Two years ago, children at Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park, Pa., celebrated Advent with a “Journey to Bethlehem.” Each child attending left with a gift in hand.
Last year, when a new event replaced Journey to Bethlehem, the kids left empty-handed. Instead of receiving gifts, they left behind items they’d made for people in need. At the “Evening of Service,” families moved among eight different stations, helping with projects like assembling UMCOR cleaning buckets or preparing “soup in a jar” for needy families.
“[The holidays] become more meaningful, when it’s no longer about us and it’s about others,” said the Rev. Chris Morgan, Christ UMC’s associate pastor.
Christ UMC’s story reflects a shifting focus among many United Methodist churches: celebrating Christmas with more service to others, and fewer gifts, festivities and treats for church members.
Now, United Methodist Communications (UMCOM) is helping to share the movement with a broader audience, with an ad campaign aimed at connecting United Methodist congregations with seekers who are looking for a less commercialized, more meaningful holiday season.
Under the Rethink Church umbrella, UMCOM’s $1 million holiday ad campaign invites seekers to “Reclaim Christmas.” Beginning Nov. 4, the campaign launched with three components: a nationwide online ad campaign; billboards and cinema advertising in six cities; and a resource package for churches entitled “A Different Kind of Christmas.”
“The United Methodist Church is providing a counter-narrative to the material message of the retailers and those who want to sell us things at this time of year,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, UMCOM’s top executive. “It’s a concept that we are seeing many churches embrace throughout the year, and Christmas especially is an ideal time to reach outside the church doors into the community.”
The campaign’s theme should resonate with many Americans. According to a 2011 Harris study commissioned by UMCOM, some 60 percent of Americans think the holidays are too commercialized, and 32 percent wish they were simpler.
‘Cyber Takeover’ tunes in to simpler Christmas
Monday, Nov. 26, is “CyberMonday,” the biggest day of the year for online holiday shopping, and shoppers will be inundated with specials and offers.
But those who tune into Pandora.com that day will see a question: “After you tear into the deals, what’s left?”
It’s part of a one-day United Methodist “cyber takeover” of the popular music-streaming website. An ad posing the question and inviting visitors to “Reclaim Christmas” will envelope Pandora’s website that day; those who click on the ad will link to the newly-updated Rethink Church home page. There, thanks to IP detection capabilities, visitors will be greeted with a listing of Advent events at United Methodist churches within or near their ZIP code area.
To take advantage of the campaign and this new capability, UMCOM is urging local churches to update their Find-A-Church web pages. Those that add upcoming Advent and Christmas events—such as service events, free meals and candlelight services—will get priority listings when visitors in their area land on RethinkChurch.org. The IP detection will also signal churches via email when someone from their area visits the site.
UMCOM says that Find-A-Church is one of its most visited web pages, with about 100,000 hits per month.
RethinkChurch.org visitors can also click through for tips on simplifying their holidays and finding ways to help those in need.
“This Christmas, cut through the hype that leaves you exhausted and broke at the end of the year,” the website says. “Instead, experience the peace of knowing that God is truly with us, the joy of giving sacrificially, and the love of a Savior who gave everything he had for us.”
Reclaim Christmas offers “an alternative to the commercialism that people see more and more every year, that’s overshadowing Christ,” said the Rev. N. Neelley Hicks, assistant director of UMCOM’s Communications Ministry Group. “During the holiday season, many people end up exhausted and depleted spiritually, and asking, ‘Am I contributing to anything more lasting then what’s going to end up in landfills?’”
The holiday campaign is rooted in a Christmas “miracle”—the annual “miracle offering” at Gingshamsburg Church, a United Methodist congregation in Tipp City, Ohio—and a book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, by the church’s pastor, the Rev. Mike Slaughter.
It all began in 1999, when Mr. Slaughter noticed two images on facing pages of his newspaper: a luxury BMW sedan, and an emaciated child in the Sudan, one of millions of victims of the civil war.
