For generations of families, Advent has been known for children’s eager opening of tiny paper windows on an Advent calendar, each window building on the biblical promise of a coming Savior. In many households it’s the weekly lighting of candles on an Advent wreath that heightens the anticipation of Jesus’ birth.
As Advent approaches this year, Lutherans have access to those traditional methods for marking the days, as well as some new, digitally enhanced resources.
One such resource builds on the subscription boxes popularized during the COVID-19 pandemic, a complete “all-you-need” container delivered to your door. Another uses podcasts to tap into consumers’ ever-increasing desire to access information, entertainment or meditation while on the go. And another continues a 30-year tradition in the form of a free daily devotional.
“Advent in a Box” is targeted primarily to church leaders and billed as “everything you need to lead your community through a meaningful Advent journey.” Included in the $75 box are sermon prompts and original liturgies, teaching sessions on the season, ideas for youth and family ministry, digital graphics and posts for social media, shareable videos, at-home faith practices and an Advent calendar.
The box will include a few “goodies,” the creators say, as well as the book Ordinary Blessings for the Christmas Season: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations by Meta Herrick Carlson, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church’s Minnetonka, Minn., campus.
“Advent is an immediate and urgent call for something different.”
The idea, said Matthew Fleming—a pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, Minn., and director of its Church Anew ministry—is to provide church leaders with “a one-stop shop” for Advent. This approach has connected with congregations of every size, he added.
Church Anew, spawned in 2018 from St. Andrew’s 7,000-member presence in suburban Minneapolis, first tried its hand at subscription boxes in 2022 with “Lent in a Box.” About 125 congregations placed orders. When the 2023 Lent version was offered, that number almost tripled. A “Stewardship in a Box” package was also offered this year.
Fleming said the ministry was created to equip church leaders from a variety of traditions through events, blogs and newer methods, which is where the idea of subscription boxes was born. “People are really responsive to them,” he said.
As visits to Church Anew’s website near 400,000, Fleming said it seems “we’re on to something here.” Though the COVID-19 pandemic halted more traditional seminars and in-person conferences, he said, Church Anew’s flexible format put it “in the right place at the right time.” Within 72 hours of George Floyd’s murder, for instance, Church Anew had made available to preachers resources for that Sunday’s worship and prayers.
The theme of “Advent in a Box” is “Why Wait?” Though Advent is a time of preparation for, and anticipation of, Christmas, it’s also an immediate and urgent call for something different. “We’re really inviting congregations to expect Jesus here, now,” he said.
Meeting people where they are
Across the country, the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Synod is guessing that today’s time-crunched Christian might appreciate some Advent on the go—while commuting, working out at the gym or doing chores. For them a weekly podcast may fit the bill. “We’re trying to meet people where they are,” said Kelly Champagne, the synod’s communications manager. “It’s a good method for people to get a little gospel.”
Synod staff didn’t have to look far in creating an Advent resource and devotional in a digital audio format. Bishop Leila Ortiz has experience with personal podcasts of her own and this past summer hosted a seven-part series for the synod, highlighting its various ministries.
For Advent the audio devotional continues Ortiz’s conversational, one-hour format. Each week—continuing for six weeks, into the season after Epiphany—the podcast will feature guests from some of the 17 agencies and ministries that have benefited from the $4 million given since 1992 to Gifts of Hope, the synod’s alternative gift-giving program. Advent themes will be woven into each conversation, following the weekly themes laid out in the ELCA worship resource Sundays and Seasons.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, doesn’t make an appearance in the upcoming lectionary until the Fourth Sunday of Advent. But her song of hope and justice in Luke 1, the Magnificat, resonates in the title of the podcast series and in the work done by each week’s guests.
“It’s a good method for people to get a little gospel.”
That title, The World Is About to Turn, is familiar to many Lutheran worshipers from a paraphrase of the Magnificat in “Canticle of the Turning”: “My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 723).
The podcast “is for the curious and for those seeking honest conversations about life and ministry,” Ortiz says in her introduction to the series. “It is for those fully aware that we are in a moment in history that demands our attention and our intentionality. The world is about to turn, and this podcast is for those who seek to be co-conspirators with the Holy Spirit, those who wish to affect the turn toward the One who offers life and life abundant in this world, our weary world.”
The World Is About to Turn is available on the synod website and streaming on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and Google/YouTube.
Capturing the imagination
For some people, nothing can replace the comfort of holding Scripture in one’s hand, during Advent or at any time of year.
For them the long-popular devotional from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., will continue its 30-year run, offering free daily Bible passages and meditations from faculty and staff. Available Nov. 1, the booklet can be read online and downloaded in regular and large print. The 22,000 subscribers to the seminary’s yearlong God Pause devotions will automatically receive the Advent devotions through their daily email.
“It is a labor of love,” said Jim Boyce, referring to his decades of reviewing every devotional as its theological editor, and to the time given to them by contributors. This year’s devotional theme is “Creator of the Stars of Night.”
Advent “captures the imagination,” said Boyce, professor emeritus of New Testament at Luther. The season has captivated Christians since the fifth century, he said, when the early church began recognizing it as a time of preparation for Christmas.
For many church leaders and worshipers alike, however, Advent is a season fraught with irony. For four Sundays the church and biblical readings keep Christmas celebrations at arm’s length while focusing on the prophets’ hope of a coming messiah. John the Baptist makes his annual appearance in the wilderness, calling on Israel to “prepare the way” for a Savior who is coming but not here just yet. Yet all around the church is a culture singing about, celebrating and selling Christmas Day long before it arrives.
“There’s a movement there, back and forth, between end times and Jesus’ arrival,” Boyce said. “We wait for the coming of the Messiah”—yet the final words in Matthew’s Gospel are Jesus’ promise that “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).
“So, we wait to celebrate that coming again,” Boyce said, “in a new way.”