A few years ago, I started a new Christmas tradition. It’s a kind of advent calendar. Not a groundbreaking tradition, I know, but it’s one that I love.
It’s called the Names of Jesus Advent Calendar. On the last day in November, I hang a piece of string along the wall in my lounge room and attach 24 cards so that I can see the numbers one to 24. Then, starting on December 1, each day, I turn a card over to read the name on the back. It’s one of the many names Jesus is given in the Bible: Messiah, Saviour, Immanuel … the list goes on.
Each card has an accompanying Bible verse to read. A verse that helps me to reflect on why Jesus is given that name and what it tells us about who he is. For me, this has been far more meaningful than opening a box and eating a chocolate each day. None of the things I read is new to me but this little daily routine allows me to take some time to stop and reflect on what Jesus has done for me and what that means in my life.
I’m obviously not the first person to discover how meaningful traditions can be, but it has made me reflect on how we might use traditions to disciple children at Christmas. When it’s time to start thinking about what to do in children’s ministry at Christmas time, we often ask, ‘How can I teach this familiar story in a new way?’. That’s not a bad question to ask but another question to ask is, ‘How do I use this familiar story to deepen children’s faith in Jesus?’.
Children’s ministry is about bringing children to faith in Jesus (as commanded in Psalm 78:1-8) and seeing Christian children mature in their faith. We often view Christmas as an opportune time to preach and teach the gospel to unbelievers, and that is true. But we mustn’t forget that we are teaching children who already have faith, and our goal is to see their faith deepened and strengthened. Christmas is not a time for them, or us, to sit back and stop learning.
With this in mind, here are three things to look for when choosing children’s ministry activities this Christmas.
Find something that grows your faith
There’s no shortage of ideas for Christmas traditions floating around. Whether it is some form of calendar, tree, candles or something else entirely, the thing that will be most effective is the one you are most comfortable with. Children are like lie detectors. They know if you care about what you’re teaching. So, find something that God has or is using to build your faith and share it with the children in your ministry.
Find something that involves the children
I have to admit that part of the joy of my advent cards is getting them out and arranging them on that first day. And then, because there’s something I have to do, it becomes something I look forward to each day. The most effective and meaningful traditions are often the ones in which we are active participants. This is no different for children. The more involved they are, the more engaged they will be with what’s happening.
Use what you’re doing as a teaching moment
When they aren’t used well it’s easy for a tradition to become nothing more than a thing you do, with very little meaning. When used well, traditions are a great way for us to reflect on old things in new ways. My advent cards look quite nice, and I could easily just use them as a Christmas decoration. The act of turning over the card each day isn’t enough on its own. Reading the associated Bible passage and spending a few minutes reflecting and praying is where the true meaning is found. This is what we should aim for in our children’s ministry. Yes, get the children to participate, but don’t stop there. Talk about what you’re doing and why. Read the Bible and pray together. This is how a tradition can help build faith in us and the children we’re discipling.
Here are two ideas for what this might look like in practice.
Use a nativity scene
This is a great way to get children involved in telling the Christmas story to one another. Over the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, you could build your nativity scene. As you build the scene go back to the Bible. Read the story and encourage children to tell it to one another. Each week, choose one character from your scene to focus on. Look at their response to the birth of Jesus and talk about why they responded the way they did. What did the wise men know and believe about Jesus that made them bring gifts fit for a king? What can the wise men teach us about how we should respond to Jesus? This is a great way to use something familiar to explore the story afresh and to encourage children to think more deeply about what this means for them. Annemarie Rivers also shares some creative ways to use the nativity this Christmas.
Use an advent calendar
What I like most about my Names of Jesus Advent Calendar is that it isn’t just about counting down days. Using this in children’s ministry is an excellent way to begin to grasp some of the ways that Jesus is described in the Bible and to think about what it tells us about him. Get the children involved in setting this up and turning cards over. Each lesson you could focus on name of Jesus that is on the card that day. If I chose the four cards that correspond to the Sundays in December this year, they would be The Word, Immanuel, Prince of Peace, and Christ. The great thing about this tradition is that next year you would get to do the same thing with new cards.
It may only be October but I’m already looking forward to getting out my advent cards. Now is the perfect time to be planning Christmas. So, what Christmas tradition can you use to disciple children in your ministry?