Two thousand years ago human history was friended by God.
For three and a half years, those who followed this Galilean guru saw the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the dead rise. With a word this man could calm seas, feed thousands, forgive sinners and call out demons. No one who met him left unchanged.
And yet, the religious elite didn’t believe him. The lawyers sought to trap him. His hometown didn’t want him. Even his own disciples betrayed, denied and left him.
Nevertheless, this man still loved everyone regardless of his or her status, religion, circumstance, behavior or past. He loved the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the prejudiced, the homeless, the young, the old, the injured, the oppressed, the sinner and, yes, even those critics who didn’t like, want or understand him.
He loved because he was LOVE in the flesh.
Then one dark Friday this man who claimed to be God surprisingly, willingly and purposefully gave up his life. He was charged with crimes he did not commit so one day the truly criminal (you and me) could enjoy Freedom. He was abused with obscenity so one day the horribly profane (you and me) could experience Peace. He was punctured, beat and whipped so one day those who get crucified by life (yes, you and me) could embrace Healing, Joy and Hope.
Basically, he died so that you and I could truly LIVE. For those who accept this Truth and follow His Teaching, death no longer stings. Death no longer separates. Death no longer has power. And that makes LIFE worth LIVING.
Yes, many religious leaders have proposed to know the way to God, but Only One Man claimed to be The Way. Many prophets have proclaimed they had found special truth but Only One Man professed to be The Truth. Many spiritualists have promoted soul work to improve your life but Only One Man testified to be The Life.
How do I know? Because This Man did something they couldn’t.
He backed up his claims of Divinity by His Own Resurrection. I know, that’s crazy, right? But He did. Check it out for yourself. His tomb is still empty…He has RISEN. Indeed. And He is still Alive!
Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully God.
He is the Messiah. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
You can believe it, reject it, deny it or mock it.
But everyone will one day will face the Truth.
No one gets out of here alive.
Except this Jesus…and those who trust Him as Lord and Savior.
It’s unbelievable to consider. It’s amazing to comprehend. It’s beautiful to embrace…and IT’S OUTRAGEOUSLY TRUE!
That’s why if I was the last voice to confess Jesus is alive, I would. If it meant losing everything to share Jesus is The Way and Truth, I would. If it meant dying to proclaim He is The Life, I would. What can anything or anyone do to me? I fear no man, no weapon, no challenge, no demon, no trouble and no circumstance. My Faith is in GOD alone. My life is not my own. My sin is forgiven. My Calling is clear. My Joy is complete. My Hope is secure.
I believe with all my heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Do you? Will you? Can you?
I hope so.
Today is a very good day to start.
What’s truly “good” about Good Friday?
Could it be something as simple as three little words?
“It is finished.”
It. Is. Finished.
These three words were proclaimed at exactly 3 p.m. on Friday of every Passover week. The Jewish high priest stated these words after thousands of lambs had been slain for sin sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people. They were the words of a religion that operated by rules, revealed imperfection, demanded justice and offered sanctuary. This phrase of “it is finished” signaled both the END of the week’s sacrifices and the Passover festival itself.
It is finished.
These words also carried heavy memories. Its utterance reminded Jews of an ancient story of deliverance. It taught the Israelites that no captivity lasts forever, even a brutal slavery four centuries long. God instituted the Passover as an eternal reminder of His Power, Provision and Protection. Every plague leveled against mighty Egypt was an attack upon one of their “gods.” The final plague attacked the favored first born, who enjoyed special privilege. The Israelites had escaped every plague to that point. Now they were commanded to generously swab lamb’s blood across their door frames, prepare a frugal meal and be ready to leave the land. With this deadly plague, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go…and Israel plundered Egypt of its riches when they did (Exodus 12).
It is finished.
