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10 minutes with …Jack Brown

(RNS) Redeemer Covenant Church in Caledonia, Mich., decided on a different set of Christmas decorations this year: Instead of fresh poinsettias and artificial greens, Redeemer’s sanctuary is filled with canned goods and clothing that will be donated to the needy. The Rev. Jack Brown, who pastors the congregation with his wife, Sharon, explained why they […]

(RNS) Redeemer Covenant Church in Caledonia, Mich., decided on a different set of Christmas decorations this year: Instead of fresh poinsettias and artificial greens, Redeemer’s sanctuary is filled with canned goods and clothing that will be donated to the needy.

The Rev. Jack Brown, who pastors the congregation with his wife, Sharon, explained why they made the change. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Your church has been known for a big Christmas presentation in years past. How big or extravagant was it?

A: This is a church that, when it started, set out wanting to make Christmas a big deal. The outside of the building was covered with lights. For many years if you said to someone in the area, “I go to Redeemer Covenant Church,” someone would say to you back “Oh, that’s the church with the lights.”

Q: What made you decide to scale back the Christmas budget this year?

A: The church has been kind of refocusing its efforts in recent years. It’s kind of a complete reversal. It’s less about how we can get people into the church, and more about how we can get the church out in the community and serving. My wife just said it’s a gravitational shift. That’s a good phrase for it.

Q: Why did you decide to decorate the church with gifts for others?

A: There was one of the families that’s actually involved in doing the decorations each year and the husband of this family just kind of said, “What we should do is decorate the sanctuary with donations for the food pantry.”I just thought that is perfect.

Q: How would you describe the way the church looks?

A: In the past it’s been a lot of color and a lot of green and a lot of lights and a lot of poinsettias and that’s beautiful. It sounds kind of corny: It’s less about the lights and more about being light. You walk into the sanctuary and right now it’s packed — it’s cans, it’s food, it’s boxes. Some people went out on their own and purchased toys and gifts. It’s not as traditional, but it’s much more exciting.

Q: How much did the church spend from last year on decorations?

A: I would say it was $200 to $300 (on poinsettias). But also it was the time and the effort. It wasn’t just a budget issue; it was a heart issue. How could we do something at Christmastime that reflects the heart of the church in a special way? The economy is so difficult and we just wanted to do something that would be a reminder that the church is there to give hope.

Q: Where will the donations end up?

A: They’ll all end up at the Dutton Community Food Pantry, which runs out of our building. We serve on average about 50 local families each month.

Q: Did you continue the Christmas play or have you cut back on that, too?

A: We’re just doing a simple lessons and carols service on Christmas Eve. This has been kind of a progressive journey for us from stepping away from the kind of performance aspect to more the giving aspect of Christmas.

Q: Do people miss the previous decorations?

A: You know, not really. The response in the church has been fantastic. People really have gotten excited about it because it’s been this journey over the past couple of years.

Q: Do you plan to do this decorating with donations again?

A: I think so. It’s certainly just seems a perfect fit for who we are. And instead of being known as the church with the lights, we’re becoming known as the church with the food pantry, the church with the community garden. Our hope, too, is that other churches will get excited about this and think about doing similar things.

Q: As a pastor, what have you taken away from this experience?

A: Especially given the difficult economy, the difficult times people are in right now, I think it’s reinforced for me that God put the church here to be a beacon of hope. When people rally behind that vision and give of themselves completely, God has freedom to move in ways that will absolutely blow you away.