A pastor shares how his congregation takes the true meaning of Christmas to their community every December
by Steve Sjogren
Christmas is a loaded word for most of us. For followers of Jesus, of course, the deepest sense of the word has to do with God coming to earth in the form of a baby: "Immanuel," as the prophet Isaiah put it, "God with us." Many other pleasant images also come to mind when we say Christmas. A word-association quiz might come up with such thoughts as family dinners, candlelit services, firesides or carols. But let's face it: Christmas does have its other moments.
A second quiz might call to mind different images-things like crowded malls, traffic gridlock or irritating relatives.
Despite all the glorious aspects of the celebration of Christ's birth, there also is a tension in most of our lives about the Christmas season. Many of us suffer with a sense of guilt-brought on, I believe, by the selfish focus that has been built around the holiday season.
I'm not just talking about all the attention that's given to greed, gifts and gorging. There's also the less obvious inclination we have to think the Christmas story is just "for us."
The church's pure and joyous call, "Rejoice! Christ has come to us!"-while it is wonderful news to be celebrated-is only part of the message of Christmas. Immanuel, "God with us," means God also wants to be "with them"—through us.
A New Tradition
For several years, people from the Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, which I pastor, have built a new tradition into their hearts. They have explored creative ways to take small deeds of love to the people in our city during the holidays.
We have continued to seek creative ways to gain an audience with the unchurched by serving our way into their lives year-round. We call this approach to sharing Christ servant evangelism.
At Christmastime, when people seem to be particularly vulnerable to thinking about spiritual issues, much can be done to build bridges to the unchurched. We stared when one of our members, a housewife, got eh idea that everybody needs their gifts wrapped at Christmas. "We could go to the mall and wrap presents for free!" she challenged.
We approached mall management about our gift-wrap "outreach." At first they were skeptical. "Tell us again," they asked. "Why do you want to do this for free?" We had several meetings before they finally gave us the nod. We invested about $3,000 in paper, tape, scissors, and bows and were enthusiastically on our way.
To the management's surprise, the project was a smashing success. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we wrapped presents for more than 10,000 customers. The mall received good publicity, and we were able to talk to a lot of people about when we were wrapping for free: to show God's love in a practical way!
For six holiday seasons, we have wrapped presents at that mall. Our credibility with the management has slowly risen each year.
Last Christmas season, when we wrapped 25,000 presents, the mall insisted on paying for the wrapping supplies. Now it pays for the materials—and we share with shoppers about God's love for them. What a deal!
The Power of Incarnation
When we talk about God sending His Son to the earth at Christmas, we are talking theologically about the incarnation: God becoming man, God coming among us. Through he incarnation, I believe God was conveying three simple truths.
First, He has come to us. In His wisdom, God knew that we would never "get it" spiritually until He personally brought the message of the kingdom. Simply sending the message wouldn't do. God came from heaven to earth to bring His very presence to us.
Second, He wants to come through us to the community where we live. To receive the gift of God and keep it to ourselves is totally antithetical to "God among us." He desires to fill the entire earth with the knowledge of Himself.
God's intention is to have a people tat would see themselves as vessels of His life, not only restored by His love but wiling to allow His restoring life to flow through them to the world. The psalmist captures it well: "God shall bless us, and all the ends of the earth shall fear Him" (Ps. 67:7).
Third, simple acts done with great love will change the world. Who would have thought that God would come in the form of a baby, of all things? Perhaps as a conquering king, a warrior or at least a prophet—but a baby?
Apparently God's plan was to underwhelm the earth with His first coming. After all, He was building a kingdom that would be entirely different than any human kingdom—His would go forward on the basis of small things.
I have been a Christian for about 20 years. Most of that time, I did not understand this idea of small things. In fact, I was convinced that God had called me to do big things.
But the harder I tried to do big things, the more stressed I became and, tragically, the less God's love flowed through me to others. The story of God coming to earth as a man tells us clearly that small things done in love are the most effective approaches to bring the kingdom to earth. It's so simple!
Simple Acts of Kindness
There are hundreds of simple acts of kindness that you and a few friends could do with little preparation to make a strong impression on the unchurched in your community. In addition to a big undertaking like gift wrapping, our church has ventured into many other smaller projects. Through the process, we've identified some of the most common questions Christians ask before taking on an outreach:
1. What if people don't respond to our offer? Some won't respond—and that's OK. There is great power in the simple offer to help or give aid, whether people allow you to serve them or not. Many are touched by your willingness to give, even though you may not see a response on their faces. Believe that your small seed will be nurtured by the Holy Spirit as He continues to show His love to them.
2. What do we say when we interact with people? Simply respond: "We are doing a free community service project to show you God's love in a practical way." That's enough of a statement to get a conversation going if someone's ready to talk.
3. Will we see immediate results from these projects? Realize that your act of kindness may seem small to you, but the Holy Spirit is fully capable of taking that small seed and making it grow in a hungry heart. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6 that evangelism is a process that involves planting and watering before harvesting. Be at peace that you have done your part, which most of the time probably will be either planting or watering. God will bring about a harvest as the Holy Spirit begins to draw the people to Himself.
4. Are these projects best done alone or by a group? There is a strength in numbers—and encouragement, too. All of the servant evangelism projects listed with this article are done best by groups, such as Bible study groups, home groups or even families.
Registering the Reality of God's Love
What happens to people when they are served? As they are touched in a practical way, their hearts register that God is real and that He loves them.
As I was served last week at a local restaurant, I had a brief conversation with the waiter. He asked what I did for a living. When I told him I was the pastor of the Vineyard Community Church, he responded: "Oh, that's what it's called. I though it was called the 'Grapevine Church.' I know all about you guys."
"Really?" I asked. "What do you know about us?"
"You're the ones who wrap presents to show God's love in a practical way. I know all about you because you wrapped a present for me a couple of Christmases ago."
When I hear those words, I was stunned. I thought, This guy remembers a small encounter we had with him—just a minute or two—a few years ago! That little deed of kindness had registered deeply in his heart. He had our name wrong, but he remembered a simple act done with great love. A small seed of the kingdom had been planted, and I have faith to believe God is nurturing and growing that seed right now.
Christmas is all about Immanuel—"God with us." I am thankful He is also Immanuel—"God with them," too.
Steve Sjogren is pastor of Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati . He offers more ideas on servant evangelism in his book Conspiracy of Kindness (Vine Books) or at servantevangelism.com.
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