No more slavery. No more Egypt. No more Pharaoh. No more pain and suffering. No more longing for something better. “It is finished” were words of freedom, victory and fresh starts. These three words gave Jews a sense of shalom, a presence of Peace. From that point forward God dwelt among them, as a cloud by day and fire by night. He rescued them at the Red Sea. He fed them manna and quail in the wilderness. He supplied water from a rock. He gave them the Law on Sinai. God fought their battles and gave them a new land, flowing with milk and honey. The end of Egypt meant a new beginning for a young Israelite nation.
It is finished.
These three words were also the last words uttered by Jesus upon the cross, but they were certainly not the last words He would breathe as a human.
It is finished.
Jesus said these words at exactly 3 p.m., just when the high priest would’ve proclaimed the same inside the Holy of Holies. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was now the Final Perfect Sacrifice. It’s no wonder that those three little words had the power to tear a thick temple curtain, to split the earth with an earthquake and even open tombs to resurrect dead people (Matthew 27:50-52).
“IT IS FINISHED.”
With Jesus, those words signaled the END of the sacrificial system. The END of the Old Covenant. The END of a system of religion. The END of captivity by sin and Satan. The END of the way things used to be. Ironically, just forty years later (the same amount of time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness), Jerusalem and her temple would be destroyed by Rome. Jesus prophesied the end was coming for those who rejected Him and the religion they held so dear. Since AD 70 the Jews have not had a temple, a Holy of Holies, a priesthood or a sacrificial system. God had left the building.
IT WAS FINISHED.
From that point on, Jesus has been “making all things new (Revelation 21:5).”
Jesus was creating a better Covenant with man, a new Covenant of Grace. We are now His temple. We are the resurrected ones participating in a Kingdom not of this world. Jesus has opened a New Jerusalem for His People to enter, experience and enjoy. A Heavenly Jerusalem that lives up to its name: City of Peace.
IT WAS FINISHED.
Similarly, when Jesus’ blood is applied to the door frames of our heart, the “death angel” passes over us. Death no longer carries a sting. The grave no longer holds. We LIVE eternally. We LIVE with God as His People. Like Adam and Eve in the garden and like the ancient Israelites, God now dwells personally with His People, the Church of Christ. We are a Spiritual Nation with no boundaries. All people of all nations are welcome. We are free. We are protected. We are blessed.
IT. IS. FINISHED.
And “it is finished” means it was finished.
Trust me, those three little words truly change everything.
It’s what makes Good Friday GOOD.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most attested and contested narrative in history. The eyewitness testimony, archaeological evidence, historical analysis and mountain of evidence alone are convincing. Many a skeptic has set out to prove the narrative false and instead became a believer.
After all, IF Jesus did resurrect then it proves His claims of Divinity. And if Jesus was truly God then every other religion, ideology and philosophy fails. It’s no wonder Christ (and Christianity) is viciously attacked, lampooned and persecuted. It’s no wonder evidence that proves Christianity true is routinely ignored, revised or shrouded.
And no archaeological evidence has faced more scrutiny and shrouding than a piece of cloth known as the Shroud of Turin.
I’ll be honest, for years I never gave this evidence much attention. I’m not sure why, except that I never have been forced to fully evaluate it’s narrative and analyze the proofs for it’s veracity.
And yet, if this shroud is real it unequivocally proves not just the existence of Jesus, but supports his crucifixion and the power of resurrection. It’s entirely reasonable that of all the relics the disciples would’ve kept, treasured and memorialized it would be the burial cloth that wrapped their resurrected Messiah. Surely a cloth that held the Messiah wouldn’t be abandoned (since the rest of Jesus’ earthly belongings were gambled away and in others’ hands). We could also expect a disciple, like Peter and John, to retain the burial shroud as evidence Jesus was no longer in the tomb (John 20:3-10)–especially if that evidence showed markings of Resurrection. It’s also reasonable, in the days, months, years and centuries that followed the resurrection of Jesus that this memorabilia would be properly preserved and occasionally displayed.
The fact it exists does not surprise me. What’s shocking is the skeptic’s response.
