CHRISTMAS, ON THE surface, looks like the most wonderful time of year—the season of love, lights, carols, candles, and family reunions, the time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Look a bit deeper, though, and one might notice a more idolatrous narrative shining just as brightly: consumerism.
From Black Friday to New Year’s Day, we are inundated with the commercial demands of Christmas. For many, the list of things to do and gifts to purchase can seem endless. We buy into the mantra that the more money we spend, the more love we convey. We become lost in crowded stores, endless websites, and credit card debt. Christians often struggle to faithfully observe Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for the miraculous birth of Jesus.
While many of us purchase this spurious version of Christmas, a new movement has been born. It’s called Advent Conspiracy (AC), and its participants are seeking to turn Christmas upside down by exchanging consumption for compassion.
“Advent Conspiracy is not a four-point checklist on how to do Christmas. If anything, it’s a chance for us to rediscover the wonder and the mystery of the incarnation and what that means to us personally and what that might mean for the world,” said Greg Holder, lead pastor of The Crossing church in the St. Louis area.
In 2006 Holder and two clergy friends—Rick McKinley, lead pastor of Imago Dei Community in Portland, Ore., and Chris Seay, pastor and lead elder of Ecclesia Church in Houston—realized that they and their parishioners “were getting through the season with no sense of joy or celebration, with almost a sense of survival.” In response, the three pastors formed Advent Conspiracy to help people turn away from the hyper-consumerism of Christmas.
AC’S CORE tenets are quite basic: Worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. When lived out, however, these principles have subversive power to not only turn Christmas upside down but to transform lives.
WORSHIP FULLY. This principle distinguishes AC from other people speaking out against consumerism.
“How we worship and whom we worship begins to shape us as people,” Holder said. “We worship Jesus as King; we make no apologies for that. Christmas is the story of a king entering into our world and our story, calling us to a different way. We’re spending billions of dollars worshiping this king? I don’t think so.”
SPEND LESS. U.S. Americans spent $579 billion from November to December 2012, according to the National Retail Federation. AC pushes back by inviting people to spend less.
In Advent Conspiracy: Can Christmas Still Change the World?—a book and DVD produced by the founders of AC—“radical consumerism” is cited as the fastest growing religion in the world, promising “transcendence, power, pleasure, and fulfillment even as it demands complete devotion.”
“Part of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus is that we say ‘no’ to overspending and to overconsumption,” Holder said. “We don’t say ‘spend nothing,’ but ‘spend less.’”
GIVE MORE. In response to spending less, AC encourages people to give more—not just monetarily, but relationally. The most meaningful gifts, AC organizers suggest, often involve spending time with those you love, making a gift yourself, or purchasing a present from another sustainable source. To give more is to prioritize quality over quantity.
AC encourages people to give some of the money they saved from spending less to those whom Jesus calls “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). For example, Kate Townley—the global outreach director at Journey Church in Bozeman, Mont.—encourages children and congregants to give back to the international community.
“If we can help children and upcoming generations see the benefit in giving, then we have a shot at changing the culture of Christmas—at least within Christianity,” she says. “We are quite convinced that Christmas as-is is not the celebration Christ would want.”
LOVE ALL. By spending less and giving more, people can worship Christ more fully and experience the fourth principle of AC: Love all.
“Picture entire churches,” say the authors of Advent Conspiracy, “deciding that some of the money they are saving by giving relationally and resisting cultural norms should be given to the ‘least of these’ in our communities and world—that’s when Christmas still makes a difference. ... The presents around the tree aren’t stacked quite so high, but the stories of worship and love grow richer and deeper.”
ADVENT CONSPIRACY grew slowly the first few years but has accelerated ever since. The first year, five churches participated, collecting nearly half a million dollars for charity. Since then, reportedly thousands of people from myriad denominations and traditions around the world have taken on the AC challenge. Because AC is not an institution—it’s a movement, a catalytic idea—there is no way of knowing exactly how many individuals, families, churches, and groups have participated over the years. But the vision of AC is taking root around the world.
Since 2006 AC has partnered with Living Water International, resulting in donations for nearly 1,000 clean water projects in more than 20 developing countries. Many churches are now involved directly with Living Water as a result of their connection with AC. (Holder noted that a fraction of the money people in the U.S. spend at retailers during December could supply the entire world with clean water each year.)
Advent Conspiracy recently started sponsoring International Justice Mission (IJM), a human rights organization that combats human trafficking. While people cannot donate directly to AC—it has no staff and no budget—AC encourages participants to give to life-changing organizations, such as IJM and Living Water International.
The Magnificat describes a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” and “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). This radical vision can be found in AC and its capacity to help people of faith rethink Christmas, allowing participants to redefine priorities in service to God and others.
With so many people participating in this conspiracy of compassion, AC’s impact can be felt around the world.
Parishioners at First Evangelical Free Church in Manchester, Mo., where Dawn Manske is a part-time outreach coordinator, raised money through AC to help construct a center for survivors of human trafficking. Manske went with a team to West Bengal, India, to get a first-hand look at the center and to explore the possibility of establishing a partnership with an apparel manufacturer and its employees.
During the trip, Manske met dozens of girls, all between 13 and 16 years old, who had been sold, beaten, tortured, raped, and starved. Manske spoke with several people who encouraged her idea of launching a business to help survivors of trafficking. Her participation in Advent Conspiracy at her home church acted as the catalyst in moving her business—Made for Freedom—from dream to reality.
“AC connected my desire with a mission,” she says. “It helped me think about how we spend our money. I love the idea of buying less and giving more, but if you’re going to buy something, why not buy something that’s significant in multiple ways?”
Several testimonies are also documented in Advent Conspiracy. One story describes how the owner of a private truck line established an optional payroll deduction program for his 15 employees; he matches their deductions, with all proceeds going to Living Water International. Another testimony describes how a South African church threw a Christmas party at a local school for underprivileged persons and gave 750 children gifts they had specifically asked for; the church members’ children came along and celebrated alongside them.
Ecclesia Church, self-described as Houston’s holistic, missional, Christian community, also has multiple events throughout the Advent season to help parishioners engage the tenets of AC. The church hosts an annual Art Market featuring live music and more than 150 tables of products made by Ecclesia members and local artisans, including abstract art, baby clothes, pottery, and other items. A portion of the proceeds go toward AC-sponsored organizations such as Living Water International and IJM. In 2012, the Art Market raised $14,000.
In Portland, Ore., multiple congregations have used parishioners’ AC donations to partner with the city on local social justice initiatives, including poverty, sex trafficking, education, mentoring, and foster care. McKinley, a local pastor, said the churches always choose initiatives that parishioners are passionate about and can work with long term.
“We don’t just cut a check,” McKinley states. “We partner with the city around these projects.” Right now, more than 100 churches are rallying around foster care.
Holder hopes Advent Conspiracy sparks change not only for individuals, churches, and communities, but for generations. He wonders what it would be like for Christmas to look like something different, something deeper, than what many of us grew up with.
“What if Christmas weren’t just for me?” he asks. “What if it were something where we could reach across lines and do this together? If the story of Christmas changed the world once, which I think it did, what if it would continue to do that?”
Sheldon C. Good, a former Sojourners media assistant, is associate director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Washington (D.C.) Community Scholars’ Center.