Easter Sunday, often called the Super Bowl of the church by many, happens but once a year. In other words, we put a lot of our eggs in the basket of Easter–more than we might be willing to admit at times. (Yes, forgive the intended pun.) Not too many years ago, I recalled one such game day. Easter Sunday services kicked off and ended with a booming playlist of radio pop music accompanied with beach balls, balloons, and fun. Of course, people were having a blast and the desired “feels” brought pats on the back and “attaboys” from church leaders for the service programming. What is wrong with feeling great, anyway? After all, people in our culture feel defeated and stressed by our lifestyle. Our emotions matter, too. We have to be willing to have empathy and even plan our worship around real people and where their lives are lived. Being in a bubble is a failure for a leader. The heart of the planning was to relate to such felt needs. This is what Jesus himself often did.
EASTER SUNDAY PLANNING: Resurrecting tradition in your modern worship service!
We put our best foot forward on this holy occasion, so coffee and all the best snacks were presented. A photo booth to take selfie pictures stationed itself in the front lawn. Slick stage sets and concert lighting paired with the exuberant worship band that was more prepared than the typical week. And yes, the resurrection might have been mentioned in the course of the morning. After all, it was Easter–one of the biggest services of the year! The vibe delivered met requirements and numbers exceeded expectation. But, what if all the positive emotion clouded our thinking about Easter and the celebration of the resurrection? What if our savvy in marketing helped us succeed in pairing the desired emotion to a brand rather than a life-changing invitation, beyond a feel-good event? While all the tools of production, marketing, and music were powerful, did they invite people into what is most important? Did our goal of addressing felt needs overcome the mission? What was the intended destination? Did our vehicle drive us or did we drive the vehicle?
Traditionally, Easter Sunday is one of few services in the year that we know a larger group of people will attend, which is an opportunity. Worship leaders and pastors around the country count the cost of not addressing the crowd. However, our message about the resurrection of Christ should be what we put first, not the bells and whistles of the worship service. Tools are meant to serve the person–not the other way around. As we gain success in our use of them, we must be cautious and ask ourselves about what comes first. Here is the most dangerous question to ask: “What will they think of us after they attend?” This is dangerous because our main goal of etching a resurrected Christ into memories is then filtered through our marketing mind. Emotional baggage is something we should wish to displace–an important leadership strategy.
In the church service I mentioned above, the aim was to remove such emotional baggage by presenting a church service that could make you feel great! The cause of reaching people genuinely motivated us, but the feel-good vibe we grabbed them with pales in comparison to the message of the cross and the risen Christ. This is where the tension lies. In modern worship, the pull to be relevant to an individual’s expected emotion can often outweigh the gravity of the story of Holy Week. In Church tradition, the entire story is told–from crowd to mob, to cross, to the grave, to hell, and then to an empty tomb! It can only feel right when we tell the entire historical and biblical message of Jesus’ journey. If the story of Easter Sunday becomes mostly about programming a vibe, we are inevitably lost. Our car has taken over steering for us. Once we focus our aim on our real destination, we can then powerfully employ all the modern machines and media at our disposal. These tools then invite people into a magnificent story. Jesus IS risen!
I propose that we try to prayerfully and intentionally modify our modern worship services this year with some anchors to ancient Christians. The benefit of approaching your service beyond the relevant sermon topic and title and fresh song choices is to connect your people to the continuous work of Jesus through his Church over the last 2000 years. When we bridge the few pillars of our faith that hold us together to both the uninitiated as well as the saints in the pews, it invites people to worship beyond our culture, our personalities and our single church.Just a couple items might enrich your Easter like balloons and a snazzy lighting scheme cannot. These unshakable truths have a universal expression at times. The fact is, forgetting history, we have millions upon millions who will be worshipping together around the world during the Easter season. Some celebrate it on a different date, but the pillars of creeds, hymns, and liturgy have held us together as Christians for the last 2000 years or so. What is exciting is that we are welcomed into a faith that is expressed in hundreds of languages. We get a life-changing glimpse into how a small group of followers who were scattered during the events of the Passion and who came together after the event of the Resurrection. Here are just three ideas of bringing back the ancient into our contemporary worship spheres.
