Every now and then I have a great idea thwarted by an even better idea. This is a big moment for me, because I don’t typically have that many ideas in the first place, so to have two ideas battle for supremacy in the arena of my mind is a rather unique experience. Imagine two lightbulbs with girded loins locked in a last bulb standing epic throw down for the honor of being the topic of this article about holiday traditions in youth ministry…
The winner this time isn’t even my own. My idea was lame, so I was bailed out by friend, boss, mentor and pastor, Allen Hodges, who leads our church and the Big Sky Region. In his sermon two Sundays ago, we were kicking off the Advent season and he spent some time explaining the liturgical Christian Church calendar. His premise was that, growing up in a more traditional church, he didn’t really know the how or the why of what the church celebrated in the context of that calendar and how it all was connected. I totally identify with this. Growing up in a Presbyterian Church, I just sat in my innertube on the lazy river of the church calendar and floated along, not really taking note of what we floated past. Allen’s introduction to the advent season reminded me of the intent and beauty of the calendar and thus provides me with my point, which we will get to later.
For those in our church that grew up like me, and for those new and newish believers that have no frame of reference for (or knowledge that there) is a church calendar, Allen presented it like this: for Christians, the first day of Advent is like our New Years Day. Everything for us begins with the expected hope of the Incarnation and as the calendar unfolds, we move through holidays that walk us through the Gospel every year. From the Incarnation through Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, the day the Holy Spirit fell on those that would become the first believers in the new church, all of this is laid out in the Liturgical Christian Calendar. This calendar includes days like Epiphany, Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, Ascension etc. that mark events in the ministry and life of Jesus, and continues to days after, that celebrate the founding of the church. This creates a path we can follow to celebrate what has been done for us by Jesus, but also recognize the new advent we are in as we await his return.
I grant you that for most leaders this is not a new revelation. Some might read this and wonder how I made it so far in life without seeing the church calendar laid out as the Gospel message in party form, but consider how this might fit into a culturally relevant missional context. When I grew up, not even in this century, I grew up in a time where the Christian calendar dictated the school year in a manner lost to the post-Christian country we have now. We had Christmas break rather than winter break, and we had Christmas programs where the music teacher would force us to do some fool musical number while our parents and extended family gawked at us in the auditorium. Merry Christmas was the normal greeting and salutation, and manger scenes were common decorations in public places. In public school, in public places, Christ was in Christmas and people had a frame of reference for this. Even spring break was scheduled to fit around Resurrection Day, which framed the two major breaks of the school year around the two major points of the Christian calendar.
One consequence of the move towards the post-Christian reality with which we live is that the frame of reference for our holidays has also decreased to the point that immaculate reception of gifts from a fat guy that breaks and enters is better known than the immaculate conception and virgin birth of the Savior of the World. According to the Barna Research group, the number of unchurched adults in the United States has doubled since 1991. That number adds another layer of context for us in this, as it isn’t a shock that people would not see the Gospel in the church calendar if there are fewer people even seeing the gospel.
Now we can get on with our discussion about holiday traditions in youth ministry! Congratulations, you’ve made it to the point! Celebrating the holidays with our students provides a context for discipleship as Christian students can engage with what the holiday means to their faith. We can also encourage evangelism as we use holidays to provide an entry point to new and none believers and help them in understanding the sacrificial and redemptive work of Jesus. The calendar gives us a path to walk that ties us to something Jesus did, and after him the Apostles did, and the recognition that we are called to do the same. In addition to that, we can celebrate that it was done for us and party like its 1998.
One demographic that seems to be universal in our country, urban and rural alike, is the demographic that points to the assault on families and the realization that many of our students do not come from two parent (let alone two healthy parent) homes. Holiday traditions allow us to model family to these students in the way we corporately celebrate and how far we let them in to our lives to observe healthy dynamics. As a younger pastor, some of my favorite memories are taking a group of kids into the mountains or hiking in circles through mounds of snow in search of the “perfect” Christmas tree. After watching kids attempt to use a bow saw and finally getting frustrated and taking over myself, we would bring it back, decorate it with music and snacks and provide a sense of family. Whether it was small group service projects and outreaches or caroling and white elephant gifting, we were partying together and serving others with the purpose of marking the Gospel in our lives.
When we apply this to the calendar, we can seize upon that elusive beast, Momentum. The Mighty Mo is awesome when you have it and a moral killer when it slips away. Trying to get it back is a struggle, and riding its wave gives a sense of euphoria and accomplishment akin to that dude in the titanic movie standing on the front of the boat. One key to maintaining momentum is having the next thing on the horizon to work towards, and the church calendar provides that for us. If we have holiday traditions that begin to take on legend status or provide an easy entry point for inviting friends into the party, we will have something on the horizon regardless of what our ministry calendar looks like.
As I close, I want you to know that as you celebrate with your students this season, you are being covered in prayer. Enjoy this season of celebration as we wait for the blessed hope of our Coming King. May the Lord bless you and make His Presence known, may He touch each burden and barrier that keeps you from feeling His love, and may you have the energy to share that love with those you pastor. Merry Christmas, and may your 2018 be a blessed celebration of the Gospel of Jesus!