Last week my wife and I got all of our Christmas shopping done -- in one day. This blitzkrieg approach has become a tradition for us. It's like pulling a tooth; better to have the whole thing out at once. In the evening we treated ourselves to a victory dinner at a restaurant. While savoring my accomplishment and my meal, I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on the television above the bar. Ah, Christmas in America -- spend all day battling the crowds at the mall and have The Gospel of Luke recited to you by a cartoon character at night.
Many have lamented the way our culture has "taken Christ out of Christmas," and in recent years we've heard conservative pundits freak out when retailers wish customers a "Happy Holiday" rather than "Merry Christmas." But even for those of us in the church, aware of the season's spiritual significance, and determined to celebrate the advent of the Messiah, this month still poses many challenges. Let's face it, focusing on God in our society is always difficult and the added stress of the holidays only makes things harder.
Five years ago we decided to shift the way our church engaged Advent. We came to see that December posed unique challenges for our people and if these obstacles were left unchecked they would significantly interrupt our mission to grow into the image of Christ. For this reason our church took some intentional steps to help people commune with God at Christmas in a counter-cultural way.
The first obstacle we identified was busyness. Ask anyone in my church, on any day, what keeps them from communing with God and chances are they'll say busyness. But during December it really gets out of control. Beyond ordinary obligations, schedules also fill up with numerous parties, school holiday programs, shopping excursions, vacations and family gatherings with Cousin Eddie. During a season when we are supposed to slow down and commune deeply with Christ and family we can hardly find time to breathe.
We decided the church should combat this tendency rather than contribute to it. So, instead of adding programs and activities during December we actually reduced them. For example, we stayed away from large Christmas productions for children or adults. These events, while beautiful and worshipful, often take weeks of preparation that fill up the calendar with practices which separate families. We also suspended most adult and children's classes on Sunday so families can worship together, and we provide at-home Advent family guides and encouraged heads of households to gather their clan weekly.
In addition, beginning in late October, we started encouraging everyone to complete their Christmas shopping before December 1. This frees up time during Advent to connect with others, and hours that would otherwise be spent at the mall can now be used to serve someone in the name of Christ. It seems so simple, but I can't tell you how many people have been blessed by this suggestion.
The second obstacle we identified was materialism. You know consumption is a problem in society when the first day of the Christmas shopping season is known as "Black Friday." It is so called because it's the day most retailers discover if they will make a profit for the year (be in the black). Our entire economy hinges on whether or not people celebrate Christmas by purchasing ChiaPets and little dancing Santas. But all of the focus on "stuff" distracts us from focusing on Christ and others.
To address this obstacle we encouraged our community to reduce their shopping expenses and match whatever they spent by giving to a compassion or missions project. Last year we highlighted two projects in particular. The first was a partnership with our missionaries in Cambodia working with AIDS patients. The other was a ministry helping families in downtown Chicago that we've been connected with for years. There are other projects available, and a number involve more than giving money. Many of our church groups, for example, take time to engage a local service project together and children are encouraged to participate as well.
To be honest, not everyone has appreciated this approach. Some came to our church with expectations of an elaborate Christmas pageant, and others didn't want to be challenged every week to shop earlier and spend less. But our desire was simple -- to release time for communion with God and service to others, and to refocus our attention away from the kitsch and onto Christ.