They only answer they’ve got is the Shroud of Turin is fake. Somehow a medieval prankster, in their view, created a cloth bearing the crucified likeness of Jesus Christ and featured all the finer details of scourging and crucifixion. It’s a plausible option until you realize that no one TODAY can replicate this burial shroud, including its detractors! If it was so easy to do a thousand years ago why can’t we do it today? But the shroud is not art (there is no paint or other applied substance on it). The image is burned into the cloth and yet no one can explain how it was done.
What do we know for sure about the Shroud of Turin?
First, we know it depicts graphically a crucified person. It’s a cloth that shows a complete body–a scourged and crucified body (including bloody marks in the ankles and wrists, in the chest, on the back and head).
Second, it’s the only known archaeological example of a burial cloth. Ancient ossuaries or bone boxes are a dime a dozen, but how many preserved burial cloths do we possess? It’s also fascinating because few crucified people were wrapped in shrouds (and given proper burials). The crucified were the lowest of the low in ancient culture. And why would anyone retain a bloody burial cloth of a crucified person anyway? The crucified were cremated. In fact the ONLY evidence we possess for an ancient Roman crucifixion is one nail and ankle bone fragment.
It’s why the Shroud of Turin, if nothing else, provides amazing evidence for the brutality of a Roman execution.
Third, a burial cloth proves Jesus was given a burial fit for a king. Only the rich and royal enjoyed the luxury of a sepulcher (Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb owned by the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea), as Matthew 27:57-61 records:
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
The biblical narrative clearly speaks to a burial cloth. In fact, it gives a reason for its existence and preservation. Perhaps Matthew’s inclusion of this detail is a tip to his readers about a piece of evidence that early Christian believers surely would’ve have secretly and proudly mentioned.
After all, it’s clear evidence that Jesus was both dead and buried.
Ironically, it was two Pharisees who secured Pilate’s consent and performed the burial rites for Jesus. John’s gospel adds that Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, accompanied Joseph, also a member of the Council, and helped him wrap his body (John 19:38-42). This is significant as none of Jesus’ disciples had such social and political standing to access Pontius Pilate but these two high-ranking Pharisees (who equally consented to Jesus’ execution). Without Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, Jesus probably never would’ve been buried. No good Jew (properly cleansed for Passover) would touch a dead body and definitely no right-thinking Pharisee would risk it (as everything he touched would also be defiled). Yet Joseph and Nicodemus were secret believers. And they were clearly aware of Jesus’ claims of resurrection. Consequently, they willingly risk reputation and forfeited their right to Passover.
These two Pharisees used two pieces of linen: a large piece of cloth to wrap the body and a facial cloth that covered the face. Most people have heard of the Shroud of Turin, but have you heard of the Sudarium of Oviedo? It’s a bloodier piece of cloth with no image and a harder historical timeline to follow than the Shroud, but remains another compelling evidence to the biblical narrative. The entire body was wrapped tightly (with up to 75 pounds of burial spices!). John also explains how this burial shroud had strips woven into it that tied off the body. This is significant because John records only Peter and John completely entered the tomb and handled the burial cloths. Could the shroud have still been tied up but flat, absent a body? It’s hard to steal a body, leaving behind the shroud, without unwrapping it. Furthermore, again, who would risk becoming ceremonially unclean on the highest Jewish Sabbath just to steal the body of a dead man (and remove the shroud to do it)? Rome had no motivation to steal. The existence of this burial cloth suggests the body wasn’t moved or removed, but rather simply vanished!
Joseph secured the body of Jesus in a new tomb protected by a large rock. The “new tomb” is significant as tombs often contained more than one body in various states of decomposition. Families often owned a tomb to share for loved ones. Sepulchers were not permanent residences for the dead. They only served to “rest” and decompose the body. Once fully decomposed, the bones were transferred to an ossuary and stored elsewhere. The point here: Jesus was dead. Joseph handled him as dead and wrapped Jesus as a dead body.
