Christmas is a half-trillion dollar industry in the United States. Gifts, decorations, big meals, travel, cards, shipping. . . all this merriment comes with a hefty price tag, if we let it. In the church, our people may spend Sunday mornings in November and December thinking about the “reason for the season,” but Monday through Saturday, you can bet most of their seasonal attention is on earning, spending, and planning how to spend money.
How can we as church leaders help people resist the consumerism, materialism, and debt-slavery that threatens their spiritual and physical well-being this Christmas? By being a moral compass, offering creative options for gift-giving, and providing practical guidance for handling money as people whose real treasure is elsewhere.
The church talks about Jesus. That’s kind of the point. But at Christmas, more than any other time of the year, cultural values clash with spiritual values and make it harder than ever to live like Jesus. So we have to be proactive in our expression of what Christmas is all about.
“Preachers have been silent too long on the issues of consumer culture's grip, its resulting debt, its idolatry, and its misuse of resources,” says Marti Zimmerman, a pastor in Salt Lake City.
From the pulpit, in Sunday school classes and small groups, and in all other activities of the church, keep the focus on Jesus and the purpose of his coming to earth. Movements like Christmas is Not Your Birthday and the Advent Conspiracy seek to reclaim the weeks leading up to Christmas from those who would dub it “the shopping season,” and call us to direct our resources toward the “least of these” in the world.
“This goes way beyond putting a pair of mittens on the mitten tree in the church lobby, or buying some ten dollar toy for a child,” says Mike Slaughter, author of the book Christmas is Not Your Birthday. “We need to learn not just to make donations but to give sacrificially.”
The church can provide ample opportunities to give to others—more sacrificially than just the “mitten tree”—collecting and distributing clothes, toys, and food as many do, but also cultivating a spirit of generosity that extends beyond money and material giving. The church can provide opportunities to serve others, giving our time and energy as well as our finances.
Chris Hogan, Director of Financial Coaching and Counseling for The Dave Ramsey Group, urges churches to be holistic in their calls for stewardship at Christmas and year-round, so that people don’t feel pressured to give money they don’t have.
“People should know what they can afford to give,” Hogan says. “Emphasize the value of giving your time as well.”
Creative Options for Gift Giving
We can encourage alternatives to spending a lot of money on gift exchanges with family and friends as well. Homemade gifts, meals, heartfelt letters, and even babysitting can be blessings worth far more than money can buy. Offer a craft night where people can make gifts, or distribute a list of low- or no-cost gift ideas (Pinterest has plenty!)
Since much of the pressure to overspend comes from children and their never-ending wish lists, we can help parents instill values of simplicity and gratitude in children as well.
“Kids don’t often understand what things cost or how much you can afford,” says Hogan. “Communicate with them what you can afford to spend. Teach them it’s not about stuff.”
Frameworks for gift-giving can help parents control spending and manage kids’ expectations. Two popular ideas among Christian mom bloggers include: “Want/Need/Wear/Read,” in which kids get just four gifts, falling into these mostly-practical categories; and the simple concept of “three gifts because that’s how many Jesus got.”
Alternative gift giving is another way the church can facilitate creative options for giving both to our family and friends and to those in need—all in the same gift! People can buy a flock of geese for $20 through Heifer International, a beehive and beekeeper training for $60 through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, or a $100 microloan for a woman in a third world country through World Vision. Most people know they don’t need more stuff and will appreciate that you gave money in their honor to people who have real needs—not for geese or bees but for the economic opportunity those gifts provide.
Zimmerman creates and distributes a wallet-sized card to her congregation in November with five questions designed to help people make more responsible decisions as they are doing their Christmas shopping, including “Can you afford it?” and “Where will this product end up [when the recipient no longer wants or needs it]?”
Practical tools like this can help people be more conscious of their spending and view the gifts they purchase in a long-term context, both personally and globally. Such awareness is key to responsible spending, Hogan says. “Look at what you can afford to spend. Know what money you have to live on, how much extra there is.”
“Anyone who doesn’t have a plan for their money will be bound to trip up,” says Hogan.
For example, be prepared to resist the offer of saving 10% at the register if you open a credit card with the store, he advises. Use cash so you know how much you have to spend, especially on days like Black Friday, so “deals” don’t lead you to spend more overall.
Christmas may present a particular challenge, but financial responsibility is a year-round process in which the church can play a part with educational and spiritual formation opportunities. Classes like Financial Peace University help people get out of debt and manage their resources wisely, and annual stewardship programs can help people view their finances through the lens of faith, giving to God what is God’s and living more simply and generously as followers of Christ.
Financial decisions are personal for each individual and family in your congregation, but with money being a frequent topic in scripture and a common idol in our society, the church has a duty to speak up and offer ideas and education to help people use their money wisely.