- Most of us have very specific memories about the Christmas season, both positive and negative. What are some of those positive memories? How would you describe the best Christmas you ever had as a child? What made it special for you?
- Do you still look forward to the Christmas season? If so, what do you enjoy about the season? If you no longer look forward to Christmas, why not?
- What word would best describe what you want to experience this year during the Christmas season? What are some obstacles that get in the way of that happening?
Watch Session One: Advent Conspiracy
- When the authors suggest that the Advent Conspiracy is an invitation to “remain in the gospel of Jesus,” what do you think they mean? What does that mean for you?
- What practical choices do you need to make to ensure that the Christmas season remains a time of focused worship? How might you remind and encourage each other as friends to do this? As a family? As a church?
ENGAGING THE WORD
Read Luke 2:8-20 together as a group.
- The shepherds are well-known participants in the Christmas narrative. Think about images you have seen on traditional Christmas cards, nativity scenes, or even the way shepherds are portrayed in a typical church Christmas program. How have we been led to picture these first visitors to the manger?
In this passage, we are told that the shepherds were a socially despised group (poor, criminal, outcast). Can you think of any parallels to this group today?
The shepherds are the first ones to whom the angels announced the birth of Christ. What does that tell us about the heart of God toward social outcasts? How does this relate to the message of Christmas?
- In what ways does the worship of the shepherds differ from our celebration of Christmas? What are some specific ways in which our contemporary celebration of Christmas moves us away from the worship the shepherds experienced? What can we do to recapture that sense of wonder and gratitude?
UNWRAPPING THE MESSAGE
- We see the shepherds not only approaching the manger in a spirit of worship, we see them moving into their world to proclaim the good news. The announcement that God has given us his Son changes everything. Who still needs to hear this good news?
Think of some specific people and ways that your family, group, or church can bring this announcement to the world? What might that look like this Christmas?
- God has drawn near. He was born as a baby that night in Bethlehem. Through Jesus, He walked among us and the story forever changed. This is what we celebrate each Christmas. This is what the songs proclaim. This is the story we tell to the world each year. What if the choices that we make this year about our spending and the way we give gifts to one another were a part of our worship?
The Advent season is our chance to celebrate the wondrous moment when God entered our world to make things right. It is a season of worship. This is the foundation for our conspiracy. Close this session by praying as a group for a fresh encounter with God during this season of Advent. Pray for a desire to worship more fully and for opportunities to enter into the ongoing story of Jesus and His work in this world.
“Understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This is not about anger, disgust, or guilt — it is about entering the story of Jesus more deeply with a desire to worship more fully. It is not enough to say no to the way Christmas is celebrated by many; we need to say yes to a different way of celebrating.”
From Chapter 1, Advent Conspiracy
Optional Reading: Chapters 1 and 3 of Advent Conspiracy
A Prophetic Dream
Imagine: The Creator of the cosmos chose, from among His numberless galaxies and spinning stars, one tiny rock of a planet on which to enter human life in the most natural and self-effacing of ways — through the womb of an unwed teenage girl.
His was one of many births that night, no doubt, but it was unique: God became a wailing, wrinkled newborn birthed onto the bloody straw of life on our sin-sick planet.
Perhaps only the angels knew what they were really witnessing. Their voices rang through the heavens, singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” Glory to God for the gift of His Son; glory to God for the cosmos-dwarfing love that led to the birth of a King in a rough stable.
There is a sense of prophetic mystery surrounding Christ’s birth. The story reveals something divine to us; it drives our quest to look closely at our own stories. Who are we? Why are we? How do we? Where, in the midst of our questions, is this Immanuel, this God-with-us?
Sadly, for all our questioning, the mystery of the Incarnation escapes us. Jesus comes, in His first Advent, into the midst of our great sin and suffering. This was God’s design. But apart from the angels nudging a few scared shepherds and a cryptic star decoded by a handful of distant astrologists, almost everyone else missed it.
Missing out should feel familiar; most of us habitually miss it every year at Christmas. Our story is consumption and consumerism, and we’re obsessed with the climax. We worship less. We spend more. We give less. We struggle more.
