Many children join the congregation in the sanctuary for the first time during the Advent Christmas season. Some come with families who are trying out church for the first time or are visiting church-going friends or family. Some are brought from the nurseries by their worshiping parents who think maybe they are ready to share the traditions that are so precious to their parents. Lighting the candles of the Advent wreath, the presence of a crèche and/or Chrismon tree, other visual decorations of the season, and the birth stories all appeal to children. With we introduce these things so that children know what they are about and adults understand them more deeply, we lead these newcomers to become ever more fully participating worshipers.
As you plan for the entire season…
* Advent is a time when many congregations go “off lectionary” for at least a Sunday or two. Sometimes they do that to accommodate special music and pageants. But more and more people are doing it because they sense the need to spend more time with the Christmas stories than with the early Advent texts. Since we often see more marginally involved folks in worship during December and since we can no longer count on public schools to teach the basic stories, it also feels increasingly important to present the key nativity stories in worship when people are expecting to hear them. Check out an alternate Advent lectionary created for just this purpose HERE.
* There are many different meanings for the candles of the Advent wreath. None are the indisputable, don’t-mess-with-this right ones. So, light the candles to fit worship theme that week. Because every congregation’s sequence of Advent worship themes will differ, I will offer suggestions for lighting the wreath to go with each theme or text. Two consistent suggestions:
1. Rather than ask random individual or families to light the wreath, ask committees or groups in the church that are closely identified with the candle lit that week to do the lighting and reading. Briefly introduce them and the reason they are lighting the wreath this week as you call them forward. If possible include groups of children and youth (those who went on a mission trip?) as well as adults.
2. Highlight the wreath again at the close of the service with an acolyte lighting a mobile candle from the candle of the week in the wreath and carrying that light down the central aisle. A worship leader then sends worshipers forth to follow the light of that week’s candle out into the world.
* Children have fewer opportunities to hear the biblical Christmas stories than they once did. So, displaying a large (for visibility), unbreakable (for fear-free handling) crèche in the sanctuary provides a visual reminder of the story and an opportunity to retell it during Advent. Yes, I know we’re not to rush the season. Still, it is possible to use a children’s time to tell the birth stories in a way that ties to Advent worship themes using the figures of the crèche. It could go something like this:
Week 1: The empty manger is in place. Other figures are set in visible spots around the sanctuary. With the children simply find the figures, name them and promise to tell more as the weeks go on.
Week 2: Visit the shepherds at their corner of the sanctuary or bring them to the manger. Talk about how tired and dirty and looked down on the shepherds were. Briefly tell the story of the angels’ visit and what that meant to the shepherds. They left the manger aware that God knew who they were and invited them to see Jesus. They had hope that God was really making the world fairer.
Week 3: Bring the Magi to the manger. Contrast them to the shepherds. The magi knew they were important and smart people. But when they saw that God was doing something important, they dropped what they were doing and traveled a long way to see what was going on. OR, bring Mary and Joseph to the crèche if you read the Mary texts this week.
Week 4: Bring Mary and Joseph to the manger. Tell the stories of God’s call to each of them, what worried each about doing what God asked, and what they did. OR, lift each figure in turn to explore how that person turned aside to see what God was doing and get involved.
Christmas Eve: Either start with the figures in a box and with the children set the figures in place telling the story as you do. Or, add the baby to the manger and marvel at the difference that one little baby made to the outsider shepherds, the important magi, Mary and Joseph and us.
* Another way to use a crèche during Advent is to display it on a central table for the whole season. Beside the table place a basket of straws. Challenge worshipers to do one loving deed for someone during the week, then to pray for that person as they place one straw on the table around the manger the next Sunday. Worshipers of all ages can put their straws in place as they enter or leave the sanctuary each week. (To keep from burying the figures completely, cut straws into two or three inch lengths.)
* If you display a Chrismons tree in the sanctuary every year, it will fairly quickly come to be simply “that beautiful tree in the church” unless ways are found to re-introduce the ornaments and their meaning repeatedly. One way is to explain them to the children during a children’s time or as part of the sermon. Before the tree is up, show the ornaments in your hands. Once the tree is up, use a flashlight to highlight ornaments related to each Sunday’s theme. This year, I found the following connections. Detailed ideas for each one are found in the weekly posts.
Week 1: Add a stumpy trunk to the base of the tree. Or, feature the cross on the orb to highlight Christ’s lordship over the world. Or, look at all the circle or the alpha-omega ornaments that remind us that God is eternal.
Week 2: I couldn’t find a good match for John the Baptist or his call to repent.
Week 3: In keeping with the Rejoice theme, find all the stars.
Week 4: If you are exploring the response of all the characters, note the gold and pearls – precious things that are worth turning aside to see and have.
* You will find several reader’s theater scripts for the gospels this Advent. The goal is to help younger worshipers stick with longish stories and help older worshipers pay fuller attention as they hear familiar stories in a new way. Because they are read by adult readers, they address concerns raised by John Bell and others that we have given the Christmas stories to children for pageants which often robs them of some of their power.
Luke 1:5-25; 57-80
John the Baptist’s birth and Zechariah’s song
The annunciation and Mary’s visit with Elizabeth
The message of John the Baptist
* I have never heard anyone use the term Advent Hero or Advent Heroine, but I think we are surrounded by them and need to identify them for our own good. Advent hero/ines are people who march into dire situations to do impossible deeds because they believe in a story about the world that makes it possible. Some of them are famous. Some are unknown. And some are fictional characters in children’s books. I’ll be watching for some to mention in connection with specific texts in early Advent. For now, two super powers that Advent heroes and heroines share are:
Advent hero/ines see beyond the present. Because children live so completely in the present, they need to be challenged to realize that things will not always be exactly as they are now. It is easier for them to believe that natural changes will occur, i.e. that they graduate to higher grades, be tall enough to slam dunk a basketball, etc. It is harder to believe that present problems will ever be resolved, i.e. that the people who torment them will change, that unfair situations will be rectified, that family problems will be resolved, etc. They count on the adults to continually point them to a changing future.
Advent hero/ines see more than is just around them. They know God’s story and plan for the world. They know what is fair and loving. When they see things around them that are not as God intends and are not fair and loving, they work to change them. The Advent prophets did this as they pointed out what God wants and what was happening in their world differed. Most of the characters in the Christmas story also did this. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi when confronted with God telling them something that just did not make sense in their world, believed God and acted accordingly.
Nicholas Winton who died this year at the age of 106 single handedly got over 600 Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia just before the Nazis stormed in is an Advent hero. Learn his story HERE. Watch for descriptions of other Advent heroes and heroines in the resources for each week.
Other posts on this blog that you might find helpful include:
* Go to Singing Christmas Carols in Worship with the Children for suggestions about how to highlight Christmas carols in worship and an annotated list of carols children can be drawn into singing. Go to Children Learning and Leading Carols in Worship for one church’s plan for young children to learn one carol each week to lead the congregation in singing as the Advent wreath is lit.
* Christmas Story Books for Worship started with the worship leaders in the lectionary study group I attend sharing story books they have used in worship during Advent and Christmas. It is not a list of all the cool Christmas books I know, but a list of those I can imagine being read in the sanctuary.
* Advent (Not Christmas) Stories for Children lists several children’s books that are Advent rather than Christmas stories. They explore the themes of the early weeks of Advent with children.
* And of course remember to use the Scripture Index to find idea related to specific texts and to check the Topical Index for other Advent-Christmas posts.