‘Tis the season to shop ‘til you drop, but a movement started modestly by three pastors hoping to convince Christians to live the true meaning of Christmas is spreading across America — and has now headed overseas.
The so-called Advent Conspiracy movement asks Christians to resist the temptation to spend on extravagant gifts and instead redirect their money to helping the needy.
Greg Holder, who pastors a church in St. Louis, Mo., is one of the group's three founding ministers. He says Advent Conspiracy is about having Christians — not retailers — tell the story of Christmas.
"We're not asking you to join this movement out of guilt or distrust or anger," he said. "We want you to know that this is not about saying no to something. This is about saying yes to something better.
“So for us it's re-entering the story, it's rediscovering the story, that's where the 'give more' comes in."
Using a video posted on YouTube to market the movement, the Advent Conspiracy has spread to 1,700 of churches in at least 17 countries on four continents, and can even be found on the social networking site Facebook, where nearly 45,000 people have signed up to support the movement.
Houston Pastor Chris Seay, another of the movement’s co-founders, says he has no interest in forcing retailers to say "Merry Christmas" to shoppers in place of the non-sectarian "Happy Holidays."
"I don't want to invoke the name of Christ at Walmart — it's not the most sacred place," he said. "I would rather you say Happy Holidays ... especially when we're running over little old ladies to get a cheaper television" on Black Friday.
Weary shoppers, laden with packages, see his point.
"It would be nice for (people) to learn to do for others, because that is the true spirit of Christmas and that does make you the most happy," said New Yorker Candice Wylie. "Not receiving, but giving."
"It's about being together (with) family and really what's important instead of just getting caught up in the commercialization of the whole thing and the franticness of Christmas and trying to spend, spend, spend," added shopper Lorraine Cona.
But American consumers pump more than $450 billion in Christmas gift spending into the retail industry, money that’s critical to keeping the economy growing.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with spreading the action of giving, but don't demonize retailers in the process," said Scott Krugman, vice president of the National Retail Federation. “Retail sales fuel the economy, creates jobs, tens of thousands of jobs ... and America needs jobs."
He also points out the big retailers like Macy's donate millions of dollars to charitable organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, St. Jude's Hospitals, the United Way and Toys for Tots.
Holder and Seay say they are not trying to bash retailers. It's about rethinking Christmas.
Pastor Patrick McKinley, the movement’s third founder, emphasizes that it’s up the churches to exercise their creativity to let Scripture tell the true Christmas story so "we don't have to sit back to let consumerism tell the story."
In the process, Advent Conspiracy has already raised $2.5 million for Living Water International, a non-profit organization that digs freshwater wells for people without access to clean drinking water.