Less, more. More, less. Time and nerves stretch thin, and we reduce family and friends to a card or a present that costs the “right” amount to prove our level of love. Our quest to celebrate mystery exhausts us. Another Christmas passes by like a blizzard, and we are left to shovel through the trash of our failure.
Missing the prophetic mystery of Jesus’ birth means missing God-with-us, God beside us — God becoming one of us. Missing out on Jesus changes everything.
BACK TO THE STABLE
Several years ago a few of us friends were lamenting how much we hate pastoring at Christmas. We shared our dread of preparing to proclaim, celebrate, and worship Jesus at His Incarnation while we — along with our congregations — are consumed with idolatry.
We become lost in crowded malls, financial debt, and endless lists of gifts to buy. The false doctrine of consumer religion insists, again and again, that money equals love — a convincing enough tale to make believers out of non-Christians and Christians alike.
We were afraid that on Christmas day, God would come near — as He always does and always is — and we would miss it yet again.
So we decided to try an experiment: What if, instead of acting like bystanders to the nativity, we led our congregations into the nativity story as participants?
We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we needed to reclaim the story of Christmas, the foundational narrative of the church. As we strove to see the birth of Christ from inside the stable instead of inside the mall, our holiday practices began to change.
SPEND LESS. GIVE MORE. WORSHIP FULLY.
If it doesn’t take money to love, a recalculation is needed. If love is to be the driving force of our gift-giving, then money cannot be. Our dominating culture of consumerism can, and must, be rejected. When we refuse to equate money with love, we become free. Free to leave the shallow story of cultural Christmas and enter the deep, life-giving waters of the Incarnation. Free to give without comparison, receive with gratitude, and worship with abandon.
Children understand the creative joy of making gifts, the excitement of giving themselves away. Watching our own children, and receiving their love, we remembered that we didn’t need a price tag to quantify our love. Spending less freed us to give more. We replaced material presents with the gift of presence. We learned to give our time, our talents, our love, and ourselves to one another.
We were convinced that an inescapable consequence of truly entering the Christmas story was compulsion to love all. We were reminded of Jesus’ teaching that, whenever we see a brother or sister hungry or cold, whatever we do to the least of these, so we do to him. To love Jesus, we needed to love and serve the outcast, poor, and ignored among us — in our local schools, in Liberian villages, and under highway overpasses as the mechanisms of progress sped by.
Spending less gave us the resources to make a huge difference — and the greatest resource was the presence of Christ within us. With our new freedom of time-space and mind-space, our attention was more fully focused on Jesus’ coming. For the first time in many years, we felt as if we were on our knees in the dirt beside the manger, worshiping with the shepherds. Jesus was being experienced among us in living, transforming, beautiful, and fresh ways, and the stories of changed lives multiplied greater than we could ever imagine. Nothing seemed impossible for God… and it didn’t stop at Christmas.
DREAMING BIGGER DREAMS
When we considered that the coming of Christ was good news for all people, we began to realize that meant everyone. Not just our friends and neighbors but everyone. All people for all time. So we began to think of how this announcement could show up in tangible ways all over the world. One of our friends began to be burdened about the world water crisis.
The water crisis around the world is staggering. Hundreds of children die simply because they don’t have access to clean drinking water. It makes our mouths drop and our stomachs turn when we realize that the amount of money we spend on Christmas in America is close to forty-five times the amount of money it would take to supply the entire world with clean water. What if some of the money we spent at Christmas was used to dig wells for poor or remote communities in which people die regularly from the lack of clean water? So, partnering with Living Water International, we used the money we saved from worshiping more and spending less to build many wells.
We will never forget receiving the email telling us that the water crisis in Mount Barclay, Liberia, was solved! Children splashing the fresh water and praising God simply because people on the other side of the world began to be more faithful to the message of Christmas.
Over the last few years, we traveled at Christmas to these villages with new wells to celebrate the hope of Jesus with them. Imagine children dancing and shouting as clean water gushes into the air. Picture people worshiping Jesus with cup after cup: “Living water for our souls, clean water for our bodies.” Consider that each well was drilled with money that was rightly given as a birthday gift to our liberating King.
