UMCs across the state get creative in driving a sacred, meaningful Advent
By Jessica Connor
For many families, Christmastime spells one big dollar sign.
Ravaged with debt and overspending, they hit the malls determined to find the perfect gift for their loved one. Store after store, dollar after dollar, they are swept up in the tide of commercialism. And many times, they forget about the reason for the season: the birth of our savior.
But in the last few years, many churches have gotten creative in an effort to stem that tide and bring more sacred meaning to the hustle and bustle that has become Advent.
Much of this is driven by the launch of the Advent Conspiracy, an international grassroots movement started in 2006 that tries to restore the true meaning of Christmas by substituting compassion for consumption. The Advent Conspiracy encourages people to worship fully, spend less, give more and love all instead of catapulting into a frenzy of stress and shopping lists.
Churches not directly involved with the Advent Conspiracy often embrace their own version of the movement – a Christ-centered, “Jesus is the reason” focus.
And it’s catching on, particularly in the United Methodist Church, where Christ-like living is a cornerstone of many people’s faith. In South Carolina, some UMCs push truly alternative giving, where members are encouraged to move beyond expensive retail presents and instead engage in Christ-inspired Christmas giving, such as feeding a needy family or sponsoring a child.
Other churches encourage Christmas giving projects alongside regular present-giving.
Their reasons vary, but Christ is at the core of all.
Christ, not consumerism
The Rev. Bob Allen, of Main Street and Pine Grove UMCs in McColl, said America has evolved into an overly extravagant society.
“Anything we give others seems never to be enough,” Allen said. “Our children and adults, for the most part, have more now, or will just go out and purchase what they want.”
For this reason, he is encouraging members at both of his churches to modify their spending – not necessarily to spend less but to spend what matters in living the Christian faith. Church members are urged give to Epworth Children’s Home or another United Methodist need in honor of a family member who would receive a gift. This will encourage them to give to something that really does matter and makes a difference in the lives of many.
The Rev. Michael Wolfe, Advent UMC, Simpsonville, thinks alternative Christmas programs help push back against our consumer-driven culture and say that the good life is not about buying more things.
“To spend less and give more is simply a call from God to help those in need, to love our neighbor as ourselves,” Wolfe said.
His church is running a three-week adult study called “Rethink Christmas,” which will discuss with people how they can worship more, spend less and give freely. Out of this study, people will be challenged in how they look at the Christmas season.
Glorifying God through giving
The Rev. Smoke Kanipe, Mauldin UMC, in the Greenville District, said Christmas is a time to honor the ultimate gift: salvation. Mauldin does a lot with Samaritan’s Purse and Project Angel Tree during the holidays.
“We will probably never do enough to swim against the tide of consumerism in our society, but projects like Samaritan’s Purse and Project Angel Tree at least remind us that this is really a time of giving out of appreciation for God’s great gift of Jesus,” Kanipe said.
He thinks the key opportunity with Project Angel Tree is asking people to deliver the gifts, which he said puts a face on things.
“It’s too easy for most of us just to give anonymously. While that’s a good thing, it doesn’t change us the way encountering another human being does. When we realize that this person we’re helping is a beloved child of God – or even more to the point, Jesus himself, as he says in Matthew 25 – it melts our heart and changes us. That’s when we begin to move beyond charity and into the heart of the Gospel.”
St. Andrew By-The-Sea, Hilton Head, begins its inaugural alternative gift program this Christmas as a way to honor the basic Christian need to give. The church asks parishioners to select a charity from a select list – from the United Methodist Committee on Relief to The Haley Borton Fund for families with high medical expenses because of ill children, and more – and members can designate that the gift has been made in honor or memory of someone. St. Andrew By-The-Sea then sends a gift card letting that person know the gift has been made in his or her honor.
The church will continue this program year-round, but it hopes the Christmas season will especially inspire giving.
“It’s in our nature as believers to return love as a response to God giving to us in Christ,” said the Rev. Neil Yongue. “This program serves a reminder that there are appropriate ways to give that contrasts with the massive overspending of the holiday season. A gift that honors an individual and loves someone else is special.”
