Elf on the Shelf, Meet Donkey in the Living Room

Author Sarah Cunningham has a wide range of interests, most of which intersect at the local church. Her new project could easily be dismissed as simply a “children’s book,” except it grew out of her history growing up as a preacher’s kid. “The Donkey in the Living Room” is an interactive concept that invites children to unwrap one manger scene figure each day leading up to Christmas, and then to have their parent read the figure’s corresponding story in the book.

CL.com: Your father was a pastor, right?

Sarah Cunningham: Yes! He was (and is!) a pastor and a church planter, and, while no home or church is perfect, I wouldn’t change the way I was raised for anything. It was a gift to me to be brought up with awareness of the spiritual world and gave me an early introduction into peace, balance and purpose.
CL.com: Why should church leaders be aware of new children’s literature, especially Christian books?
SC: Because church leaders have kids (and nephews and nieces, grandkids), etc! And although a log of their time is probably channeled into their congregations, they still have a unique opportunity to disciple the community growing up in their own home and to establish God-centered traditions around their family Christmas.

Crawling up on my dad’s lap, with my brothers, and hearing him tell us the story of the camel or the sheep—and their role in the Christmas story—are priceless memories to go back to that remind us of the spiritual investment he made in us.

Plus, when it comes to their congregations, church leaders have a special chance to model ways of celebrating Christmas that are focused on meaning rather than accumulating possessions.

CL.com: You have multiple roles—mom, wife, church leader and writer—that give you a unique perspective on how church leaders can reach whole families. Any advice?
SC: The words dysfunctional, broken and blended apply more and more to families these days—or at least we now attach those adjectives more, perhaps. In light of that, I’d suggest having grace for families’ imperfect journeys and spending time in real, everyday friendship with them.
CL.com: Is there a connection between storytelling and preaching?
SC: Yes! Our kids today are being raised in a multimedia culture that focuses less on talking-head presentations and more on great art, film, books, music and so on. The people who can embed truth and meaning in media may have just as much or, in some cases, more opportunity to influence our culture.
CL.com: What is The Donkey in the Living Room about?
SC: It’s about spending time with family. It’s about anticipating and commemorating the birth of Jesus. It’s about stepping away from the commercialism and toy accumulation and pressing into a deeper, more eternal take on Christmas. And it’s about fun.
CL.com: Many people—even church leaders—have trouble establishing family traditions. How did your Dad come up with this idea? Did it work for you?
SC: My parents both contributed to this tradition, with my mom wrapping presents and setting them out for us to discover and my dad telling the stories. I don’t know that any one single act—including this book—is what “worked for me,” but a combination of intentional investments in our development like this definitely planted and nurtured something important in our spirits.

There’s no guaranteed formula to raising children, but there’s some trustworthy principles like the importance of spending time with kids. My brothers, one who has two children of his own and one who will soon have his first, will join me in passing some of these traditions on to our own children.

Even though family development isn’t my main field, I’m actually hoping to capture more traditions like these, both from the holidays and everyday, routine days some day.

CL.com: What’s ahead for you—after the Holidays?

SC: Hopefully a lot of sledding and snowman building (providing the weather thaws out eventually). I have a couple new books coming out, too. One is called Portable Faith with Abingdon. It’s a resource for churches who want to build relationships with their surrounding communities. And [the other is] called The Well Balanced World Changer, which is a collection of wisdom for the moments when ideals crash into reality. 

Sarah’s new book, The Donkey in the Living Room, is available from Common Good Books.

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Ray Hollenbach
Ray Hollenbach, a Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. His devotional book "50 Forgotten Days: A Journey Into the Age to Come" is available at Amazon.com He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture. He's also the author of of "The Impossible Mentor", a deep dive into the foundations of discipleship.