Easter Sunday: Why It’s Just a Hollow High

Ichocolate-bunny-basket_300t’s the Monday after Easter.

The American church, bloated by the massive crowds and satiated with the success, is like a four year-old on a chocolate Easter bunny sugar high.  Facebook posts by pastors boasting about high attendances, extra services, multiple baptisms and amazing worship experiences were the norm.  And there’s no reason not to celebrate.

But what goes up has to come down so let’s be honest.

Next Sunday I’ll predict attendances will be back to average or worse.  Why?  It’s because postmodern generations (now under 50 years of age) are attending church IRREGULARLY and AT BEST every third Sunday.  Easter is just one of those Sundays that they all show up together (which explains the attendance spike).  One in five American Christians aren’t even committed to Easter services, according to one study.

The every week attender has become a elusive as an Easter bunny in Santa’s workshop.  Many postmodern Christians attend multiple churches.  Just because they aren’t at yours doesn’t mean they aren’t attending somewhere.  Plus, with the advent of live streaming video, the younger generations have no problem staying home and going to church on their computer.  And how do you track this attendance?  The truth is you can’t.

This past weekend I participated in two different churches in my area.  On Saturday night I attended a megachurch that runs around 2000 in weekend attendance. The sea of attenders was largely gray, bald and wrinkled though, despite a clever programming twist to offer an Easter Egg hunt about a half hour prior to the worship.  While some families attended, they were clearly the minority.  I was also surprised to hear the pastor encourage Saturday night worshippers to come back and “seed” Sunday services.  I then wondered how much of their final Easter attendance were return worshippers or people counted more than once.  Several years ago I caught a church posting bogus attendance marks simply by counting their 60 member choir at every service, adding nearly 200 to the final count.  Beware the preacher count.

At the second church, where I attend faithfully and work as a volunteer in community “stickiness,” I served for two service hours on Easter afternoon and evening.  For the first service I worked a front door and for the second I helped with food service delivery, questions and general community building.  Both services were larger than norm but, surprisingly, not as stuffed as I imagined for a church recently recognized as the one of the fastest growing churches in America.  I interacted with the pastor of family ministry and learned there were few NEW families that registered and no real bump over normal.

In other words, Easter was a typical Sunday for guests…except that attendance sky-rocketed due to EVERYONE attending the same day.  Furthermore, many brought family members in town for the holiday to worship.

Here’s the real problem.  Postmoderns are growing increasingly weary of being a number.  They hear the statistics too.  Church attendance is in decline with exception to Christmas and Easter.  They know their attendance on holy days gives the pastor a smile and a false hope that things might now turn around.  But every Easter they feel less inclined to make this a habit.

In general, churches (and pastors) don’t get it.  The only holiday service that still attracts the unchurched is Christmas Eve and that’s losing steam in my observation.  Easter is primarily a Christian holiday and most outsiders respectfully stay away to enjoy the springtime.  In other words, if your pastor used Easter as a day to evangelize the masses he was largely preaching to the choir.

I will brag on my church for a moment.  Maybe the reason it’s growing so fast is its 4:30 and 6 p.m. services that feature a full meal (for a buck) with dessert (free).  The average age of these services is 35 and kids are everywhere.  A family of five can eat for less than a meal at McDonalds.  People come early and stay late.  Conversations are happening.  Community is developing.  I’ve been to the morning services at my church and without the meal component, people come and go quickly.  The meal is the glue.  The afternoon and evening service time permits a more relaxed atmosphere (no one’s trying to beat it to the buffet or get on with the day).

With that said, the Church can (and must) do much better.  I would love to see opportunities in the main worship for conversations and community.  Somewhere along the line we took the community out of church.  It’s now a performance and lecture in many megachurches.  The once standard “meet and greet” moments are rare, even in smaller congregations.  I don’t understand why every sermon can’t have a moment of reflective interaction.  Why can’t we pause and talk about the message for 5 minutes?  I wish preachers would let me, in conversation with family and friends, make some applications.  Finally, for those who celebrate Communion weekly, as my tribe does, it’s time to end the drive by moment and create a deep experience.  The two greatest sacraments of the historic Christian church are baptism and communion and both are routinely practiced like we wish they weren’t.  When we spend more time on announcements than communion something’s horribly wrong.

