For bonus content and extended Q&A, scroll down to the Advent Conspiracy Video.
It’s that time of year again—jingle bells are ringing, people are singing, the air is chilly and dry. Christmas lights flicker like glowing embers and couples sip hot cocoa next to a crackling fire. It’s Christmas time, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Or is it?
Car horns are honking, people are yelling, shopping malls are packed to the rim. You’re frantically buying presents, putting it all on a credit card, and stuck in that same routine once again. It’s the most miserable time of the year.
A NOT-SO-MERRY CHRISTMAS
Christmas no longer seems like the holiday it was intended to be. Busyness, stress, and debt bury the season of giving, joy, and peace and make Scrooges of all of us. We’ve replaced a season of celebration with a season of frustration.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that every year, Americans spend more than $450 billion on Christmas. (Yes, you read that correctly.) From sweaters two sizes too large to plastic toys covered in lead-based paint, we’ve mastered the art of spending money on meaningless things while digging ourselves into debt. Do you even remember what gifts you gave or received last Christmas? Be honest with yourself. Are we even celebrating a Christmas that’s Christian anymore?
But what if Christmas doesn’t have to be like this?
A NEW KIND OF CHRISTMAS
Three years ago, a few pastors—including Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder—gathered to discuss ministry when the subject of Christmas came up. They commiserated about their frustration to try to call people to worship who are stressed, busy, and distracted during the Christmas season. In attempt to counteract these negative elements, McKinley, Seay, and Holder decided to lead their churches through the first Advent Conspiracy.
Chris Seay, pastor of Ecclesia Church in Houston, describes his experience: “All of us, unanimously, felt this tremendous tension and pain and dread around the Christmas season and what it means to be a pastor in that season. We had to be honest with each other and say we hated it. We really don’t like to do it. It’s painful. Trying to tell the same stories with a fresh take every year while your people are digging themselves deeper into debt and living in all the things you don’t believe Christmas is about—you feel totally ineffective as a pastor.”
He continues, “We left that deal saying, ‘We’ve got to radically reinvent for our churches what it means to celebrate the birth of the Liberating King and Messiah, or we’re just going to have to basically take a sabbatical every year [because] Christmas is going to burn us out over the long haul.’”
What exactly is Advent Conspiracy? Jeanne McKinley, the director of Advent Conspiracy, describes it as “a catalyst for the church to worship Christ more fully at Christmas.” Furthermore, she states that the organization’s desire is to encourage believers “to resist our culture of consumerism by spending less and giving relational and meaningful gifts to our loved ones, a picture of the relational gift that God gave us in His son, Jesus, as well as showing Christ’s love by giving money we would have spent on things we didn’t need to help people with the greatest needs around the world.” Simply put, Advent Conspiracy embodies a desire to “worship fully, spend less, give more, [and] love all.”
GIVING GIFTS THAT MATTER
By no means is Advent Conspiracy playing the role of the Grinch who steals Christmas. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As Seay says “What we want people to see clearly is this isn’t about not giving gifts to each other; it’s about giving gifts that matter. It’s about making worship the center of Christmas.” What if instead of wasting money on a motorized tie rack, we used that money to save lives? Talk about giving a gift that matters.
Did you know that 3,900 children die every day from water-born illnesses that could have been prevented by the availability of clean water? Nearly 1.6 billion people live without access to clean water—most drink water not even fit for our dogs. And maybe the most shocking part is it would only take $10 billion to end the water crisis and prevent those 3,900 child deaths per day. Remember, Americans spend $450 billion each Christmas.
In light of this crisis, Advent Conspiracy has teamed up with Living Water International to fund clean water wells and help them to continue providing “a cup of water in Jesus’ name.” One hundred percent of what’s given to Advent Conspiracy goes straight to Living Water International, and so far the response has been unbelievable. In 2006, Advent Conspiracy’s first year, four churches raised nearly $400,000. In 2007, around 130 churches participated and more than $3.5 million was donated through Advent Conspiracy to Living Water International, which then redistributed the money to clean water projects, other global projects, and countless local projects.
