The Real Truth of the Christmas Story

Apparently, my Nativity scene—and yours—are all wrong. So are many of our favorite Christmas songs.

Jesus was probably born on the ground-floor or courtyard of a home, not a barn. The wise men were not present at his birth, and we don’t know for sure there were three of them. Jesus’ birth likely occurred in the spring, not in December. No mention of Mary riding a donkey in the biblical narrative. No innkeeper is mentioned either. Probably no star over the place where Jesus was born. And, of course, no little drummer boy either.

Writers and teachers have been quick to correct these factual errors for years, but our culture continues to perpetuate the misconceptions.

It’s funny what can distract us from the true meaning of Christmas.

Each of these misconceptions is a distinction without a real difference.

Yes, it’s important to get facts correct in the retelling of a story, especially one as important as this one. Which is why it’s so critical that people read the Bible to understand what really happened.

But let’s not major in minors. Let’s not get so caught up in the minutia that we miss the meaning of the most life-changing event ever to occur in human history. God took on human flesh in the form of a baby. He experienced all the things we do. He can identify with our pain. He empathizes with us. He understands. Because he became one of us. He came to us to redeem us from our sins.

Let's not get so caught up in the minutia that we miss the meaning of the most life-changing event ever to occur in human history. Click To Tweet

I won’t be correcting anyone’s misconceptions this Christmas. I’ll sing the songs. I’ll gaze in amazement at the Christmas creche with the star above and with shepherds and wise men, and even little drummer boys, all worshipping together.

Because that’s why Jesus was born—to live and to die for all of us—and that depiction at the manger is a picture of Heaven. All who believe in him, people from every age and culture, will be gathered together, this time around a throne rather than a feeding trough, worshipping our Lord and Savior and King.

 

 

 

How to Experience Real Joy This Christmas (and into the New Year)

People talk and sing a lot about joy, especially at this time of year, but as you look around, is there much joy to be found?

Most people in the world find joy in sentiment and circumstances and stuff, but the Christian has a different sort of joy—a godly joy.

Let’s look at some of the songs of the season and use them to compare the world’s definition with the Christian’s definition of joy. (I’ll admit up front, I love listening to all kinds of Christmas music this time of year, and I especially enjoy the classics sung by folks like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Perry Como, Mannheim Steamroller, and, of course, Burl Ives. But while I enjoy those songs, I don’t define my worldview by them!) Let’s look first at how secular Christmas songs define joy:

  • “Here comes Suzy Snowflake; Look at her tumblin’ down, Bringing joy to ev’ry girl and boy; Suzy’s come to town.”
  • “For every year the Christmas tree brings to us all both joy and glee.”
  • “Down thru the chimney with lots of toys all for the little ones Christmas joys.”
  • “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas. Only a hippopotamus will do . . . Oh what joy, what surprise when I open up my eyes to see a hippo hero standing there.”

Compare those with how our Christian hymns define joy:

  • Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
  • “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”
  • “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.”
  • Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies; With the angelic host proclaim Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

See the difference? Real joy is found in God’s loving gift to the world, not in stuff. It has less to do with what Jeremiah the bullfrog said and more to do with what Jeremiah the prophet said:

This is what the Lord says: “You say about this place, ‘It is a desolate waste, without people or animals.’ Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither people nor animals, there will be heard once more the sounds of joyand gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:10, 11, my emphasis).

Circumstances could not have been worse for God’s people at this time in history, yet, in the midst of such desolation, somehow the people would experience joy and gladness. How could this be? From where would such joy come? The only way to understand it is to know—really know—the “Lord . . . who made the earth, the Lord who formed it and established it” (v. 2). God is the source of true joy; it cannot be found aside from him. “Call to me,” he says to the prophet, “and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (v. 3). The Lord then goes on to show Jeremiah what he would do that only he could do. God’s power and provision for us are, most of the time, beyond our human understanding. Joy comes as “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

God is the source of true joy; it cannot be found aside from him. Click To Tweet

The apostle Peter had seen and literally walked with Jesus, but many of the people to whom he wrote years later had not. “Though you have not seen him,” Peter said, “you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8, my emphasis).

To experience that glorious joy, we must understand the nature of God—the all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent, perfect Creator—and the nature of man. The chasm between us is so wide, his holiness so awesome, we might wonder how we could ever have a relationship with him. Yet this same God left heaven for us, lived in a human body for us, suffered and died for us. But even more incredible, he now lives in us. He sits at God’s right hand and intercedes for us. He listens to our prayers and answers us. He works all things together for our good. He regards us as his body. He loves us though we are sinners. He has prepared a place for us in Heaven. He provides life to the full and to overflowing for us and those around us. He considers us his ambassadors, as his ministers called to partner with him in reconciling the world to him. He considers us his friends as well as his bride.

