By Kara Witherow, Editor
For the past 14 years, Thomasville First United Methodist Church’s congregation has celebrated Christmas differently.
Since 2007, church leaders have challenged members to spend less during the Christmas season and put the money saved towards a mission project. Called Advent Revolution, the mission project focuses on remembering why Christmas is celebrated and on making an eternal difference in the world. Over the years, the congregation has built homes for orphaned children, dug water wells, built churches, provided scholarships, started a feeding program, repaired and outfitted a maternity clinic, and more.
The past two years have proven challenging, however. The majority of Advent Revolution’s international mission focus is on projects and ministries in Rwanda, but because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, serving overseas isn’t currently possible.
“Advent Revolution has been a part of our church for so long; people and families are really invested in it,” said Stephanie Nicholson, head of Thomasville First UMC’s international missions team. “We wanted to figure out how we could do the basic premise of it – spend less, give more, worship fully, love all – in a different way.”
In past years, the congregation has been asked to spend less money. But as the team planned and prayed about 2021’s Advent Revolution, it became clear that God was leading them in a new direction.
“When you’re spending less and giving more it’s not always about money,” Nicholson said.
They decided to ask people to give and invest their time in relationships with others and in meaningful projects that have lasting, eternal significance.
As in past Advent Revolutions when they tackled the commercialism of Christmas, the team wanted to combat the busyness of the season.
“Everyone complains about how busy they are, but we wanted people to be aware of how they were spending their time,” Nicholson said “Is it really how they’re supposed to be spending their time?”
A goal of serving 500 hours was set. The congregation was asked to consider the word JOY when planning their time: to put Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. They were given slips of paper and asked to log and track their time and how they served. The information was turned into the church and then tallied on a large clock-like scoreboard.
When all the service hours were tallied, more than 1,000 had been logged. Volunteers packed care packages and served a chili dinner to college students at nearby Thomas University, packed food for the church’s Backpack Buddies ministry, delivered dinners to local families, sang Christmas carols at area nursing homes, and much more.
“People got creative and had fun and served at ministries they hadn’t served before,” Nicholson said. “It’s another way to be involved and serve other than just writing a check and giving money.”
Kelly Thompson said this past year’s Advent Revolution changed her life and renewed her spirit.
“Christmas was meant to change the world. I really believe that,” she said. “This Advent Revolution has made me feel more like myself than I have in a long time. It’s freed my heart.”
Thompson gave her time to several worthwhile projects, but three she came up with on her own stood out as most meaningful: giving homegrown pecans away to neighbors and strangers; donating dog food, dog toys, and other pet items to those who could use them; and helping people at the grocery store.
“It would sometimes take me three or four hours to shop at Publix because I’d help all kinds of people find things they were looking for or help people get an item off the top shelf,” she laughed.
The relationships she formed and friendships she made will last beyond the season, Thompson said.
“I want to carry this through the year. It felt wonderful to get out and talk to people and serve others. I’ve prayed for two years to be useful. This gave me something to focus on and has reaffirmed the goodness and greatness of God again and again.”
Thomasville First UMC’s partnership with their friends in Rwanda is alive and strong and Nicholson expects to return there soon. But she’s also grateful for the opportunity to serve their local community in a new way.
“Even though we’ve been thrown a curveball we wanted to continue doing what we do,” she said. “It was kind of a blessing that it made us look at things differently.”
Thompson said the experience has humbled and changed her and made her realize the importance of time.
“I can’t do Advent Revolution just in December. It’s got to be all year for me.”