As a kid, I remember Easter being one of the two Sundays a year that my dad went to church. In fact, looking around the sanctuary, I probably was not the only kid who appreciated this occurrence involving their own fathers. Year after year, the Easter service filled up with face after face of people I did not know. We crammed into the pews like passengers on a subway in rush hour. The parking lot was full. All the new “Easter outfits” hadn’t had any time to get broken in, so we sat there squirming, itching, and distracted – wondering why we didn’t have a full brass orchestra every Sunday or why the stage/altar was covered with Easter lilies.
I guess holidays are like that. They get people to do things they don’t normally do. I mean, without holidays would we ever just give each other gifts, hunt for eggs, send “I love you” notes, or eat Turkey we fried ourselves? Would we ever go door to door asking for candy or dress only in green any other day? (Well, maybe in Alabama, but I digress…).
As I entered “professional” ministry, I saw the same thing. Easter brought more and more people out in droves. I always wondered what brought them. Often they just came on their own volition. Maybe people came out of guilt that they had not been on any other Sunday. Maybe they expected the service to “wow” them more than normal. Maybe they were just sincerely curious as to the powerful meaning of the holiday. Maybe they had been invited.
Whatever the case, Easter has always seemed like an opportunity to connect with more people in ways not possible on other Sundays. In fact, a friend told me the other day that people are 84% more likely to come to church when invited on Easter than on any other Sunday. (Side note: Why does every statistic seem to be 84%??? Okay, statistics are easy to make up and hard to verify. I’ve been searching for that statistic online for an hour to reference it to no avail, but it sounds reasonable based on other things I’ve read and experienced over the years).
I’ve seen attendance double at churches I’ve worked at on Easter. I’ve heard several pastors refer to it as their “Super Bowl” of Sundays. Follow any mega-church pastor on Twitter, and they’ll tell you staggering numbers of people in attendance and making decisions for Christ. I mean hundreds – even thousands – of people making decisions. It can be intoxicating and encouraging to read.
Don’t even get me started on the preparation, the promotion, and the execution of the massive productions that churches – both contemporary and traditional – pour time, energy, and money into in order to capitalize on this most “magical” of opportunities to connect with people. Having worked in churches for many years, I can tell you no season is more tiring, yet more rewarding.
But I have also experienced great disappointment. I’ve been there when everything seemed to be done exactly right: The service was executed perfectly, decisions were made, attendance was high. Yet, just one week later, everything returns back to normal. Attendance levels go back down. People you hoped would connect with the church did not return.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not merely trying to play a numbers game. If only ONE life is changed, I consider all the effort worth it. If ONE person finds hope, faith, and/or salvation, I would do it a thousand times over. Heck, if NOTHING happened, but we were acting in obedience, then is that not what is important??
But considering the amount of effort we put into the service, it is still easy for the “after-Easter letdown” to still leave you scratching your head wondering whether or not you really did what was most effective.
Special songs. Kicking off a sermon series. A full orchestra and choir. Maybe some out-of-the-box idea designed to grab people’s attention and bring them in the door. New lights. New gear. New decor. Extra rehearsals. Longer sermon prep. Extra services to accommodate the crowds. Flyers or business cards to hand out. Billboards. Facebook/Twitter update after update. Art work. More people to help with parking. Overflow seating. Extra ushers. Stage redesigns.
So, when the “letdown” happens, it can be overwhelming. But what makes it worse, is that maybe the year before was NOT a letdown. Maybe THAT Easter kicked off a growth spurt in your church. Maybe you saw many decisions made. You had captured lightning, and this year you tried to reproduce it…
…and it just did not happen. It can feel like we just didn’t find the right topic or combination of elements that would help people “stick” and come back again and again.
Letdown. Meltdown. Disappointment. Now summer’s coming. Attendance drops in summer, right? More letdown. Well, there’s always the fall kick off as families settle back down, right? Let the planning begin again…
I cannot help but wonder what all this Easter planning and then potential letdown reveals about our approach to ministry. Is something lacking?
Before I say another word, let me say this: As in most of the things I talk about, I don’t want to downplay the powerful things that happen on Easter Sundays. I have witnessed with my own eyes what can happen when a room fills up with people who are not normally in church, and their lives are changed. Their attention is grabbed, the gospel is preached, decisions are made, and you feel like you’re experiencing something akin to what the Apostle Peter experienced when he preached and thousands turned to Christ. My intent is not to cheapen or downplay the power in that. I believe God moves mightily where He wills, and it is a joy and privilege when you get to see it. This is not a Jesus-juke of all things Easter.
But I also cannot ignore the still small voice of discontent that has troubled me for years.
That voice tells me that real ministry cannot be done in one day.
A newcomer’s attendance and (possible) conversion should begin a process of discipleship that goes beyond counting their presence and posting about it on Twitter or in the church bulletin. Discipleship is an investment in a person. Maybe you DID grab their attention, but then what? Turn them loose with a Bible and hope for the best? That is not our calling. Our calling is to make disciples and baptize them – to pour into them so that we can help them grow as believers and transform into Christ-like servants. This cannot be done in ONE day. Yes, the one day can be the start, but that day must be foundational, not final.