Two additional witnesses observed Joseph burying Jesus: Mary Magdalene and another Mary. This is an interesting legal fact that Matthew inserts, as it takes two witnesses to corroborate any story in a Jewish court of law (Deuteronomy 19:15). Surprisingly, it was the wrong sex to confirm this historical event, as women were considered unreliable witnesses. So why would Matthew cite women? First of all, because it adds two more witnesses to the burial (four witnesses is very strong testimony). Secondly, women plus two members of the Sanhedrin (Joseph and Nicodemus) gave them credence. And, finally, if there were any doubt, you’d never confirm your story with women as your witnesses.
So the Shroud of Turin is compelling evidence to corroborate the burial narrative. It’s the type of evidence admissible before a court of law.
It is the BEST archaeological evidence for Jesus’ death, burial and Resurrection.
If you only choose to believe it is what it is.
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Revelation 14:13)
Blessed are those who die “in the Lord,” John the Revelator wrote.
Blessed is the believer because death no longer stings, separates or steals. The Resurrection of Jesus the Christ ended death’s long war of terror against the human race. Death was vanquished and utterly “destroyed” by this historical event another apostle penned (I Corinthians 15:25-27; 2 Timothy 2:10).
It is pretty good news.
Unless you don’t believe that it happened or, at least happened as we know it. After all, the skeptic has twisted, reimagined, dismissed and fabricated the Resurrection narrative since it occurred. Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. It’s a fairy tale penned by his devoted and desperate disciples, perhaps seeking religious power “in his name.” Or maybe Jesus wasn’t really dead. Maybe the whole event is nothing more than mass psychosis or delusion. If nothing else, it’s pretty clear the body was stolen. The Muslim argues that Judas Iscariot, not Jesus, was the one crucified (among other contentions).
There are plenty of alternative theories to counter the preposterous idea that a Jewish rabbi, two thousand years ago, raised himself from the dead. That’s crazy.
Yes, it is.
If Jesus truly was just a man.
But it’s certainly plausible (and equally possible) that he is WHO he claimed to be: God in the flesh (John 1:1-5, 14).
From that view, it’s far more crazy to think you could KILL God and keep the Almighty and Omnipotent in the grave. A resurrection miracle for God is child’s play. It pales in comparison to creating the whole universe, earth and all life in six days…out of nothing. Sometimes we think too small of God.
The problem facing the skeptics, atheists and unbelievers is any alternative solution they offer only creates more questions. Rather than resolving the resurrection puzzle they actually muddy the water more:
- JESUS DIDN’T RESURRECT! IT’S AN EARLY CHURCH LIE. Okay, then why would every one of Jesus’ original twelve apostles–if in a collective and creative conspiracy to launch a new world religion–all die torturous deaths without a single recant? Now, a group of deluded followers might die for a lie together but Jesus’ apostles, according to historical church testimony, died alone, far apart and with much pain. Andrew was crucified in Asia Minor. Thomas was viciously speared in India. Matthew was stabbed to death in Ethiopia. James was stoned and clubbed to death in Syria. Paul was beheaded in Rome. And these are but a few of the apostolic martyrs. And yet, not one recanted their Faith to save their own neck (including Saul/Paul who once viciously opposed and persecuted Christians). It’s strong evidence that they not only believed the Resurrection happened, they knew it happened. They witnessed the Resurrected Christ. The resurrection of Jesus turned cowardice into courageous missionaries, doubt into daring leaders and downcast disciples into devoted evangelists. The Resurrection creates positive and productive change to which skeptics have no apologetic.
