By Michael C. Mack
Many groups struggle with meeting and studying over the holidays, and this can be detrimental to the health of your group. Not only that, but this is a prime time of the year to help your group members grow in their faith and invite new people. Perhaps your group will take a break from its normal schedule, but that’s no reason to stop meeting. Here are seven ideas for how your small group can get the most—and give the most—from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
1. Experience Christmas.
This is one of the most wonderful times of the year to grow together in your understanding of the gospel story. The Christmas Experience, from City on a Hill, is a great place to start. This is more than just a nice Christmas study; I believe it will be an experience you and your group will remember for a long time. I wrote the study guides for The Christmas Experience, and I don’t want to sound overdramatic, but I loved watching the videos for this study.
Kyle Idleman brought out insights I had never considered and helped me see this very familiar story in new ways. More than that, however, as I watched the dramatic presentation of the Christmas story, I was moved in ways I didn’t expect. As your group experiences this material, I believe they will be moved as well, and they will grow not only to know the story better, but to know God more intimately. (See the sidebar for more information.)
2. Celebrate Immanuel.
This Christmas, move past the historical Jesus who was born and lived 2,000 years ago. Consider the living Christ who is still Immanuel, God with us, the one who is with us whenever we gather together in his name. As a group, discuss and prepare to celebrate the event of events when the creator of the universe made himself nothing and took the form of human flesh, a baby, a humble servant, a sacrifice for our sins.
Don’t reserve worship for your Christmas Eve services at the church building. Build up to that celebration by singing worshipful hymns together as a group and finding other ways to praise God for what he did by lovingly sending his only Son into the world.
Remember the folks in your circles who struggle this time of year. Many people—inside your group and among your group members’ friends—are vulnerable during the holidays. Many hurting people find it difficult to be thankful at Thanksgiving and come to Christmas feeling like God is far away. They desperately want to know Immanuel: God with them—but he seems more like Exmanuel: God used to be with me, but now I feel like he’s left me. Or, I feel like he is so external to my current experience.
This is one of the best times of year for a small group to reach out to these folks and love them, invite them into your celebrations, and invite them to know more than the “baby Jesus”—to develop a relationship with the One who died for them and lives today. People are not only vulnerable, they are open to an invitation to connect during the holidays.
4. Give Gifts.
Years ago, I read Dick Alexander’s sage advice about gift giving and I’ve never forgotten it. “Gifts are an integral part of Christmas,” he said, “but they can either express or distort its meaning.” He suggested limiting or even eliminating our gift giving to one another (in the family or small group). Your family or group may usually exchange gifts with one another (even though it is Jesus’ birth we’re celebrating). Instead, give gifts to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45).
As the body of Christ in action, your group has the privilege of penetrating the culture by serving people. After all, that’s what the Incarnation is all about. Here are a few ideas:
• Eric Bingaman shared what his small groups at Batesville (Indiana) Christian Church have done: “Small groups brought in residents of a group home for a Thanksgiving dinner. One group took a Saturday to watch the children of church members so they could get their shopping accomplished. Groups often adopt members of the congregation or community for the holiday. One group went door-to-door Christmas caroling in their neighborhood.”
• Chris McCall, small groups and care pastor at Watermark Church in Ashford, Alabama, said, “Our groups have connected with the local schools in our community to provide Christmas for needy families. Groups enjoy it because it’s more than providing gifts for the families; it’s about the relationships built with the families they provided for. A number of our groups have taken this opportunity to help them minister to the families outside of the holiday season throughout the year.”
5. Start Some New Traditions.
For most of us, the holidays are about traditions: taking a drive to see the lights, decorating the house together, going to local events, and, of course, going to church services. Why not invite those from your group or others who are lonely to join you in some of your traditions? One Thanksgiving, I got to know a young man named Mark who lived at a homeless shelter. I invited Mark to some of our family and church events during the holidays, and he enjoyed spending time with us. Mark had many needs, some of which we could not provide for, but we could reach out to him and offer him friendship, hospitality, and the love of Jesus. My family and I also benefitted from inviting Mark into our family traditions. His presence with us made those traditions even more meaningful for us. It’s easy to sing, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”; it’s another thing to go tell a homeless person that Jesus Christ is born.
Start new traditions with your small group. Each year several groups at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, help provide Thanksgiving meals for families who would otherwise not have a nice meal. The small groups not only buy the meals, but also deliver them and pray for the families. Many of the groups at Northeast also work with Operation Christmas Child each year. One group basically “owns” this event, organizing it months in advance, helping collect shoe boxes, and running the distribution center on our church property. Your small group tradition can be little or big; what matters is to do something together for the least of these.
6. Throw a Party.
The holidays are an excellent time for a party with a purpose. Be creative: make it a story party, where each person comes prepared to share a short story about a Christmas past; or have a birthday party for Jesus with the kids. The main thing is to make this a party to which everyone can invite friends, especially those who don’t fully understand the meaning of Christmas. As Jesus did with Matthew’s friends in Matthew 9, simply enjoy the opportunity to connect with one another, and see what God will do.
7. Plan for a New Year.
Sometime in December or early January, group members should have a fun gathering during which you can plan for 2014. Start thinking and preparing for this planning party now, in November. Next month I’ll share more ideas for this planning.
For many of us, the holidays are the biz, biz, busiest time of the year. Talk to your group members now about some of the things you won’t do this year so that you will experience Immanuel—God with us—and be an Incarnational small group by taking the message of Jesus into the world around you.
Michael Mack is the author of 14 small group books and discussion guides, including I’m a Leader . . . Now What? (Standard Publishing, www.standardpub.com). He also leads church training events and consults with churches through his ministry, Small Group Leadership (www.smallgroupleadership.com).
The Christmas Experience
The Christmas Experience is a six-week, DVD-driven small group study that examines the Christmas story in detail, helping groups (and families) prepare for the Christmas season. Each episode focuses on how God chose each individual in the Christmas story for a specific purpose. Those participating in The Christmas Experience study will find themselves in the story as they learn what happened then changes everything now.
While this is a six-session study, it includes several options for doing the study in, for instance, four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The leader’s guide and participant’s discussion guide are designed to help groups interact with this material and to grow together as they experience it together.
The Christmas Experience Small Group Study includes:
• Six 30-minute episodes on two DVDs
• Subtitle options including: English, Spanish, and French
• Leader’s tutorial video
• Printed leader’s guide for facilitating dynamic group discussions
• Printed participant’s guide (additional guides sold separately)
Readers of the Group Think column will receive a 25 percent discount by purchasing The Christmas Experience from the City on a Hill website at www.cityonahillproductions.com. Go to the store and click on Christmas. Use coupon code STCE25P at checkout for your discount.