It wasn’t just wells either; there were tangible local expressions that the announcement of Christ was good news to the least of these in our own communities. One church threw open the doors at the local school so 150 of the poorest families in their community could come and receive clothing, food, and some simple gifts for their kids. People hung out and wrapped presents and played with kids so the parents could shop. As one person described it: “We felt it in the air that Christmas really can still change the world.”
Believing that, we dreamed even bigger: What if we invited more faith communities to join us? We put together a few thousand dollars, launched a website, and invited others to join the Advent Conspiracy Jesus began so many years ago on a night in Bethlehem.
The story caught on, and people joined us. Hundreds of churches began to worship fully, spend less, give more, and love all. It became a movement that is still growing today. Churches all over the world are joining the Advent Conspiracy and discovering Jesus in a way that is changing lives. Entering the story was harder than we thought, more meaningful than we dared to dream, and one of the most beautiful encounters with Jesus that many of us have ever experienced.
Now tens of thousands of people all over the world are meeting the King born in a stable and serving his beloved, needy children. This book is about the prophetic dream birthed by the Advent of Jesus Christ — the dream that every Jesus follower would worship fully, spend less, give more, and courageously love all in the name and power of Jesus.
We refuse to be defined by our culture. Instead, emboldened by the Spirit, we are re-creating culture in the name of the good, the true, and the beautiful Jesus Christ.
A STORY, NOT A SYSTEM
The Advent Conspiracy is not a four-point checklist for how to do Christmas. It is not a formula or a fool-proof system to make your Christmas more meaningful.
The Advent Conspiracy is the story of the wondrous moment when God entered our world to make things right. It is the greatest story ever told, and it changes everything — including the way we celebrate Christmas.
As you read this book, understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. This is not about anger, disgust, or guilt — it is about entering the story of Jesus more deeply with a desire to worship more fully. It is not enough to say no to the way Christmas is celebrated by many; we need to say yes to a different way of celebrating.
Our dream is that as you read this book you will discover Christ and be transformed by entering his story. The idea is simple, yet sometimes it is simple ideas that change our lives in the best way possible.
“Since the inception of the Conspiracy, the entire Christmas offering that is collected during our multiple Christmas Eve services leaves our midst — no matter how much is given or where we are with the budget. This public commitment to worship Jesus by giving to the ‘least of these’ has changed us, and with God’s help, the world.”
The message of Jesus can still change the world. We continue to conspire together and discover new and creative ways in which Jesus can liberate the world. Will you write your life into his story? Will you join the prophetic dream?
Our hearts are formed by what we worship. Excitement, anticipation, hope — each of these emotions swells around the object of our dearest affection. We spend our time and energy on what matters most to us.
What do we worship during Advent? “Jesus” is the right answer, of course, but is it the truthful answer? Does the way we spend our time, money, and energy testify that we worship God incarnate? Season after season, many churchgoers have learned to say the right things without allowing their words to reach their hearts. Simply saying that Jesus is the desire of our hearts doesn’t make it truthful. In fact, saying the right things when they aren’t believed things hinders true worship.
Looking honestly at the desires of our hearts is scarier than simply saying what people expect or demand.
Kids don’t suffer from this fear. Ask a child what she is excited about at Christmas, and it’s doubtful she’ll exclaim with passion, “Jesus’ birthday!” Before she’s been indoctrinated with the proper religious mantra, she’ll tell you about that shiny blue bike that she can’t wait to ride on Christmas morning.
The things we desire are the things we worship. During Advent — a time of conspicuous consumption — we need to look closely at what we desire. Let’s think beyond the well-rehearsed responses and strive to discover what is really in our hearts.
We spend billions of dollars during the holiday season, hoping — whether we admit it to ourselves or not — that the latest and greatest gift will fulfill us and those we give gifts to. We sprint through store after store, trying to find the perfect gift to express our love because we crave to be loved in return. We long for peace in place of the annual holiday family soap opera. We shop ’til we drop so we can finally rest. We go into debt and assume we’re entitled to whatever we want.
