Christmas mission helps church 'love thy neighbor'

By Jessica Brodie

SIMPSONVILLE—One church is taking the Great Commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself—quite literally this Christmas.

Advent United Methodist Church, Simpsonville, is challenging its congregation to cut their Christmas spending in half, then give the other half to Advent's Christmas Miracle Mission Offering, which directly benefits area neighbors in need.

One hundred percent of that offering will be used to build or remodel a home to be used as transitional housing for homeless families via the Greenville Area Interfaith Hospitality Network.

“In Matthew 25, Jesus said, ‘In that you have done it to the least of one of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.’ He's talking about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned,” said the Rev. Michael Turner, pastor of Advent. “Our task, as Church, is to share the love of Jesus with everyone, particularly the least, last and lost, those who are vulnerable. Homeless families are certainly vulnerable, and, in our case, GAIHN is the only ministry in the Greenville area that takes care of homeless families and allows them to stay together. Most other shelters are either for men, or women, but not both.”

Turner said the heart of the Christmas Miracle Mission involves getting away from so much "stuff" and from society’s tendency to treat Christ's birthday like it’s our birthday, which comes from wisdom he learned from the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio. Slaughter authored the book “Christmas is Not your Birthday," which Advent’s Sunday school classes and small groups are studying this season.

Turner wanted his church to be able to embrace the discipleship of the Great Commandment in a tangible and practical way, but without any extra financial strain on families. He and church leaders batted around thoughts and ultimately decided that by practicing a little more simplicity this Christmas, and by partnering more fully with one of the church’s existing cornerstone missions, GAIHN, they could do all of that and more.

“This made perfect sense. Plus, the very first Christmas, what we learn about in the Gospels is essentially a homeless family, searching for shelter, just before the birth of a son. It all fits together quite well,” Turner said.

Robert Lea, co-chair of the project with Barry Zachary, said he is really excited about the project, which he believes will transform the church as a whole, its members individually and the community at-large.

“It’s really truly a way for us to think of our neighbor as ourselves, that we need to keep our focus on Christ and being disciples of Christ and not just giving gifts,” Lea said.

Advent had already been partnering with GAIHN as a housing site, welcoming homeless families to stay at the church a week or two every quarter as a way to provide immediate, first-step housing to people in crisis. But Lea said building the transitional home will be a way Advent can help with step two, which is where homeless families will be able to stay for three to six months, as a stepping point on their way to a permanent home.

A faithful risk

It works like this: the congregation embraces what Turner calls “a slim Christmas,” cutting their spending in half. They track their halved spending and then, at the church’s Christmas Eve services, give that amount to the Christmas Miracle Offering.

Turner said it is a leap of faith for the church, however. Up until now, the offering from their six Christmas Eve services has gone to their operating budget, which last year was around $18,000. Also, 20 percent of their operating budget for the year comes during December.

“Whenever you have a special giving opportunity like this, the risk is always that folk will divert their regular giving to the operating budget to the special giving, essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul. If people do that this year with the Christmas Miracle Mission, it will really put us in a financial bind for 2014,” Turner said.

But he said church leaders are confident that this will be a second-mile offering, over and above normal giving, and will not affect giving to normal operations.

“I'm convinced that God will bless the riskiness of our endeavor to be faithful to Jesus by loving our neighbors as ourselves and that we will be astonished at the end that God has done something of great magnitude through us missionally while our regular operational giving increases as well,” Turner said.

Catching the vision

Lea said there is “a lot of buzz” in the congregation about the project from all ages, and the message has hit home. Many in the congregation have felt personally challenged by the project.

Gabe Johnson, present of Advent’s United Methodist Men group, said he thinks the project is a wonderful idea on several levels.

“I was challenged to say the least over the conversation about it originally, and then I’ve had a mentor of mine who has challenged me, along with people I know, to just give it away,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s knowledge or financial help or pieces of clothing, whether it is, just give it away. You can’t ever give it away fast enough. So for me to hear about this it was easier than maybe some others.”

Johnson and his wife appreciate what the project can do in their home, as well; they hope to instill the concepts of “paying it forward” and “giving it away” in their children, a 20-month-old and a 5-year-old boy, and Advent’s Christmas Miracle Mission is a good opportunity to start those conversations. Johnson also thinks it will be helpful to the business community, many of whom are always looking to contribute time, materials and labor to worthy local projects.

Ginny Hughes said that for her family, the project is a great way to explain scaling back on Christmas gifts. Her oldest child, Henry, 6, caught on right away and immediately called his grandparents to explain.

“We noticed last year for the first time that we were buying a little too much,” Hughes said. “We’d always been conscientious about not doing that, and I have myself to blame; we kind of went overboard, and once you do that it’s hard to explain why you can never do that again. So it was great timing for our family.”

Turner said some children in the congregation weren't crazy about the notion of getting fewer Christmas gifts at first.

“But I think most have come around,” the pastor said. “It's been neat to see several children really embrace it and ask their grandparents to spend less so that they can give. That's when you know that the true purpose behind the mission is getting through to people.”

Turner also said some who own building-oriented businesses have also been talking about donating electrical or heating and air for the house project.

“It's really gratifying to see folks catch the vision,” Turner said.

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