At Easter, the Rev. Thomas Flowers sees the foot in the door.
For the Rev. Timothy Evans it’s an opportunity to open a pathway.
The hope of the Rev. Rita Mishoe Paige is that the message of hope will resonate powerfully enough to lead somebody to dedicate their life to following Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Daniel Wagner eagerly anticipates presenting the resurrection message to somebody who may be hearing it for the first time.
The Rev. Cheryl Evans sees the future in the eyes of the children she ministers in “junior church.”
All anticipate surveying their flocks this morning and seeing new faces sprinkled among the familiar. All accept they might never see those faces again.
All embrace the challenge of balancing meeting the needs of those who come to church every week while casting a net toward those visitors who may be there to test the waters.
“People come on Easter who don’t come at other times,” says Mr. Evans, who along with his wife Cheryl are co-pastors at The Cross Church of the Nazarene in Dover. Often the visitors are family guests accompanying parishioners.
“A few pass by, see the sign and stop,” he says. Most won’t return, but there remains the possibility they could.
“Our greatest day of the year is Easter. We want it to be a celebration. We want it to be something where people leave inspired.
“We want to put our best foot forward on Easter, to open pathways to people.”
Keeping the pathway open is equally important to Father Flowers, longtime priest at St. Polycarp Roman Catholic Church in Smyrna.
“This is the only chance you might have in a year or longer to get somebody who might want to come back.
“It’s one chance to get the hook in,” he says, and that’s important “because we are fishers of men.”
Ms. Paige agrees. Pastor at the Star Hill A.M.E. Church in Dover, she sees today’s service as less of a challenge and more of an opportunity to witness, to explain the Easter story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion followed by his resurrection to those who may be hearing the Christian gospel message for the first time.
“The fact that Christ has risen is a message of hope,” she says. “The message doesn’t change.”
She may, however, change how she presents it.
“You understand there are those who are familiar (with the story details) and those who aren’t. So at Easter you may have to include more of the history.”
She hopes that by doing so, the message “sharpens the hearing” of those who aren’t regular churchgoers and opens the way for a change of heart.
“Some come back,” she says.
Mr. Wagner, pastor of Bible Fellowship Church in Camden, says he looks for scriptural passages that mesh with secular facts that support a message that might be more appealing to visitors.
“There is that challenge that comes at Easter to bring up different details,” he says. “It’s not a pressure; it’s quite a joy.”
For him, Easter is another chance to deliver the gospel he preaches year-round.
“The opportunity to speak of the perfect sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ may come up at any time,” Mr. Wagner says, “but at Easter we get to really focus on it.”
Father Flowers strives to balance the Easter message with a keen awareness of those visitors sitting in today’s congregation. He approaches his homily with a sensitivity and a welcoming attitude.
“When you see the foot in the door,” he says, “you don’t step on the foot.”
The average person, he believes, is looking for help in being a better person and his role is to give them something practical in which to sink their teeth.
“The challenge is not to give a theology lesson,” Father Flowers says, “but to get them to the good news.
“Not every day can be a jump-for-joy day, but what gets you through is the hope that you will get through.”
As for how to present the message, he cites the example of Jesus, who used parables to teach both the masses and his closest disciples.
“A story, a joke helps a person remember the message,” Father Flowers says.
Asked if he considers Easter as a possible audition to somebody seeking a home church, he paraphrases William Shakespeare: “All the world is a stage, and no stage is like the church.”
He wants to inspire people to return, he says, and he doesn’t worry too much about the length of the homily.
“If I say something interesting and if it’s relevant to people’s lives, they won’t be looking at their watches.”
Small church struggles
Mr. Wagner recognizes, however, that the message alone might not be enough to lure Easter visitors back for a return engagement.
People with teenagers might want active youth groups while empty-nest couples may focus on their musical preferences.
A family with preschoolers look at what care is available during services.
“For many small churches that’s where the gap is, the teens and children,” he says.
“We cannot be a fit for everybody but we will do what we can.”
One benefit of attending a small church like Bible Fellowship, however, is that it’s easier to get to know the people, he says. Bonds are formed quickly.
“I love small churches,” Mr. Wagner says. “That fellowship aspect is just incredible.”
Keeping the message fresh
At the Cross Church, the Evanses look for different ways to present the Easter message.
New this year was a Good Friday service that had the “junior church” taking the lead in telling the story of Jesus’ journey from his trial to his death on the cross to the placement of his body in the tomb.
“The primary reason is we want the kids to understand what Good Friday is about,” Mrs. Evans says.
The children made posters and explained the significance of each of the 14 stops to those who walked the Stations of the Cross.
Today, however, it’s the adult choir’s turn to do its part to help draw people to Easter services with the annual cantata.
Mr. Evans expects to see about 20 to 30 percent more people in the pews today.
“We had 84 on (Palm) Sunday. If we hit 120, I would probably think we have made my expectation.”
More than that would be icing on the cake.
Like Cross Church, Star Hill A.M.E. also plans special services today. A 30-minute play will be part of the worship service and an Easter egg hunt will be held for the children afterward.
Ms. Paige, who recently celebrated her 10th year at the historic Star Hill church — it was a stop on the Underground Railroad — aims to be prepared to give closing remarks after the play, if necessary. And, yes, she still gets nervous.
“Any time you stand up to preach you always get nervous, no matter how long you’ve been doing it.”
She says she will lean on the Holy Spirit to overcome the nerves and to provide new insights for the Easter message of hope.
Preparing plays, sermons and coordinating special services can make for a busy week leading up to Easter. The irony of that is not lost on Mr. Evans.
“As a pastor you would like Holy Week to be a very quiet and subdued week where you can concentrate on spiritual things for your own good,” he says, “But you have to balance that with the fact that it is one of the busiest weeks of the year.”
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