Seay explains that “much of [last year’s giving] got devoted to a region in Liberia that we visited—you couldn’t find clean water anywhere in that entire region. So we funded over 30 deep-water wells and the whole area has changed. In places like that, to be able to go back and know that kids aren’t going to die anymore and that the community’s going to be changed forever, is a whole lot better than a leather jacket.”
Advent Conspiracy is such a simple concept that even kids get it. According to Seay, the kids at his church concluded, “Well, if we’re celebrating Jesus’ birthday but not giving Jesus any gifts, then something’s missing.” What better gift to give to Jesus than help save lives? What better movement to join than “an international movement restoring the scandal of Christmas by substituting compassion for consumption?”
ENTER THE STORY
Advent Conspiracy is about more than joining a movement; it’s about taking part in a life-changing story. To invite others to participate in that story, the organization has effectively embraced available media and technology. The Advent Conspiracy website—www.adventconspiracy.org—invites you to participate in the story by sharing your own experiences as well as hearing about others. The website even provides video resources, audio resources, and even editable images to help you to share the story. As Jeanne McKinley shares, “We’ve heard story after story of families that had the best Christmas they’ve ever had, free from the brat factor of their kids being spoiled with too many gifts.”
Chris Seay has teamed up with The Work of the People (a Houston-based video production company) to create videos that help bring the story to life. As Seay puts it, “We really think the best way to tell stories involves visual arts and film and media. We just want to communicate as clearly as we can what God is doing across the globe so that at the end of the day we all become more connected to those kids and those people and those families.” Doesn’t this sound like the way Christmas is supposed to be?
Seay continues, “I look back and think, it’s the old kind of Christmas, really. This is a Savior that was born in a stable. Christmas has everything to do with Jesus, and he called us to love one another. When people catch onto that, I get really fired up because I just know that it changes us. Christmas is this unique time where families are together, and when we focus on loving each other, rather than meaningless things, it shifts everything for us. Those things help me realize that when churches and families get on board with making some of these shifts, people’s lives are really changed. That’s why I love it. That’s what we’ve seen at our church and in our family.”
This Christmas, Advent Conspiracy offers you the opportunity to do something radically different. Be a part of a story that’s bigger than you. Instead of purchasing meaningless gifts, celebrate our Savior’s birth by giving gifts that really matter. It’ll not only change your life but also others around the world.
BONUS Q&A WITH CHRIS SEAY AND JEANNE MCKINLEY
COLLIDE: Tell me about the beginnings of Advent Conspiracy.
CHRIS SEAY: It started for us, Rick McKinley and I specifically, in a real honest moment. We have a friend in the Bahamas that will pull us together for some retreats and have time to be honest and real with each other. There’s lots of family and life that get discussed in those times with pastors, and church. But one of those things that we didn’t expect going into it was that all of us, unanimously, felt this tremendous tension and pain and dread around the Christmas season and what it means to be a pastor in that season. We had to be honest with each other and say we hated it. We really don’t like to do it. It’s painful. Trying to tell the same stories with a fresh take every year while your people are digging themselves deeper into debt and living into all the things you don’t believe Christmas is about, you feel totally ineffective as a pastor.
We left that deal going, “we’ve got to radically reinvent for our churches what it means to celebrate the birth of the liberating King and Messiah, or we’re just going to have to basically take a sabbatical every year or Christmas is going to burn us out over the long hall.” Just let the associate pastors preach the whole time during Christmas and pretend like it doesn’t exist. Thankfully we opted for the first, to say “lets really look at the scriptures and see what that looks like and just dive in.”
At Ecclesia, especially, the kids really led the way for us because this whole thing’s just so intuitive. We’ve become acculturated with Christmas traditions and other things that aren’t necessarily helpful and don’t really fit, but kids get it. If it’s Jesus’ birthday, then presents should go to Jesus. They just go, “well that’s just not that hard to figure out.” Even the kids know the Bible well enough to know that if you want to give Jesus something, you’re supposed to give it to the least of these. For them it went, “well, if we’re celebrating Jesus’ birthday but not giving Jesus any gifts, then something’s missing.” What we clearly want people to see is this isn’t about not giving gifts to each other, it’s about giving gifts that matter. It’s about making worship really the center of Christmas.
