The Christmas shopping season is upon us. But perhaps there is an alternative to the culture of buy, buy, buy. Perhaps there are other ways to remember the Incarnation, forge community, and partake in Christmas giving. In this interview, Josh Butler describes his work with the Advent Conspiracy, an organization that challenges popular consumerist responses to Christmas and seeks to recapture that sense that there is something prophetic and countercultural about Christmas, that a different kingdom is being celebrated when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Tell me, how did the Advent Conspiracy get started?
Josh Butler (JB): Rick McKinley, our head pastor, got together with four other pastors from around the country, and they were talking about how much they dreaded the Christmas season. The Christmas story is a powerful core of our faith—Christ comes into the world!—but it seems to have been co-opted in our lives and taken captive by the noise and materialism of Christmas in our culture; it’s been made so trite. The question arose: how can we as followers of Jesus celebrate his birth prophetically in a way that places worship of Jesus rather than consumerism at the center of the season? We wanted to elevate the peace of Christ over the frenzied rush of the shopping malls and our identity as disciples over our identity as consumers. We found ourselves challenged by how far we’ve strayed as churches from what the Christmas season is all about, and it was the story of Jesus’s birth that really kick-started the conversation around the Advent Conspiracy.
TOJ: Where did the term Advent Conspiracy come from?
JB: I remember that the first sermon Rick preached on it explored the historical and political context of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ’s birth—how Jesus is coming into the world and the empire is threatened, seeking to kill the baby. Herod kills thousands of babies in an attempt to snuff out the coming king. When Jesus shows up there’s a conspiracy afoot, so to speak; there’s another kingdom that is breaking into the kingdom of this world, and the empire feels threatened. The Christmas story really has a tragically sad and politically loaded, beginning—all these children being killed because of the empire’s fear of God’s kingdom. And so worship of the baby was a subversive act in many respects: it resisted the empire and looked to the kingdom. Yet today, when we celebrate Jesus’s birth, that subversive challenge appears to have been lost. The empire rejoices at Christmas today because it means we spend more money as consumers on stuff we don’t need while God’s kingdom has been shuffled to the margins of attention. Worship and the empire now walk hand-in-hand, and Jesus’s birth becomes our motivation to spend even more in a culture of excess. The term Advent Conspiracy seeks to recapture that sense that there is something prophetic, something countercultural, about Christmas; a different kingdom is being celebrated when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.
TOJ: I love the term, and that’s great background to the story. How have the Advent Conspiracy and your church handled these issues of consumption and gift buying, which pervade the Christmas season?
JB: We recognized right away that we didn’t want the message to be “don’t celebrate Christmas”—we should celebrate Christmas!—but rather a re-envisioning of how we celebrate Christmas in a way that is true to the story.
Giving is central to the Christmas story. At the heart of the Christmas story is God giving us a gift, the greatest gift, but God didn’t give us an iPod or an Xbox; he gave us his Son. God gave relationally at Christmas: he gave us himself. So we wanted to ask, how can we give relationally? How can we give of ourselves to one another? Advent Conspiracy is not a message of “don’t give,” it’s actually a message of “give more,” give relationally, give of yourself, celebrate Jesus’s birth by giving yourself away to those around you.
So for example, instead of spending $200 on an Xbox, a father could spend $10 on a baseball bat and spend time playing ball with his kid. A family could host a feast for their friends with candles and wine and good music instead of flooding them with useless trinkets that will quickly find their way into the trash. For that couple that always seems worn out from the kids, you could give a night of babysitting so they can get a night out on the town. Perhaps your elderly neighbor could use their lawn being mowed, or you could treat a close friend to a night out at a local concert like you used to, or a child in your life could use a copy of that classic book you loved that you could both talk about as they read it.