I’m already feeling more joyful and triumphant! How about you?

This kind of “inexpressible and glorious joy” will not fade away on December 26 or when your new toy loses its luster or someone gossips about you, when you can’t pay your December bills or are struggling in a relationship, or when the doctor has bad news.

I find it difficult even to describe what this glorious joy looks like or feels like, because it’s, well . . .  inexpressible! It’s a presence, a power, a purpose for life that goes beyond this life. It’s a profound mystery—the joy that comes from being united with Christ as his bride (Ephesians 5:29-32).

Real joy is a lasting joy—something only God can give and has given to us through Jesus Christ. No, I don’t often see that kind of joy on cable news, but that doesn’t mean there is no joy in the world. We just need to look in the right places—internally, not externally. The Lord is our source of joy and we can see it in those who follow him; we can hear it in“the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord.”

Real joy is a lasting joy—something only God can give and has given to us through Jesus Christ. Click To Tweet

This Christmas, regardless of the circumstances, be filled with this glorious joy, express it as you worship the newborn King and proclaim that the Christ is born!

Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”

 

 

Small Group Leader TIPS of the Week: Dec. 19-23, 2016

Here are the Small Group Leader TIPS for the last week as Tweeted, posted on our Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

This week’s TIPS are all about doing Christmas as a group.

Question: What Small Group Leader TIP do YOU have for doing Christmas together and making a kingdom impact? Scroll down and comment below! 

Read All Small Group Leadership TIPS here!

12 Ideas for a Life-Changing Small Group Christmas

What is your small group’s plan for this Christmas season?

Many groups struggle with meeting and studying over the holidays, and this can be detrimental to the health of your group. Not only that, but this is a prime time of the year to help your group members grow in their faith as well as to reach out to and invite new people. Perhaps your group will take a break from your normal schedule, but that’s no reason not to keep meeting. Here are 12 ideas for how your small group can get the most—and give the most—this Christmas. Pick one or two of these to do as a group!

1. Start New Traditions.
For most of us, the holidays are about traditions: eating huge meals together, taking a drive to see the lights, decorating the house, going to local events, and, of course, going to church services. Why not invite those from your group or others who are lonely to join you in some of your traditions? One Thanksgiving, I got to know a young man named Mark who lived at a homeless shelter. I invited Mark to family and church events during the holidays, and he enjoyed spending time with us. We also invited him to our small group gatherings, and Mark excitedly jumped right in. Mark had many needs, some of which we could not provide for, but we could reach out to him and offer him friendship, hospitality, and the love of Jesus. My family, my group, and I also benefited from inviting Mark into our traditions. His presence with us made those traditions even more meaningful for us. It’s easy to sing, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”; it’s another thing to go tell a homeless person that Jesus Christ is born.

Start new traditions with your small group. Each year several groups at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, help provide holiday meals for families who would otherwise not have a nice meal. They not only buy it, but they deliver it and pray for the families. Many of the groups at Northeast also work with Operation Christmas Child each year. One group basically “owns” this event, organizing it months in advance, helping collect shoe boxes and running the distribution center on our church property. Your small group tradition can be little or big; what matters is to do something together for the least of these.

2. Study the Gospels (All of Them)
Christmas lessons tend to rely on the narratives from Matthew and Luke, but there are many other alternatives, of course. Peter Mead (www.biblicalpreaching.net), a missionary and writer, suggests studying all four Gospel introductions, for instance. Introduce group members to Matthew’s introduction and then Mark’s. Discuss why Mark didn’t use the birth narrative, but jumped directly to the days leading up to the start of Jesus’ ministry. Then summarize the visitations, prophecies, and narrative of Luke 1 and 2. Wrap it up by studying and discussing John 1:1-18, which portrays beautifully the why behind it all.

3. Experience Christmas Anew.
This is one of the most wonderful times of the year to grow together in your understanding of the gospel story. The Christmas Experience Small Group Study, from City on a Hill, is a great place to start. This is more than just a nice Christmas study; I believe it will be an experience you and your group will remember for a long time. Kyle Idleman brought out insights I had never considered and helped me see this very familiar story in new ways. More than that, however, as I watched the dramatic presentation of the Christmas story, I was moved in ways I didn’t expect. As your group experiences this material, I believe they will be moved as well, and they will grow not only to know the story better, but to know God more intimately.

