How might we introduce Advent to a congregation that has never observed the season? Based on experience with three such congregations, I offer the following general strategies.
1. Tell the congregation why Advent is important to you.
Testimony matters in most of our congregations. I’ve found it useful to fashion and preach a sermon titled “Advent and Me” on the first Sunday of Advent, during which I share how Advent came to my attention and what the observance of Advent has done to strengthen my walk with Christ.
Newsletter articles and blog posts also proved useful.
2. Start with the preaching plan.
As I introduced Advent to the congregations, I encountered little resistance when I announced I would preach a series of sermons designed to prepare us for Christmas and based on Scriptures traditionally associated with Advent.
I opened each sermon with a similar sentence: “On this first (second, third, fourth) Sunday in Advent, I invite you to join me in reflection on (the Scripture passage or passages of the day).
By the time I had finished the series, people were asking quite a few questions about Advent, giving me an opportunity to teach individuals and small groups about the season.
By the time the next Advent season arrived, the church’s leadership was ready to experiment with other elements of Advent.
3. Stress how observing Advent connects your congregation to fellow Christians.
Each Sunday, usually as I read the Scriptures for the day or just before the pastoral prayer, I reminded the congregation that Christians around the world were sharing the experience with us, including our Methodist cousins just down the street.
I found that many in the congregation yearned to feel connected to fellow Christians. When they realized Advent offered one such connector, they embraced the season.
4. Help the congregation see Advent as an alternative to materialism.
My congregations wrestled with the contrast between a consumer-driven and Christ-centered approach to the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I encouraged the leadership to look for positive ways to deal with the matter, to discover and focus on something we could be for rather than something to be against. Advent met the criteria.
As one of the members of a worship planning team put it: “If we consistently offer Scriptures, readings, sermons and activities that center in God’s story, over time we might just drown out Wall Street’s story.”
5. Involve children and youth.
The old truism goes something like this: “If the children and youth are involved, the adults will come along.”
In each congregation, we involved youth and children in the observance of Advent, both in corporate worship and in various activities.
The adults proved supportive as they saw children and youth reading Advent Scriptures or studying Advent-centered lessons in Sunday school.
Church leaders and I stressed that we were using such activities to shape the spiritual development of our youth and children, so that they might grow to be persons centered in Christ.
6. Write an invocation for each Sunday in Advent.
I adopted such a practice with one congregation, titling each prayer according to the Sunday in Advent it was delivered.
The practice helped the congregation identify Advent with the act of prayer, making it easier for them to accept the introduction of the season to the life of the church.
7. Exercise patience.
Few established congregations change easily. Start with whatever you determine the congregation will accommodate, layer in new observances each year, contextualize the practice of Advent for each congregation and wait patiently for Advent to take hold in the hearts and minds of the people.
The end result is worth the wait.
Mike Smith is the senior pastor of Central Baptist Church Fountain City in Knoxville, Tenn.