The opportunities are endless, and what we begin to see is that in reality, relational giving requires more of us, not less—it’s easier to buy your kids toys than to spend time with them. But we’ve found it to be a more fun, more creative, and more life-giving way to give. And you still spend money, but you spend a lot less. I’ve heard that the average American family spends nearly $1,000 on Christmas every year—what if instead, we spent $200 to $300 on more creative, relational gifts like the ones I described earlier, and then we took the extra $700 or $800 that we would have spent otherwise and gave it to the world in ways that are more meaningful and significant? Like clean water in areas where children are dying for lack of it.
TOJ: Have you as a church organized specific activities going into the Christmas season? Or has it been more of an encouragement for people to go do things organically in the community, like taking care of the elderly?
JB: Every year we do a relational giving fair, where a bunch of folks from the church who know how to make cool things share their knowledge with the rest of us. We have live music and thirty to forty booths around the room with different samples, workshops, instructions, et cetera. My wife is great at making things like handmade soap and candles, so she has usually taught that. People bring their skills and creative ideas, including making your own greeting cards or “video letters” (for distant relatives), storybooking, making a good mix CD, delicious recipes, kids’ activities, and more. It’s a fun opportunity for the whole community to come together, have a good time, and celebrate the season.
We also provide an events guide and a relational gift-giving guide. The events guide lists local events going on around Portland—most are free of charge and offer a great way to get out on the town with friends or family and spend time together. It includes things like Christmas choirs and plays, Peacock Lane (the famous Christmas lights street), the lighting of the Christmas tree, and things of that nature. There are lots of fun and inexpensive events around town for family and friends to get out and spend time together.
The relational gift-giving guide is filled with creative gift ideas on ways to give relationally to those you love.
TOJ: Is that relational gift giving guide on the internet, on your website?
JB: There are many resources now out on the Advent Conspiracy website: www.adventconspiracy.org.
TOJ: How is it pastorally that you manage the relationships, if you will, of the children, the parents, and even the extended family to kind of get them all moving in the right direction?
JB: That is a really important question. As parents, we all know that our kids’ friends are getting loads of new toys and clothes, and we don’t want our kids to be left feeling like “Jesus sucks, he stole our presents.” Similarly, it’s really awkward to be at Christmas with your in-laws, open a gift with that brand new Rolex they got you, and then watch them open the funky scarf you tried making them. We’ve found it’s important to invite your children and parents into the story of what you’re doing.
For example, many of our kids have learned about clean water issues around the world during Advent and have gotten inspired by what God is doing around the world. One year, my friend’s young son saved his money for a few months from chores and neighborhood jobs. He had saved up around $40 in his piggy bank, and during the big Advent Offering my friend was surprised to see his son walking forward during the offering time—he didn’t realize his son had brought his piggy bank to church that morning to contribute to the offering. And his son gladly put his whole savings in the offering! When asked about it, he said he wanted to worship Jesus by giving of himself to the other children that God loved in the world. If we tell the story well and invite them in with us, I think our kids can really enter into Christmas in bigger ways than we give them credit for.
There is another story of a grown-up woman in our congregation who was nervous about Advent Conspiracy the first year because of her family, but felt God calling her into it. One of her relational gifts to her family was a meaningful letter to her mom with a Starbucks gift card so they could go out for coffee while she was home for the holidays and talk, just the two of them. She said her and her mother had a difficult history together and often used the rest of the family as a buffer to not deal with one another. The mix of the letter and the coffee date tore down ancient walls in their relationship and began a process of immense healing between them as mother and daughter.
There have been many stories of families in our congregation experiencing depth together and healing through approaching Christmas in ways like this. We’ve heard people say things to the effect of, “I went into this thinking, ‘How is my family going to respond? It will seem like I don’t love them if I’m not giving them something expensive.’ But what I’ve actually found is that this has required more of me rather than less. I’ve had to be more creative and thoughtful; I’ve had to put far more of myself into the gifts, and that’s actually communicated to the people in my life a greater sense of being loved and valued by me. And it’s been more fun!”
TOJ: That’s very interesting. Are you aware of other churches that have embraced Advent Conspiracy and are also trying to do it on a systematic sort of basis?