The lack of setting the foundation for a discipling relationship may be at the core of our letdown. We trade long-term investment for short-term hype. And I completely understand why we do this. It’s not because we have bad intentions. It’s just that even with all the work put into our Easter efforts, it’s still easier to put on a service – a show, if you will – than it is to invest in people individually. First, your results are immediately measurable. It’s easy to count heads and hands-raised or people who come down the aisle during an altar call. Second, discipleship costs us way more than just time and energy and money. It puts us at the risk that comes with any relationship. It means our hands are going to get messy as we walk people through their steps to faith.
That voice also tells me that we have to destroy consumerism in our churches.
The “build it and they will come” mindset is now so embedded in our church DNA, it may take a paradigm shift in our thinking in order to undo it.
Let me paint an analogy: I live in a small town. Our dining out options are limited. When a new restaurant opens – ANY NEW restaurant – people flock to it like they’ve never had real food. We got a Longhorn Steakhouse and you would swear that the doors to Eden had been unsealed as people rushed to get ‘real’ steak.
So it is within our churches. We are usually all about trying to find that ONE THING that will make people want to rush INTO our doors.
And – oops – we inadvertently “sell” our churches rather than the gospel.
I love diversity. I love that there are so many churches that celebrate Easter in so many different ways. There will be bands. There will be choirs. There will be fantastic series starters/enders. There will be off-the-chain creative elements that will draw people in. Our diversity can be such a strength in reaching people because not everyone who dares to walk into an Easter service is looking for the same thing.
The only time I see more signs and fliers offering different choices is during election years. It literally feels as if churches are candidates vying for your vote. “Pick us,” the sign whispers. “We’ve got something they don’t have,” the video promos hint.
We may be hoping to leverage our strengths and uniqueness to draw people in, without realizing that we’ve given the consumer a buffet of spiritual experiences from which to choose.
Okay, giving people options is one thing. But it is our competitiveness which marks the problem with the approach. Do you want people to go to church, or do you want people to go to YOUR church? Do you want people to find Christ, or do you want them to find Christ through the service that YOU have planned (and not at the church down the road)?
The problem with leveraging consumerism is we want to leverage OUR product – our approach, our theological specifics, our teams, our staff, our unique vision, mission, etc. At worst, this is intentional. We do think we are better and that our approach is so good, we cannot imagine letting people go anywhere else. At best, it’s accidental because we get caught up in the hype, not realizing that we are drawing dividing lines between us and churches who do things differently.
So how do we change this? How do we carry out our duties as ministers in such a way that we seize the Easter opportunity but DO NOT inadvertently perpetuate consumerism and set ourselves up for the after-Easter letdown? How can we remind ourselves that all our hype is mere marketing compared to the power of the Holy Spirit when He moves?
First, I think we have to have a plan in place to move people from the “event” to discipleship and “discipling” relationships. An event may draw people in, but it is people willing to reach out and pour into them that will bring them back. The real work of ministry begins here.
Second, we need to learn to encourage each other – as leaders and as churches – as we ALL celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and have opportunities to share the Gospel with people who are not normally in church. We need a kingdom mindset. We need to leverage our diversity, rather than build walls between us and other bodies of Christ. Pray for the churches down the road. They are not your competitors. They are another part of the body of Christ. We need them, and they need you. Build partnerships with them and other leaders wherever possible. Together, we can do FAR MORE than we can do separate.
Finally, we need to focus less on “having a service,” and more on “serving.” As dynamic and powerful as our Easter services can be – and even as successful as they can be – they are not reversing the trend in this country where more and more churches are closing their doors. What was once powerful and effective is becoming increasingly lost in newer generations who are growing up more jaded against church and more open to other religions and belief systems. Fewer and fewer people are entering our doors. The “build it and they will come” approach is less and less effective. The duty to recognize the changes that need to be made and make them falls on us. We have the obligation and opportunity to redefine what we call “service.”
The only true way to make this change is to quit thinking of church as merely a PLACE to COME and SIT and LISTEN, but as a BODY of believers who are SENT to GO and LOVE and SERVE the world. Rather than merely preach the resurrection from inside our own walls, why don’t we go out beyond the walls and LIVE a life of sacrificial love as we pour into people who need hope, love, and community? What if our Easter service was not a show, but truly an act of serving others?
As I sit here reading and re-reading this post before I publish it, I fear that I might be drawing dividing lines in the sand myself. As I’ve stated, though, it is not my intention to downplay the amazing things that are about to happen all over the country (and the world) as churches throw open the doors this Easter. In fact, I’m confident that many leaders and churches already share this same discontent with me, and are doing everything they can to get guests connected, work with other churches, and serve the world. I’ve seen such efforts in my own city, and it gives me great hope.
I pray for each of them. I pray for the pastors, ministry leaders, and volunteers at churches in my own town and beyond.
May God bless us all as we share the Gospel this Easter.
But may God also challenge us to not stop there…