- JESUS DIDN’T DIE ON THE CROSS. HE WAS STILL ALIVE! Hmmm…then how could Jesus survive a Roman crucifixion and then revive his own strength, without medical care? Also known as the “swoon theory,” this has been widely rejected (even among clear-minded skeptics). Roman executioners were masters at murder and faced their own death sentence if they erroneously mishandled a death penalty case. And let’s be honest, the reality is most crucified individuals died on their own. Some hung on their crosses for days, while birds and wild animals ate their flesh, until they died. Most passed away from asphyxiation, a well-documented consequence in crucifixion. But the Christ narrative is even more gruesome than most. Jesus also experienced an oft-deadly scourging prior to crucifixion. He was gouged with thorns. He was beaten in his long walk to Golgotha. And then speared to prove his death. In order to hasten death, bones were routinely broken but not so with Jesus (John 19:31-37). He was already dead. Skeptics want reasonable people to believe Jesus somehow survived such tortures, but even if he had miraculous strength to revive, certainly the cool sepulcher would’ve finished him off. No, Jesus was dead. In fact, Jesus was buried as dead by grieving friends (who would’ve moved heaven and earth to hear even the faintest heartbeat or breath).
- THIS IS ALL A MASS DELUSION! Seriously? Is it truly possible to devise a mass “resurrection” delusion of this nature (or is the skeptic the one living a delusion)? According to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Jesus appeared to multiple people in various places at different times, including as many as 500 people at once. How could so many people experience the same reality (Jesus is alive) and come to the same conclusion (Jesus really is alive)? We’re not talking temporary hypnosis or magic trick. These disciples believed and lived with a willingness to follow Jesus to their own death. The truth? It would require a greater miracle to engineer a mass delusion of this magnitude than a resurrection.
- EVERYONE KNOWS THE DISCIPLES HAD MOTIVE TO STEAL THE BODY. IT WAS BURIED ELSEWHERE. Nice try, but if the body was stolen, then why wasn’t it produced…ever? This is the oldest lie in the book, even recorded by Matthew. Just tell the people the body was stolen. Case closed. It might’ve worked if true, especially if the body was never found, but it fails miserably to explain why Christians, again, would give their lives for a lie. Certainly one desperate disciple, wanting to save his neck, would’ve cracked and fessed up. But the reason they didn’t “fess up” was because they couldn’t. They had seen Jesus alive or heard from reliable witnesses of his resurrection. So who do you believe? A bunch of Roman soldiers under orders (and bribes)? The religious leaders harboring a grudge? Or do you believe followers of a resurrected rabbi that modeled his love, service, sacrifice, gifts, preaching and sharing like it was their last day on earth? I’d believe his followers. Dead men tell no tales. Resurrected ones create new ones.
At the end of the day, the atheist, skeptic and nonbeliever can debate, denounce and denigrate Christianity and the Resurrection, but their arguments fail like cheap paper vessels: they don’t hold much water very long.
The evidence for Jesus’ life is overwhelming.
The proof of his death and resurrection are compelling.
It requires far more FAITH to believe it didn’t happen.
And that TRUTH ain’t never going to change.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Corinthians 15:13-14)
Recently, my wife and I went to see the new Pure Flix movie The Case for Christ. The film chronicles the long, sometimes laborious but ultimately glorious, journey from atheism to faith by Christian apologist Lee Strobel.
The devil took a serious thumping when his prized skeptic Strobel found faith and slipped from his gnarly grasp. Strobel, a self-proclaimed atheist, was an award-winning investigative journalist for The Chicago Tribune. As part of Strobel’s conversion, and long after, he put those journalism skills to work to investigate the claims of Christianity. In the process, he penned several million-seller books that are essentially legal briefs (or cases) to prove God, Jesus, the Resurrection, the Scriptures and Christianity.
In his new feature film, Strobel argues strongly that the flashpoint for Christianity is the Resurrection of Jesus. Nothing else Jesus said, did, or predicted matters if the Resurrection is false. Christianity, as Paul argued to the Corinthians, is nothing but an empty shell.
It’s also nothing new.
