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The winter is a busy time for Protestant churches, since they mark the Christmas season with special concerts, kids’ programs and community service events.

But when Christmas Day actually arrives, these same houses of worship can feel like ghost towns, according to a new survey from Lifeway Research.

“Few see their largest crowds on Christmas Day,” researchers reported, noting that just 7% of U.S. Protestant pastors said they see the highest holiday season attendance on Dec. 25.

Churches’ busiest service typically comes one day earlier on Christmas Eve, Lifeway Research found. That’s when families often make it a priority to come together at worship.

“Family and church traditions are most likely to coincide for Christmas Eve services,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, in a press release.

Just under half of Protestant pastors in the U.S. (48%) said they see the highest holiday season attendance on Christmas Eve.

“Few U.S. Protestant pastors point to an event the first week of December or earlier (6%) or a service during the second week (10%) as their most well-attended. Around a quarter (26%) say an event during the third week of the month is top,” the survey showed.

Lifeway Research did not ask pastors about how attendance numbers have shifted in recent years, as involvement in religious communities has become less common. But earlier surveys have shown that around half of Americans continue to integrate religious services into their holiday plans.

“Fifty-five percent of U.S. adults say they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, including 46% who see it as more of a religious holiday than a cultural holiday and 9% who celebrate Christmas as both a religious and a cultural occasion,” Pew Research Center reported in 2017.

Despite Americans’ enduring interest in attending church at some point during the Christmas season, it’s still not the busiest time of year for pastors, according to Lifeway Research data from 2012. That earlier survey showed Easter is actually the highest attendance time of year.

Fresh off the press

Will the Supreme Court rule for a web designer who won’t make sites for same-sex weddings?

The Supreme Court is hearing a case on LGBTQ rights and religion (again). Here’s what you need to know

How faith leaders reacted to Senate passage of same-sex marriage protections

I appeared on the latest edition of the “Faith Angle” podcast to interview the Rev. Russell Levenson about his new book on the religious lives of George H.W. and Barbara Bush.

Term of the week: Master of divinity

A master of divinity degree is a graduate degree that’s traditionally sought by students seeking to be ordained and become full-time ministers. The program typically takes three years to complete.

The latest data from The Association of Theological Schools shows that interest in these divinity degrees is steadily declining, according to Religion News Service.

“The projected enrollment for fall 2022 is 28,000 master of divinity students, a 4% decrease from fall 2021 and 9% decline since fall 2018,” the article said.

What I’m reading ...

The Senate’s vote last week on the Respect for Marriage Act led researcher Dan Cox to revisit public opinion data on same-sex marriage. In his American Storylines newsletter, he explained a key way in which the numbers have shifted in the past two decades: “At one time, the division over same-sex marriage was largely one between religious and nonreligious Americans, but today the gap is between the most active religious Americans and everyone else.” A recent poll found that just 40% of Americans who attend church at least once per week favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, compared to 71% of U.S. adults overall.

The Rev. Elizabeth Felicetti, an Episcopal priest in Richmond, Virginia, is in the midst of a unique project: She’s helping a man imprisoned for arson and second-degree murder become a priest. The Rev. Felicetti wrote about the experience for The Christian Century.

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Last week, Pew Research Center released its latest look at global restrictions on religious practice, which focuses on what happened around the world in 2020. The report shows that around one-quarter of countries used force to prevent faith groups from meeting in-person during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and also that faith groups in around one-third of countries openly defied gathering rules.

Odds and ends

Since writing about a new Christmas album put together by three offensive linemen for the Philadelphia Eagles, I can’t stop listening to their take on “White Christmas.” Please listen!

Here’s a list that’s perfect for people like me, who love religion and sports: 5 new books on Christianity and sports.

And finally, here’s a special gift guide for my Utah readers: 11 Utah-themed gifts to get your out-of-state relatives.

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