Capturing Christmas by Celebrating Advent

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I missed it! I missed my daughter’s baptism. Sure, I was standing in front of the congregation holding her, but the flood of things running through my mind meant that I was not totally in the moment. I was worried she would start screaming because she was hungry, of that she would spit up on the pastor; running through my mind was how should would react to the cold water being placed on her little head.

This wasn’t the first time I have missed something. I do it as I lead mission trips and retreat; my mind wanders to details and responsibilities and I miss the moments God is providing me to help me grow in my faith. I look back at pictures of great events in my life and wonder, “What did I miss?”

The same happens every single Christmas. Even though the Christmas decorations start appearing in stores well before Halloween, it seems that time races by so fact that before I know it I am taking down the tree and lights and wondering what I missed and why I am so tired.

In recent years I have worked hard to re-focus the students in my ministry so that they don’t miss out on the incredible season that Christmas is supposed to be. I have done this by focusing on Advent in my teaching and my programming.

Here are a few ideas that have helped:

Give to Others!

From the time we are young we are taught to make the list of gifts we want (and come to expect) to see under the tree. For most of us, and certainly most of our students, Christmas is a time that quickly becomes a self-centered time of year. We have worked hard in our ministry to help students think about giving to others.

Advent Offering: Each Advent we designate a local ministry and a national or international ministry to give to. Locally his has included our local food pantry or soup kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, buying coats and hats for those in need, or a homeless shelter. Internationally we have given to organizations building water wells, purchased animals through Heifer Project, or given to a local church in a far off country to help their ministry in some way.

We encourage our students to give an amount equal to 10% of what they think they will receive in gifts for Christmas.

Angel Tree: Each Advent we designate one of our Wednesday nights to take names off our community’s Salvation Army Angel Tree and purchase gifts for those children. We do that by asking students to bring an amount they are comfortable with, then we have get into groups and use their pooled money to buy gifts for their assigned child.

Volunteering: We make sure each Advent to organize at least one opportunity to serve those in need in our community. We helped a local homeless shelter pass out Christmas Food Baskets to families in need, we have served meals a local soup kitchens, we have worked in our community’s food bank, and we have gone to nursing homes to sing or hang out with residents.

Focused Teaching:

Each year we try to spend each week of Advent focusing on the great story of Christmas. There are a number of great resources out there that can guide you in the process, including:

  • The Journey and Not A Silent Night by Adam Hamilton
  • Facing Bethlehem in the Midst of Bedlam and All I Want For Christmas by James Moore
  • The Redemption of Scrooge by Matt Rawle
  • Down to Earth and A Different Kind of Christmas by Mike Slaughter

Admittedly, Advent studies can be a little pricey, so it may be a compromise to buy one copy and then use that as a resource to write you own lessons. Or, think about teaming up with other groups in your church to create an intergenerational study during Advent. If you do an intergenerational study, choose one with a video, watching the video together then breaking into age groups for discussion.

Lighting the Advent Wreath each week is also an important way to focus on Advent and the true meaning of Christmas. Not only do we re-light the Advent Wreath at all our student ministry events, we make sure to talk about the meaning of each candle each week and use that as a way to refocus on the journey through Advent to Christmas.

Encourage Families to Slow Down and Celebrate Advent

Most families that I talk to also feel like they miss Christmas! By encouraging families to celebrate Advent, you can guide them to re-capturing Christmas. One thing I struggle with is throwing too many ideas at families, which has the same effect as trying to drink out of a fire hydrant; it just gets lost in the midst of everything else.

So start with something simple, like encouraging families to light an Advent Wreath each Sunday of Advent. You could even have a time during you student ministry gathering time prior to Advent where you make Advent Wreaths for students to take home for family use.

Another way to help families focus on Advent is to invite them to be part of the above activities and studies.

Have Some Fun!

Ice skating, sledding, Christmas caroling, loading up the church bus and going to see Christmas lights; these are all ways that your student ministry can come together and enjoy the Advent Season. You do want to be cautious in the number of events you plan, as you don’t want to add to the busyness of the Season. And, the ideas outlined above can be more than enough to add meaning to Advent. But, there is also something to be said for slowing down and having fun during what should truly be the most wonderful time of the year!

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Scott has served in student ministry for over 30 years, the past 23 years at McFarlin Memorial United Methodist Church in Norman, Oklahoma, where he oversees ministries to Kindergarten through 12th grade as the director of student ministries. Having grown up in an incredible and life-changing youth ministry at Pioneer United Methodist Church in Walla Walla, Washington, Scott got his start in student ministry at Simpson United Methodist Church in Pullman, Washington while a student at Washington State University. He will never forget his first official Sunday as a youth director when 2 of the high school students who showed up were older then him! Scott has a passion for missions and leadership develop, and desires to create life-long disciples for Jesus Christ. He and Kristin have been married for 13 years, and welcomed an amazing little girl into the world in May of 2016. You can follow Scott on Twitter: @ScottMeier

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