The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.
Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.
"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.
The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."
That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?
Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.
This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar. Most modern Christians are not used to thinking that way, said Seay.
"The key is that the liturgical calendar calls us into the story of Jesus," he said. "If you don't take that seriously, you'll skip parts of the story. You'll skip Good Friday and rush to Easter. You'll skip Pentecost altogether. You'll rush to Christmas and then collapse. … We need this discipline. We need ways to control our modern biases."
For some people that may mean skipping some early- and mid-December office and school parties, said Seay. It may mean creating online sites (Hello Pinterest) dedicated to hands-on, less expensive, decorations and gifts. For clergy, it may mean daring to schedule Christmas parties and concerts during the actual 12 days of Christmas.
Some people may want to start with digital mixes of traditional Advent music for their cars, stereos and smartphones, said Alexi Sargeant, an editor at the interfaith journal First Things in New York. He keeps adding chants and hymns -- from Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox sources -- to an online "Advent Playlist" for those seeking ways to save Christmas music for the Christmas season.
These songs are lovely, but most include images both hopeful and sobering -- like the biblical events that led to Christmas. Consider one favorite, "Creator of the Stars of Night," he said. The lyrics include: "Jesu, Redeemer, save us all, and hear Thy servants when they call. … O Thou Whose coming is with dread, to judge and doom the quick and dead, preserve us, while we dwell below, from every insult of the foe."
The bottom line, said Sargeant, is that Americans don't want to have to wait for anything. This means that even the most dedicated of modern Christians may struggle when it comes to preparing for the "explosion of joy that is Christmas" with what, for many centuries, was Advent's season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
"It's hard to blame anyone for wanting to rush on to get to Christmas, because it's a truly great and glorious feast," he said. "But the church keeps reminding us that Christmas is not something that we are automatically ready for. We need to go on a journey with Mary and Joseph to get ready for Christmas. That's a serious message and, quite frankly, we may not want to hear it."