As I looked over the crowded sanctuary my heart was instantly gladdened by both the lack of comfortable seating and the colorful array of Easter attire. There seemed to be a glow of warmth that was infectious as we launched into our annual retinue of Alleluias and Up From the Grave singspiration. A bonnet bedecked lass read the resurrection story from John and then it was my turn to step into the spotlight.

I climbed to the pulpit and smiled brightly at the crowd expecting a warm response. It was  at that exact moment when the Spirit broke into my thoughts with an odd Christmas refrain … “Do you see what I see?” I was taken aback. I shuddered momentarily and looked across the sanctuary again. It was like seeing the congregation afresh. This time I saw beneath the bunnies, the flowers, the hats, the coats, and the ties. It was almost like my rose tinted glasses had been removed and I was seeing the Easter reality for the first time … it wasn’t a pleasant sight.

Your Easter Congregation

Last year, I reminded our readers that the Easter congregation most church leaders expect isn’t the congregation that shows up. This year, I want to re-attest to that reality and conclude by offering some clear options on how to reach your Easter guests.

Each year the two highest attended worship services were Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. Over the years, pastors have carefully prepared for the influx of unchurched guests in both services as if the caliber for both services was the same. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Although it is still politically correct and socially acceptable for an unchurched unbeliever to show up in church for a Christmas Eve service, that’s not true of Easter Sunday. Culturally, Easter is mostly just another Hallmark moment, except that it comes with marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Cream Eggs. The notion of an unbeliever willingly attending an Easter sunrise service, or any Easter service for that matter, is … well … almost unbelievable. Instead of the “unbelieving” unchurched guest showing up to an Easter service, the majority of those guests sitting in the pews are:

  • Unchurched husbands nagged into coming
  • Unchurched children dragged into coming
  • Unchurched parents guilted into coming
  • Alumni Christians attending their annual (or semi-annual) meeting

What do these Easter unchurched guests have in common? They really don’t want to be there and they’ve already heard multiple variations on virtually any Easter theme that you might preach. And not only have they heard it, they’ve been effectively inoculated from anything that looks or smells like a salvation or transformation or metamorphosis kind of sermon. They might as well be wearing the t-shirt that says “Been there, done that, not doin’ it again.” At best, these guests are apathetic. At worst, they’re annoyed that Aunt Suzie cajoled them into coming to church again and are counting the minutes until they’re free (please, if there’s a god, don’t let the service run overtime). You may not see it beneath their Easter finery and plastic faces, but underneath it all their jaws are set and their arms are crossed. Tightly.

A New Kind of Evangelism

So there you are. A sanctuary filled to overflowing with the most obstinate, intransigent, obtuse congregation that you’ll face all year. They sit there waiting, almost daring you, to say something – anything – that will break through the defenses they’ve been constructing year after year. What can you possibly convey that will make any difference?

There are actually several different tactics that may work when dealing with the tough Easter crowd.

Honesty … Still a Good Starting Place

The one thing that disarms even the most oppositional audience is to name the elephant in the room … especially if you have a knack for serving a side order of humor. Letting your guests know that you know they’re attending under protest and letting them know what you’re going to do that will make it worth their while to be there is a good starting place. Of course, if you do this, you’ll have to come through with your promise … your sermon will have to hit them right where it counts: within their interest zone. If you preach a derivation of the same sermon they’ve heard every single year they’ve been coming, you’ll barely keep them awake, let alone interested.

Hit a Nerve

I’m not a dental procedure fan. There’s something about a high-pitched drill finding its way into my mouth. And if my dentist wants to get my full attention all she has to do is take that drill and hit a nerve. Now, I’m not talking about stepping on toes nor using guilt and/or shame to make a point. I’m talking about naming a different kind of elephant than the one in the previous point. Holding up a mirror and giving people an honest glimpse into their soul can shake up even the coldest reception. However, you’ll need to be careful here because you’re walking a tightrope between getting their attention and causing real pain that erects barriers to whatever else you might say.

Tickle Their Funny Bone … or Else Make ‘em Cry

I don’t do stand up comedy well, and every one of my former congregations would tell you that telling jokes, especially from the pulpit, was not my strong suit. On the other hand, I was pretty darned good at weaving stories that could even get Macho Macho Man to need a few deep breaths. The key here is this: if you can evoke a powerful emotion (other than ticking them off to the max), you’ve opened a door to the inner soul. However, playing with people’s emotions can open the sandbox to all sorts of manipulation, and being manipulated won’t win you any points … and it won’t win many souls either. So if you’re going down this path, make sure there’s a solid connection between your sermon and their laughter or weeping.

If you’re committed to the transformation of the human soul, as you get ready for this year’s Easter festivities, take seriously the real audience who will attending. Remember that almost everyone in your audience will have heard it all before and that most of your guests would rather be almost anywhere else. Serve ‘em up something created just for them and you may actually get a return on your investment.