Ever since the first Easter Sunday, Christians have joyfully pointed to this historical event as the REASON for Faith. It’s the motivation for belief. Death has no more say, no more sting, no more stranglehold. Jesus’ Resurrection changed the rules of the game. What once bound all men and buried them far from God was death. The biblical writers called this place the Sheol (Hebrew: Genesis 42:38; 44:29; 1 Samuel 2:6; Job 7:9; 21:13; Psalm 89:48; Proverbs 1:12) or Hades (Greek: Matthew 11:23; Luke 16:23; Revelation 20:13). It was the land of the dead. A place of separation. If there was any good news it was that Israel held a “get out of death” card, a promise of coming Resurrection (Daniel 12:1-3; John 11:23-25).
Nevertheless, until Jesus, whenever a person died, the Scriptures reveal he or she descended down into the Sheol or Hades. Nobody went up into “paradise” or in the Greek idea to a “third heaven” where God dwelt (2 Corinthians 12:1-4; Revelation 2:7). Yes, there were exceptions. Some were “caught up.” Enoch just disappeared one day (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5). Elijah raptured on a heavenly chariot (2 Kings 2:11-12). And Moses got a taste of both places, as Jewish tradition taught he was assumed out of Sheol into paradise by Michael the archangel. Paul was “caught up” to this paradise. But everyone else–righteous or not–took the down elevator at death. Can you imagine now the angst and anger it created when Jesus informed a lowly thief that he would join him IN “paradise” (Luke 23:43)? That was coded “resurrection” talk. The thief was in and the Pharisees were out. The last shall be first.
And then Jesus starts waking up the dead. Just like Elijah did (I Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:32-35). Ironically, raising the dead was an occasional Messiah miracle and only three accounts are recorded: the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:13-15), Jairus’ daughter (Matthew 9:18-26) and Lazarus (John 11:1-44).
Halfway through his ministry, Jesus enjoyed a mountaintop retreat with his inner three disciples (Peter, James and John). Suddenly Elijah and Moses crash the party in their “transfigured” eternal bodies that were “dazzling white” (Mark 9:2-10). It must’ve been something to see. In was a slice of Heaven on earth. However, such blessings were reserved for the resurrected dead, as Jesus taught his curious disciples after the event. Mark writes: Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
Don’t say a word, said Jesus. We’re clueless anyway, replied his disciples.
It takes someone very, very special to perform a resurrection. Many a faith charlatan has faked lesser miracles, but who can raise the dead? Jesus’ miracle ministry definitely brought him press and pressure. You want to get yourself killed? Start raising the dead. In fact, it wasn’t until after Lazarus’ resurrection the Sanhedrin commenced a plot to kill Jesus (John 11:45-53).
But if you really want to cause a stir, preach your own death and resurrection. Mark records that Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31).
That’s serious lunatic talk. It’s one thing to chat up your own murder but something altogether crazy to prophesy your own resurrection.
Maybe that’s why atheists, skeptics and unbelievers are puzzled by the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. How do you rationalize the irrational? How do you explain the unexplainable? How do you defend the indefensible? Every other great guru, religious leader and spiritual master carved a career and created a following. A few nut jobs, reading bad tea leaves, predicted their death but none seriously dared to suggest they’d be back among the living within 72 hours. That’s insane. That’s crazy. That’s nonsensical. That’s a fairy tale.
It certainly is…unless you’re talking about God in the Flesh.
That’s who Jesus was.
And who Lee Strobel soon discovered that he was not.
It’s only a few days after Easter and social media still buzzes with good reports of Easter Sunday gatherings. Pastors from around the U.S. are gleefully citing higher attendance, baptisms and the good feeling that Resurrection Sunday always brings.
Personally, I celebrate with these pastors and their churches.
We all need some “wins” in the ministry and Easter is one of those few Sundays when we feel like we’re making a difference. There is a noticeable “bump” in the attendance. There is an increased interest in getting baptized on this special day. There are fresh faces in the house. And there are plenty of warm fuzzy stories of lives changed by Resurrection Sunday special moments.