We sit in church disconnected from the story because we know that deep inside we’re too far from the stable to see much of anything.
The heart of what we’re truly searching for — hope, peace, love, rest, worship — is in Christ, but each time we try to meet our desire for fulfillment at the mall, we take another step away from the nativity.
The time of year when worshiping Jesus should be the easiest is often the hardest. The invitation to join the Advent Conspiracy is a call to remain in the gospel of Jesus and worship Him — no matter how strongly the cultural demands of Christmas pull at us. The transformation initiated by Jesus is no different today than it was the day He was born — the source of joy, peace, and hope hasn’t changed.
What if we could enter the story of Christ’s coming in a fresh way? Read this father’s account of how his young son began to experience Jesus at Christmas:
My family had been talking about the birth of Christ and what it meant that God gave himself to be with us. I could see my children processing, but I didn’t know if it was really connecting. But during an Advent worship service, my son brought his allowance savings without telling me. As our sanctuary filled with voices celebrating the birth of Christ, we went forward to the communion table. Looking down at my son, I saw him put something like $40 into the offering for kids around the world. When I asked him about it later, he said he wanted to give like God had given to us.
Each year Advent brings another opportunity to worship Jesus in the miracle of His Incarnation, when God revealed Himself to people in a new way. Nearly every character who encounters the infant King in the Advent story has the same response: worship. Their worship sprang from deep places of the heart that were touched for the first time by God-in-the-flesh. Such worship challenges old beliefs about God and what it means to be present with him.
THE INVITATION: MARY
Mary was a teenage girl engaged to marry a poor carpenter named Joseph. She lived on a dusty fringe of the mighty Roman Empire, just another powerless peasant in another insignificant town. Yet she was the young woman to whom God extended the invitation to be the mother of the Messiah, Jesus.
In Luke’s account, Gabriel, God’s archangel, announces to Mary that she has found favor with God — she will give birth to a child, and she will name Him Jesus. Mary’s response —
Here I am, the Lord’s humble servant. As you have said, let it be done to me. — Luke 1:38
is as simple as it is inspiring. She doesn’t protest or let her fear sway her from following God.
Mary joins the rich tradition of Jewish poets and prophets as she composes a song of devotion to her Lord:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me — holy is His name.
His mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their innermost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and His descendants forever, even as He said to our fathers. — Luke 1:46-55
Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat because she magnifies God, pointing to Him as she worships and confesses His great love for and future salvation and deliverance of the oppressed.
We are not the humble lifted by God of whom Mary sings. We are the powerful, the rich, the self-absorbed. Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world live without clean water, housing, food, and education. These are the humble and hungry for whom Mary sings. Through her Son, the Messiah, tyrants will be defeated and the oppressed will be liberated and ushered into a Kingdom that will have no end.
One church put on their annual Christmas program, but this time rented out a local school and invited the homeless and teen moms, among other marginalized people. Over six hundred people attended and they ate, sang, and played together as one community.
Mary announces that God is here! She carries God in her womb. The mystery of the moment is mind- bending. This Saving King is nothing less than her son and her God. Mary’s worship begins with the ultimate paradox: a young girl, unwed and without power, influence, or wealth, cradles within her womb the divine power of the universe. The Creator who spoke creation into place is taking on fingers and toes inside her belly, and the One who holds all the wealth of the universe will soon nurse at her breast. Jesus is a fetus inside the worshiping Mary, who recognizes through grace that this great God is doing a great thing for all people!
How can we join Mary’s Magnificat?
Is the warm feeling we get when we sing “Silent Night” fitting worship for our King, or might Advent be about more than a happy holiday? What do we owe a God who entered our world to bring new life to His children? With Mary as our model, let poets pen odes, musicians compose songs, and prophets stand and call us to see what God sees: the birth of His Son signifies the beginning of the end of injustice.