JB: Yes. The first year we went into this with five other churches. The next year I believe there was something like 400 churches on board. Last year we heard about upwards of 1,200 churches, and I believe this year it’s looking like somewhere in the thousands. There’s also a diverse array of denominations. I’ve heard that a strong mix of evangelical, Lutheran, Catholic, Pentecostal, and other kinds of churches are participating. It’s great to see the ecumenical flavor of what God’s doing. Of course, it’s also a viral, decentralized movement, so we have the impression there are many more people who’ve been inspired to re-imagine Christmas along similar lines, though we may not be aware of them. We encourage people to log-on at the Advent Conspiracy website (www.adventconspiracy.org) to share stories, so we can rejoice together in the broader movement that God is doing.
TOJ: Wow, that’s amazing. What was the first year of the Advent Conspiracy? And do you know when the promotional video on the website was created?
JB: It started back in 2006. And I believe that the video came out in September or October of 2008, leading into the Christmas season.
TOJ: That video was the first time I learned about Advent Conspiracy. My wife saw it somewhere, and then she showed me, which shows the effectiveness of your viral media strategy. It’s kind of crazy, but that’s cool—1,200 churches.
How have you seen it, like at your church in particular, or maybe at other churches that you’ve heard about, as you’ve gone from the first year to the second year to the third year and now into the fourth year? Is it becoming a little bit like you need to move away from the Advent Conspiracy, that it has kind of normalized, or is it kind of expected to be a part of the Christmas season? How has that worked out?
JB: It’s become part of our yearly rhythm, and while we’ve become more accustomed to the rhythm of it, it still feels fresh each year; I think because it still cuts against the grain of the surrounding cultural pressure for the Christmas season. The first year I think we were asking questions more like, “How will my kids respond? What will my family think?” But now that most of us feel a lot more confident in those areas, I believe it has freed us as disciples to pour more creative energy into questions like, “How can we take it to the next level this year? How can I show a greater depth of love to the people in my life, to our city and our world?”
As we approach this Christmas season, everyone already seems excited about it. Throughout the year, we share the stories of what is happening with the Advent Offering that came in. For example, we’ve done a lot with clean water initiatives globally, and we get to hear the stories throughout the year of communities in other parts of the world who now have clean water to drink, so their children are no longer sick and dying, and they know it has come from Jesus and the celebration of his birthday. This year we also gave a gift to our city toward a high-school dropout initiative and a homeless initiative, and globally, we’ve been involved in Cambodia with a local church in a slum community who are bringing healing and transformation to their neighbors. The stories coming out of that have been really powerful, so throughout the year we share those stories, and I think it keeps things fresh—Christmas keeps going beyond December. It also keeps in front of us a sense that what we gave last year was so much more meaningful and long-lasting than some of the things we would have done otherwise. So coming into this season, as well, I think we’re all getting excited that Jesus’s birth is coming up soon.
TOJ: You mentioned supporting clean water initiatives; how was it that water became a focus or an aspect of the Advent Conspiracy’s mission?
JB: Water is a leading cause of death in under-resourced countries. Every year 1.8 million people die from waterborne illnesses. That includes 3,900 children a day. It is also something that can be tackled relatively inexpensively by drilling wells and providing water purification resources. We heard an estimate that $10 billion could tackle the world’s water crisis; that number seems a lot smaller when we recognize that Americans spend $450 billion every year on Christmas. Our hope is that, by celebrating Christ in a new way at Christmas, the church can serve as the leading movement behind ending the water crisis once and for all.
Water is also a cross-political and cross-denominational issue. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a Lutheran or a Catholic, a CEO or an environmentalist, a Baptist or a Pentecostal, water is an issue we can all get behind. Although our political and denominational convictions are important, we wanted something that the church-at-large could come behind in the spirit of Christmas and something that would provide the broadest possible witness to Christ and his kingdom.