Why Easter Sunday Worship Service Should be Nothing Special

Most church folks know that the two times a year that new people often come to church are on Easter and Christmas Eve. We also know that the number of folks who actually come BACK or develop a meaningful relationship with the church from those worship experiences is pretty low. So frustrating. Don’t they like us?  I mean really, we bust out the real dishes for coffee hour and everything. Come on people, give us a chance . . .

As you approach Easter 2011 and plan your Easter Sunday worship service, let me offer an idea why about this happens and make a case for what we might do to change this reality.

I think we give an inordinate amount of attention to our Easter Sunday worship service.  Yes, Easter is an important celebration in the life of the church and, yes, God is certainly is pleased when we worship and give thanks in God’s name. But . . . I kinda think that God may simply be humoring us in our misguided attempt to throw an Easter party for God.  I am sure God enjoys pageants and brass as much as anyone and I am sure God is grateful for those folks who do take the time to connect to the church even once a year even, if only out of familial obligation. But  . . . I would posit that God might be more pleased if we approached this Easter time in our worship life a little differently.

I am not talking about taking away the men’s breakfast or canceling the Easter Egg hunt . . . as I would never encourage anyone to invite the wrath of a disappointed, empty-basket-holding toddler. Some of the special things that we do around this time are just lovely.  What I would challenge us to think about is doing something radically different for our Easter Sunday worship services by not really doing anything radically different for our Easter Sunday worship service.

We put so much extra energy and time into our special services. We create special art installations, pull out the drama for the kids, we present choral pieces that require extra instrumentation and in most cases we do all of the above. In our hopes to please God, we go all out, especially for Easter.  Well-intentioned rhythmic church activity, but activity that end up with  people who are burned out and a worship service that looks NOTHING like the service that is helped on a normal Sunday.

And why is this bad you ask? Why shouldn’t we give 110% and do it all up for God on Easter, you wonder? Quite simply, because it usually is more about perpetuating our own habits and expectations, than about sharing our faith in meaningful and life-changing ways with those who might be searching.

Now I do not mean to dismiss the extra primping and preparation that comes with expected visitors. These are great expressions of hospitality for the stranger. The problem I have is that we too often put on a “show” for visitors rather than invite  them to experience the community that is the church.  How powerful would it be to have an Easter worship service that is inspiring, energetic, moving and transformative and be able to say, “If you have experienced something profound today, do come back, because this is what is like EVERY Sunday here at . . .”

You see, by creating these “productions,” especially around Easter, most churches only perpetuate the practice of coming to church only on special days because we have, in fact, said that this day is more worthy than any others.  The other thing that happens is that folks might indeed be inspired by the service to visit again, and lo and behold, “normal” Sunday worship is a let down devoid of the same energy, creativity and quite honestly, the commitment to worshipping God with joy.

So my “answer” to the rotating turnstile of Easter visitors is this: rather than put all our energy into one kick-butt worship service, use the Easter season as one that might inspire the rest of the year.  We should plan our services with unabashed creativity and inspired energy as if this is what it will look like EVERY Sunday . . . and then we must make it so. In addition to the pageants and productions, this too may give honor and glory to God . . . and who knows, some new folks might find their faith along the way.

In the past this post as also appeared on HuffingtonPost.com, ChurchLeaders.com, Day1.org and others.

19 comments

  • Laurie Palmer  

    Perhaps. But to celebrate–Yes. Maybe it makes a difference to those outside this flock that we are instructed to bring in. Maybe one Easter faith clicks. Or one Christmas Eve. Really hard for me to begrudge it since the Spirit is the One at work, even using the mom who begged the family to show up.

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  • Roberta  

    Oh, thank you for saying this. I have felt this way for a LONG time — all the extra music, liturgy, etc. — I wear myself out, run myself ragged, and by the time the actual service rolls around, I am to weary and stressed to even really worship! Yes, hang the Easter banners, sing and play the pieces that are especially appropriate for this season of the church year. but can we be true to who we really are, as a congregation? Please?

  • Jeangoff  

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  • Elderyl  

    In my PC(USA) church we have a big celebration but not to impress visitors but because it is who we are.We had glorious music, and yes we had an art installation. I can speak to this part of it because I am the artist who led the group who made it. Throughout Lent, we met weekly, prayed, sang, read scriptures, and worked in potters clay to make the table service for Maundy Thursday. I don’t recall anyone being burnt out by preparations for the service. It was the destination in our Lenten journey that was filled with many opportunities to walk the journey together and become closer. Our Easter service looks very much like any of our everyday ones, filled with beautiful music, art, and followed by good food, all pointing to the One who creates and gives us our daily bread…

  • bawade  

    Cool! Look forward to following you on here ;-)

  • Abbie Watters  

    Seems to be fixed now! You look like your old self again!

  • Sophia  

    If the motivation behind making a “big deal” of Easter is to lure visitors, well then of course it’s not a great idea.
    However, in my denomination, (Episcopalian) we make a big deal out of Easter specifically because we are celebrating the most important, and central, reality of Christianity – cross, death, tomb, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. We teach that Easter is the most important day of the year, and that every other Sunday is a reflection, to the best of our ability, of the profound joy we feel as we thank God for the victory of life over death. At the Easter Vigil (which is more and more favored over Easter Sunday morning services) we begin in darkness, then kindle a new fire to represent the Light of Christ for the whole world, tell the story of salvation history once again, and then celebrate Christ’s resurrection in a blaze of light, Alleluias (we do not use the A word for all of Lent), flowers, music, and often incense. The Easter Vigil was the night for baptism of new converts in the early church, and we baptize on that night if at all possible, also asking the rest of the gathered assembly to renew their own baptismal vows. We then celebrate the Eucharist together. Do we do this for visitors? No, although many visitors are deeply moved by the power and beauty of this liturgy which expresses our joy and thankfulness for the triumph of Christ the Savior and the Light of the World over sin, darkness, and death. The purpose of this liturgy isn’t to simply to appeal to visitors – it is to celebrate, as best as we know how, the gift of God’s saving grace.

