Every December it’s the same hopeful mantra: This year, Christmas will be different. I’m going to find a way to slow down and focus on “the reason for the season.” I’ll find the time to really concentrate on Jesus and help the teenagers in my ministry do the same.”
Then, with a determined face, we work hard to make that happen. And we don’t get very far before the current of the season overwhelms the momentum of our convictions. We’re swimming as hard as we can, but we’re swimming upstream. Then we’re forced to make excuses for our inability to get on top of things, or admit we don’t have the will to make it happen. In the worst-case scenario, we kick off a cycle of shame that underscores what a screw-up/victim we really are.
That’s why I think “preparing for the Christmas season” is way overrated as a goal. When it comes to our relationship with Jesus, it’s actually better to under-prepare.Click to tweet
Here’s what I mean: In any other intimate relationship, we’d find it offensive if our beloved repeatedly told us how hard it is to pay attention to us, or what an inconvenience it is to stop long enough to listen to us, or how easy it is to habitually take us for granted. This cycle of vowing to do better and then failing in the exact same way every time frames our relationship with Jesus as a “should,” driving a stake through the heart of intimacy. Under-preparing means we invite Jesus into our holiday momentum—into the nooks and crannies of our double-duty life leading up to Christmas.
Consider this illustration:
In Stockholm, Sweden, researchers at Volkswagen were searching for ways to influence people to be more physically active in everyday life. (Our efforts to get in better shape follow a similar cycle of shame as our yearly Advent vows to focus on Jesus more.) So the Swedes devised an inventive way to get people exercising—one that capitalized on their natural inclinations and momentum. At subway stops throughout the city, you can ride an escalator up to the street level or climb stairs. Most people plant themselves on the escalator and let it do the work. So, working all night, a swarming team of technicians transformed the stairs leading out of the Odenplan subway stop into a giant functioning piano keyboard. The steps, mapped to look exactly like the progression of black and white keys on a real piano, each produced the sound of a corresponding musical note when stepped on. Then the planners mounted video cameras at the base of the stairs to record what happened when commuters showed up in the morning.
Travelers first stopped, surprised by the sight, and then began experimenting with the stairs. Many not only climbed the stairs but also hopped around on them, trying to “play” music instead of trudging their way up. Stair-climbing was transformed from work into a playful experience. Volkswagen researchers found that the “musical stairs” diverted 66 percent more people than normal onto the staircase and away from the escalator. They managed to entice commuters into a “fitness” behavior they never would have considered otherwise. People weren’t shoulding themselves to choose a healthier option; they were caught up in an experience that made them forget about the work of physical fitness. (Check out some footage here.)
Here’s how you can do the same as the Christmas season begins:
1. Play with Jesus—Instead of compartmentalizing your relationship with your Savior, simply invite him into what you’re already doing. If you’re shopping for Christmas gifts at a mall, for example, make a playful connection to Jesus by asking him to show you an inexpensive gift that he knows will delight someone. Put it in a gift bag and write a note that says, “A little gift for you, from someone who appreciates you.” As you’re leaving the mall, walk through the food court, asking Jesus for the right opportunity to give your gift. Set it on a table when the occupants won’t notice, and then walk away.
2. Choose a word a day—Every day until Christmas, ask Jesus to help you choose a different word that expresses his beauty; for example, grace, humility, fierceness, passion, or tenderness. As you go through your day, when you’re in-between things, simply thank Jesus, using your word of the day, over and over under your breath: “Tenderness—thank you for how tender you are, Jesus.”
3. Go puddle-jumping—Because it’s tough to find the time, or slow down your pace, to sink deeply into Jesus through conventional Bible study, try something that takes little time and effort but exercises your dependence on him. Every day, simply ask Jesus to give you the name of one of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and then a chapter and verse. Whatever gospel/chapter/verse comes to mind, flip there and ask Jesus to show you his heart—what he’s really like at his core—as you mull what you read. Read the context around your chosen verse if you want, but confine your “mulling” to the one verse so it’s easy to remember. We skip over a lot of small details about Jesus as if they were mud puddles. Instead, stop to wallow in a new one every day.
These three examples of under-preparing for Christmas are focused for your own life. In truth, your own soul is your primary youth ministry tool. As you under-prepare by inviting Jesus into your already-existing momentum, teenagers will sense the change in you. It’s also worth considering, with your leadership team, ways you can under-prepare with teenagers as you steam ahead toward December 25.