Let our worship be an outpouring of our hearts. Let us take Jesus seriously and begin to desire the same things that move His heart. Let our worship drive us from the enclosure of church walls out into painful places to cry out for God’s liberation. Author Mark Labberton puts it this way:
This disparity between economics and justice is an issue of worship. According to the narrative of Scripture, the very heart of how we show and distinguish true worship from false worship is apparent in how we respond to the poor, the oppressed, the neglected, and the forgotten. As of now, I do not see this theme troubling the waters of worship in the American church. But justice and mercy are not add-ons to worship, nor are they the consequences of worship. Justice and mercy are intrinsic to God and therefore intrinsic to the worship of God.1
A HOLY DRAMA: JOSEPH
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, has a problem. His fiancée is pregnant, and the baby isn’t his. In Joseph’s world, this was beyond taboo. Though Joseph could have exposed Mary to public shame and punishment, he decides to break off the engagement and let things end as quietly as possible.
That’s when the angel shows up. In a dream, God’s messenger tells Joseph not to break his pledge to Mary, because her baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He will be called Jesus, meaning our “Salvation” or “God to the rescue.” Matthew’s gospel points to the prophet Isaiah:
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel — which means, “God with us.”2
God came in person to walk with us, as one of us, to save us. God entered into the very situation He wants to heal.
When we worship Jesus at Christmas, we’re reminded that God came for all humanity. No matter our momentary circumstances, every human needs to be rescued from sin by the Son. We in the West, in particular, need to be rescued from our own self-centered agendas, from the fact that we become bored with “God-with-us,” Immanuel.
Joseph chose obedience. However scared he was of the ramifications, he still took Mary home to be his wife. He was a fool — a holy fool who gave up his reputation and rights because of a call from God.
One of the common fears people have about the Advent Conspiracy is what their relatives might think, do, feel, or say. Quite honestly, in this day and time, it does sound crazy at first to spend less, to give more, and to use our holiday money to love our brothers and sisters around the world. Joseph, however, reminds us that while the call of God isn’t always easy or conventional, it is always right — and God will give us the courage to follow if we are willing to obey. Like Joseph, when we act in obedience to God’s invitation — despite even the social cost — we help God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.
RESPONDING TO THE CALL: THE SHEPHERDS
Another of God’s angelic messengers brought the news of Jesus’ birth to shepherds working nearby. At that time, shepherds were often despised as thieves unfit for more respectable occupations. Their testimony was not allowed in court nor their presence in polite society, so shepherds found their place on the outskirts of towns. They were largely shunned by the mainstream population.
Yet we are loved by a God who sees the overlooked. He looks at our hearts, not our place in society. So at the birth of His only Son, God chose a group of people invisible to most of the world to celebrate the good news of their Savior’s birth. After hearing from God, the shepherds immediately went to witness the miracle for themselves, after which they spread the glorious news far and wide.
Are we willing to respond to this call to leave our responsibilities and hurry off to see this miracle? To pause long enough to look upon the Savior who is Christ the Lord? Will we miss the invitation?
Long after the angels left, the shepherds continued to worship. Communities that have joined the Advent Conspiracy have had similar experiences. We may not have seen the angelic host that awed the shepherds, but we are experiencing a sustainable worship that transcends the season of Christmas. The good news of the birth of Jesus moves into a world that needs him in every season.
Doug and Vania Moore, a couple from Imago Dei Community in Portland, Oregon, reimagined their wedding in light of the Advent story:
We participated in Advent Conspiracy for two years, and we deeply believed in the value of celebrating the Advent season by worshiping Christ through the relational activity and giving our time and resources to those in need. When it came time to plan our wedding day, we realized the wedding industry was commercialized much like Christmas — the average American wedding costs $27,000! We asked ourselves, “Does celebrating our marriage require us to accrue large amounts of debt, or would God desire the emphasis to be placed elsewhere?”
The answer we came to was the same answer we discovered through entering the story of Advent: God desires this to be a fundamentally relational event rather than a consumer event. Pursuing our own “Covenant Conspiracy,” we chose to build the wedding around worshiping God and celebrating our relationships with friends and family. We intentionally limited the amount of money we spent. We asked our guests to take the money they would have spent on wedding gifts and give that money to Living Water International. Over $2,500 was given to help build wells around the world, while the entire wedding and reception cost less than $2,000.