4. Celebrate Immanuel.
This Christmas, move past the historical Jesus who was born and lived 2,000 years ago. Consider the living Christ who is still Immanuel, God with us … the One who is with us whenever we gather together in his name. As a group, discuss and prepare to celebrate the Event of events when the Creator of the universe made himself nothing and took the form of human flesh, a baby, a humble servant, a sacrifice for our sins.

Don’t reserve worship for your Christmas-eve services at the church building. Build up to that celebration by singing worshipful hymns together as a group and finding other ways to praise God for what he did by lovingly sending his only Son into the world.

5. Invite Friends to Christmas Services.
According to a recent LifeWay Research study, 61 percent of Americans attend church services at Christmastime. Which means, of course, that 4 out of 10 people do not attend. Yet, among those who don’t attend church at Christmas, 57 percent said that if someone they knew invited them to church at Christmastime, they would go. Commit as a group to invite your neighbors, friends, and co-workers to Christmas services. Encourage and spur one another on along the way.

6. Love Those Who Are Struggling.
Remember the folks in your circles who struggle this time of year. Many people—inside your group and among your group members’ friends—are vulnerable during the holidays. Many hurting people come into the Christmas season feeling like God is far away. They desperately want to know Immanuel—God with them—but he seems more like Exmanuel: God used to be with me, but now I feel like he’s left me … or, I feel like he is so external to my current experience.

This is one of the best times of year for a small group to reach out to these folks and love them, invite them into your celebrations, and invite them to know more than the “baby Jesus”—to develop a relationship with him who died for them and lives today. People are not only vulnerable, they are open to an invitation to connect during the holidays.

7. Give Gifts to the Least of These.
Years ago, I read Pastor Dick Alexander’s sage advice about gift giving that I’ve never forgotten. “Gifts are an integral part of Christmas,” he said, “but they can either express or distort its meaning.” He suggested limiting our gift giving to one another (in the family or small group). Your family or group may usually exchange gifts with one another (even though is Jesus’ birth we’re celebrating!). Instead, give gifts to the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

As the body of Christ in action, your group has the privilege of penetrating the culture by serving people. After all, that’s what the Incarnation is all about. Here are a few ideas:

Eric Bingaman shared what his small groups at Batesville (Indiana) Christian Church have done in the past: “One group took a Saturday to watch the children of church members so they could get their shopping accomplished. One group went door to door Christmas caroling in their neighborhood.”

Chris McCall, Small Groups and Care Pastor at Watermark Church in Ashford, Alabama, said, “Our groups have connected with the local schools in our community to provide Christmas for needy families. Groups enjoy it because it’s more than providing gifts for the families; it’s about the relationships built with the families they provided for. A number of our groups have taken this opportunity to help them minister to the families outside of the holiday season throughout the year.” Yes, Clark, that’s the gift that keeps on giving throughout the entire year.

8. Throw a Party.
The holidays are an excellent time for a party with a purpose. Be creative: make it a story party, where each person comes prepared to share a short story about a Christmas past; or have a birthday party of Jesus with the kids. Or make it a Christmas-movie party. The main thing is to make this a party to which everyone can invite friends, especially those who don’t fully understand the meaning of Christmas. As Jesus did with Matthew’s friends in Matthew 9, simply enjoy the opportunity to connect with one another, and see what God will do.

9. Serve Together.
Most churches need lots of volunteers during Christmas services. Plan to serve together, if possible at one service in a specific ministry or area. Just ask church leaders what is neeeded and how you can serve together.

10. Build Deeper Community.
Spend an entire day together as a group. A Sunday may be best. (If you can’t do this in December, move it to January.) Go to church services together in the morning and then go out to eat. Go Christmas shopping together at the mall. Plan a party for the evening; ask folks to bring food to munch on throughout the evening, and watch family-friendly Christmas movies together or play games. Or go to a Christmas pageant together. Invite spouses, family, and friends of members.

11. Adopt a Family.
Ask your church or a community organization for the contact information for a local family in need. Find out what the family needs and then shop together for gifts. Schedule a time to greet the family and drop off the gifts. If possible, keep in touch after the holiday season and continue to serve. (Imagine the impact if every group, class, and team in your church did this!)

12. Plan for a New Year.
Sometime in December or early January, gather group members for a fun gathering that you use to plan for next year. Start thinking and preparing for this planning party now.
For many of us, the holidays are the biz, biz, busiest time of the year. Talk to your group members now to discuss some of the things you won’t do this year so that you can experience Immanuel—God with us—and be an Incarnational small group by taking the message of Jesus into the world around you.