At Ecclesia, when we began to do that, all the money raised for water just becomes a natural byproduct of what God was doing in our hearts during this season.
So turning that corner was huge for us, I think, and hopefully it’s one that every year we build on and we develop some new traditions. That’s what we’re hoping for.
COLLIDE: What kind of impact has it had so far locally at Ecclesia and globally?
SEAY: This will be the third Christmas we’ve done it. We see it all over. We see it in the life of the church, just the clarity and the sense of mission. I think Christmas helps kick off your year, because it’s the last thing you remember in that year. And when you start your new year every year in debt with focus on material things, you’re guaranteed your next year isn’t going to be what you want it to be. But when you start the new year with this since of let’s simply, let’s love well, let’s give from our abundance to those that really have need, the rest of your year changes. At Ecclesia I can see that play out all year long, and I can look back and go “that goes back to the shift in the way that we celebrate the birth of Christ.” It gives us this real clear sense of mission and clearly, for a church like ours, with a lot of young people, when you start talking about, last year I think it was about 170 something thousand dollars that we gave to clean water, it’s like, wow.…Combined with Rick’s church and Windsor Crossing, I think we were over 800,000 just between the three of our churches.
Much of that got devoted to a region in Liberia that we visited that you couldn’t find clean water anywhere in that entire region. So we funded over 30 deep water wells (these are expensive wells. You have to go, what is it, 30, 000 ft to hit water) and the whole area’s changed. We were going to hospitals and schools and all that stuff. They were drinking muddy, literally sh**ty water. So you go from that to now, throughout this entire region, everybody’s drinking clean water from a well. And that’s just three of the churches. We’ve clearly seen this thing grow far beyond that and a lot of churches are doing a lot of meaningful things.
One of the videos that people can download from the Work of the People, and I’m hoping to go back and visit that place, is one of these sites we showed up to around this muddy hole that they would drink out of. This is the most hostile place we’ve been just because these people were at the break. One of the men standing there with us, his son, I think he was like 4 yrs old, had just died a few days before we got there from cholera he got form the water. Some of the people were almost kinda mocking me going “you wanna take a drink from the well?” It’s not a well, it’s a swampy hole, and there’s no way I could do it. Clearly you could see how people could die from that water. In places like that, to be able to go back and know that kids aren’t going to die anymore and the community’s going to be changed forever, is a whole lot better than a leather jacket.
COLLIDE: Over the last few years, you’ve made a handful of videos for AC. Tell me a little about those videos and why do you feel these videos are important?
SEAY: There’s a hundred reasons, and we all know that any kind of visual is worth more than thousand words. If you can look at that hole that those kids are drinking out of and ask the question, “what would I do so that my kid didn’t have to drink that water,” it takes you to a place you couldn’t go if I described it with words. Doesn’t matter if I’m Anne Lamott, the best writer in the world, it’d be really hard to communicate. For us, we think it’s really important. One of the main reasons is because the place we really get changed is when we see those things. But, say in Liberia, I’d love fore everyone in my church to be able to go see that. But the cost that it would take to bring everybody there, we could drill wells all over Liberia. It makes a whole lot more sense to run a camera and show you and then for us to say, “instead of spending 4 grand on a place ticket to go see if that’s real, let’s send that 4 grand to be a part of funding something really beautiful.”
To be able to take you to those places without buying a plane ticket, to be able to see these places, and to share these stories, it’s the only way I knew how to do it really effectively. Now we just go shoot those on MiniDV, I mean those things cost us like $25, which is insane, and to be able to make those pieces that can have a significant impact like the one there.
We really think the best way we can tell stories are going to involve visual arts and film and media. The sounds and smells are really important there too, and we just want to communicate as clear as well can what God is doing across the globe so that at the end of the day we all become more connected to those kids and those people and those families.
COLLIDE: In making those videos, you got to visit many of the well sites. I specifically remember the Chacocente video where you celebrating a new well with slip’n slides and swimming pools. What are these experiences like?
