March 31, 2009
The Dangers of Easter
Avoiding the pitfalls of special services.
As we journey through Lent toward Easter, I want to be mindful of the dangers that surround this season and threaten the soul of a community and the soul of a pastor.
What danger? The temptation to bait and switch.
Every year I need to remind myself that Easter is not a marketing opportunity. The resurrection of the Son of God is not an opportunity to market our programs or build "my" church, even under the guise of concern for lost.
And as I feel the pressure to create a winning, life-changing sermon for those who may only come this one time a year, I especially have to remember: It's not about me. (Please wait a minute while I repeat that to myself a few times.) Why? Because heaven forbid we should ever do community in such a way that communicates that our main avenue for people coming to Christ is hearing the Gospel preached from the mouth of one person, rather than hearing it preached from the mouths (and lives) of the whole community. If, in your community, more people are becoming Christians on Sunday than during the rest of the week, I think you may have a problem.
Times like Easter and Christmas are dangerous for us because we begin to see them as something different from what they really are for the life of a community. This is where a more robust engagement with the Christian calendar really helps. It focuses our communal life on the events of the life of Christ all year around, and keeps us from seeing "two big outreach event Sundays!" every year in Christmas and Easter.
Yes, a lot of people come to a Sunday service once or twice a year, and they are more likely to come on Easter than just about any other time. And yes, the Holy Spirit is amazing, drawing people to Himself even through our goofy Easter pageants and songs (or our smoke machines and laser shows, if that's your thing).
The danger in giving in to the impulse to do something radically different, humongously big and special at these times is what we communicate both to our community and those we are inviting to become a part of our community. What we subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) communicate to our people is that their job is to invite people who are not in our churches to come on Easter Sunday morning so that the pastor and the drama team and the worship guy and (possibly) the Holy Spirit can take a whack at them.
I know that's overstating, but believe me - I've been there. And that's what "event evangelism" and "big" Sundays communicate, I think. Regardless of what we teach about reaching out to others, what we say through our Sunday Show actions communicates that it's not the job of the average person to introduce people to Jesus. Leave it to the pros with the degrees and the training and the gifts.
In other words, "You get ?em to church, we'll get ?em to Jesus!" How empowering is that for people?
I would much prefer we both explicitly and implicitly communicate a model that includes befriending people; enfolding them into the rhythms of our lives; sharing the highs and lows (and how our faith informs those) with them; and integrating them into home groups, dinner times, and the big and small events of our lives. How natural would it be after all that love and enfolding that they become a part of our community, even before they believe? And when they believe, they believe because they've seen and tested the reality of a life of faith, as opposed to simply watching a special Sunday morning service where the band rocks extra hard and the pastor has a few more funny stories than normal.
Easter is dangerous because it's here that the attractional model reaches its zenith - or maybe its nadir - every year, as thousands of churches try to do "something special" in the hopes that their people will invite others to come and be bait-n-switched into a relationship with Jesus. And we all see what other communities do and are tempted to compete in the misguided effort to keep up.
Yes, I said "bait-n-switch," because that's what it is. If we're not careful, we could end up really disappointing some people. How? By "offering" them less on subsequent visits. Less pizzazz, less oomph. I'd be pretty disappointed if I got Cirque Du Soleil the first time I went to your church and the next week I got Phil and Ted's Bargain Circus.
I was super impressed to see another church planter dial it down a couple of years ago after hearing about the disappointment of some people who came to Easter services one year and came back the next week to a completely different (and less exciting) show.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying we shouldn't take advantage of increased visitor attendance and preach the Gospel and hope that God does something amazing in people's lives. I'm just saying that if your strategy is to wait for someone to wander within range of your homiletical canon and then fire on them in hopes of scoring a hit, or worse yet, doing some cool things in the hopes that they might be lured within range, then I think there's a better way. Less defined, less able to be controlled by the pastors, less likely to be bragged about at pastor's conferences or to be written about in a book, but better - people loving people into your community and into relationship with Jesus.
It doesn't take mailers, banners, lightshows, and lasers every week; just a bunch of loving, welcoming Christ followers. People who genuinely care. People who are seeking relationships with other people and sharing life with them. A competent all-community gathering where things work well, so as not to be a distraction from what God wants to do that morning, sure. But less of a focus on Sunday mornings as the center of community and more of a focus on the spiritually-forming life of the community that revolves around Jesus Himself.
And all of this is vital for us to think through at Easter because I remain convinced that what we win people with, we win them to.