In 18 years of student ministry, I’ve never had to learn and adjust so much in one calendar year than I have in 2020…I’m guessing that’s true for everyone reading this post!

And with the Christmas season approaching, I’m sure that most of us can put the next two months in the “well, we’ve never done it like this before, but let’s give it a try and see how it goes” category.

Like most ministries, we’ve always taken a two or three-week break from gathering over Christmas as a chance to give our volunteers rest, to honor families celebrating the holidays together, and to get a break from the hectic ministry pace as a staff. But a couple COVID factors have forced us to rethink how we handle the time between Thanksgiving and mid-January.

First of all, as a college town and a church with a thriving college ministry, we have a bunch of college volunteers and interns. Well, because of COVID, they’re all ending the semester next week and won’t be back until mid-January.

Second, with families traveling over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, we felt it was wise not to gather for two weeks after Thanksgiving and then two weeks after New Years’.

What that’s created is a “gathering desert” that is forcing us (in a really good way) to rethink how we handle December and January. What I’ve told my staff is that not hosting gatherings doesn’t mean our ministry doesn’t continue…we just have to get creative!

So here’s what we’re doing:

First, we are going to host one gathering in the window between Thanksgiving and Christmas. On December 13th we’re going to have a masked/socially-distant night of worship (and hot chocolate afterward outside, of course) for our ministries combined (high school and middle school together) in our main auditorium. Luckily it’s large enough for us to gather safely and give our leaders and students one more chance to be together in person before the new year.

Second, we are putting a much bigger emphasis on challenging our students to grow on their own and giving them tools to do that. This is something our ministry hasn’t usually emphasized as much, but COVID has really challenged our team to think about how we can mobilize students and their families to take steps toward spiritual growth without relying completely on the gathering! The first tool we’re giving them is one available on DYM, Sabrina Hadro’s 25-Day Advent Devotional, which focuses on hope. It’s FANTASTIC, and with a bit of tweaking by our team to make it fit our context (and make it as COVID-friendly as possible) as well as creating a layout so that we can print it out as an actual booklet (yay for printers that fold and staple booklets for us), we’ve created something we can physically put in students’ hands that they can use to really grow closer to God on their own (with the support of their small group leaders). We’re also making it available digitally so they can print it out (if they weren’t with us in person to get it or—let’s be real—lost it).

Microsoft Word Booklet Layout

Apple Pages Booklet Layout

Printing Instructions

Another way we’re challenging them (and their parents) to grow on their own is by providing a 4-week family devotional—something that parents and students can do together to have spiritual conversations in the home. LeaderTreks has created a GREAT resource to do this exact thing: Advent at Home. It’s four weeks of scripture-centered conversation; each week is about a different “Christmas” word: hope, joy, peace, and love. Now, for many of the parents in our ministry, it’s going to be a bit intimidating (each week is 4 pages of content…I’m even intimidated by it), so we’re going to film a quick “disclaimer” video letting them know that they don’t have to do the WHOLE THING to be effective…just use it as a tool to do SOMETHING…to initiate spiritual conversation. We think it will be a HUGE win for any family that chooses to use it at home.

In addition to these couple of things, we’re obviously going to engage our students with our Instagram accounts…both fun things (like challenges, stories, and posts) as well as spiritual (focusing weekly on one or two of the devotional topics from Sabrina’ devos). Plus, we’ve got a great ice skating rink in town we plan to rent out twice in January (once for high school and once for middle school) before our college leaders come back and we can resume “normal gathering,” whatever that means.

It’s not a ton, but it’s definitely more than we would have typically done in December if we would have been gathering like usual.

Hope this helps you as you look to program differently in this upcoming season. Would love to hear what you’re doing in the comments below!

Brett Eddy is the Student Ministry Director at Port City Community Church in Wilmington, NC and has been serving there for more than 17 years. He loves pouring into volunteers and staff, casting vision for the ministry, and communicating with students on stage. He and his wife, Corina, have 3 kids and love living in the coastal Carolinas!