by Thom Schultz
It’s the pinnacle of the church year. Crowds swell. Churches add chairs, and services, and parking lot attendants.
Church leaders and members look out over the brimming Easter pews and wish that all these pop-up worshippers would return in the weeks to come. But it’s not likely.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that these holiday hordes, once they sample the finest a church has to offer, would return for more. And the additive effect of this special day would increase the year-round attendance, year after year.
But that’s not happening for most churches.
Why? The Easter story is the most extraordinary story of all time. Churches, large and small, do an extraordinary job telling and celebrating the Easter story, providing special music, showing the pageantry, and welcoming the worshippers with care.
So, why don’t the throngs come back? I suspect there’s no simple answer. It’s a variety of dynamics at work.
A SPECIAL EVENT. Many of the people who make one annual trip to church do so because it’s a special event. They fully understand that the special music, the special pageantry, and the special sermon are one-time special efforts. They realize things will be downgraded next week. So they wait till next year’s big event.
A HISTORY LESSON. Some people come, very simply, to be reminded of the Easter story. They find comfort in hearing the familiar story. It’s like watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” each year at Christmas. It’s a reminder of a great historical event. Once a year is fine for that.
A PERENNIAL GUEST. It’s wonderful to feel like the guest of honor. And many people know, on this special day, they won’t be gawked at as strangers, but welcomed as honored guests. They’re not interested in becoming a “regular.” They assume that repeat visits or membership would create the expectation that they should be there every week. And since they know that’s not possible in their busy schedules, they find it easier to be anonymous Easter Christians.
So, how might a church take these tendencies and turn them into something more magnetic?
It’s fine to produce a special event each year. But understand that everybody knows that event is special. It’s not the norm. It’s designed for the once-a-year crowd. To get individuals in the crowd to return, don’t treat them like a crowd. If it’s worth throwing an Easter morning extravaganza, it’s worth contacting each person who came. Write notes, or make calls, or send emails. Express your delight in seeing them at the special Easter service. Explain what happens every normal week and invite them to join in the regular rhythm.
It’s crucial to tell the amazing story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But if people go away remembering only a history lesson, they may assume God acted long ago and left the scene. So it’s also crucial to showcase how God is alive and active today. For this, it’s often best to make time for the extraordinary stories of the ordinary people in the pews. Hearing how God moved in a local person’s life brings the power of the Resurrection into tangible reality. And it creates a curiosity and a hunger to hear more each week.
It’s good to honor perennial guests. It’s even better to develop lasting relationships. And it’s important to remember that, for most people, a relationship with God develops as a process over time–not as a result of a one-time event or a sizzling sermon.
Through our work with the national network of Lifetree Cafes, we’ve learned to treat everyone as ongoing friends, rather than as “guests.” One way we do this is by personally inviting every person to join us each week, every week. We send, automatically, a different email message to everyone each week that describes what we’ll be talking about at the next Lifetree gathering. The consistent contact and conversation make the difference.
Easter Sunday can be much more than a once-a-year event for perennial guests. It can be one step in a long relationship with the One who said, “Now I call you friends.”