The unexpected impact of Christmas shoeboxes
Packing shoeboxes with Christmas gifts for needy children around the world is having far reaching and surprising consequences for Tonbridge Baptist Church
The arrival of a young Slovakian woman to lead its children’s ministry led Tonbridge Baptist Church in Kent to re-engage with Operation Christmas Child in 2012. Daniela grew up during the ethnic conflict in Serbia and was deeply encouraged when she received a shoebox of gifts as a child.
Later on the church her parents led was involved in distributing shoeboxes. Years later, Daniela’s story inspired her new church family in Tonbridge to prepare 300 shoebox gifts.
A remarkable chain of events ensued, leading most recently in 2015 to the departure of the church’s Operations Director, Nick Cole to take up the position of UK Director for Operation Christmas Child.
Nick, who continues to serve as an elder at Tonbridge Baptist, explains, ‘Between Daniela’s arrival and my departure, the world mission commitments of Tonbridge Baptist were overhauled and reinvigorated, with Operation Christmas Child making a key contribution.
'As we reviewed the overall vision of our church, we discerned God leading us to do fewer things better.
'In the area of world mission, we had no less than 18 commitments to different missionaries or ministries. We decided we should focus our energy and resources, both to increase our impact in fewer areas and also provide clearer more accessible opportunities for newcomers and those with little or no previous interest in global mission to get involved.
‘No missionaries were dropped or their financial support cut, but we did identify and initiate three major partnerships that offer a wide range of compelling opportunities for our members to engage and we began actively promoting those.'
One of these is Operation Christmas Child, which sends shoeboxes full of gifts to children in need overseas. Since 1993 it has delivered gift-filled shoeboxes to more than 124 million children in more than 150 countries.
'We couldn’t think of a simpler of more winsome way to invite someone to start a journey into world mission than Operation Christmas Child,' adds Nick.
‘We asked church families to pack shoeboxes to show God’s love to children in contexts of poverty and crisis.
'But we also included a shoebox packing party at our annual Christmas Craft Fair so people from our local community could hear about and join in the project as they browsed the craft stalls.
'We registered as a drop off point for schools and other groups to bring in their boxes and receive invites to our Christmas events. As a result we packed or collected 400 boxes in each of the last two years.’
Operation Christmas Child is just one programme of the Christian relief and development charity, Samaritan’s Purse.
So Tonbridge Baptist included in its partnership supporting their Raising Families integral mission programme that helps vulnerable families raise themselves out of poverty in one central Asian nation.
Shoebox distributions in that country have built relationships that opened up the way for local churches to develop services for the elderly, vulnerable and disabled children, the homeless and drug and alcohol users.
Tonbridge Baptist’s 2014 harvest gift enabled Samaritan’s Purse to support and train 50 families in need.
A team of six from Tonbridge, including Nick Cole followed up with a vision trip to central Asia in April 2015. ‘We met grace-filled believers and served alongside them in outreach events sharing the gospel with children from marginalised communities as they received shoebox gifts,' he says.
'One small congregation with very modest resources showed us an outbuilding in the yard of one of their member’s home.
'They’d converted it into a safe living space for four women struggling with alcohol addiction. We noticed there was no heating. What happens in the harsh winter? They quietly explained that they moved the women into the main house to live with the rest of the family.
'Such acts of sacrificial love cropped up regularly in the stories we heard from all the projects we visited, as did testimonies of dozens of individuals and families coming to faith in Jesus.’
Back in Tonbridge, three members of the vision trip have since gathered around them half a dozen others from their church and other churches in the West Kent area.
This core team has discerned God’s leading to take the next step and run a processing centre in Tonbridge to collect, check and prepare for shipment a lorry-load of shoeboxes (11,000) for Operation Christmas Child this November.
With the support of local church leaders, they’re seeking to mobilise several hundred volunteers from the churches and the community to come into the warehouse for a few hours each to check boxes.
Nick Cole points out how this is a missional project, ‘We’re encouraging local Christians to invite friends and neighbours with little or no church connection to pack and check shoeboxes together. It’s a purposeful activity together where friendships can grow, and misconceptions about church and Christian faith can be dispelled as people serve and pray together.’
As for Nick personally, he sensed God’s conviction to focus his ministry on engaging UK Christians in world mission.
He continues to coordinate global mission activities for Tonbridge Baptist, but now through his leadership of Operation Christmas Child he also gets to encourage other churches around the UK.
His aim is to energise their people for mission through the simple first step of preparing a shoebox of Christmas gifts, so children in need can experience God’s love shown in a tangible way through his people.
Pictures (from top)
This year's Operation Christmas Child aims to reach one million children. To get involved visit: www.samaritans-purse.org.uk/bt
Tonbridge Baptist Church vision team member Mike Sanderson in Central Asia at a gift shoebox distribution
Nick Cole at the Operation Christmas Child Processing Centre in Ashford
The OCC shoebox commissioning service at Tonbridge Baptist Church in 2013
Daniela Francisty Hughes, who leads the children's work at Tonbridge Baptist Church