The Christian season of Advent that culminates in Christmas is such a wondrous time in the lives of many churches. Throughout this month churches across the Eastern PA Conference have been:
- performing in Christmas pageants, parades cantatas and concerts, including Handel’s Messiah;
- staging live nativity scenes and singing carols in their communities;
- hanging greens, decorating trees and beautifying their buildings and grounds;
- hosting special community lunches and dinners and special mission outreach events;
- making, buying and sharing gifts, like Angel Tree presents for children of incarcerated parents;
- joining in Advent worship services and Bible studies;
- and even offering Quiet Christmas or Blue Christmas services for persons needing to welcome Christ’s birth and healing presence in the midst of their grief over profound regrets or loved ones they have lost. Here is how Wesley UMC in Bethlehem describes their service:
It is an opportunity to acknowledge grief and sadness. It is an invitation to let the disappointments you carry bring you into deeper relationship with God. Many think the mountaintop experiences are what draw us closer to God—but this time together will give us pause to consider the ways that God works most powerfully in darkness.
Whether joyous or contemplative, the church events and activities preceding Christmas Eve’s candlelight services seem to fill our calendars and our region like the host of heaven’s angels filled the silent night sky over two millennia ago with songs to herald the miraculous birth of a savior. And like the angels, our churches have been busy sharing messages of hope, ministries of hospitality and a mission to help others know and experience the love and liberating gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here are just several examples from church leaders who were kind enough to share news and photos of their Advent events with us, so that we could fulfill perhaps the most important mission given to us during this holy season: to spread the good news. Visit our Local Church Events webpage to see more.
Mount Pocono UMC’s annual, free, Christmas dinner for neighbors was a huge success, according to the Rev. Kofi Ashley, pastor. About 300 people came for the sumptuous, catered feast— ham, turkey, stuffing, mac & cheese, green beans, mashed potatoes, applesauce, members’ homemade desserts and much more. Leftover meals went to the local Feeding Families anti-hunger organization. Other churches in Mt. Pocono’s Mission Connection (MountainHome, Tobyhanna, Blakelee, Keokee Chapel and Pocono Lake) contributed to the dinner. About 80 volunteers, including 25 Girl Scouts, helped to serve and sang Christmas carols.
Somerton UMC in Philadelphia sponsored a Sunday evening Christmas Art & Musical Celebration and benefit Dec. 17, that drew 58 attendees and raised nearly $7,000 for its Liberian Education Project (LEP). The mission, started by church members in 2008, has helped build one school and renovate another in Liberia, while funding payment of teachers. It also helped dig a well, erect sanitation facilities and supported urgent public health education to combat the recent spread of deadly Ebola in Liberia. Learn more on the LEP website.
The fundraising event featured a stirring performance by professional vocalist Kris Ballerini, singing about Jesus’s mother Mary, and gifted artist Elva Hurst who painted a colorful nativity scene in chalk while sharing her own testimony of depicting God’s story through her art. “Our hearts were warmed and inspired to share our blessings with those in need in Liberia with hopes that our donations will bring the gift of education,” said East District Lay Leader Karen Fisher, who attended the event. “The night was a success of love during this season of light.”
Rolling Hills UMC in Pipersville hosted the Central Bucks County Toys for Tots Christmas gifting celebration for the second consecutive year. The church served as a sorting and distribution center. The Rev. Steve McComas shared with us a note of thanks from a U.S. Marine coordinator of the successful program:
We have assisted over 7,000 children throughout the county with about 30,000 toys. At our location in Rolling Hills UMC alone we have assisted over 2,400, with almost 11,000 toys. Yes, 11,000 toys have passed through your doors this year, including around 70 bikes. It’s a heck of an operation those ladies have been handling there.
Faith UMC in Lititz, since 2012, has donated its entire Christmas Eve worship offering to the Udobo Pre-School in Durban, South Africa, to “benefit the children there in honor of the birth of Christ.” Members are encouraged to save up their offerings for weeks before the service and to give generously.
Messiah UMC in Lafayette Hill offers members a similar Christmas Challenge to save and donate to its Christmas Eve mission offering. Their generosity—extending from mid-December to mid-January—currently benefits Cradles to Crayons, an agency that “provides children living in poverty with items that they need to thrive at home, school, and play.”
And Haws Avenue UMC in Norristown hosted the Glad Tidings Christmas Shop, a joint ministry of the SoMoCo (Southern Montgomery County) Mission Connection. Here is a detailed account of this collaborative, impactful ministry—including how it was done—offered by the Rev. Sue Ketterer and Cindy Scheetz:
During Advent 2016, Pastor Sue Ketterer (Bethel Hill UMC, Lansdale) got several calls from mothers and grandmothers from the Norristown area who were trying to make ends meet and asking for help with Christmas presents. What if a Christmas shop could supply gifts at a greatly reduced cost for folks in similar situations? Sue took her idea to the SoMoCo Mission Connection (eight churches in Southern Montgomery County: Bethel Hill, Conshohocken, Lansdale: First, Lansdale: Christ, Sanctuary, Messiah, Haws Avenue and Norristown: Asbury).
A team was formed, a name chosen: Glad Tidings Christmas Shop, and plans got underway. Over the course of the year, churches found ways to gather donations, including Christmas in July and Angel Tree collections. Cash was also collected and used to purchase a $50 Giant gift card for every family attending, as well as additional gifts.
Pre-registered customers were received from Haws Avenue Preschool, Crayon Kids, and some contacts from Pastor Sue Ketterer.
Many adults and youth from almost all of our Mission Connection churches helped us carry donations to the 2nd floor and basement social hall of Haws Avenue UMC Dec. 1. Many more came to help on the day of the event, Dec. 2, and were stationed everywhere, including cooking in the kitchen.
After parents checked in starting at 10 AM, children were guided downstairs where they could shop for free for members in their household. They had a visit with Santa and a souvenir picture, heard the Christmas story from Mrs. Claus and made a craft. A team helped them wrap their presents. The whole family was invited to stay for lunch beginning at 11:00 a.m.
The parents were asked to give $5.00 for which they received 25 Santa bucks. Gifts were priced at about 25% of their value, so parents were able to “purchase” over $100 worth of gifts. We had so many gift donations, we were able to let the parents shop for two additional items. We also gave away several door prizes. These included 2 4-person pass to the Please Touch Museum, a Kindle Fire, an autographed Flyer’s hockey puck, other gift cards from Giant, Weis, Kohl’s, Walmart and Target.
The leftover lunch food was donated to the Salvation Army. The leftover gifts were donated to Haws Avenue UMC for their food kitchen folks and other ministries.
We set out to create a Christmas shop that would help the families but also would allow us to enjoy fellowship together and create relationships. We believe we had a good start to doing just that. Families went home with fliers in their bags inviting them to participate in the various Christmas services and activities at Haws Avenue UMC.
The entire day was a blessing to see the excitement in people’s faces and being able to spread the love of Christ through the celebration of his birth. What a pleasure to see so many folks come out and help and make the set-up and clean-up go so smoothly!
Everyone who volunteered for this wonderful project was truly blessed by meeting the families and sharing the joyful spirit of Christmas with them. All of the families were so thankful and their smiles and laughter demonstrated that we helped make their Christmas special.