  • karlajeanmiller  

    wow. Alot to think about here.
    Thanks!

  • teri  

    We do Easter pretty big…as we do a number of other Sundays throughout the year (the first Sunday after Labor Day in September, Christ the King, all of Advent, Baptism of the Lord, all of Lent, Pentecost, Trinity, any other day where the scripture lends itself to visual or dramatic proclamation, etc). and by “do it big” I mean that we make special effort decorating. Of course our schedule is different on Christmas and Easter, due to sheer numbers and the small size of our sanctuary (we can only seat 150 or so but we have 5-600 people come through on those days, compared to our normal 250). But really, we do big celebrations for the people who are here, the people who have walked through the Lenten journey (or the advent journey, the easter journey culminating in Pentecost, etc). It’s not FOR the visitors, though they may show up. It’s for the people who have walked in darkness and now give thanks for such amazing light–a way for them to experience God and to feel with their senses that God is good all the time, a way for them to worship with all their senses in a way they have been preparing to do during the preceding season in the desert.
    I don’t know if I’m articulating well what I’m thinking, but it’s something about how I agree with you that Easter shouldn’t be different from any other Sunday *if the reason for the difference is because we know we’ll have a lot of visitors.* But if it’s for the culmination of something our worshipping community has experienced together, the beginning of the next journey we will experience together…doesn’t the regularly gathered community deserve to worship God through a festival day, regardless of whether visitors come on Easter or Pentecost or Christmas or Ordinary 13 or whatever?

  • Kate Snyder  

    The dictionary definition for Easter is found in the root of its meaning from the mythical goddess Eostre, also known as Ostara or Ishtar, a goddess of the dawn and spring. She is the same queen of heaven that the Israelites worshipped when they whored after other gods. She is the same queen of heaven worshipped in Catholicism. God hates mixture – the mixing of pagan customs with biblical truth. Believers should stay away from the pagan holidays. Learn not the ways of the heathen for they are vain and idolatrous. Keep yourself pure for Jesus. We are His bride and we should be making ourselves ready for His appearing.

  • Steve Martin  

    We love to do it up on Easter!
    Every Sunday is Easter for us…but Easter is just a bit more special.
    Our pastor dresses up as the easter Bunny and hands out chocolate bunnies and…
    just kidding. But we do have quite the celebration in remembering THE day of our Lord’s ressurection.

  • CheezeWhizChurch  

    If you’re worshiping Molek, Rephan and Kaiwan along with Jesus, he does hate the special days, true. Context…

  • Andrew Conard  

    Bruce – Thank you for sharing this post about Easter worship. I particularly appreciate the authenticity of being able to invite people back who show up on Easter, “If you have experienced something profound today, do come back, because this is what is like EVERY Sunday here at . . .” There is great value in that invitation. You help me consider the worship planning process in a different way. Thank you.

  • Susan Phillips  

    One of my favorite overheard worship comments was, “I have to come to church each Sunday just to see what will be different.”
    I get it, Bruce. Each worship service should reveal our devotion, service & celebration of G-d’s good news as love and justice. We gather as community (friend & stranger) bc of what G-d has done for us and seeking ways to serve as disciples in response to the Spirit’s calling.
    With regard to the us & them language of some respondents, I have a colleague who serves a church in which they intentionally plan worship for those who are not present yet rather than those who are already there.

  • Mike  

    why do we do that which we do? for human acceptance so maybe they’ll join us (and help pay the bills?) or to praise who God is. can’t wade i both these streams

  • Steven Kurtz  

    I don’t know. I’m not sure the visitors should have anything to do with what we do on Easter – any more than they do on any other Sunday, that it (yes, we do a lot to try to welcome them and make sure we do our best in every way to provide worship that is engaging, powerful, authentic, challenging, and all the rest). But it’s not about them, and it shouldn’t be.
    But why not throw the best celebration we are capable of? This is our grand, highest holy day (yes I know how it evolved to be this, historically, but we live now, not back before all that). This is our chance to display the best we can of all that we know how to do to show worship, honor and love for the God who redeems us! Why not make it grandiose, extravagant, and lavish, (frugally, of course)? If they come, let them know they came to the party, not the norm – why not?
    Anyway, most of them will not come back until Christmas anyway. Let’s not let them influence what we do. It’s for God.

  • Paine Tom  

    I always consider one of the strangest phenomenon in the church is the number of people who will come on after an Easter or a Christmas Eve service and say something like, “That was incredible! I really felt God’s presence here.” And then, the very next Sunday, not be in church. We all know the Sundays after Christmas and Easter are the lowest attended Sundays. Shouldn’t it be, if people really felt God’s presence at Christmas and Easter, that it would be the Sundays furtherest, not closest, to those dates where they would skip? I like your post.

  • Kimberly  

    Wonderful post and I wholly agree. While reading your post Amos 5:21ff came to mind. That beyond our pomp and circumstance on Sundays there is even a greater call to be the church in the world – by loving the world, our sisters and brothers, so radically that we actually serve, give and sacrifice in order to share God’s love every day, not just Sundays. What do we make of Amos 5 as we prepare for the greatest of Christian festivals?
    “21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
    22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
    I will not accept them;
    and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
    23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
    24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. ”

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