Joanne is a shop owner. Her small store is filled with hand-crafted decorations and gifts that lift the spirit. People love entering her shop, and for the last eight weeks of the year, there is a palpable buzz as festive shoppers mine for holiday treasures, with Christmas carols playing in the background.
This is a crucial time for Joanne’s business and livelihood—almost 50 percent of her annual income is generated in November and December.
On the first Sunday of Advent, Joanne heard her pastor preach about the toxic consumer culture of Christmas:
The hustle and spending of Christmas is killing us. We fill our schedules with holiday parties that have nothing to do with Christ, and all the while forget the reason for the season. We waste money on things we (and others) don’t need. God is not pleased––this bears no resemblance to the first Christmas. It brings us no remembrance of his Son. It’s time we all made a big change. Stop worshiping stuff. Start worshiping Christ.
Joanne listened closely. She felt conflicted, and a bit ashamed. On the one hand, she agrees with her pastor—the consumer emphasis at Christmas often crowds out Christ. On the other, this busy time of year enables her to pay her workers, survive through the slow season of January through March, and support her family. She wouldn’t make it as a shop owner if it weren’t for the heightened foot traffic and purchases during the Christmas season.
And though she might not admit it to her pastor, Joanne actually enjoys seeing how the products she sells bring joy to others. What should she do?
In Your Pews
Most churches have dozens of Joannes––workers whose livelihood depends on a strong holiday shopping season, or who benefit from putting in extra hours in December.
- A small business caterer might experience a 40 percent income bump due to holiday celebrations.
- Musicians book extra gigs as people host Christmas parties.
- People pick up extra shifts and extra hours as businesses ramp up their workforce. For a minimum-wage worker, the increased opportunity might be vital for catching up on overdue bills.
How does the thoughtful pastor lead people through these conflicting realities? Does worshiping the Christ of Christmas necessarily conflict with the proliferation of shopping and festivities during the holiday season?
Four themes can help us think about shepherding our congregations during the busy Christmas season.
1. Big Celebrations and Big Spending
First, are spending and celebrations antithetical to a vibrant faith in God? Is Christmas, in particular, worthy of lavish celebration?
Admittedly, there is little biblical guidance on how (or whether) we should celebrate Christmas. But celebration regularly shows up on the pages of the Bible, from God rejoicing in his creation (Gen. 1–2), to the various feasts he commanded for his people Israel (Lev. 23), to sending angels to announce Jesus’s birth (Luke 2), to the consummation of all things, in which God is planning not a church service but a giant wedding banquet (Rev. 19).
If we condemn spending during the season of Christ’s birth, we are not necessarily being biblical.
One particular biblical example is noteworthy.
In Deuteronomy 14:22–29, the Israelites were commanded to bring a tenth of their grain and fruit harvest to the temple each year, exchange it for money, and then spend the money on a big celebration incorporating their favorite foods and drinks: “Spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household” (Deut. 14:26).
This celebration also included sharing with the Levites and the poor every third year.
On the surface, then, God is not opposed to his people throwing large celebrations for the purpose of rejoicing and celebrating all he’s provided. In fact, he’s more extravagant than we are: consider a party that cost 10 percent of your income. Would you scoff at the indecency? God’s people were commanded to celebrate in this way––a joyful sacrifice of thanksgiving, shared with the needy, recognizing he had provided it all.
If we condemn spending during the season of Christ’s birth, we are not necessarily being biblical. Congregation members who have shops or businesses that serve these ends should not be shamed. If eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God, so can spending and celebrating.
2. Showing Kindness and Grace
The Christmas shopping season is often filled with hustle and bustle. Disgust with long shopping lines, bad traffic, and pressure in gift-buying can lead people to act badly. Workers in stores and restaurants often bear the brunt of our poor behavior.
How might the church spark the imagination of people to show grace, kindness, and generosity to workers? A warm smile, a kind word, and an outsized tip are tangible expressions of Christlike love.
3. Thoughtful and Intentional Spending
While spending may not amount to complicity with a consumeristic culture, pastors can encourage congregants toward thoughtful buying choices. Every purchase we make is a vote. We’re not only buying products at a price; we’re also supporting businesses.
How might people consider whom they want to support in their buying? A small-business caterer? A local shop owner? A talented group of Christian musicians? An honorable company offering quality products at a fair price, driving value for customers, employees, community, and their supply chain? Pastors can remind their congregation to be intentional about spending. And all this can be done in the context of a pre-planned budget, avoiding debt.
4. Rest and Reflection
Amid the busyness that sometimes feels thrust upon us, we are also called to steward our time and affections. To that end, pastors can encourage people to have intentional conversations with their families and loved ones. What does the holiday schedule look like? Have we planned adequate time to rest and reflect on the Christ of Christmas? What experiences or practices warm our hearts to Christ’s love and to the awe and wonder of the incarnation? Fortunately, there are fantastic tools for restful reflection during the Advent season.
This season is filled with opportunities to worship King Jesus. It need not come at the expense of those who experience an economic bump as shoppers commemorate the year with celebrations, gift-giving, and festivity. Our task, as the people of God, is to enact these rituals with spiritual meaning, growing in our affection for God and for others.