Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Four Keys to Rescuing Easter

There’s an old preacher line that states an uncomfortable truth in a humorous way. At the end of the Easter service, the preacher says to the congregation: “Let me wish you a Merry Christmas, since I won’t see many of you again until then.”

Christmas and Easter are in fact the bookends of what many people think of as their religious duties. Going to church on those two occasions—even in our secular culture—is still somewhat expected. Or, to put the matter in a more familiar fashion, when aging parents ask their children or grandchildren to attend church with them at Easter or Christmas, there’s less resistance than at other times.

At least that’s how I’ve seen the situation as a pastor observing the lives of those on the periphery of the local church. People being what they are, that’s probably not going to change. But there’s another level to Easter/Christmas worship patterns that affects many congregations much more directly. That’s the tension that exists between the two in terms of church priorities.  The startling fact is that for a growing number of churches, Christmas is a larger celebration than Easter, even though Easter celebrates a much more important event. Churches today really need to look at how we can rescue Easter, not from the unbelieving culture around us but from our own practices.

Here’s what I mean. A very large church I know of recently made the deliberate decision in its annual programming schedule to do away with most of its Easter celebrations and instead focus on a packed schedule of Christmas events and programs. Their reason? People in the community respond better to church events at Christmas than at Easter. The church can generate larger crowds at Christmas than at Easter.

I’m not trying to be a Scrooge but Christmas—for all the beauty and wonder of the celebration of Jesus’ birth—only exists in Christian understanding as the setting for his crucifixion and Resurrection. The four Gospels themselves give scant attention to Jesus’ birth (in fact, Mark and John don’t even mention it) and instead devote the great bulk of their attention to his passion. To devote the majority of a church’s attention to Christmas over Easter skews the biblical record. What’s more, such an approach values the pragmatic value of numbers over the biblical call to faithfulness.

There are several reasons for churches giving priority to Christmas over Easter:
·         Children have more free time at Christmas. The school holiday is longer at Christmas.  Easter, on the other hand, is usually the start of spring sports.
·         Christmas is more accessible to modern audiences than Easter. The message of Christmas is warm and fuzzy. So much so, in fact, that even an atheist can celebrate the day, at least in its generic form. The message of Easter on the other hand, is hard and demanding.
·         More fun stuff is attached to Christmas. There’s Santa Claus and elves and gift-giving and office parties and lots of time off from school and work. Easter on the other hand calls us to the painful realities of the cross and the life that comes only through death. Even with the ancillary silliness that’s crept into the event (like eggs and bunnies), the fundamental Christian truth remains front and center.

So what can the local church do? What should we do? There are four key ways we can start rescuing Easter, for our congregations as well as for the sake of our communities.

·         Make Easter the priority in our service schedules, programming and special events. If we’re devoting more time, attention and resources to various performances at Christmas than to events and worship services at Easter, we’re out of balance. It takes a deliberate resistance toward forces inside as well as outside the church to make this happen, because the momentum is in the opposite direction.

·         Have fun at Easter but keep turning attention back to Resurrection. I love Easter egg hunts and Sunday School class parties and musical presentations. But the church must intentionally place those events in a distinctively Easter context. We have to keep turning attention from the events themselves toward the Resurrection. The difference between Christmas and Easter celebrations is nowhere more obvious than here. The events surrounding Christmas events have a way of standing on their own because of the general cultural acceptance of biblical Christmas elements. A Christmas party at work will often include much of the same verbiage, imagery and conversation as one at church.  Not so with Easter. There’s no such cultural acceptance of the story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. It takes an intentional choice to keep the Christian message the priority.

·         Help our congregations prepare for Easter. The liturgical denominations who observe Lent are onto something. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter, these groups carefully and deliberately make spiritual preparation for Easter. By the time Easter arrives these people are in a position to celebrate in truly meaningful ways. I’m not necessarily advocating a liturgical approach for, say, Baptist churches. But I do think that a more intentional preparation for the coming of Easter would go a long way toward putting many of our churches into a more biblical mindset.

·         Keep the cross and resurrection front and center at Easter worship. Easter isn’t about the return of spring. Or eggs and bunnies. Or mythology. Or the good feelings inspired by an old story. Or families who come to church together and go home to eat the ham dinner prepared by our grandmother. It’s the church’s recognition of the miraculous intervention of God the Father in raising his Son to life. What’s more, it’s the radical, life-changing truth that what God did in dead Jesus He wants to do in the lives of everyone who’s sitting in our churches on Easter morning.

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