Churches pull out the stops to attract Easter worshippers

Posted Saturday, Apr. 19, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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The commercialization of Easter has turned the holiday into an annual spring festival, marked with gobs of candy, new clothes and flowers galore.

But it is the resurrection of Jesus Christ that will forever be the foundation of the Christian faith and of “a movement that literally shook the whole world,” said Michael Dean, pastor of Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

“We proclaim his death, that he died on a Roman cross for our sins,” Dean said. “But the story is not complete without the resurrection because it proved that God had power over death, power over sin and power to transform lives.”

Pastors at several Tarrant County area churches agreed with Dean that without the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, nothing else about their religion matters.

“Our entire focus at this time of year is meaningful, memorable worship,” said Rev. Carlye J. Hughes, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth. “At Trinity, and other Episcopal churches, the journey toward Easter started on Palm Sunday — the beginning of Holy Week.”

Many church leaders, however, understand that this is also a time to attract people who are not regular churchgoers, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get them in their pews. Churches use billboards, send out mailers and go door to door putting out fliers advertising special events and services for the weekend.

Pantego Bible Church in east Fort Worth, for example, put out fliers at homes in the area, encouraging people to attend an Easter festival Saturday that promised “exciting shows, music, Easter egg hunts, fun giveaways, climbing walls, free lunch and other outdoor, family-friendly activities.” On the other side, it promoted Sunday’s service, asking the question: Is heaven for real?

Pulling out the stops

Fellowship Church, a megachurch in Grapevine, went so far as to draw a parking-lot-size portrait of Jesus near the church’s front door, attracting much media attention and giving travelers to and from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport a memorable view.

Dozens of volunteers took turns crawling on hands and knees, scuffing the asphalt with sidewalk chalk and pieces of charcoal. Fellowship Church and its pastor, Ed Young, are known for creatively attracting attention, Associate Pastor Andy Boyd said.

“If we can reach people with the message, including drawing a 17,000-square-foot Jesus, then we’ll do it,” Boyd said.

The message — explaining why Jesus died and what Christians can have because of it — is the reason church workers go to such efforts, Boyd said.

Easter is an ideal time to reach people who aren’t in the pews any other Sunday, said Bob Roberts, senior pastor of NorthWood Church in Keller.

“The whole point of pulling out all the stops for Easter is that some people are going to be there who don’t really know Jesus,” Roberts said. “They may listen with fresh ears and accept him. Others are people who haven’t been at church for a while and consider themselves Christians but haven’t taken their faith seriously, so there’s a potential for recommitment.”

Many people who are considered “occasional attenders” can be counted on to be in church on Easter, said Paul John Roach, senior minister at Unity Church of Fort Worth. Along with them will be members’ guests and visitors who are curious about what goes on in the church.

“Some do eventually return to be more active,” Roach said. “Others we see at other special occasions.”

“ChrEasters” (who come to church only on Christmas and Easter) aren’t likely to become dedicated weekly attenders, said Rob Morris, pastor of Ridglea Christian Church.

“Maybe a handful over the years, but not many,” Morris said. “I always joke with the Easter crowd that we actually do have church every Sunday. And then at the end, I tell them that I’ll see them at Christmas.”

‘Super Bowl’ of holy days

Easter is treated as the “Super Bowl” of holy days at Gateway Church, spokesman Lawrence Swicegood said.

“We typically have 22 services each weekend [Saturday and Sunday] spread over our five campuses in the DFW area,” Swicegood said. “This Easter we have added an additional 18 services including services on Good Friday for a total of 40 identical Easter services.”

The church’s main campus is in Southlake, and it has satellite churches in North Richland Hills, Grand Prairie, north Fort Worth and Frisco.

“Because we treat Easter as our ‘Super Bowl,’ a great deal of attention and effort go toward promoting this significant event both with an internal campaign and an external community outreach campaign,” Swicegood said. “Just in advertising, we invested $23,860 in online advertising, print ads — both magazine and newspapers — and social media efforts.”

Regular weekly attendance at Gateway’s churches has averaged about 25,400 the past three months, Swicegood said. But for Easter, they’re expecting 46,000 to 48,000. And they expect to latch onto many of them.

“While we do not have a precise number of those who return or a percentage who join as a direct result of Easter, one leading indicator is our growth from year to year,” Swicegood said. “Last year that equated to a 21 percent increase in growth at Gateway Church, which was 4,230 new people now attending Gateway on a regular basis.”

Why Easter matters

Churches must take every opportunity to reach new people, said Jason Valendy, pastor of Saginaw United Methodist Church. That’s why his congregation joined Community Link Mission to distribute food to its community on Maundy Thursday.

Maundy Thursday, also known as Holy Thursday or Great Thursday, is celebrated by many congregations with a re-creation of the Last Supper.

Alan Lobaugh, pastor of Azle Christian Church, said his congregation joined with First United Methodist Church of Azle to share Maundy Thursday services, focusing on “the new commandment Jesus gave his disciples, along with the reinterpretation of the Passover meal.”

The sacrifice made by Jesus is on a lot of people’s minds during Easter, but not everyone’s, Dean concedes.

“A lot of times when people come to Easter service they’re not thinking, ‘This day my life will change,’ ” Dean said. “They’re thinking, ‘This day I should be in church.’ If we can nudge them toward thinking seriously about the claims of Jesus Christ, then perhaps down the road they will respond with a commitment to Jesus Christ.”

Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans

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