By Tom Berlin, Special Contributor…
Many churches confront a question of missional focus, especially as the holiday season approaches. One group proposes an angel tree project. Another wants to do a coat drive. Someone else is collecting toiletries for the homeless, grocery cards for the hungry, toys for needy children. Needs are great everywhere. So shouldn’t your church offer many opportunities for people to help?
While the “more is better” philosophy is appealing, there are equally compelling arguments for cutting the clutter and staying focused on a narrower range of clearly identified priorities.
As the church I serve has grown, it has worked to bring consistency and alignment to its missional efforts. Our focus has coalesced around work with children in poverty. We give away the entire Christmas Eve offering, which supports our core efforts in this area. This is a big celebration for the church each year. The results of the offering are posted on our website on Christmas morning, and many have told me that they begin Christmas Day by celebrating the generosity of the church.
But we have also found that providing certain types of special giving opportunities at the beginning of Advent can help church members respond to the pressures of materialism and consumerism at Christmas. Members have asked for our help in making their Christmas more holy. They want opportunities to focus their family on others, and share gifts with family and friends that might bless people in need while honoring those they love.
In late November and early December, we offer members the opportunity to support our missions or any of our community partners, providing an appropriate card that can be presented in lieu of a gift to those on their Christmas list. This “alternate giving opportunity” helps members respond creatively and generously to their desire to give gifts without purchasing yet another unneeded item for people who have so much already.
We also provide an “Advent giving tree” for families. They are encouraged to take a tag that specifies gifts of diapers, clothing, or toys for children connected with our outreach ministries. These gifts are purchased and brought to church in early December. A family devotional is included that explains who is receiving the gift and why it will make a difference to others. The experience of selecting the gift and using the devotional resource is a tangible way to experience and teach children about the love of Christ.
The goal here is not to get money from church members in a veiled manner, but to assist them in making their Christmas celebration less materialistic. We do not set goals or push people to participate. We clearly announce these opportunities, but emphasize that they are available because people have asked for the help of the church to bless others. An added benefit is that this approach educates people, both within and beyond the church, about the needs of others and how the church responds.
Offering these carefully framed giving opportunities is a “both/and” approach that honors people’s desire to help others in a way consistent with the church’s broader priorities. Some members and families have been so touched by these efforts that they have taken steps to reduce their giving to each other so that they can do more in their community. By the time we get to Christmas Day, the church is able to have a real celebration of generosity and the calling of Christ to bless others as we celebrate the gift of the incarnation.
The Rev. Berlin is lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Va., and co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr., of Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results (Abingdon Press, 2011).