Last week, I talked about how to encourage generosity at the end of the year by making  Growing generosity is a part of your teaching ministry, and teachers need to be creative. We’ve talked about getting creative by making a Christmas Wish List for your church. It’s a way to engage the people directly with the needs of the church in a way that opens opportunity instead of laying on burdens. Check out Giving Up for more ideas. Meanwhile, I want to focus on two ways to inspire generosity in surprising ways during Advent and Christmas.

“The Fattening of the Priests”

Every year around this time, our church office would become a minefield of festive tins filled with sugary treats for the staff. Lemon bars and snickerdoodles and peppermint bark and brownies and…Ok, I better stop. Just listing them out is making my belt feel tighter.

Coming soon to a church office near you!

The point is that parishioners wanted to show kindness to me and to everyone who served them at the church, and they would bring their very best. There were usually very thoughtful, hand-written cards accompanying the sweet treats, too. Now, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me and think me ungrateful. I appreciated every gesture from every person in my congregation. However—let’s be frank—I don’t need the calories. I just don’t need a dozen platters of baked goods sitting around my home until mid-January. And, while many of those cards are still in my office drawer as treasured keepsakes, I don’t need those sentiments nearly as much as others might.

Inside Out

This became a teachable moment for my church. I learned to take a moment, either in the church newsletter or in a sermon, to challenge people to look outward in their generosity. Surely there were less visible, less recognized individuals who wouldn’t receive a plate of cookies from anyone this year. Surely there is someone in their lives for whom a hand-written expression of thanks and love would leave them speechless.

For a leader, it’s a difficult line to walk, to be sure. You don’t want to make anyone feel guilty for wanting to express their kindness to you, but this is an isolated moment to begin to instill a larger, crucial truth. When churches only look inward they atrophy. When we only form meal trains for church members with new babies, that’s a problem. When we only raise money to help families experiencing joblessness within our own community, that’s a problem. The church exists for the sake of others and our first instinct should always be to give up to God by giving outward to others.

Take a Reverse Offering

My second idea reinforces this more proactively—but it’ll cost you a little bit. Go out and invest in $5 gift cards—lots of them—from iTunes to Starbucks to Sonic. You need at least one for every family in your congregation.

Then, at some point during your service, have your ushers pass the offering plates around with these gift cards inside. You might even attach notes with the church’s information on them. Ask every family to take one of these gift cards and give it away during the week. They should pray and consider who might be most blessed by this small gesture. Perhaps it’s a school teacher (or the school secretary!). Perhaps it’s a coworker who seems discouraged. Everyone knows someone whose day would be made simply by knowing someone had thought of them specifically.

This is a powerful metaphor for that larger idea of giving up and giving out. Seeing the offering plates used not just to collect gifts, but to give them, reminds everyone of the essential abundance of God’s provision. They don’t put their money in empty offering plates because God is in desperate need of funding. Instead, giving is always an opportunity to join God’s ongoing, overflowing generosity to the world.

Besides, who knows? Maybe passing around overflowing offering plates to those you serve and receiving them back empty will serve as a reminder for you as well. Let me know if you’ve tried anything like this in your church, or if you have your own ways to inspire giving at the end of the year!