Warning: This Christmas letter is going to break with tradition.

Typically, of course, the standard holiday letters we get from friends and family this time of year are filled with good tidings of great joy about all the amazing things that have happened to these people over the last twelve months. They accentuate the positive, contain lots of exclamation points, and can be the very textbook definition of a “humble brag.”

Christmas letters are almost all sunshine and no rain— which is understandable. We don’t necessarily want to hear about (or, for that matter, talk about) rocky roads and difficult challenges during the “most wonderful time of the year.” Just because these rocky roads and difficult challenges usually don’t make the annual Christmas letter, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. To fully appreciate the year that was—and to give thanks in all circumstances, as the apostle Paul might say—it’s important to hear about both the sunshine and the rain.

In the spirit of a fair and balanced Christmas letter, then, let’s take some time here at the beginning of December to consider the year that’s almost behind us: Celebrating our blessings, acknowledging our struggles, and reaffirming our faith in the God who holds our times together in His hands (Psalm 31:15).

Our Providence Will strategic plan turned one year old this past May. Already, it has borne good fruit. The ministry priorities it established to guide our work together—Cultivating Generosity, Making Disciples, Engaging Cotswold, Blessing Charlotte, and Sending Apostles—have given direction to our ministry committees, coordinating council, deacons, and staff. With God’s help, in 2019 we checked a number of key action items off of our Providence Will to-do list.

What were they?

Well, we retired our church debt ahead of schedule. We welcomed Blake Kendrick as our minister for adult discipleship. We received a Facility and Land Use Master Plan that the property committee is using right now to prioritize their work addressing deferred maintenance issues. We launched a church-wide partnership with Families Forward to bless our city by helping our neighbors move from poverty to economic stability. We began a discipleship ministry for our college students returning home for the summer. We created a Faith Formation team to help us grow deeper and more intentional in our relationships with Jesus. We established an Activities Committee to organize and host events designed to welcome our Cotswold neighbors onto our church grounds.

We took some huge steps forward in 2019, but much Providence Will-related work remains to be done. We need, for example, to do a better job sharing the responsibility for educating our preschoolers, children, and students on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. I would like us to get to the point where at least half of our volunteers in these ministries are not parents of preschoolers, children, or students. That’s a Providence Will action item that builds on the intergenerational strength of our church. I’d love to check it off the list in 2020.

Also in May, we began worshipping together as one congregation on Sunday mornings. This change has been happy for some, hard for some, and left others with mixed feelings. I expected as much, and have been grateful for the patience and grace that so many of you have shown in adjusting to the new schedule and service. Just because the unity of the church is a priority for Jesus doesn’t mean it’s easy for us to prioritize it, especially when that unity comes at the expense of our own personal preferences. The fact that unity in the church is a priority for Jesus, however, does guarantee that, if we’re willing to make the effort, it will be worthwhile.

Speaking of effort, 2019 has been a tough year for us financially. Our giving in the summer months dropped more than it typically does, and has rebounded in the fall slower than it typically does. As a result, the church’s work has been scaled back in order to keep our ministry costs down. That’s not ideal, but it’s been necessary. The Providence staff has done a remarkable job doing good work under challenging circumstances.

Talking with other pastors, both in Charlotte and across the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I’ve discovered that our situation is not unique. A lot of churches like ours—that is, of similar size and demographic—are going through the same kind of ministry-funding crunch that we are, despite a strong economy and booming stock market. That said, the end of the year is coming. If you haven’t yet fulfilled your financial commitment to support the missions and ministries of Providence, now’s the time to do it. Let’s finish 2019 strong.

Finally, this past All-Saints’ Sunday, we remembered the 25 members of Providence who died since November 1 of last year. We will miss them. At the same time, as of the end of October, we’ve already welcomed more new members to Providence in 2019 than we did in two out of the last three years. This is encouraging news. Many of these new members are here because someone at Providence invited them. That’s what it takes. Reach out. Invite. Welcome. Keep it up in 2020.

So I’ve shared encouraging news and I’ve shared challenging news. Now, let’s end with some good news to take us into Advent and beyond: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” ( John 1:14). It’s time to prepare a way for the Lord.

May the peace of Christ be with you!