Let’s face it. If there’s a holiday that’s completely lost in the shuffle nowadays, it’s Thanksgiving. Between a culture fascinated by Halloween and the businesses that can’t wait for you to start your Christmas spending, Thanksgiving is the holiday that rarely gets our attention. Or worse yet, it becomes just one more thing we’ve forgotten.
Yes, we remember that it’s Thanksgiving Day, but we spend so little of the day in actual thanksgiving. Yet, as believers, praise and thanksgiving should continually be on our lips (Hebrews 13:15). How can we encourage our churches to be places of thanksgiving, especially as Thanksgiving Day rolls around? Let me suggest four ideas. You might be able to pull off some of these ideas this year. But others you might save for another year.
1. “Plant” a Thanksgiving tree
One church I pastored began every November by setting up the annual Thanksgiving tree. Our church teamed up with a local nursery and placed a Thanksgiving tree in the church. The nursery would gift us a small tree that had lost its leaves and was heading for the fire pit. We would put the empty tree in the front of the church. In the back of the church, we placed a box filled with brown, orange, yellow, and red construction paper leaves. These leaves had a hole punched in them with a loop of string placed through the hole.
In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, we encouraged families to take a couple of leaves home with them. We asked them to discuss, as a family, the things they were thankful for. Then on Thanksgiving (yes, we had a Thanksgiving service), children would bring the leaves to church and hang them on the empty branches of the tree. Before a congregational prayer of thanksgiving, the pastor leading the service would read a few of the things listed on various leaves. In this way, we used a full tree of construction paper leaves to serve as a tangible reminder of all the ways God had blessed us and of the numerous things we could be thankful for.
2. Adopt a college student
One of my fondest memories as a college student was during a Thanksgiving when both finances and the academic calendar kept me from flying home for Thanksgiving. As my dorm emptied, the thought of turkey cutlets and cafeteria cranberries for Thanksgiving seemed less and less appealing. However, a family in my church heard about my situation and invited me and another student over for Thanksgiving. Growing up near Detroit, my Thanksgivings were memorable because they involved Lions tickets. But this Thanksgiving is just as memorable to me because of the way a family in the church took the time to care for a stranded college student.
I am certain there are college students who will find themselves in a situation like mine—unable to go home for Thanksgiving this year. Check in on the college students at your church or the local college or university and see if they know of a student who would appreciate spending Thanksgiving surrounded by a family rather than empty chairs in a vacant cafeteria.
3. Host a Thanksgiving-to-go meal
When I moved from the pulpit to the classroom in a new town, the church my family and I eventually settled on was active in both local and foreign missions. One local ministry opportunity was a Thanksgiving-to-go meal. Working with a local ministry, we identified families who did not have the finances to purchase their own Thanksgiving dinners. With this list in hand, we set out a corresponding number of boxes in the church.
We asked members of the congregation to fill these boxes with a Thanksgiving meal to go. Throughout November, the church gathered a turkey, two sides, and a dessert to go in each of the boxes. Then, on the week of Thanksgiving, church leaders and volunteers went to each family and dropped off their Thanksgiving-to-go box. The gift of a meal they could prepare and share with their families reminded them that our church family cared for them.
4. Hold a Thanksgiving Day service
When I first became a pastor, the church I was pastoring held a Thanksgiving Day service. I remember thinking this was an out-of-place remnant of days gone by that should be abandoned as soon as the opportunity presented itself. “Thanksgiving is not Christmas or Easter, so why should it have its own service?” I thought. However, as I continued to serve there, I began to recognize how counterculture it was to hold a Thanksgiving morning church service.
In a culture where Thanksgiving Day can easily become about Black Friday deals that feed into a consumer-driven Christmas season, the Thanksgiving Day service called us to step away from the bargain hunting and the forthcoming buying frenzy and consider all God had so graciously given by His good and providential hand. It challenged us to think differently than our culture about what this day means and what we do with it.
If you’re thinking about this idea, let me give you a couple of tips. First, make it a service of celebration, praise, and thanksgiving by making congregational singing a large part of the morning. Give your congregation the opportunity to sing their thanks to God. Second, involve your congregation in a prayer of thanksgiving. Perhaps ask members of your congregation to participate in this prayer, allowing them to publicly thank God for His goodness.
Third, don’t give your typical Sunday morning sermon. Take fifteen minutes and reflect on the gracious good favor of God. Rather than a Sunday morning sermon, this is a Thursday morning devotional. Fourth, consider making communion a part of this service. What better way to express our gratitude for what God has done for us than in celebrating the Lord’s Supper together? Better than the fellowship of friends and family around a turkey dinner is the communion of the saints gathered around the Lord’s Table.
Thanksgiving doesn’t have to get lost in the shuffle. It doesn’t have to be the holiday that time forgot. In fact, when churches intentionally do something related to this holiday, it says much about who we are as grateful individuals and the goodness of the God we follow. We recognize that He has blessed us richly, and we want to share that blessing with those around us.