It seems like every year I get numerous emails and fliers encouraging our church to go all out inviting people to attend worship on Easter Sunday. This is said to be the most sure thing there is among those who are not feeling really connected to a church. They are said to be guaranteed to feel the need to show up on Easter at least.
For context, I live in an area made up of small suburbs of Dallas, Texas. If you add up all of the suburbs and also the small towns, and edges of larger nearby cities in reach, such as a slice of Plano, Texas, there are 194,000 or so teens and adults according to several reliable sources near us (edge of Northeast DFW).
In 2011, 2012, 2013, and now 2014, we have "gone big" for Easter. Several of these years we have sought out the best set of advisers and coaching available to figure out how to see people reconnect at that one particular day that everyone in the coaching world says is so "great" for reconnecting. Other years we have still done a strong push as well, largely correctly according to most advice out there on such things. Some of the key components include:
Leading Up to and on Easter Weekend and Sunday:
We have prayed to the Lord most importantly that many would come and be blessed in worship and lives would be changed by Jesus.
We have used resources God entrusted to us to reach out and invite many thousands to worship several different ways.
We have saved on purpose to make that happen, including it in part of our budgeting and planning.
We have mobilized our congregation to invite their friends and family and given tools to do so.
We have special banners made to let people know going by that they are invited to a great Easter service.
We have also before or on Easter had the Easter Egg Hunt events to reach kiddos.
We have tied a sermon message series to the day.
We have done everything short of the proverbial helicopter drop of Easter eggs that always seems to make the local news and Metroplex (DFW) news.
Yet and here is the amazing thing year in, year out, one method bathed in prayer, another method bathed in prayer, we have never had a rock the house Easter.
Our really good days to reach those not regularly connected to a church home are at completely other times of the calendar year.
Our Easter worship service is made up mainly of regular attenders and then 2nd/3rd time guests. Some regulars attenders are out at relatives (grandma's, mom's, dad's church in another city), and then important to this article: the new 1st time guests do NOT show up. As mentioned, we have had plenty of 2nd, 3rd time guests on Easter, but never the coaching / best written advice out there that some set of proverbial 1st time guests who are just waiting for an "invite" to come to church on Easter will show up. Where are they? I would love to meet certain ones of them. They do not exist even for an intentional church like ours in our situation. I have some ideas why below, but we'll get to those in a minute.
I have run this phenomenon by pastoral peers in nearby cities. This unofficial poll includes First Baptist or Methodist Churches and more. These peers include leaders at both established churches and church plants. They too (both established church and church plant) do not see many new guests on Easter, and their attendance remains in fairly normal size. They too have done some crucial things to be prepared to be available for whomever may come, but do not really see much impact from so much effort for Easter Sunday. This has really stood out to me now for about two years as a red flag against the standard mantra that Easter Sunday is such a great day to get new friends to come worship Jesus with you.
So who is peddling this coaching of churches, pastors, lay leaders, that Easter is a big day for reconnecting to worship and God's people, and for others to come to know Christ Jesus? The list is long, take my word for it. It's enough advisers to make you dizzy, really. But today it is pretty much any church leader advice that encourages this mentality. Why are they peddling this? Perhaps because there's nothing else to grasp at, to promote in their coaching at that window of time, or perhaps it is group think, everyone is saying it?
Most importantly, what are some probable reasons those who are away from church, or who have turned their back on church, but do not come on Easter, would not come on Easter in DFW?:
1.) Hardness of heart. The Bible records God's prophets teaching consistently that the human heart just does whatever it wants. If you add in life/marriage/work difficulty along with that, it means that they won't come for a spiritual reason on Easter. An invite to church is not the gospel. We still do invites to church, but an invite to church simply is NOT the gospel. Nor is including several verses on a postcard or TV ad or flier enough. The Bible says that all of us, everyone in the church, everyone not in the church, all people, are fallen in sin and are dead (not just injured) in our trespasses and sins. Why would someone who is walking far from God decide to come to your church on Easter just because you invited them? Answer: they won't. Why? It takes God sending them. God sends people who do good (Jesus in John's Gospel says, James also, etc) (Satan also sends people to churches who are secretly wolves, see the New Testament for more on that, such as Jesus' teaching on the weeds among the good crop). Maybe the Lord God doesn't like what Easter has become in American churches. Or maybe He wants all of us churches and pastors to see that the Word of God brings change, and someone at home, without the Word intake in their life (the Bible), will not be moved to move out of their chair or lawn on Easter more than any other day. A true Christian cannot believe that everyone is just "neutral" and "unbiased" and will come just because you invite them.
