The inescapable build up to Christmas is well and truly underway across the country and churches are no exception. After last year's cancelled plans, missed opportunities and disappointments, this year's festivities feel like they hold particular significance.
Despite the innovation 'lockdown Christmas' brought, we all still hope to welcome people physically again this year. But, as Christmas plans look to get back to business as usual, many of us also are doing a bit of stock taking.
Christmas is a time when churches see their numbers swell. People who would never usually cross the threshold of a church find themselves crammed into pews for the annual carol service trip. It's an exciting opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with them and Christian communities do pull out all the stops. Churches are bedecked in candles and fairy lights, we put on choirs and nativities, offer mulled wine and mince pieces. We put on a good show.
But whilst the heart behind all this is to draw people to Christ and to share Jesus' love, the fact remains that for many people, it all just washes over them in warmth and familiarity; guests grab a mince pie on the way out and look forward to next year's service. Church carol services can become another element of the consumerist Christmas Christians so often bemoan.
Maybe it's time for a more radical change than adding a modern twist on this year's nativity. If we truly want to build community and display Christ, it is not about just telling them about Jesus' love, but showing them what this love looks like in practice; not about providing people with a service, but about inviting them to serve alongside you.
This is a bold claim and I wouldn't be so confident if I hadn't seen it work countless times, not just in the UK but in communities across the world. The foundation of true relationships comes through acts of love, and individual relationships are transformed into communities by a sense of mutual purpose and belonging. We see the truth of this in 1 Corinthians 12 as the Church is described as a body, with each person having a different and valued role.
Through my work with Feed The Hungry, I am privileged to witness this all around the world, whether it is working with refugees in Athens, with orphans in Romania, widows in a small village in Southern Zambia or 'untouchables' in Nepal.
It is seeing communities drawn together in service in the UK and across the world that inspires organisations to engage church communities. You see it in 'Welcome Churches' set up by Krish Kandiah with a vision for every refugee in the UK to be welcomed by their local church, or in the church unity and energy in response to the hardship of the pandemic. Wherever churches and communities come together to serve in this way there is incredible fruit.
We have been amazed by the response to clothing collections for Syrian and Iraqi refugees or calls for school shoes to go to Nicaragua. We have seen amazing clothes created by knitting circles for babies in Romania and a school involved in making beds for an orphanage in Romania and packing bags full of school equipment for Burkina Faso.
Most recently I have seen the joy and community of serving together in our 'Hand to Hand' food packing programme, where churches come together to pack food parcels. Teams assemble and fill the parcels together to be shipped to locations around the world where they are most needed. But it isn't just limited to the church family, the wider community can get involved as well, and it becomes a tool to introduce people to the practical love of Jesus. All over the country we've seen churches come together as a community, to serve others and work toward a common goal.
Gathering with our nearest and dearest is fundamental to many people's Christmas, keeping our focus on our individual homes and families. What could be a more radical witness of the love of Christ to our community than inviting them to look outside of ourselves, to those in need? 768 million people around the world are currently experiencing chronic hunger and 882 million do not have sufficient food. These statistics are both shocking and heart-breaking.
Our heart at Feed The Hungry is that the church can feel empowered to serve those in need, both locally and globally, simultaneously this Christmas. We want to see churches re-engaging in community outreach and re-building connection with their own church families, whilst also displaying Jesus' love by serving the global mission to feed those in the greatest need around the world.
It is time that we stop just inviting people through the doors and invite them into our communities at Christmas. It is then we can truly show the love of Christ who gave up everything to serve us at Christmas.
To find out more about running a Hand to Hand event at your church, please visit: fth.org.uk/handtohand
Gwyn Williams has been UK Operations Director for Feed the Hungry for the last ten years. Gwyn's career as a designer was foundational in building his desire to work with community engagement projects. Gwyn has been involved in setting up a youth café, a tea bus street café, and an art gallery in his local town Hinckley.