The Greeting: Don’t simply say “hi” this Easter.
Greetings are more than simply a time to get people to shake hands or to focus. They are part of our tradition. “He is risen!” says one, to which the other answers, “He is risen, INDEED!” This is called the Paschal Greeting and is part of ancient Christian liturgy. On Easter Sunday, we can do this in several ways. From the front, the pastor or leader can give the greeting, and the congregation can repeat. Eastern churches will do this personally and give a “Trinity kiss”–which I am not exactly proposing here. But, instead of saying “shake someone’s hand and say ‘hi’ as you meet them” we can let our people know that all over the world in many languages this is how people greet each other on Easter. And, this greeting has been around since the ancient church as well. If we use what actually has deep meaning as a greeting among saints as crowd control or movement, we miss an opportunity to lead people as a community.
As we turn up the band, why not give the congregation the spotlight for a moment in the service. Much of our worship planning is what we do from the front, often forgetting what we are asking people to do. In fact, we also forget to ask “why” we do what we do. Who are your people and what is your culture? That is also a good thing to ask and know in your planning. If you are a rowdy church, you might even repeat this greeting as a chant, rousing your members to celebrate with each other the truth that Christ is risen. Notice that we do not say that Christ “was” risen or “has” risen, as Jesus is present today. That factoid might encourage many to see that we indeed worship a savior who lives!
How can you give your greeting more meaning in your services even after Easter?
Hymns and songs: Sing about the Resurrection!
Do we know how to help our people celebrate what should be good news? One pastor I served rightly bemoaned that there were too few songs on one Easter Sunday we planned that had the resurrection as a theme. We sing a lot about the cross, but little about the empty grave on Easter Sunday in modern worship. The truth is that it is hard to find modern worship songs that tell the story of the resurrection beyond perhaps a “He’s alive” reference and then our personal response to that. One of the best things we can do is borrow the pattern of old Easter hymns as a guide in our songwriting or planning of Easter music. In the English speaking church, it seems that “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” is a hymn sung in places all over the world. I suggest that we find a way to keep that hymn on your setlist if possible. If your style is so far from considering a version you can live with, why not tell the story of the song and simply read a verse from it? Charles Wesley published this hymn in 1739, and it has far reached beyond the Anglican church where he came from or the Methodists he inspired.
The story, as in the Paschal Greeting, states the “is” in the phrase. We, like the original witnesses in Palestine 2,000 years ago, see a Savior who is risen. Why do we choose a song for Easter or any service for that matter? Does the tempo and vibe of a song we sing become more important than the message or content of the song? Yes, we have to ask the cultural question, but is culture the first filter or is that secondary to what should be the primary criteria of the content in the message? We have some very good modern examples. One of the modern worship songs that truly bridges past well is Matt Maher’s “Because He Lives (Amen)”—with even a tie to a 1970s Gaither song with a similar title. Not so new, but with a strong theme of resurrection, is Tim Hughes’ “Happy Day.” He says, “celebrate Jesus, he’s alive, he’s alive!” Every Sunday is about a resurrected Christ. It would be fantastic to see more songs about the victory of our Savior, not just the Passion part of the story.
The prayers: Creeds are better than off-the-cuff prayers on Easter.
Out of all the services of the year, this could be one that a written-out and thought-out prayer might help. Also, I think it is time to not schedule prayer moments as “transitions” for production and movement of people on and off a platform. That being said, use of ancient creeds are another item that can bridge your contemporary service to something larger than the moment. The theological statements make for a primer on what holds the worldwide and diverse followers of Christ together. The Nicene Creed is one of the earliest and would be surely appropriate to pray for an Easter Sunday service, but why not use the creative media we have today to come up with beautiful typography and imagery on a screen? You could put together a video with a narrator who reads the creed with live footage to illustrate the creed.