“On one hand, I saw the luxury sedan, clearly the heart of our culture,” Mr. Slaughter recalled in a Clergy Journal article. “On the other hand, I saw the starving child in Sudan, clearly depicting that which breaks the heart of God.”
Five years later, at Advent in 2004, church leaders challenged the congregation to enjoy simpler Christmases, and, for every dollar spent on their own celebrations, families were urged to donate an equal amount to the Christmas Miracle Offering to help feed people in Darfur. With the mantra, “Christmas is not YOUR birthday. It’s Jesus’ birthday,” Mr. Slaughter generated an enthusiastic and generous response.
Now, that’s how Christmas is honored every year at Ginghamsburg. Since January 2005, Ginghamsburg (with help from partner churches, schools and businesses) has invested $5.6 million into sustainable humanitarian development projects in the Sudan, implemented with help from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). That investment has built more than 200 schools serving 25,000 students, fed 85,000 through sustainable agriculture and provided safe water to 85,000 people and their livestock. (In recent years, some Christmas offering money has also been directed toward helping needy people in the Dayton, Ohio area.)
Thus Ginghamsburg’s holiday “miracle” inspired the Reclaim Christmas ad campaign and church resource package, which includes a sermon series, “A Different Kind of Christmas,” written by Mr. Slaughter. Churches may also purchase related study materials for youth, adults and children.
“The kernel of what Mike Slaughter has done is right at the heart of [Reclaim Christmas],” said Mr. Hollon. “But this expands beyond what Mike’s book has reached and takes it into a much wider exposure.”
The advertising targets a key demographic: seekers ages 18-34, a group the denomination has been attempting to reach through the Rethink Church campaign.
“And this particular demographic is interested in finding meaning and purpose as a way to express their values,” Mr. Hollon said.
For more information
To download the multimedia package and to update your congregation’s Find-A-Church profile to include Advent activities, visit http://umcom.org/differentkind/.
The resource package includes the sermon series by the Rev. Mike Slaughter, suggestions for worship activities and short messages suitable for Tweeting or Facebook posts, as well as video segments and graphics for advertising, worship and bulletin covers.
In addition to the national online ads, UMCOM will post billboard ads and broadcast ads in cinemas in Birmingham, Nashville, Dayton, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Pasco, Wash.
UMCOM officials estimate that at least 3,000 local churches are tapping into “A Different Kind of Christmas,” either by purchasing the books, downloading the materials, or updating their Find-A-Church web pages.
Munsey Memorial UMC in Johnson City, Tenn., is one of the churches. Dianna Cantler, director of connectional ministries at Munsey Memorial, thinks the campaign speaks to an idea whose time has come.
“I think some folks are embracing the idea, because we do realize how overdone our gift-buying has become as a society,” she said. “I think it will also be something that the un-churched will embrace in our community.”
Ms. Cantler says her church had already discovered Mr. Slaughter’s book and planned to use its themes this Christmas season; the materials provided by Rethink Church will save time.
“I think people will be open to the challenge,” she said. “I think they’re looking for reasons to not go overboard and to do something that will benefit someone else, rather than buying something that will just sit on a shelf.”
Kevin Foster, worship leader at Forest Chapel UMC in Cincinnati, is also planning to use the Different Kind of Christmas materials.
“What drew me in was the fact that they had study materials already available for youth, children and adults,” he said. “The whole series makes total sense for the times we are in. It’s trying to bring the focus back to Christ instead of ourselves.”
Christ UMC in Bethel Park, Pa., also plans to use the Different Kind of Christmas materials this year, as part of its movement in recent years toward a more service-oriented season. And that’s making for a more meaningful holiday season, according to church member Deborah Whitewood.
“Christmas becomes more Christ-centered and less commercialized when the gift you give is your time and your energy,” she said. “It reminds us of the greatest gift that was given to us—Jesus Christ.”