Easter Sunday rolls around with a kind of predictability that’s both comforting and challenging for pastors across the board. Let’s check out the scene: the church is brimming more than usual, the air is thick with the scent of fresh flowers – mostly lilies, and the folks sitting on the pews create a colorful tapestry of spring attire. Among the sea of familiar faces, there’s a sprinkling of CEO visitors – the Christmas and Easter Only guests. It’s a day of joy, reflection, and, let’s be honest, a bit of logistical gymnastics for church leaders.

Like clockwork, pastors experience the Easter attendance bump every year, a phenomenon as reliable as the sunrise service. It’s a moment of hope, a sign that maybe, just maybe, this year will be different. But as the echo of the last hymn fades, so too does the crowd, leaving pastors in a quiet church building pondering the same old puzzle: why won’t they see those “faithful” visitors again until Christmas Eve? And as usual, the following Sunday feels a bit more hollow, a stark reminder of what could be but isn’t.

So, let’s dive into the heart of this seasonal cycle and unpack the three Easter dilemmas pastors face every year. These are not just logistical challenges but deep, existential questions about engagement, community, and faith itself. How do we turn seasonal visitors into regular members? (Hey, I heard you mutter “Good luck with that!” But hang in there with me, you probably won’t get them all, but you just might get a couple of them back if you’re willing to shift it up a bit!)

Guess Who’s Coming to Easter

The first Easter dilemma we face is a bit of a mythbuster: the idea that our pews are filled with first-time, non-Christian visitors on Easter Sunday. While it’s a comforting thought, the reality is often quite different. Most of our Easter visitors are what I like to call “Christian alumni.” These are the folks who make up the majority of our CEO (Christmas and Easter Only) congregation. They’re not strangers to the message of Easter; in fact, they’ve likely heard it, or variations of it, many times over, whether from your pulpit or another’s.

These guests, our Christian alumni, often attend out of a sense of tradition or familial obligation. They’re the ones who’ve been nudged through the doors by a spouse, a parent, or a grandparent. For many, it’s not so much a choice as it is a seasonal duty, a box to tick off in their spiritual checklist. This understanding shifts the dynamic significantly. It’s not about reaching out to the unchurched, but reconnecting with those who have drifted.

Acknowledging this reality can profoundly change our approach to the Easter service. In my experience, starting the sermon by recognizing the mixed feelings in the room sets a tone of understanding and relatability. It’s important to let them know that while they might have come expecting “the same old,” what they’ll get is something relevant, perhaps even surprising. Yes, the core message of Easter is non-negotiable, but the way we deliver it, the slant we give it, can make all the difference. It’s about offering something that not only resonates with their current life experiences but also rekindles a desire for a deeper connection with their faith. This approach doesn’t dilute the Easter message; it enriches it, making it accessible and engaging for everyone in the congregation, regardless of how they came to be there.

They’ve Heard It All Before

The second dilemma we encounter every Easter is the content of our sermons, which, for many Christian alumni, falls into one of two familiar categories. The first category is the salvation-based sermon, operating under the assumption that our congregations are filled with individuals who have either never heard the gospel or haven’t heard it “properly.” However, this assumption misses the mark. It’s not that these individuals haven’t been exposed to the story of salvation; rather, they’ve become inoculated against it. Year after year, they’ve heard variations of the same message without seeing its impact on their lives, leading to a sense of disillusionment. They think, “I’ve heard this before. I’ve tried it, and life didn’t magically improve. So, what’s the point?”

The second type of sermon often heard on Easter is one that draws a metaphor from the Resurrection, attempting to apply it to our lives today. While this approach may be more engaging, it often fails to resonate when it sticks too closely to the traditional Easter narrative, making it easy for listeners to tune out, deeming the message irrelevant to their current struggles.

Recognizing who sits before us—our “visiting army”—and understanding their common struggles can guide us toward crafting a sermon, or even a series, that addresses their real, pressing issues. A 2023 LifeWay study revealed that the number one reason first-time visitors return is because they’ve been inspired by a sermon that was not only biblically based but also relevant and transformative to their lives. The key here is relevance. Repeating the same messages in slightly different ways each year won’t cut it; our audience seeks something that speaks directly to their experiences and challenges.

Yes, the Resurrection is the cornerstone of our Easter message, but it also presents a prime opportunity to explore the broader gospel message—the promise of a full and abundant life. By starting from where our listeners are and developing a series that addresses their most pressing concerns through the application of solid biblical principles, we can offer truly life-transforming insights. This Easter, let’s aim to make the gospel relevant and real for our Christian alumni, providing them with practical, biblical solutions to the problems that keep them up at night.

You Can Make Connections

The third dilemma strikes at the heart of Easter Sunday traditions and liturgies, which often overlook a crucial element: the collection of contact information. This oversight might be one of the most significant missteps churches make, not just on Easter but every Sunday. Research and experience alike highlight that effective follow-up can dramatically increase the likelihood of a visitor’s return—some studies suggest by more than 80%. While the exact figures may vary, the principle holds true: strong follow-up strategies significantly boost return rates among local prospects, assuming their initial visit wasn’t marred by any breaches in hospitality (like feeling embarrassed, confused, ignored, or overwhelmed).

Easter Sunday, with its heightened attendance, offers a golden opportunity to break from tradition in favor of gathering visitor information. A practical and engaging way to do this is by emphasizing the importance of filling out contact cards during the service. To encourage participation, include a section for prayer requests on the card, giving everyone a compelling reason to complete it. Leading up to Easter, you can prepare your congregation by incorporating the filling out of these cards into every Sunday service during Lent, framing it as a Lenten practice.

An innovative approach I’ve seen involves incentivizing the process with a gift basket giveaway. Imagine a beautiful Easter-themed basket filled with goodies, awarded through a drawing of the contact cards collected that month, with the drawing taking place on Easter Sunday. Announce that the basket will be delivered the following day, Easter Monday, ensuring that participants provide complete contact details for delivery. This not only makes the process of collecting information more appealing but also integrates it seamlessly into the Easter celebration, transforming a routine administrative task into an exciting part of the day’s festivities. Such strategies not only enhance follow-up efforts but also deepen engagement with both regular attendees and visitors alike, making Easter an entry point for lasting connections.

Moving Past Your Easter Dilemmas

It’s clear that while the challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable. Addressing these dilemmas head-on can pave the way for a more engaging and impactful Easter service, one that resonates deeply with both the regular congregation and the visiting “Christian alumni.”

It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to dive into the specifics of effective follow-up strategies. However, I’ve covered this topic in other posts on this site, offering insights and practical advice on how to nurture those initial connections into lasting engagements. I encourage you to explore these resources for a deeper dive into turning first-time visitors into regular members of your church community.

This Easter, by acknowledging the rarity of non-Christian visitors, rethinking our sermon approaches, and prioritizing the collection of contact information, we open the door to meaningful change. These steps, though simple in concept, require a shift in perspective and practice. Yet, the potential rewards are immense. By moving past these dilemmas, you significantly increase the likelihood that visitors will return, not just as attendees but as active, engaged members of your church family.

Easter is a time of renewal and hope, not just for the individual but for the church as a whole. Let this Easter be the start of a new chapter in your church’s story—one where every Sunday feels as welcoming, vibrant, and transformative as Easter itself.