Ed Stetzer, Advent Without the Tinsel

Advent Without the Tinsel

Ed Stetzer »

On the day after Halloween, one of my neighbors began stringing Christmas lights on his house. It was no surprise, because he put up Halloween decorations in mid-September. By November 10, his home and yard were illuminated every night by what seemed to be miles of blue lights, a gingerbread house, candy canes along his sidewalk, a six-foot tall inflatable snowman, and reindeer in the pampas grass. Oh – and a Nativity scene too. You know the version—the eight-pound six-ounce, blond hair, blue-eyed baby Jesus, beautifully dressed and glowing in the perfectly manicured hay. Surrounding him is the all-American family, complete with ornate robes. It all seemed too early, too commercial, and too plastic.

It is the "Clark Griswold" scenes like my neighbor's house that have caused many in the church to work for something different.—specifically, for something better during the advent season.

The very word "advent" essentially means the arrival of something. So, as we celebrate Christmas, we supposedly celebrate the arrival of God into human form. The Incarnation is a moment to savor. All of our presents and lights and parties ought to have a better meaning. But usually, they don't. So, in a bid to create a more relevant/helpful/meaningful advent season, the church of late has sought to delineate itself from the commercialization of our country's Christmas culture. Oddly enough, we have done so by simply offering Christianized versions of what they were already doing—Christmas dinners, Christmas plays, Christmas musicals, and Christmas events in every size and shape. But alas, we have done no better than my neighbor. The church has cluttered the advent season with our own set of lawn décor.

Sure, our event planning seems more spiritual than the guy who wants his house to be seen from outer space. And yes, our events are done so with the façade of telling people the ubiquitous "reason for the season." (Am I supposed to capitalize "reason"? I don't know any more.) But are we bringing anyone closer to understanding the gospel? I fear we are only adding more decorations onto the already crowded front lawn of culture.

But a reaction occurred. The already burgeoning movement among Christians cried out once more and said, "Enough!" A conscientious rebellion happened against the cluttered gospel. For some, they rebelled against the Living Christmas Trees, caroling, and shoebox stuffing. Many believers all over the place decided to simply give—and to give to causes where justice needed delivering by the Jesus who came once in the flesh and now lives in the church.

We are seeing a much-needed return to the simplicity of the Gospel and its power to bring transformation. The advent season needs no décor, whirlwind, or sales pitch. It needs simplicity. It needs a gospel simply proclaimed and the work of Jesus simply done.

As you and your church move into this advent season, allow me to make some suggestions toward simplicity that may just help present a season that is filled with more advent than whirlwind.

Be obvious. We have grown far too comfortable with the bait-and-switch mentality reserved for the lowest form of salesmanship. "Come for a relaxing evening of music." But we really mean, "Come for dinner so we can ambush you with something vaguely spiritual."

So far as I know, the church was not assigned any snipers or ninjas. Our ministry does not need camouflage. Our lives and our words throughout the year should plainly display the gospel.

Ed Stetzer, Advent Without the Tinsel

Advent Without the Tinsel

Ed Stetzer »

From all of the research compiled and our collective anecdotal experiences, those outside of the church will show an interest in the life of Jesus during the advent season. But we must show them the real Jesus. The tidy Anglo version will never connect. The perpetually smiling Jesus is not realistic nor biblical. They deserve to see the gritty moment of the advent. Though we are enamored with what is pretty, they need to hear that Jesus' entrance into the world was done through a working-class Jewish family in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. It was a moment of struggle—like most of life seems to be.

There is no need to hide our message. We should feel free to be obvious.

Live in the experience of the Incarnation. It only happened once. So enjoy thinking and talking and living about it. John 1:14 is one of the high-water marks of scripture about the Incarnation. It is paraphrased by The Message as:

"The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish."

I love that—"moved into the neighborhood." Jesus came to live among us, work like us, experience life like us. His experience is one for us to both revere and revel in.

Our advent celebrations should find their embodiment in work similar to His. He spoke the truth—so should we. He cared for the outcast—so should we. He sacrificed personally—so should we. It is not complicated to emulate a living example.

Speak the message. Not too long ago, a large church in a southern city decided to speak into the culture about the move to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." So what did they do? Had about a zillion yard signs printed up reading "Merry CHRISTmas," and then littered the community with them. And I use the term "littered" on purpose. To them, the not-so subtle message was that how we said it was as important as what we said.

We have a message that is worth conversing about over coffee. There is no need to protest in the streets over the manner of holiday greetings. There is no need to snarl back at the cashier who says "Happy Holidays" with a grumbled "Merry Christmas." Our task is not to be the lingo lawmen of culture. We need not employ protest as our major method of evangel. The gospel surpasses the mundane manner in which the world speaks about their vacation time at the end of December.

In the first advent, the Truth personally came to earth. In this advent season, let the truth be spoken person-to-person, not yard-to-yard or program-to-program.

Be native. Everyone feels a bit of nostalgia at this time of the year, but it is only a fleeting glance at the past. The advent season should be lived in the present, especially among those who live in the now of their everyday lives.

I often encourage pastors to ask themselves and their congregation, "What year is it here?" It is intended to provoke the thought of how well a congregation is connecting with their community. After all, as soon as we step off of our church campuses, it is 2009, no matter how we act inside our buildings.

During the advent season, we ask everyone to take a backward glance of almost two millennia. But do you know what most people want to know? How does that little boy born in a barn change your life right now? They are waiting to hear us talk about the gospel's power in contemporary terms.

Your coworkers and neighbors harbor a silent but deep hope that one of their own (you) is telling the truth about this faith they've heard about. So be the native that delivers the message to the rest of your tribe.

Cluttering the gospel is a temptation we face every advent season. And sure, I can blame it on too many store sales and too many Santa decorations in everyone else's lawns. But I know the truth—and so do you. The gospel is not told during the advent season for the same reason it is not told in all other seasons. The church mistakenly prioritizes outlying issues.

Our return to the simplicity of the gospel is a necessity this advent season as it is in every moment of the year. The gospel never needed tinsel to look good anyway.

Now, it's time for me to go hang lights on the house. I want my house to be seen from the moon! Just kidding. I think I'll take my neighbor out for coffee instead.

Ed Stetzer (Ph.D.) is author of Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and Churches that Reach Them, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can Too and Planting Missional Churches. For the third consecutive year, the LifeWay Research team led by Dr. Stetzer has contacted churches, gathered data and produced the OUTREACH 100 lists. His upcoming book, Spiritual Warfare and Missions (B&H) coauthored with Jerry Rankin, encourages missional pastors and individuals in international discipleship. He currently serves as the President of LifeWay Research. You can interact concerning this article at