Two new surveys find more than nine in 10 Americans celebrate the holiday — even if they're atheists, agnostics or believers in non-Christian faiths such as Judaism and Islam.
A closer look at Christmas activities reveals what may be the first measurement of an "alarming" gap between belief and behavior, says Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research organization.
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The surveys — by LifeWay and USA TODAY/Gallup — indicate that while most call this a holy day that is primarily religious, their actions say otherwise. Many skip church, omit Jesus and zero in on the egg nog.
LifeWay's survey of 2,110 adults found 74% called Christmas "primarily" religious. And a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,000 adults found 51% say, for them, it's "strongly religious," up from 40% in 1989.
But what does "religious" mean? Not so much for a significant number of Americans, the data indicate. Most surveyed said they will give gifts (89%), dine with family or friends (86%), put up a Christmas tree (80%) and play holiday music (79%).
The percentages plummet when it comes to religious activities:
•58% say they "encourage belief in Jesus Christ as savior."
•47% attend church Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
•34% watch "biblical Christmas movies."
•28% read or tell the Christmas story from the Bible.
"It's alarming to me that while nine in 10 celebrate Christmas, only six in 10 encourage any belief in the source of Christmas and only three in 10 actually read the story of Christmas," Stetzer says.
John Lindell — lead pastor of James River Assembly in Ozark, Mo., where 12,000 are likely to attend Christmas worship this week — is not as alarmed by the gap. Instead, he sees an open path to outreach.
"We believers put Christ in Christmas by how we care for others and give people chances to change their lives," he says. "It isn't what we do in December, it's what we do the other 11 months of the year that matters."