QUESTION: What small group Christmas ideas not included here has your group tried? Tell us about it by COMMENTING below!

24 Icebreakers for a Small Group Christmas

Here are 24 icebreaker questions and activities I’ve written over the years that you can choose from. (Tip: save or print this for future use!)

How are you “lighting up” your home for Christmas? Who is in charge of the lights and other decorations? Any special traditions?

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What are your expectations this Christmas? What are you hoping for?

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What does your busiest week in December look like?

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Describe the favorite or most meaningful Christmas card you’ve received this year. (If possible, ask group members to bring their favorite card with them.) What makes this card so meaningful?

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In 60 seconds, write down the titles of as many Christmas songs or carols as you can think of that mention angels. At the end of the 60 seconds, see who came up with the most and the most original.

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How well are you prepared for Christmas? Physically (home decorations, buying gifts)? Financially? Emotionally? Spiritually?

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What is the most special Christmas gift you’ve ever received? What makes a gift special to you?

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Ask all three of these questions:

  • What is the most memorable Christmas gift you ever received?
  • What is the most memorable Christmas gift you have ever given?
  • Which was more meaningful to you?

 

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As you anticipate Christmas, what phrase or phrases best describe you?

  • OH NOOO, there’s so much to get done!!!
  • How long IS your family staying?
  • Do we HAVE to buy a gift for every single person we know?
  • What a wonderful time of year to reflect on the birth of Jesus and all the promises.
  • I really miss the people who are not going to be with us this Christmas.
  • Other

 

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If you could give any gift to anyone, what would you give, to whom, and why?

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What is the silliest gift you ever received for Christmas? What was the silliest gift you ever gave for Christmas?

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Is there someone (don’t name names) that you will avoid at a Christmas Party this year? What avoidance techniques do you employ?

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Which Christmas carol evokes the strongest memory for you and why?

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When you were a kid, did you sneak and find your gifts? How far did you go to figure out what you were going to get for Christmas?

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What scene is your favorite from It’s a Wonderful Life? Can you quote a line from the film?

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As people arrive, give each a name tag to wear for the evening. Instruct them to print their first names vertically down the left side of the tag and then print a word or words for each letter describing their favorite things about Christmastime.

Leader Tip: Create your own name tag first, before other people arrive. As always, you as the leader go first and model this for the group.

As everyone gets settled, invite each person to introduce themselves and say why they chose the words they put on their tags.

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Before the meeting, set up a nativity set in the center of the room where all participants can see it. Ask:

  • What traditions, if any, did your family have with the nativity set?

Now pick up Mary and show her to the group. Ask:

  • How have you viewed Jesus’ mother Mary through your life?
  • From where did you develop your views of her?

 

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Set up the nativity set in the center of the room where all participants can see it. Pick up Joseph and show him to the group, then ask: What is your general impression of Joseph? Explain your response.

  • He’s an extra in the Christmas story. I don’t even notice him.
  • He’s got a part in the manger scene, but he’s always in the background.
  • He was always there for Mary, standing behind her and taking care of her. His role was simply to be Mary’s husband.
  • He probably was a good dad. He taught Jesus to be a carpenter.
  • He’s the leading man in the Christmas story. God chose him to be Jesus’ earthly father.
  • He’s a great man of faith, a great model for us to emulate.
  • Other: ______

 

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Point out the shepherds and angels outside the nativity scene. Without saying anything, move the shepherds so that they are gathered around the manger. Then ask:

  •  As a kid, what Christmas traditions, if any, did your family have as it related to the shepherds and angels?
  • Did you ever play one of these parts in a Christmas pageant?
  • Was your tree topper an angel?
  • Anything else?
  • How about in your family today?

 

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As a child, how did your family build up to Christmas Day? Did you have any particular traditions to help you anticipate Christmas (for instance, an Advent wreath, candles, a calendar, creative use of the nativity set, etc.)? Do you have any traditions today?

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As a young child how did you anticipate the coming of Christmas Day?

  • It can’t get here soon enough!
  • It can’t be over soon enough!
  • Other: _______

How would you answer the same question now?

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What family Christmas traditions are you using this year to focus on Christ and why he came into the world?

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What’s your favorite quote from any Christmas movie? The first person to guess what movie it’s from and the name of the person who said it wins (a white elephant gift?).

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(For after Christmas) How was this Christmas different from previous Christmases?