Maybe a sung version of a creed works. Hillsong Worship released “This I Believe (The Creed)” gives us a decent paraphrase of the Apostle’s Creed. To ask your worshippers to say or sing “I believe” might be life changing. If anything, the reiteration of the most basic and unifying core Christian beliefs anchors our discipleship as well as enrich our time of worship. Again, it is not simply about my personal experience. Worship connects me to the amazing power of those who came before me and suffered to recite prayers in public. Our celebration of Easter is not a frivolous party with paper plates full of franks and beans. We present a potent and awe-inspiring message of a Savior who conquered not only sin but death. Creativity once again allows historical practices to be translated into our modern world. We rightly use the tools at hand to bring an old message to a new group of people.
Celebrating Communion on Easter.
For those of us who live in a liturgical setting, communion is a weekly practice. For others, it is occasional or for special services. Why not make Easter Sunday one of those special services? Does not the Table bring people the most powerful picture of Christ’s invitation to not live by bread alone? The story of Christ with his disciples leads us into the entire story of Holy Week. The institution begins with “on the night he was betrayed” which reminds us of how the grace of God was present even when the very people who would betray him sat and ate with Jesus. This was not only Judas, but Peter would seem to fall away as well. The empty grave made Jesus tell the woman in the garden, “Tell the disciples and Peter.” It was as if Peter was not in the group any longer after the three days of Good Friday and the grave. The communion table is that point to remind us of what Jesus offered–himself, completely. While this is a serious reflection, it is also a celebration of thanksgiving. In fact, another word used for The Lord’s Table is The Eucharist which simply means Thanksgiving.
On the Resurrection Sunday, we surely should have gratitude for what our Christ accomplished. It was not just the suffering on the cross and descent to hell, it was the victory of death! The Table during Easter Sunday can be a moment to bring us together–even though more logistically complicated with larger crowds. Some purists can be quelled by telling them that communion is older than the celebration of Easter itself. Yes, Easter connects with the Passover season. In fact, this is why it is scheduled on the lunar calendar and changes each year where Christmas does not. What Easter Sunday communion does is tie us to the whole story of the Gospel, which includes that night he was betrayed as well as the morning he burst out of the tomb!
Finding the sweet spot: Navigating the worship journey.
The journey we take people on in worship will have curves and hazards to manage, but our vehicle should not determine our destination. No formula is perfect, which is why Roman Catholics no longer have Mass in Latin. It is why some choose to sing modern music. The old songs don’t work for them. It is why we pray differently than 500 or 1,500 years ago. However, the Gospel message is what stands, and since that message has been around for 2,000 years, it behooves us to learn how it has been delivered to those that have come before us. Where we are headed is what matters, not always the vehicle. While we have freedom in how we move, where we we end up must be first in our minds. The destination drives our journey.
There are tensions to manage in this Easter Sunday worship journey. Finding the sweet spot in your Easter worship planning will have to balance the uniqueness of your own church’s history and your people. But, it must also include the scope of the larger historical pattern of the Church and how Scripture has directed the Church. For instance, when we ask people to greet, are we aware of what greetings were in the scriptures? The Apostle Paul gives us examples of greetings in the bookends of his letters that should inspire us like they did the early church fathers. Also, we find creeds or “trustworthy sayings” that are worth memorizing and repeating in worship in Paul’s writings. The Bible itself is always our primary source to judge what we do and gives examples in worship from end to end. Beyond Easter, there can be a treasure trove of biblical material as well as church tradition to guide you.
The goal here is to make our destination beyond the felt needs of people with the message these people need to hear–God loves them and Jesus, his Son, invites them to follow! When we put on our “event” each weekend, do we see it as a story to be told or an experience to program? Do we attract people with one thing then call them to commit to something entirely different? For instance, we don’t call people to feel good for the sake of feeling good about attending church, but we also don’t want to be proud about how many we scare off with our Aspergers-like inattention to their humanity. Yes, we want to meet people where they are at. Jesus did that! But, that is not all he did. What will we do this Easter?