SEAY: You can’t even calculate it. Again, it’s one of those things we wouldn’t have even done, even though it’s unbelievably important, cause a typical flight to Nicaragua would cost us around $600, but Continental ran a weekend special and we got to go for $129 a piece. They had just finished the well, so to go celebrate it was worth that kind of money. We grilled out. It was just an unbelievable party, better than any I’ve been to for a Super Bowl or birthday or anything else. When you’ve got people that are celebrating the fact that a source of life has come that enables them to farm and shower and have clean water to drink, there’s nothing like it. So it helps us to refocus coming back, to go “man, this is what we gotta do.” And no matter how excited your kid gets about a Nintendo or Playstation or something on Christmas morning, it does not compare to that experience. For us, that’s where we said “which of those would be better?” I think all of us would have to go “I think the celebration of having clean water would be the one we want to be a part of.” What we have to do is figure out how to celebrate those victories, cause they are victories, even though they’re a long way away. When we get to meet those kinds of needs, it changes them and us in big ways.
COLLIDE: How has Advent Conspiracy changed your personal Christmas experience?
SEAY: Especially for me, and this is just part of being a pastor, I think everybody’s busy in that season, but I think pastors can be especially busy with what’s going on and what has to happen at the church and you’ve got services literally on Christmas Eve. For me, my kids don’t want the stuff I can buy them, they really want me. That clarity for me around this season, what I have to give to them, what I have to give to my grandparents. I mean, my grandparents would be thrilled if I bought them a little trinket or gift or whatever, but for me to go spend a day with them, that’s really what matters to them.
That kind of clarity, which AC has brought to me personally, has changed a lot of our family dynamic. We all, to some degree if you’re a parent, have this temptation to buy your way out of things with your kids. Saying, “I didn’t do this, I didn’t do that.” Tempted to buy out of guilt or out of a desire to please them in a way that may not necessarily be healthy or good. So, coming to this place and going “what my kids really need most from me is my love expressed to them in real and tangible ways that are never best expressed with consumer items.”
COLIDE: Why should Christians embrace AC?
SEAY: I look back and go, it’s the old kind of Christmas, really. This is a Savior that was born in a stable. How we can move from the kind of simplicity that this King was born into, that clearly could have been born in the most extravagant circumstances, and that lived a life and declared to us that “if you want to love me, then love the least of these, love the poor.” We might be celebrating a Christmas that’s not even Christian. I think we’ve seen that. The rest of the culture has been crying out of that for a while. It’s one of those great tensions for us that I think sometimes it’s been misplaced. We’re upset because Christmas has lost it’s meaning, but then we get angry because they’re saying “happy holidays” at Best Buy and Circuit City and we want them to say Merry Christmas. My response is just the opposite. Best Buy and Circuit City do not represent what Christmas is about. That’s maybe the worst place we can evoke the name of Christ. It has nothing do to with Christmas. Christmas has everything to do with Jesus, and he called us to love one another. When people catch onto that, I get really fired up because I just know that it changes us. Christmas is this unique time where families are together, and when we focus on loving each other, rather than meaningless things, it shifts everything for us. Those things help me realize when churches and families get on board with making some of these shifts, people’s lives are really changed. That’s why I love it. That’s what we’ve seen at our church and in our family.
COLLIDE: How did the idea of Advent Conspiracy come about?
MCKINLEY: The idea of [AC] came about when Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, Greg Holder and a couple of other pastors were spending time together talking about ministry when the topic of the difficulty of leading their communities in worship through the Christmas season came up. How the distractions of the culture are so intense and how frustrating it can be to try to call people into worship when they are completely stressed, busy and want to celebrate Christ’s birth but are so distracted. They also talked of the consumerism of our culture and of the water crisis and needs around the world. They decided to try something different and lead their churches through the first Advent Conspiracy.
COLLIDE: Why should Christians/churches be a part of this?
