Only In a Small Church: The Easter Sunday Blues

stay-200cThe resurrection of Jesus is the greatest event in history.

But Easter has an unseen downside for many Small Churches.

Right now, all around the world, churches are excitedly preparing for Easter Sunday. Lilies are being arranged, choirs are rehearsing, Passion Plays are being staged, Easter eggs being stuffed and hidden, extra services are being added.

Of all Sundays of the year, the one that still matters most is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. We may have drifted away from a lot of important things, but it’s good to know that the one essential event of our faith still means so much to so many people.

 

The Other Side of the Celebration

The Easter celebration in the church I pastor isn’t as big as a lot of churches, but we do have to ask able-bodied regular attenders to park on the street and around the corner so our small parking lot can be available for the extra guests. I love the “problems” that come with big celebrations like this.

But I also know that this Easter attendance spike is not universal. There are many Small Churches that prepare for Easter Sunday under a burden that most people are unaware of.

In many Small Churches, Easter Sunday is one of the lowest-attended, most challenging days of the year.

I know this is true because I have first-hand experience with it. In the 25-plus years I’ve been pastoring Small Churches, it’s only been in the last ten or so that our crowds actually started to get bigger on Easter Sunday. For most of my time as a Small Church pastor, they got smaller.

I’ve talked with other Small Church pastors who face it, too. The reason most people don’t know about this reality is because they don’t go around complaining about it. They just deal with. And most deal with it extraordinarily well.

Why is Easter attendance so low in many Small Churches? Is this another “proof” that Small Churches and their leaders don’t have enough faith, prayer, planning or some other essential quality?

No. No. A thousand times, no.

Here’s what happens.

 

To Him Who Has Much…

In a big church, when a bunch of musicians leave town to visit their families for Easter weekend, there are plenty of others who are willing to take their place – especially for the “big stage” of Easter Sunday.

In a Small Church, when one or two musicians have to leave to visit their family for Easter weekend, there may be no musicians left. And there’s no one to step in from neighboring churches because – guess what? – they’re using all their musicians for their Easter services. As they should.

The same dynamic happens for child care helpers, ushers, greeters, you name it. Even some their regular attenders will take their out-of-town guests to another church with a big event for a “special treat” on Easter.

So the Small Church pastor scrambles to fill in gaps, with mixed results. Easter Sunday comes. A few first-time guests arrive. But with 1/3 of the regular attenders gone for the holiday weekend, these first-time guests experience the church’s lowest attended, least-prepared service of the year.

But it’s Easter Sunday! So the first-time guests understandably assume that, like most other churches they’ve been to, churches are showing off their best stuff on Easter Sunday. And if this is the church’s best…

Let’s just say, most Small Churches don’t get a lot of bouncebacks from their Easter visitors. And word gets around. They get even fewer guests next Easter.

 

What to Do About This?

No one is to blame for this. The people who go out of town for Easter weekend have good reasons to be gone. The Small Church pastors who have worked extra hard for meager results, did their best against impossible odds. And the first-time guests have no reason to be aware of the issues.

That’s just the way it is. Especially in the very Small Church.

So what do we do about it? There are no easy answers or quick fixes. But I can tell you what I did.

I just kept at it. Year after year. Easter after Easter.

I did the hard work of looking past the discouragements. I determined I was going to rejoice in the unparalleled joy of the resurrection, whether-or-not we had greeters, musicians or teachers. No, it wasn’t easy. And there were major steps backwards in some years. But if the resurrection means anything, it means rejoicing when all seems lost – because we know it isn’t lost.

If your church is dealing with the Easter Sunday Blues, here’s my advice, such as it is.

Celebrate Resurrection. Give it your all. Worship. Serve. Love. Give. And be yourself. You and your church’s best self. Don’t ignore the challenges as if they don’t exist, but don’t let them define you, either.

Reinforce the reality that Easter is not about performance, but about celebration and worship. Even if you have to start by convincing yourself, first.

Plus, I wonder if some Small Churches can find a better way to celebrate Easter that plays to our strengths, rather than mourning our weaknesses. Instead of thinking we need to “add to” for Easter, maybe there’s a way to strip things back to the fundamentals. Offer an “Unplugged Easter” for others who feel disenfranchised by all the noise and drama. Not that the noise and drama are wrong – they’re just not for everyone.

 

Buy The Grasshopper Myth bookWe’re In This Together

But more than anything else, know this. You’re not alone.

There are tens of thousands of pastors and churches around the world facing the same challenges and frustrations you are. Many others, like me, remember what it was like.

We’re with you.

Our hearts are with you. Our prayers are with you. We get it. And while that won’t add bodies to your empty chairs or pews on Sunday, sometimes knowing that someone else gets it is enough for now. I hope this word is that for you.

And, while we’re with you, let’s be sure we’re all there for each other.

Small Church pastors, I’m going to ask us all to do something that may seem hard and even unnecessary to some of you. Let’s pray for the churches in our neighborhoods that are adding services to accommodate the crowds, even as ours is not. Ask God to anoint their celebration, their music and their message. Pray that people’s hearts and souls will be saved for eternity this Easter Sunday, no matter what church they go to.

That’s what it’s all about, after all. Easter doesn’t exist to pack church buildings. We don’t do it because we need another holiday. We don’t even celebrate it simply to remember the world’s greatest historical event (although it is that).

We celebrate Easter to thank Jesus for the salvation his resurrection brings, and to help usher more souls into eternity.

