When you think about the seasons of the church year, what comes to mind?
Certainly Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and perhaps even Pentecost makes your list. But no one ever talks about a “Season of Thanksgiving.” In fact, Thanksgiving gets one day on the liturgical Christian calendar at best.
I don’t feel very thankful about that, and I believe that Thanksgiving should have its own season within the Christian calendar. In fact, I propose that we rename “Ordinary Time” to “The Season of Thanksgiving.” Here’s why.
Thanksgiving and gratitude remain at the core of the Christian, even the human, experience.
The greatest Christian thinkers stand together on this, from the theologians to the mystics to the populist Christian authors of our day. They all suspect that we humans were made to give thanks.
Last year, I put this theory to the test in my own congregation. I launched a project called “40 Days of Thanks” in which I challenged parishioners to journal three things they were thankful for each day over a period of 40 days, culminating on Thanksgiving Day.
I tested them at the beginning and the end of the project for levels of well-being and happiness.
The outcome? A highly significant percentage of those who completed the project reported more positive emotional states and increased life satisfaction by the end of the 40 days.
The results were even stronger among those who experienced a life-changing event during the project.
While these outcomes were discovered within one congregation, my findings parallel the results that social scientists have reported through numerous studies over the past few years.
Increasingly, researchers are finding that gratitude interventions have positive effects on emotions, health and interpersonal relationships, as in this 2003 landmark study by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough.
What the church has touted for centuries, social scientists now echo. But these days, it seems, social scientists and popular figures like Oprah Winfrey have more to say about gratitude than the church.
Though the Heidelberg Catechism, a foundational document of the Protestant tradition, promotes a three-part equation of sin, grace and gratitude, often churches emphasize sin or underscore the grace while gratitude remains relegated to one Sunday per year.
Pastors and church leaders can help bring gratitude back to its proper place in our teaching and discourse as the Bible has much to say about giving thanks.
Christian tradition and theology recognize its centrality in our faith. Now social science helps us understand its benefits to the people in the pews and beyond.
Why wouldn’t we encourage this spiritual practice as a practical pathway to greater wholeness and life more abundant for our people?
With that, let me offer five practical ideas for emphasizing the importance of gratitude within the congregational setting, whether you are a pastor, staff member or lay leader in your church:
- Encourage gratitude journaling for a specific period of time. You may want to consider challenging church members to participate in the “30 Days of Thanks” project on Facebook or Twitter each November.
- Consider making November “The Season of Thankfulness” in worship. Craft sermons, liturgies and musical selections around the theme of giving thanks. You might even consider making gratitude a yearlong theme for your congregation.
- Invite parishioners to share thankful thoughts, poems and articles on your church’s Facebook page, or publish them in the church bulletin, newsletter or e-news publication.
- Combine your church’s stewardship campaign with this season of Thanksgiving. The two themes are a natural fit since gratitude is one of the top reasons people give.
- Lead by example. Create a culture of gratitude by being quick to express thanks. Start each day by writing a thank-you note or email to someone in the church for their faithful contribution. Never miss an opportunity to demonstrate your own sense of gratitude for God’s faithfulness in your life.
There are countless ways to promote gratitude within the congregational setting as well as many excellent resources to spark creativity and insight about thankfulness.
With a little intentionality, church leaders can foster a culture of gratefulness within the parish. Congregants may begin to feel better about themselves, their lives and even the church.
Welcome to the season of Thanksgiving. It’s the perfect occasion to remember that oft-repeated Old Testament refrain from 1 Chronicles 16:34: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.”
Rhonda Abbott Blevins is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and serves as associate pastor at the Community Church at Tellico Village in Loudon, Tenn.