The Rev. Julie Songer Belman, Shandon UMC, Columbia, said her church encourages alternative Christmas giving because it is a way for Christians to be good stewards of not only their finances, but also their spiritual gifts. This keeps the focus on the real gift of Christmas – God sending His son to earth to live among us and be one with us.
“By giving not only your money, but also your time together as a family to serve a meal to the hungry, or to shop together for supplies for a Habitat house or a needy family, I certainly hope we are helping families to connect, and to talk together as a family about why they are doing this and how it can make a difference in the lives of people around the world,” Belman said. “We celebrate the gifts of love, hope, joy and peace – not just as candles on a wreath, but as real parts of our day-to-day living as Christians. I believe if we focus the season on those wonderful gifts from God, we aren’t as likely to get caught up in the material, cultural, shop-til-you-drop frenzy.”
Shandon promotes many alternative giving options at Christmastime (see sidebar box on this page), and Belman said the church encourages members to modify gift spending in order to engage in these opportunities.
“We remind folks that one of the greatest gifts they have during the holidays is not only the gift of their time, but the gift of a smile and conversation with Columbia’s ‘least of these,’” Belman said.
The Rev. Todd Davis, Bethel UMC in Forest Acres, said Christ’s saying is true: It is more blessed to give than to receive.
“Doing simple acts of kindness toward others often blesses us even more than the one receiving the act of kindness,” Davis said. “Blessing others doesn’t have to cost a dime, either. Simply lend an ear, offer a hug or rake someone’s yard who can’t.”
Davis encourages his church to participate in Love Straws, which invites the congregation to do as many secret acts of kindness toward others as they can. Then each time they come into the sanctuary for worship, they are invited to place a straw of hay into a manger for each act of kindness they have done during the previous wee
k. The project culminates Christmas Eve with a manger overflowing with “love straws” for the Christ child.
Helping ‘the least of these’
The Rev. Al Shifflett, Shiloh UMC, Marion, thinks it is important that Christians help those less fortunate, at Christmastime and throughout the year.
His congregation has adopted a school – the principal of Marion Easterling Primary School provides a list of names of some needy children for an “angel list,” and church members fill those orders as best as possible and take boxes of gifts to the school, where parents pick up the gifts for Christmas.
“It seems a matter of Christian duty to listen to the words of Jesus (in Mark 10, for example), apropos decisions we make in our lives and with our money,” Shifflett said. “Part of that decision-making is helping others in need.”
Associate Pastor Joel McMakin, Union UMC, Irmo, started “Christmas Miracle Offering” at his church – a faith-based initiative to provide money and other resources for the Haiti Children’s Project (founded by Union member Wade McGuinn) and for an at-risk elementary school in downtown Columbia. The idea is to cut the congregation’s normal Christmas gift spending in half and give the other half to the miracle offering to help those who need it a lot more than they do. Last year, the church collected $52,000 through the offering. Organizers called it “a gratifying experience for all involved” and hope this year’s offering will be even stronger.
The reason for the season
And it doesn’t matter how big or how small the church is – the idea is that people embrace the true meaning of Christmas during Advent.
The tiny St. Luke UMC, Columbia, which draws about 13 people each Sunday, tries hard to help those less fortunate than they, said Cindy Leitner, church worship and administrative council leader.
St. Luke provides baskets and poinsettias to shut-ins, makes Christmas bags of toiletries for 25 homeless men at the Oliver Gospel Mission, participates in the Salvation Army and the Angel Tree project, buys gifts for residents of Epworth Children’s Home and more.
Grace UMC, North Augusta, tries to spread the love of Christ through their Christmas projects. Grace participates in Operation Christmas Child, which provides shoeboxes filled with goodies for children around the world, and Angel Tree, which provides gifts for children with a parent in prison.
Linda Reynolds, Grace member, said sharing and giving to others, who they will never see or know, is consistent with Jesus’ teaching. They hope to double the number of shoeboxes they create this year.
“As we say at Grace, we want to know Christ and make His love known,” Reynolds said. “That is our only objective.”