It doesn’t matter if that happens in my church, your church or a megachurch. It just matters that it happens.

 


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So what do you think? Has your church ever had a problem losing people for Easter? Do you have any words of encouragement for Small Church pastors facing that problem this Sunday?

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(Stay photo from hragv • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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13 thoughts on “Only In a Small Church: The Easter Sunday Blues”

  1. Wow, some tough points in this one to swallow, or better yet to rethink I guess.

    Not a bad thing though, don’t get me wrong Karl. Your words are always encouraging and challenging, this one just fell more on the challenging side.

    I will continue to be who God has made me, myself (ie; Easter Insanity).

    This one just made me reflect on those times in the past where those things you mentioned have happened (people out of town etc).

    This Sunday is not the ONLY day I celebrate my Risen LORD, I try to remember to do that every day.

    This Sunday I just may get to show a few other folks who He is, and pray harder for the other churches in our community!

    To GOD be the Glory!
    Have a blessed Resurrection Celebration everyone!

  2. The big church pastor just up the road from my church rappeled out of the ceiling girders to massive crowds in five services. My little church did not break any attendance records, nor did I rappel out of the ceiling. We worshipped, I preached my guys out, we went home. I am learning The Lord only wants me to be faithful, nothing more. So Pastor, be faithful to preach the Gospel to the Lords people. It’s is what they need!

    1. different adam

      Next year I’m going to slingshot myself against a concrete wall and use the splatter as a teaching aid. :). Keep preaching Jesus Paul. Your faithfulness does not go unnoticed by our King. At least that’s what I keep telling myself:)

      1. Thanks for the laugh, Adam. And for the visual I’ll never be able to get out of my head. Actually, I don’t have a problem with theatrics, per se. They’re not my style, but as long as they’re backed up by solid preaching, worship and the other fundamentals, great.

        The problem I have is when over-the-top antics overshadow the message. When the headline in everyone’s mind after the service was “the worship pastor lit his guitar on fire!” instead of “I drew closer to Jesus today”, well… Houston, we have a problem.

        1. Karl, I cannot help to think that any gimmick used could overshadow the preaching. Car giveaways all the way down to gift cards will alter a worshippers perception, I believe. Am I guilty of using gimmicks? Yes. And what do my folks remember most? The time I (fill in the gimmick). Preach the word so well people will long for the truth you present.

          1. I agree, Paul. Gimmicks distract. But I’m not against good theatrics. Jesus used parables. Many of the world’s great preachers and soul-winners used drama. In my church, we occasionally use skits, movie clips, etc. to make a point. But they always have to tie into and reinforce the message, not distract from it.

            For me, the difference between a good, theatrical presentation and a gimmick is this: gimmicks don’t reinforce the message, and thus distract from it. A good dramatic illustration drives it home.

            For instance, I once started my message by walking down the center aisle to the back of the church. Then I asked everyone to grab their chair, turn it around and face me. Now, the front row was the back row – and the back row was the front. Any guess what my passage was that day? No one who was there will ever talk about the “chair story” without remembering I preached on “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

            However, for the next few months I noticed a lot more people sat in the middle rows.

          2. Karl: Lol. That is good. I appreciate your definition and agree with you. I misunderstood your use of “theatrics.” I have used similar things , the chair is good BTW, so I cannot disagree with you. Thanks for this forum. Your wisdom is much needed today.

          3. Paul, I think “theatrics” was probably not my best choice of words. Maybe “dramatic illustrations” would have been clearer language. Oh well, we sorted it out, anyway. Thanks for your participation and your kind words. This kind of interaction is great for everyone.

      2. I like that idea Adam, but I may only be able to use a big rubber band, not a full blown sling shot in our building!
        And yes, its the faithfulness all the way!!!
        We had our usual size group, I knew that some would be out of town, but God was glorified, the worship was heartfelt, prayers were answered, and lives were touched.
        Keep telling yourself those things!

        And as usual the enemy used a well intentioned friend first thing this morning to ask, “Did you have a good turn out yesterday, I heard they had X-amount at so-n-so!”

        Lord help me!

  3. Thanks again Karl for the good word. Believe it or not, the Northern VA school district actually schedules spring break the week before Easter. Really! I had to make my worship pastor come back from vacation in order to have someone lead the singing (wasn’t going to be me for which everyone is grateful). Several of our key families are out of town not just Easter weekend but the whole week before. It is what it is. We’ve learned not to put all our eggs in the Sunday Easter service and to keep a few for the next week (pun intended).

  4. ralph juthman

    Karl you were reading my mail when you wrote this. For many years I could count on Christmas and Easter as my big tcket Sunday’s. Not any more. For the exact reasons you give I anticipate a lower than usual attendance. So what do I do? I am trying to intentionally plan my big ticket services the Sunday before the big weekends . That is when I will always have a jump in attendance. For good Friday we had a joint service with the baptist church in town. Our group Plus theirs doubled what we would have had on our own. Sunday morning I have a bit of a challenge as my entire worship and tech personnel are away. So that leaves me to lead worship and preach. I am connecting my laptop to the pulpit and using videos and YouTube for worship. I will also play from the hymn book ( yes we still have those). Ours won’t be a classy service but we will do it with class

  5. Jesse Bingaman

    Christmas and Easter are the lowest attended services of the year. I have learned to dread holidays for that reason. We plan all our events away from holidays because nobody ever came to church near a holiday.

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