Just as we experienced Christ during Advent, we found great joy in celebrating relationships and giving to “the least of these” — a greater joy by far than if we had simply followed the story our culture is telling us.
Living out our worship in tangible ways begins here and becomes the way we are invited to live and breathe in the glorious, ordinary moments of our lives.
FROM A GREAT DISTANCE: THE WISE MEN
The Magi were scholars and astrologers from Persia and Babylon, east of Judea. After noticing a change in the star patterns in the sky, they began the long and arduous journey to Jerusalem, looking for the one the ancient texts foretold would be born King of the Jews.
The reigning king was Herod the Great. Although not a Jewish king, he had gained power through political marriages and carefully cultivated friendships with influential Romans. Herod protected his empire with military might, bribery, and violent acts that extended even to members of his own family.
The Magi must have been people of some influence because they were given an audience with the king. They had the courage to ask Herod for directions to where the one true King was to be born so they could worship Him.
Jesus’ kingly inauguration stands in contrast with Herod’s tyranny — and that of the surrounding empires. Herod’s citizens were controlled by military power, financial strength, and technological development. But Jesus’ Kingdom rises up differently. Jesus reveals his Kingdom in vulnerability, solidarity with the poor, and self-sacrifice — far from the worldly power of Herod’s world.
Which king is worthy of our worship?
When the Magi finally came to the place where Jesus and his parents were living, they offered Him costly gifts. These men were not playing the worship games of which many of us are guilty — these gifts of gold and precious spices nearly cost the Magi their lives before Herod.
Our worship must be reborn. The wise men show us what happens when someone glimpses the true worthiness of Christ. We will travel across the world to meet Him, confront dominant world systems, and give our all for our King.
THE STORY THAT CHANGES THE WORLD
It has been beautiful to see people in our communities worship in a similar way. Whoever we are and wherever we find ourselves, we are learning to worship with the wise men, traveling across the world to bring the gift of ourselves — our presence, our labor, our money, our love — to hungry, thirsty, sick people who need Jesus.
Our eyes are being opened. The empire that we have been fueling with our time, attention, and money is not the Kingdom of Jesus.
What might happen if, at Advent and throughout the year, all of God’s people worshiped like the Magi?
What transformation would occur as God’s people moved across the globe loving Jesus with our time, attention, and money?
The characters of the Advent drama are all threads in a rich, textured tapestry of worship. It is a story that is still unfolding, that still inspires action. A story about the radical solidarity of Jesus worshipers who commit themselves to standing with the least of these in the far corners of the world and in the midst of injustice. A story about passionate resistance from people who refuse to be enveloped by another empire’s demands and instead live simply and faithfully for their King. A story about faithful worship at the feet of a glorified and yet humble King.
As followers of Jesus, our options are clear: we can inhabit the story of a corrupt world, or we can enter the story of God through Christ.
If we choose the former, we need not change anything. Christmas — and the rest of our lives — will look much the same as now. But if we choose to enter the story of God, we choose to enter the greatest story ever, the story that changes everything. When we enter the Advent story, we cannot remain silent!
“Dear Pastor: If you don’t get this message, then call me. I am going to ask for some money and toys from Santa (for other kids). I’m going to ask Santa to also send food and water to those kids. I also have my own bucket of money to give them.” (letter from a five-year-old)
Like Mary, we will sing to our redeeming God. Like Joseph, we will obey without regard to the cost. Like the shepherds, we will leave our busyness to worship Christ. Like the Magi, we will confront anything that stands in the way of our worship, whether worldly empires or our own fears.
We will celebrate, sing, dance, pray, meditate, and love our way into a story that is of great joy for all people. Christmas changed the world the day Jesus was born in a cold, dark stable; Christmas will change the world again.
- Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2007), 37 – 38.
- Matthew 1:23 NIV (see Isaiah 7:14).
Excerpted with permission from Advent Conspiracy by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder, copyright by Rick McKinley, Chris Seay, and Greg Holder.
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