5 ideas to make Advent and Christmas more meaningful with students

Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Nov 18, 2021

The holidays can be the best time of year in youth ministry. And also the worst.

Inviting students to marvel at the miracle of God-with-us? That’s what we signed up for.

Mopping up the sticky hot-chocolate-smeared floor after an earsplitting middle school Christmas party? No thanks.

And if we’re honest, this year’s holiday season isn’t quite looking the way we thought it might—which seems eerily familiar to how we felt a year ago, only more exhausting.

If you’re finding yourself heading into Advent with less energy and creativity than you’d hoped, you are not alone. Here are five ideas to make the season meaningful with your students.

1. Ask students what they need this year

It may feel like we should make up for lost time, but young people don’t have to pack two Christmas seasons in one—and neither do we. So don’t over-program, but do ask what kinds of connections students are looking for. Check in with parents to ensure any new or out-of-the ordinary plans don’t fill family schedules when they’re hoping for more time at home.

Based on all our team at FYI is hearing—and what we know about teenagers today—many young people are grappling with anxiety and depression. They’re an anxious generation at the end of an anxiety-fueled year. 2021 was decidedly not the non-2020 we hoped it would be. Students may want:

  • Safe space to take a breath and chill.
  • An opportunity to grieve the losses of 2020 and 2021.
  • Time just to be silly and laugh.

So what do your students need this season? The answers might vary based on your community and your particular kids. But asking them is a great first step.

Ask students questions like:

  • What sounds fun to you this Christmas?
  • What do you wish we would do or not do this year?
  • What are you feeling as we head into the holidays? What would be helpful?

2. Root students’ faith identity in Jesus

A huge part of our identity—the answer to the question, “Who am I?”—is our faith identity. Advent is an incredible season to root young people’s faith in Jesus, because it prepares us to wait for Jesus. We wait for his birth like the prophets and like Mary. And we wait with believers across the centuries for his return.

Advent offers a stark reminder that God not only walked on earth as a human, but started that journey as an embryo in an unwed teen mom. God’s vulnerability to us paved the way for our vulnerability before God as people who walk in faith, day by day.

In our book 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, we define discipleship as “our everyday ‘Yes’ to Jesus.” That’s because in the Gospels, we see Jesus encounter all kinds of people and extend all kinds of invitations, but the most alarming moments are when he looks someone in the eye and offers, “Come, follow me.” The stakes are high.

Answering yes changes everything.

An everyday “Yes” to Jesus is a response to God’s invitation to enter a mystery. Advent, Christmas, and the new year offer new opportunities to ask questions like:

  • What does it mean to you to follow Jesus?
  • What makes you not want to follow Jesus or be part of the church sometimes?
  • How would you say your faith impacts your view of yourself?
  • Why do you think Advent is about “waiting” on God? What do you like about that? What’s frustrating about that?

3. Make memories that boost belonging

The holidays show up bearing a plateful of hype about memories. Traditions. Sentimental feelings and foods and decorations.

Memories can be comforting and meaningful; they can also create pressure, or even be counterproductive.

Some memories are built over time when we repeat patterns, while others are cast from singular experiences and unique moments. Don’t feel obligated to make this holiday season one or the other. It’s a great time to try something new, especially since it’s been a couple of years since anything was “normal.” But remember that new ideas don’t have to become traditions.

It’s a fine year to revisit what was special or comforting about the old normal. Making tamales and walking Las Posadas? Decorating sugar cookies or gingerbread houses? Wearing ugly holiday sweaters to go Christmas caroling? If your students are longing for particular traditions, a taste of normal can ease anxiety and may even be restorative.

Whatever memory-making looks like this year, focus on activities that boost belonging. When a teenager shares a memory with other teenagers, that shared experience can actually make them feel like they belong with those people. Our job as leaders is to set the stage for holiday environments that communicate, “You belong here.”

This year let’s go out of our way to reach out to disconnected students and pave easy inroads to reconnection. Make it less awkward to show up again for the first time in your ministry.

In this season, ask questions about belonging like:

  • What is one of your favorite Christmas memories?
  • How do the holidays make you feel like you belong, and how do they make you feel left out?
  • When do you feel like you really belong?
  • What can we do to make everyone feel like they belong in our group?

4. Power holiday serving with a bigger “purpose” story

The holiday season is often a time we point students towards opportunities to serve—whether it’s helping with a local food drive, volunteering at a nearby nonprofit, or supporting all the projects happening at church.

In past years I’ve asked students to do everything from decorating the sanctuary to serving ministries invested in L.A’s Skid Row community. What I don’t always do well is help them see their service within a bigger story—the story of what God is doing and will do in the world—and how our actions take on meaning in that story. In other words, God is on the move, and we get to play a part. Helping others, loving our neighbors, and serving the church matter because they’re small parts of a big unfolding drama.

In our framing ahead of time and our debrief after we serve, we can help young people recenter the plot in the larger story of God’s heart for justice and shalom for all the earth. Start the conversation this year with questions like:

  • What gets you excited about serving? What makes it a drag?
  • How does serving help us love God and love others?
  • What kinds of things do you want to do this holiday season to help others?
  • Which of our helping traditions do you love, and what do you wish we’d change?
  • If our group could get involved in supporting one cause together this Christmas, what would you want it to be? (… and how do you want to help?!)

5. A simple goal: better conversations with teenagers

I don’t know about you, but I can get so caught up in the planning and logistics of this season that I don’t make space for good conversations. I’m not attuned to what students need, or what the teenager in front of me is really going through.

Maybe your holiday capacity is maxed. The thought of adding one more to-do from this post just seems unreasonable (maybe I’m writing to myself here?). If so, consider this simple goal: better conversations. How do we get there?

  • More intentional listening.
  • More inviting questions.
  • More empathetic follow-ups.

Maybe we even get there by canceling a program or redirecting time spent pulling all the details together toward time in good conversations instead.

Whether you need this simple goal or have energy for a lot more this season, in 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager we’ve put over 300 questions directly in your hands, so you can be ready to ask better questions of the teenagers in your ministry—this holiday season and all year long.

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Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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