Many church leaders struggle to find creative new ways to help families celebrate the Advent season. Usually, simple Advent wreaths, ornaments, or calendars for children to make and bring home are offered. Some churches have taken on a live Nativity show or pageant. And some of the more technology-savvy churches put forward online and digital ways to celebrate, like using YouTube to spread the Christmas message.
This year, to ensure children remember "Jesus is the Reason for the Season," First Congregational Church UCC in West Springfield distributed "Manger on the Mantel" activity kits. The kit is based on the popular "Elf on the Shelf" book/toy kit in which a special scout elf appears in different places around the house each morning to help Santa Claus manage his naughty and nice lists.
How to Transform Advent
Suggestions on How to Transform Advent -- from Rev. Powers:
What if, instead of roaming the mall or cruising the internet, you used that time to:
What if, instead of spending hours frantically searching for something to buy, you:
What if you took the time to pray for each one on your Christmas list?
This would transform our Advent, and it would transform the world!
The Manger on the Mantel game is similar, but brings faith into the activity. With this make-it-yourself manger kit, children are urged to take a present from the manger each day and move the manger to another spot. The presents are supposed to be gifts wrapped by God, and contain a daily Bible verse and activity starter. An example from one card uses a verse from Luke 2:12: "This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger." Activity: Donate some of your gently used clothes today. Pray for those who aren't warm and snug this time of year."
"Last year we began using Advent Conspiracy resources," explained Diana Forfa, First Church's Director of Christian Education & Youth Ministry. "Advent Conspiracy encourages people to 'worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all during the Advent season.' I thought the Manger on the Mantel message -- that 'the good things we do are in response to God's loving gift of Jesus' -- tied in well with our own Advent theme."
Rev. Jan Powers, pastor at the church, explained that the Advent Conspiracy movement consists of three pastors who got together a decade or so ago, and agreed that they wanted to change the conversation in their congregations about preparing for Christmas. "In the United States alone, 600 billion dollars was spent in 2013 on gift-giving: things we cannot afford and do not need that will end up in the landfill all too soon. It seems Christmas is no longer a holy day, but a day of debt," she said. "Like those three pastors, I, too, feel strongly that as church people, as Jesus people, it's time to rein it in. All this spending has nothing to do with the story of the birth of Jesus."
First Church is distributing these kits - which cost about a dollar each - to Sunday worship families, youth group members, families that attend the Ecumenical Outreach breakfast, and to the community play group families. Each manger kit will also carry an invitation to First Church Advent and Christmas services and events.
"More of our Faith Formation budget is used for take-home resources and less on Sunday School curriculum as we encourage more and more intergenerational ministry," explained Forfa. "Knowing that a child's faith is formed first by parents, we try to find many different ways to support and partner with these caregivers in this important work."
"Having a 'manger on the mantel' reminds us of the Gift of God to us, of Jesus," said Powers. "The story of Jesus is a story of Jesus' gift of himself for the whole world God loves so much. Our story during Advent-Christmas-Epiphany, and every day, should be about giving ourselves away in honor of the Christ."
You can reach Diana or Jan at the church office at (413) 739-6608, or firstname.lastname@example.org.