I realize my commentary may be misunderstood, even maligned, but I believe next Sunday will prove my points, regardless of church size, denomination or geography:

  • Easter is a holy day for Christians and the attendance spike is due to the irregular showing up at one time.
  • Most visitors are family members from outside the area.
  • The unchurched do not attend Easter services.
  • If we’re going to reach postmodern (under 50) generations, we’ll need to change to more communal and experiential formats.

This past weekend an interesting article revealed that by 2030 China will be the most Christian nation in the world.  Meanwhile American Christianity continues to wane.  Many Christian leaders will point a finger at the secularization of our culture but that’s a red herring.  China is a communist country.  What’s it doing different?  My guess is Chinese Christian churches are growing because they are culturally relevant and recognize it’s 2014.

The American church is still stuck in the golden age of 1980-2000.

And Easter attendance might remind us of the good old days but like that chocolate Easter bunny its just a hollow high.


About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on April 21, 2014, in American church, Church Decline and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great observations Rick !

  2. James Snapp, Jr.

    I disagree with some of this.

    It *is* the Monday after Easter. And, yes, considering that the Easter service at the typical American congregation is a major event — as it has been in Christian churches for centuries — attendance yesterday *is* very likely to be higher than attendance next Sunday.

    But is this the first time anyone has noticed this? No. I can see how an optimistic novice, seeing a sudden spike in the attendance-numbers, or, looking out at full pews (or chairs) on Easter morning and thinking, “I wish it could look like this every Sunday,” might have high hopes that a revival is underway. But most of us, I suspect, realize what is going on: (1) nominal members are attending to ease their consciences, and (2) family-members, from points distant, with no chance of ever regularly attending this particular congregation, are visiting.

    In no way whatsoever does this support any notion that the church is stuck in some golden age, or that the church needs to adopt more “communal and experiential formats.” Yes, we should try to reel in those nominal members, and, yes, we should not be boring. But those things are true regardless of what happens before, during, or after the Easter service.

  3. You missed my overall point, James. If the church is not “stuck” then why is every indicator showing a decline in American Christianity? The problem is it hasn’t been able to retain postmodern generations (born since 1961) for YEARS.

    Perhaps a bit of history might clarify. Beginning in the late 1980s, there was a feeling (starting in the youth ministry world where I lived) that things were NOT “right.” Our youth ministries were graduating Gen Xers but they were leaving the church in droves. Consequently, in the mid-1990s, the first correction was made through the “emerging church” movement. These churches were attractive to Gen X because they incorporated post-modern “communal and experiential formats.” Gen X was post-modern in cultural context. Of course, the emerging church was driven by Gen X youth pastors-turned-preachers and so these reforms were either castigated or ignored by the larger church world.

    The Millennials were different, we were told. They grew up in the true “golden age” of children’s and youth ministry. No generation in history had better facilities, curriculum, activities, events and adults loving on them. Gen X was just an anomaly and a bad generation. There’s no way the Millennial generation would leave the Church.

    But they did…and still are. It has nothing to do with their generational characteristic. The world has changed. The modern world has collapsed and a new post-modern culture is emerging…and, in fact, has emerged. The Millennials are simply the second-generation in a post-modern cohort and like Gen Xers they have left the Church en masse (and the research is deep to back this up).

    This is my OVERALL POINT: Easter Sunday does not draw the unchurched or nonChristian. It MAY attract the former-churched but even that’s sketchy. Easter Sunday is a purely Christian (irregular and regular attender) event. They’re simply all showing up together to cause the attendances to spike.

    Finally, any institution (church, school, political,commercial) who ignores the postmodern culture will eventually wake up one day and realize they’re the only ones left. Every year that passes makes this more a reality. Postmoderns–regardless of faith, gender or context–are wired differently because of technological shifts in visual, web and mobile innovations. They want to interact, experience and are clearly image-driven.

    They’re here to stay. And as long as most churches operate like its 1995, it’s simply a death march.

  4. You hit this out of the park. You said we’re stuck in 1980-2000. I’m not so sure. It’s been with the advent of formats and facilities that appear friendly but are less built around fellowship. Large churches fornat 60-75 minutes so that they can control traffic. “Meet and greet” just doesn’t fit – nor does community. One person lamented that her new spectacular $multi-million campus was a nice “facility” but not “home.” Smaller churches adopt the megachurch programming model thinking that’s the key. We belueve that “cultually relevant” has more to do with technology and music than what actually goes on inside. We no longer build community because, in part, we build a culture that has spiritually euthanized those above 50 – glad to take their money but won’t meet their needs for relatable fellowship.

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