For the Western secular world, the Christmas season starts right after the Thanksgiving Day meal and ends on Christmas Day. Then we set our sights on the New Year.
But that’s not how the Christian calendar works.
For starters, there’s Advent, a puzzle to many, even those of us who grew up going to church. I think I first realized that Advent even existed sometime during my middle school years. (I grew up in a fairly middle of the road United Methodist congregation.) I didn’t quite get it at the time. In my mind, Advent was a preview before the coming main attraction of Christmas. My church sang Christmas carols and hymns the entire month of December. The whole season was festive and for all practical purposes, it was the religious version of the holiday season going on outside the church walls... a blurry “Chrisvent” if you will.
It’s like that in many congregations.
To remedy that, some liturgical purists have insisted on a rigid separation of seasons. To some extent, they have a point. It’s not Christmas until the Christmas Eve service, they tell us. Advent should be darker, a little more somber. Some Christians have even made Advent a season of fasting, preparation, and introspection. Basically Lent-Lite—or “Lentvent”.
No wonder so many people don’t show up at church until Christmas Eve.
Outside the church, aside from a few novelty Advent calendars, most people just aren’t exposed to Advent. If they are, it doesn’t go much deeper than a “countdown to Christmas”. So with that in mind, let’s consider this question. How can a church simultaneously (1) take advantage of the window of opportunity the month of December offers the church for reaching new people, and (2) avoid rushing the Christmas season itself?
We seasoned churchgoers know that Advent is the beginning of the church year. But that’s only partly true. It’s also the end of the church year. We begin Advent looking to the future and end Advent looking to the past in a strange futuristic kind of way. That’s why during Advent most of us read scriptures looking forward to both the first and second comings of Christ. You see, a church year really has no more of a defined beginning or end than eternity itself has a beginning or end. We like to think it does only because it makes it easier for us to plan! The Christian faith has always been about the past, present, and future! The cool thing about Advent is that it can happen on all three levels.
Here are some ideas for using this season of expectation as a window of opportunity for engaging everyday humanity with the person of Jesus Christ. You may already be doing some of these things for the flock, but hopefully this will help you see the potential of using some of these activities for evangelism.
Do a seasonal Advent Bible study.
I’m not talking about simply doing a predictable Christmas countdown study for the hard-core faithful like you did last year. Find a study that combines both the first and second advents of Christ, and make it a churchwide thing. (A good lectionary-based study should do this.) But be prepared to take it up a notch. Curriculum writers can be a fairly safe, humdrum bunch. Bring the mystery back into Advent. Look back on the first coming, but look ahead to the second. You can only commemorate the expectation of the first coming— you can’t authentically recreate the emotion and excitement that was there. But Christ’s showing up in the present and ultimately returning in triumph in the future brings a sense of the unknown into our faith. Capitalize on that! People love mystery. Do this study in both classroom and small group settings. Make it invitation-friendly. If you use it for existing small groups, don’t advertise the study as “our established group will be doing this”. Market it like you would a new study! People need an on-ramp to help them join an existing group. For best results, avoid the terms “Advent” or “study” in your marketing campaign.
Preach a sermon series about the end times.
And frame it in such a way that you can transition to the Christmas story after four weeks. Focus on hope, expectation, freedom from bondage, anticipation and mystery as opposed to the gloom, doom, and judgment normally associated with end times series. Advertise the heck out of your series and encourage people to invite their friends and neighbors. Many churches won’t really touch eschatology this time of year (beyond the obligatory Lectionary readings) so this is an opportunity to do something different and make an impact with a broader audience. Many people are fascinated with prophecy and end times, so Advent is a good opportunity to grab their attention. If possible, coordinate your series with an Advent Bible study.
A week or two before Thanksgiving, pass out free Advent calendars in your community, and use them as an opportunity to visit door to door.
Include some literature about your church and several upcoming events, and be prepared to invite your neighbors to a “non-churchy” event. But unless you feel the direct leading of the Holy Spirit, avoid the temptation at this time to proselytize or to initiate theological discussions beyond the subject of Advent and Christmas or and how to use an Advent calendar. If your budget allows, pass out calendars that come with chocolate. Almost everyone likes chocolate. Confections carry a disarming quality.
Create a church-wide calendar of outreach events for each day during Advent.
Do direct mailings and visit house to house to get the word out. This will require some creativity, and depending on the size of your church, you may not have the resources to do something each day. If so, plan at least one major activity for each of the four weeks of the season. (This year, Advent is actually closer to three full weeks.) Get different groups within your church to take ownership of the different activities so people don’t experience burnout. The point here is to get your entire congregation into the outreach mindset rather than the “inwardly-focused” mode some churches tend to slide into during the holiday season. You can take almost any outreach idea from any part of the year (except for maybe a pool party) and adapt it for the Advent season. Cookouts (weather permitting), potlucks, carnivals, movie-nights, food drives, toy drives, bake sales, parties, seasonal VBS-type events, etc. are all fair game. Remember to focus on building anticipation, expectation, and hope before Christmas rather than on Christmas itself. Remember, there’s another entire season for doing that!
Do a drive-by prayer event.
This isn’t a direct outreach activity, but it lays the groundwork for successful evangelism, and for your upcoming Christmas services. In fact, if you only do one of these five activities, make this one the one! Organize groups of people to drive or walk through neighborhoods near your church and pray for the people in those communities. This is a great opportunity for bonding with others in your congregation (and for looking at Christmas lights.) It can work on a supernatural level to help open up people to be receptive to the Gospel. It also helps church members get out of the church bubble mindset and gets them thinking about the larger community.
Advent is a mysterious time of year, and that sense of mystery can be used as a tool to speak to regular people. The season provides a perfect window for outreach that’s substantially bigger than the usual Christmas evangelism window. You see, in spite of what we say, most of us don’t want our faith to be nice, simple, and easy to figure out. We love mystery, hope, expectation, and drama.
We should embrace this part of our faith rather than running from it. It’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.