Churches around the world are joining an emerging international movement to restore the "scandal" of Christmas by observing the holiday more authentically.
The Advent Conspiracy – the name of the movement – calls on churches and their members to give simpler but more thoughtful gifts that foster relationships. Christians are then encouraged to use the money they would have spent on expensive gifts to help the needy around the world.
"It's called the Advent Conspiracy, because Jesus' birth - his coming or 'advent' – was done in secret, almost hidden," said Rick McKinley, senior pastor of Imago Dei Community Church in Portland, Ore., and an organizer of the movement. "His coming was scandalous. He didn't come parading as a king. He didn't come posturing for power. And he gave himself away to others.
"Ultimately, he gave the greatest gift of all – his life for our life. We think Christmas should be celebrated the same way," he said.
More than 1,000 churches in 17 countries are participating this year in the Internet-based project focused on the gift of providing clean drinking water for impoverished communities in developing countries. Another 600 churches have requested more information about the program, according to the movement.
World Relief and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church have also supported the efforts.
"There's nothing wrong with giving a perfunctory present or a gift card, but what that often does is rob both the giver and the recipient of the joy and depth of relational giving," said McKinley. "The meaning of the gift – and the meaning of Christmas – can be easily lost."
A relational gift could be an $8 package of coffee a granddaughter bought to share with her grandmother so they could sip coffee and the grandmother could share stories about her life. Another idea is a father who instead of buying his son an X-Box, gave him a baseball glove and pledged to spend more time playing catch with him.
The Advent Conspiracy's statement of belief is "worship more, spend less, give more and love all," McKinley highlighted.
The movement came together a year ago when five churches decided the greatest and most significant gift their initiative could give was clean water to needy people. The churches were Imago Dei; Ecclesia in Houston, Texas; Windsor Crossing Community Church in Chesterfield, Mo.; New Providence Community in Nassau, Bahamas; and Fellowship Church in Anthem, Ariz.
Last year, the movement raised $400,000 and donated it to Living Water International, a Houston-base ministry that provides clean water and medical attention and shares the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
"Clean water changes lives," said Stan Patyrak, assistant vice president of Living Water. "It changes our lives too. When clean water is offered in the name of Christ, it changes the recipient's view of Jesus. Their thanks go back to him, not to us."
Patyrak pointed out that Americans spend over $100 billion on Christmas giving in a year, but it only takes $10 billion to solve the world's water problems.
Unsafe water takes the lives of nearly 14,000 people each day and is responsible for 80 percent of the sickness in the world, he said. More than 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, according to the World Health Organization.
"We are excited to see how the movement has caught on," McKinley said. "And we would love to see the church retell the story of Christ's birth in a way that evokes worship and justice in the world."
The Advent Conspiracy also gives donations to other local projects, such as providing for needy children.
On the Web: Further information at adventconspiracy.org