2.) Church events like Vacation Bible School, and in this case Easter Egg Hunts, even if they include a gospel sharing component, seem to only attract churched people. That is they attract those already going to church often, regularly type of people. I cannot tell you how many times I've seen this proved, or heard it from others in large cities (an exception to the rule seems to be very small Texas towns several hours out of a large Texas metropolis). I also do not think the old "memory" of church in one's past works with the current generations that would actually visit a new church. Many of them had no church background, and if they did it was at a place where the good news was not fully declared (my past for instance, includes many friends and I who only heard about the resurrection of Jesus, never the cross; which in hindsight looking back at my childhood meant that church way back then didn't share the whole gospel). For those of us who had partial gospel type mainline churches when we were young kids, we didn't even enjoy their Egg Hunts and VBS's and ski trips. They were not gospel driven, so that generation wouldn't see the point.
3.) Megachurches. Just like the story Billy Graham told of going incognito to a several day revival to sit in the crowd the night before he too would share the gospel the next day: He had a heavy hat and big glasses on to hide his identity. The call to respond to the Word of God preached went out the day before he was to speak by another evangelist. Billy sitting in the audience was moved, and he asked someone next to him, "hey, are you going forward?" And the man said, "no, I'm waiting until the big guns get here tomorrow with Billy Graham." There was Billy Graham sitting right next to the man, calling the man forward, but he didn't know it! That man's public "profession of faith" whatever it was (telling in itself about our church memberships with someone like this steering some church somewhere), was little more than a people pleasing comment about some kind of experience. A lot of times today, American church is more about the biggest circus show in town or largest sporting event, and has little to do with Jesus. Whoever has the most lights, fog machines, and the most spectacular 100k dollar Easter plays gets the guests. Here in North Texas the Easter "shows" at such churches probably take in some of those who only go on Easter to church. This seems logical, since if someone is thinking in a worldly way about what church to visit, they will just go where the world's biggest circus show is. If we're honest, this is a word to most of us as church leaders to never make church a show. I have actually had Lakepointe Church staff, for instance, flat out tell me when we were planning to start a church (in 2010) a few cities away from their nearest campus, that they would not help us with any initial start up costs as a missions work because we were competition and they considered that their turf too two cities away. Well, that pretty much sums up the megachurch mentality. Even if you live several towns away from one, they're going to put on a big enough show to get them to drive 35 minutes each way to a show. The thing is though, and we know this too from basically the same pop church wisdom, that if you have to put on a show (like they do) for Easter, then you have to keep putting on a show -- to keep them -- there. Since no church, no matter how large, can afford that, inevitably people who are only coming for the show only come when there is a $100k show, such as at Christmas time and Easter. But we at our church as many others hope to see Easter as worship, and not a show. We want the Bible to be declared and worship to touch lives for change. So perhaps in a lot of ways, for us, we are really not at all sad that such persons just don't come on Easter. After all, the rest of the year, Jesus' example not to be served, but to serve others, will be ignored by such a person. This shows a misunderstanding of the gospel, no matter how many shows one attends, since the rest of Mark 10:45 says that Jesus gave his life as a ransom (payment) for our sins also as -- an example (in part) -- of the extent of his love for us -- by serving us. This of course differs from the entertain me mentality deeply, but the gospel always has differed.
In closing, if the average person looking at the expense and effort put into Easter were to see the so-called results they would wonder why churches keep doing it. For us, we have sort of learned our lesson, that expecting 1st time guests on Easter in a suburban US city may not be realistic advice even if all the coaches keep saying so loudly year after year. People on the ground actually leading and planting churches are starting to see the failure of such advice. Perhaps this will help some other church lay or full-time leaders somewhere thinking through their situation.