MORE CHRISTMAS IDEAS AND RESOURCES

What to Do When God Does Not Feel Very Much Like “Immanuel”
Not Just Another Sentimental Christmas Message
7 Ways Your Small Group Can Celebrate the Incarnation this Christmas Season: #1: Experience Christmas!
#2: Celebrate Immanuel
#3: Love Those Who Are Struggling
#4: Give Gifts
#5: Start Some New Traditions
#6 & 7: Party and Plan

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week: December 7-11, 2015

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the past week as Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

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Monday, 12/7: Use this season strategically to make a difference in the environment in which God has placed you.

Tuesday, 12/8: Remember that nothing that happens in the world surprises God. He placed you here for his purpose.

Wednesday, 12/9: Worship with your group. Jesus is present with you (Matt. 18:20). How can you not worship him?

Thursday, 12/10: Christmas is a time to be with family and friends. That’s what a healthy group is. Why would you take a break?

Friday, 12/11: You don’t need to repeat prayer requests back to Jesus as if he wasn’t listening the 1st time.

MORE SMALL GROUP LEADERSHIP TIPS 

All 8Weeks of Small Group Leadership TIPS

__________
Follow Mike and Small Group Leadership on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks by clicking on the icons in the “Connect with Mike” box in the right column.

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the Week: 11/23-27/2015

Small Group Leadership TIPS of the past week as Tweeted, posted on the Small Group Leadership Facebook page, and posted on LinkedIn.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *
Monday, 11/23: Each day this week, send a letter or email or call group mbrs to #thank them for what they bring to the group.

Tuesday, 11/24: Thank your #church leaders: Coach, SG Point Person, #Pastor, Other Staff. Txt, EM, or call.


Wednesday, 11/25: Thank God for grace today through your ACTIONS. #thanksgiving #Jesus #grace #serve


Thursday, 11/26: Love on, appreciate, and be thankful for your family. Be a model of #love. #thankful #blessing

Friday, 11/27: Instead of taking a break, leverage the #holidays with your group: Here are 7 ways: http://ow.ly/V7IeT

MORE SMALL GROUP LEADERSHIP TIPS 

10/14-23/2015
10/26-30/2015
11/2-16/2015
11/9-13/2015
11/16-20/2015
__________
Follow Mike and Small Group Leadership on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks by clicking on the icons in the “Connect with Mike” box in the right column.

7 Ways Your Small Group Can Celebrate the Incarnation this Christmas Season – #6 & 7: Party and Plan

Today I’m giving my last 2 of 7 ideas your group, class, or family can use to celebrate Christmas. See 1-5 here.

Throw a Party
The holidays are an excellent time for a party with a purpose. Be creative: make it a story party, where each person comes prepared to share a short story about a Christmas past; or have a birthday party of Jesus with the kids. The main thing is to make this a party to which everyone can invite friends, especially those who don’t fully understand the meaning of Christmas. As Jesus did with Matthew’s friends in Matthew 9, simply enjoy the opportunity to connect with one another, and see what God will do.

Plan for a New Year
Sometime in December or early January, gather group members for a fun gathering that you use to plan for 2015. Start thinking and preparing for this planning party now, in December.

For many of us, the holidays are the biz, biz, busiest time of the year. Talk to your group members now to discuss some of the things you won’t do this year so that you can experience Immanuel—God with us—and be an Incarnational small group by taking the message of Jesus into the world around you.

7 Ways Your Small Group Can Celebrate the Incarnation this Christmas Season – #5: Start Some New Traditions

This is Day 5 of my 7 ideas your group, class, or family can use to celebrate Christmas. See 1-4 here.

For most of us, the holidays are about traditions: taking a drive to see the lights, decorating the house together, going to local events, and, of course, going to church services. Why not invite those from your group or others who are lonely to join you in some of your traditions?

One Thanksgiving, I got to know a young man named Mark who lived at a homeless shelter. I invited Mark to some our family and church events during the holidays, and he enjoyed spending time with us. Mark had many needs, some of which we could not provide for, but we could reach out to him and offer him friendship, hospitality, and the love of Jesus. My family and I also benefitted from inviting Mark into our family traditions. His presence with us made those traditions even more meaningful for us. It’s easy to sing, “Go Tell It on the Mountain”; it’s another thing to go tell a homeless person that Jesus Christ is born.

Start new traditions with your small group. Each year several groups at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, help provide Thanksgiving meals for families who would otherwise not have a nice meal. They not only buy it, but they deliver it and pray for the families. Many of the groups at Northeast also work with Operation Christmas Child each year. One group basically “owns” this event, organizing it months in advance, helping collect shoe boxes and running the distribution center on our church property. Your small group tradition can be little or big; what matters is to do something together for the least of these.