But if you peel back the veneer, if you step back and take a hard look, if you simply and honestly consider the reality of the moment, something troubling emerges.
Easter Sunday is a very special, once-a-year day.
But next Sunday is rapidly approaching and that attendance “bump” will be strangely gone again like shaved ice on a Phoenix summer day.
What’s truly happening in the USAmerican church? Why is Easter the only day left when churches can openly brag on higher attendances? I mean, even Christmas is no longer getting that “bump.” In 2016, Christmas falls on Sunday. Mark my words now: LESS people will be in church than normal this Christmas than usual. Why? Because Christmas is viewed as a family day. It’s not a day to “go to church.” And, for the most part, they won’t. What will swell this Christmas will be Christmas Eve attendance.
The problem with the Easter “bump” is the false assumption that this bolstered attendance is rooted to “outsiders” suddenly flocking back to church. The higher attendance, according to conventional wisdom, is the Easter pews and chairs are filled with seekers, unchurched, non-churched or otherwise non-affiliated. It’s not true. And its not hard to confirm that fact. Just ask your children’s ministry department to see how many “new” families registered their children on Easter. Just ask greeters who regularly man the front doors. Just look at how many checked “more information” on the communication cards (most of whom are church shopping and you’re the latest flavor).
The Easter “bump” is in reality a special “attendance phenomenon” when the ENTIRE congregation finally gathers together in one place. It’s nearly all FAMILY (local church members) showing up at once, accompanied by visiting out of town Easter guests (many of whom are already church-attenders themselves).
After all, depending on your location in the U.S., weakly (pun intended) attendance in the average church runs a wide swath between 5-35%. That means 65-95% of a local church Body will miss on any given Sunday, some more than others. Many people only attend 1-2 times a month. And the older the average age of a church, the higher the percentage for a “regular” (weekly) attender. The Gen X (b. 1961-1981) and the Millennial (b. 1982-2004) generations are staying away from church and largely attending irregularly.
Consequently, Easter Sunday is when everyone who has an affinity towards Christianity, including those who attend occasionally, make church attendance a part of their holiday celebration. For those who grew up Christian or have Christianity in their family line, Easter Sunday means going to church, so off to church they still go. It’s not that they’re not going to church (they still do occasionally), but that they don’t miss on Easter.
And what will these “irregular regulars” find?
Ah, here is the problem. They tend to find the same thing that drove or bored them into spotty attendance in the first place. A lack of community. A nice religious show. Irrelevant traditions. Long lectures (sermons). I spoke to a young (Millennial) woman on Easter Sunday night about her church experience. Although a Christian college graduate and a pastor’s kid, she struggles to find church relevant to her life these days. What turned her off the most was the pastor’s sermon: an 11-point, 45-minute lecture on “resurrection.” In her mind and experience with “church,” nothing had changed. Sadly, she confessed, she won’t be back. If these “irregular regulars” do find the Easter experience enjoyable it might warrant a return visit in a week or two. But, at best, it only produces someone who attends a bit more than they did. And if there’s any true “win” from Easter Sunday that might be it.
Therefore, if there’s something that should make pastors and church leaders stay awake at night it’s the slow recognition that their “attractional” and “missional” programming no longer retains the REGULARS, let alone attracts the SEEKER.
Something is wrong in the American church. And, face it, Easter Sunday isn’t attracting “seekers” anymore. Even worse, the “irregular regulars” are now struggling to hang in there. It’s one more proof that churchianity is dying in the USA. Authentic Christianity remains, but you won’t find much of it in the chair on Sunday mornings. Authentic Christianity operates 24/7/365. It’s not confined to a service time, a program or a budget.
That’s why the Easter “bump” can be an ecclesiastical illusion. Yes, it makes us feel good, and it should (and it’s okay to celebrate the win).
But if next Sunday everything is back to normal it’s a troubling sign.
And that’s not good.
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.