MCKINLEY: Because Christmas is our story to tell, the birth of Christ is one thing we all agree on. Over $450 Billion is spent in America at Christmas. It would only take $10 Billion a year to solve the water crisis in the world. The stats speak for themselves, even if you aren’t a Christ follower; but as the Church, to stand together and to be a prophetic voice in our culture of consumerism is life changing, to not only those who receive the gifts of clean water, or help in their most basic needs, but for those who participate and get to experience a Christmas free of the stress of shopping for meaningless gifts, overspending and worrying about how they are going to pay for it later. Instead [they] are focusing on leading their families through Christ’s story, enjoying the family time and creativity of coming up with relational gifts for family members who then feel truly loved and known. But most of all, being truly engaged in worshipping God makes it the best Christmas we’ve ever had.
COLLIDE: What kind of impact has it had so far and what results are you experiencing?
MCKINLEY: In 2006 4 churches raised $400,000. Last year only hearing from about 130 participating churches-though over 1200 signed up, over $3.5 million was redistributed to clean water projects, other global projects and countless local projects. We had every denomination from Baptist to Catholic participating; it was an incredibly beautiful picture of unity in the Church.
This is just the beginning.
We heard story after story of families that had the best Christmas they had ever had, free from the brat factor of their kids being spoiled with too many gifts. We saw our kids excited to give their siblings and parents what they had made rather than whining about wanting to open their presents. Families able to come together and enjoy each other with Christ at the center of it all. Later, we heard stories of children who wanted their friends to bring money to their birthday parties for the kids who don’t have clean water, so they could help. A church who began their building fund project this year by giving away their first weeks’ offering for their new building to other churches in town having their own building campaigns. This has changed the way we look at our daily spending and helped us reevaluate our “needs” and think of ways to love others and give relationally and creatively throughout the rest of the year as well.
COLLIDE: Tell us about your relationship with Living Water.
MCKINLEY: The relationship with Living Water came before [AC] and was a natural progression to partner with them in their incredible work of “giving a cup of water in Jesus’ name.” 100% of Advent Conspiracy donations go to the well projects. With every well that is completed, every picture and story they share with us, our hearts are blessed and lives are changed.
COLLIDE: What alternatives are you offering for Christmas?
MCKINLEY: Worship fully, engage Christ’s story by choosing to spend less, give relational, meaningful gifts. Something homemade, something that has meaning not another gift card. Take the money you didn’t spend and give it to help end the water crisis or any other need around us that God is calling you to be a part of!
COLLIDE: On your new website you have a section labeled “Enter the Story.” How are you using this to encourage people to share their story of celebrating Christmas?
MCKINLEY: Our interactive map is a way for people to share their story as we all Enter Christ’s story together. It’s a great way to get inspired by what others are doing, get ideas from their stories and also to see the breadth of [AC] as a whole. We’re excited to see the map fill up with stories and pictures.
COLLIDE: How has Advent Conspiracy change the way you personally celebrate Christmas?
MCKINELY: It’s changed everything. We have 4 children who were between the ages of 14&7 when we started this. There was a moment of “Oh great, Dad has had another idea and now Christmas is over.” But that was just a moment. We’ve had so much fun working on presents for the family together before Christmas, planning and really thinking hard about what would be meaningful for each person. It’s been incredible watching my teenage son get so excited about it that he helped lead his youth group’s project last year. We worked together as a family at our church’s almost free store where families in need could come pick out presents for their children where they might not have had anything for Christmas. It was beautiful to be at church together with out the to do list running through my head as I halfway listened to a sermon, then Christmas morning to watch my kids fight over who gets to give a present next because they are so excited about what they made instead of fighting about who gets to open one next. We cut presents down to one each from us to the kids and fun but inexpensive stockings. We encouraged our extended family to give more relationally instead of a lot of “stuff.” We all enjoyed season of way less stress, free from the obligation of getting “something” for everyone. It’s meant so much each time we hear another well report and see pictures of children running in clean water wells where they won’t have to be sick from drinking dirty water anymore, knowing that those presents that we didn’t buy and that we wouldn’t have remembered anyway, have been given to help change someone’s life and are a picture of Emmanuel, Christ with us.
COLLIDE: How can anyone join the Advent Conspiracy?
MCKINLEY: Talk with your family, talk with your church. Choose to celebrate Christmas differently this year. Worship Christ fully, spend less, give more and love all! It’s pretty simple yet so profound.