I started listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving. I’m writing this on November 25, and there’s already eggnog in my refrigerator. I even let my wife put up a Christmas tree last week (no ornaments, though).
Normally, I’m staunchly anti-early-Christmas, but with all the gloomy events of this year, we need a little Christmas—right this very minute.
Whether you are already in the Christmas swing or are biding your time, we all treasure Advent as a season to give back. If your church is anything like mine, chances are it does a special year-end giving project each holiday season. Some pack shoeboxes or collect canned goods for a local food bank. Others select children to sponsor from photos hanging as ornaments on a tree in the church lobby. Some churches simply barrage their own missionaries with care packages and cards.
What missions project your church supports each Christmas should not be a random decision. Like everything in the local church, these projects should be selected intentionally. As you pray and plan, remember these six key considerations as you design your church’s year-end giving initiative.
6 Questions to Ask
1. Does this project highlight our church’s core values?
Your church’s global ministries or missions committee, however great or small, should already have defined values and vision. If not, start by creating these. Healthy ministry decision making is impossible without clear priorities.
Now ask: does the potential ministry project align with our values and goals? Perhaps you have identified church planting as the sole non-negotiable element of your church’s missions vision. Does the year-end project do anything to contribute to that end?
This is not to say that we should unnecessarily restrict ourselves and the ministries we support. A church may have a well-defined vision to reach unreached people groups, yet choose to support a local food pantry during the holidays. If your core values are too narrow or restrictive, broaden them. The body of Christ is, after all, called to do a variety of good works both physical and spiritual. But once you have agreed upon your core values, you must let them serve as a filter. If you don’t, then are they really your core values?
2. Is the ministry healthy?
Earlier in my adult life, I nearly moved across the country to work for the headquarters of a well-known missions organization. My fiancée (now wife) and I had met its founder, and we had been invited to interview in person. But God providentially steered us in a different direction, and we’re glad he did. We met with some extended family members who had worked for the organization, and they warned us of some dangers they had seen firsthand. Months later, the organization became embroiled in scandal for embezzling funds and lying to supporters. The allegations proved true. As donors, we were even invited to file a claim in class action lawsuit against the ministry.
Few ministries crash and burn in the public eye in this way. But this is no reason not to practice discernment. Search the web and talk to other churches about their experiences. Especially when working with overseas projects, check for ECFA certification, and consult watchdog sites like Charity Navigator and Ministry Watch that thoroughly vet ministries.
Also consider the model of ministry promoted by the organization. They may have squeaky-clean 990 forms, but do they have an overall reputation for fostering Western dependence, disrupting local economies, or failing to do follow-up after evangelism? Even big-name ministries in the evangelical world should be evaluated critically. Sometimes helping hurts. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to your missions committee members or volunteers or to question their favorite parachurch partners. Support ministries that are healthy.
3. Is there a tangible need?
Your church may be passionate about a project, but is there a need of such size and scale that only the combined resources of your church can address the situation?
Churches should obviously not give where there is no need. Ask: what would happen if our church did not engage in this project this year, and shifted its focus elsewhere instead? If you are seeking to mobilize your entire congregation toward a single project or goal this Christmas, confirm that the need matches the capacity of your flock.
Perhaps there is a local family in need, and your local outreach committee wants to set up a giving tree to support them. That’s a great idea! Just make sure you ask the right questions first. Maybe this local family might fit better with your church’s pre-existing benevolence program. Mobilizing your entire church might be overkill in a situation where a personal, loving touch from your diaconate would suffice. Find where there’s real need, and pick the right need.
4. What is the long-term impact of the project?
This consideration is related to the second point. Is it likely that your church’s outpouring of donations, service hours, or gifts will be forgotten by the new year? How do you know?
As you evaluate which projects are most worthy of support, remember the long-term missionaries who are already on the field. Your church may already support a missionary or team, or you may need to find out what long-term ministry is already happening in a particular city or country. Will your involvement dovetail nicely with their efforts and the work of their national partners, or are you reinventing the wheel? Make it a priority to bless those who will be serving Christ long-term in a given community long after your church’s Christmas project is finished. Work through career missionaries, local churches overseas, and national believers; let them be the helping hands to their needy neighbors, rather than your own church.
5. Is there an opportunity for my church members to be discipled?
Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). There are real spiritual benefits that accrue to the believer who exercises generosity—including the opportunity to deepen one’s own walk with the Lord. Selecting the right year-end project for your church can give your people the opportunity to take a step of obedience and build their faith muscles. It can also open their eyes to the plight of the unreached and needy around the world.
But not all Christmastime initiatives are created equal in this respect. For instance, asking your congregants to send personalized care packages to your church’s missionaries can be a great way for parents to hone their children’s heart for the nations. It will also require time and personal attention. Conversely, having your entire church text-to-give five dollars each from their smartphones during your service might be an effective way to quickly meet a campaign goal, but your people will not have the advantage of truly growing spiritually through the process.
As a shepherd of God’s people, you are called to seek the edification of the church members under your care. Don’t forget that exercising generosity during the holidays can be particularly formative for the families of your flock.
6. Can we achieve a “win”?
Church leaders should always be on guard against pragmatism. We don’t believe in simply doing what works. We are to put faithfulness before fruitfulness.
Yet wise pastors, elders, deacons, and lay leaders in the church must also be concerned with practicalities. If your goal at year’s end is to raise 10 percent toward a multi-year, multi-million dollar capital campaign—say, a stunning new ministry complex in another city or country—you might be inadvertently disincentivizing your people from continuing to give loyally in the future due to the daunting scope of the project. Your Christmas missions project should include a tangible, measurable way for your people to experience the joy of saying: “We did it!”
An effective way to help your congregation feel a part of the “win” is to encourage missionaries to be communicative with the church. Perhaps a supporting missionary could record a thank-you video that can be shared on a Sunday morning in the new year. You may also create a visual aid to get the point across. I’ve heard of one church that decorated its front stage with rice bags to represent how much food they were able to send to one village.
Of course, this should be done with caution. We should avoid self-congratulation and recognize that we are but lowly servants (see Luke 17:10). We dare not become like the hypocrites of Jesus’ day who sounded horns when they gave to the poor (Matthew 6:32). But as church leaders, we should publicly celebrate and affirm our people when they step out in faith and demonstrate generosity. Paul was unashamed to boast of the generosity of the churches he served (2 Corinthians 8:1-2). This celebration leads to thanksgiving and worship (2 Corinthians 9:11-15).
But none of this is possible if you don’t make it possible for your project to achieve an identifiable win. Make sure your goal is audacious yet achievable by God’s grace. Give your church something to rejoice about when the work is complete.
It is never too early—or too late—to think and pray critically about how to support missions during Christmas. Advent marks the time when Christ took on flesh to rescue sinners and serve the weak and lowly. In turn, Advent is a critical season for churches to pour out acts of love and mercy to those in need.
You can support 1,000 missionaries reaching 84 countries with a gift to the Global Gospel Fund.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published November 30, 2020.