By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
Evangelical Christians are adopting — and adapting — the rituals of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas that are traditionally celebrated by Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and other liturgical churches.
They're giving a new, personalized spin to the prayers, candles and calendars to track the building excitement, and set a spiritual tone day by day. This year Advent begins on Sunday.
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Popular evangelical authors are offering readings and composing prayers for the Advent season. And Family Christian Stores, the nation's largest Christian retailer with 301 stores nationwide, has seen sales of Advent-related items climb 35% in the past year.
Bible teacher and writer Nancy Guthrie has a collection of readings for Advent that draws on evangelical writers, with an emphasis on Scripture. In Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, Guthrie draws on 22 sermons and writings, from Saint Augustine and Martin Luther to theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and contemporary preachers such as John Piper and Tim Keller.
"I so often felt that by the time I got to Christmas morning, after the parties, and planning and shopping and presents and travel, that there was a void, that I hadn't had time to prepare my heart for the gift, with a capital G, of Jesus," says Guthrie of Nashville, whose denomination is the Presbyterian Church of America.
"Since I'm not bound by the traditional Advent, I could choose writers for this collection who break out of the familiar talk of Christmas to the shocking wonder of it, that God revealed himself to the humblest among us," she says.
Popular devotional writer Stormie Omartian says praying at Advent is another way all Christians can develop their prayer voice.
Her book, the Power of Christmas Prayer, to be reissued in 2009, includes prayers for issues, struggles and unfulfilled dreams that can weigh on us as the year draws to an end. "Advent is such a happy, wonderful time, full of joy. So it's a friendly pathway to prayer," says Omartian, who worships at a non-denominational church in Franklin, Tenn.
Craig Klamer, senior vice president of marketing for Family Chrisian stores, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., says families find Advent practices "keep people focused on the spiritual promise of the Savior coming."
This year the chain is featuring characters from the VeggieTales video-and-book empire, with a Merry Christmas felt wall hanging that counts down from Dec. 1 to 24th with a candy cane to mark the days.
"We're also seeing big growth in demand for Advent candle sets, set in decorative wreaths, for family home devotionals, as people want to incorporate more old traditions," says Klamer.
Jeffrey Wright, a recent seminary graduate who is looking to move into ministry, says his wife and their three young girls often make their own Advent calendars, and the family gathers to set a candle out each week representing the four Advent themes of hope, faith, joy and love.
Their non-denominational church, Providence Community Church in Plano, Texas, has joined more than 1,000 other churches in a program called the Advent Conspiracy, to raise funds for new wells in Third World countries.
Evangelicals may have avoided or discarded Advent traditions in the past as "too formal, too Catholic," says Wright, whose blog, Pursuing Truth, offers Advent resources. "But we have found it a way to connect more deeply with our Christian history and heritage."
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