenagers are making a beautiful noise.

The Wesley Bell Ringers rehearse at least three hours a week, perfecting the arrangements they will play in their upcoming concert season, which culminates with the church's 11 p.m. service on Christmas Eve.

Rev. Jean Schwien, Christ United's senior pastor, expects a packed house at most of the church's five Christmas Eve services. Combined, the services draw 1,300 to 1,500 people each year, with attendees a mix of church members, neighbors, kin of people in musical groups performing at the services and so-called "Christmas-and-Easter Christians."

For some Christmas-and-Easter Christians, attending church on Christianity's highest holy days is tradition. Others go to services out a sense of guilt or at the request of a loved one, often their mother or grandmother. Still others are struggling and seeking connection and community.

Whatever the reason, all are welcome, the Rev. Schwien said.

"It's no surprise that people want to come to the big highlights of the year because that’s when we really do it up right. We do a really good job and it's beautiful and it's inspiring. Maybe what we should be asking ourselves is what we're not doing the rest the time that doesn't necessarily draw people in," she said.

When the pews fill up on Christmas or Easter at Salt Lake's First Baptist Church, regular churchgoers often tell the Rev. Curtis Price, "Wow. Wouldn't it be great if this place looked like this every Sunday?"

Most of the clergy interviewed for this article said church attendance at least doubles during the holidays.

"More than anything we get quite excited when the place is full on Christmas or Easter. We really feel it's an opportunity to touch people's hearts. We get pretty excited if people come and participate — even if we never see them again," the Rev. Price said.

It's a reality mainline churches face every day, the Rev. Price said.

According to the PewResearch Center, 22 percent of Americans attend religious services no more than a few times a year, but say there was once a time in their lives when they attended more often.

"Church is a very different thing these days than it's ever been in the past. People are very commitment averse. People find community in a lot of places they never used to before. A lot of things are 'church-like' in their sense of belonging or sense of community," the Rev. Price said.

While regular attendees welcome newcomers, some express concern that people who attend church on holidays or episodically "are missing out on the heart of what church can be in people's lives in a connective community that focuses on faith and transcends differences," he said.

Why people attend church only on holidays or only occasionally is deeply personal.

The Rev. Mike Imperiale of Salt Lake's First Presbyterian Church said he tells people the church's door are always open to them.

"You just never know when someone who has been a very sporadic churchgoer comes in Christmas and/or Easter because it is a holiday. There may be something else going on in their lives that says, 'I really need to reconnect somehow,' whether there's been a divorce, or death in the family, loss of a job or a physical illness they're experiencing," said the Rev. Imperiale said.

So clergy and key members of the church work to make people feel welcome and invite them to come back.

The Rev. Steve Klemz of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Salt Lake City said he "celebrates" the occasional visitor because some of his most meaningful ministry "happens at the margins."

The congregation may number 350, but there are more like 900 people "who claim me as their pastor," he said. Those interactions occur at critical junctures in people's lives, such as a hospitalization, loss of a loved one or a marriage.

A young woman who asked the Rev. Klemz to perform her wedding felt a connection to him after he officiated the memorial service of her brother, who died of an overdose.

"I told her, 'I really consider it an honor, and I appreciate the fact you could have called other pastors.' She said, 'Oh, no. You're the only pastor I know,'" the Rev. Klemz recalled.

There's often a balancing act between extending welcome and taking care of the needs of regular churchgoers who teach Sunday School, serve on the altar guild, as ushers, as acolytes, musicians, etc. They are also the people who support the church and its staff financially through their offerings, which the Rev. Klemz appreciates immensely, he said.

"They also do that so I can be their presence at the margins with other people and in conversation in the community," he said.

The Rev. Schwien said literally thousands of people use the Millcreek church each year for a wide variety of purposes, some that are secular in nature, such as community council meetings, soccer practice, even Polish language classes. So it's not too surprising that they feel comfortable attending an occasional church service there, she said.

"Honestly, most of the people that come on a holiday have some kind of connection to the church, whether it’s just because they’re a fan of the (Wesley) bells, or it’s somebody’s second cousin’s church, or they came to a wedding here. There usually is something that has gotten them through the door before they just walk in cold for Christmas Eve.

"That’s something I try to remind our folks of, too. Every time somebody’s in our building that could be the opening that brings them to a faith that changes their life," she said.

The Rev. Imperiale said Avenues residents likewise feel at home in the stately red sandstone church at the corner of South Temple and C Street.

On occasion he'll run into someone who tells him, 'We've come to your Christmas Eve service every time for the past 12 years or something.'

"I"ll say something like, 'You know, we're open every Sunday.' It's a little jab, but it's meant to be light-hearted.

"Then I say to people, 'Come whenever you can.'"