SUMMARY: The journey to Easter is a time to reflect, repent and reconnect with God. The church's challenge is to guide people in meaningful ways.
If you are looking for new ways to inspire your congregation during the Easter season, here are some ideas we discovered in speaking with pastors and staff in Chicago; Summerville, S.C.; Jackson, Tenn.; and Munroe, La.
At Broadway United Methodist Church, Chicago, Lent carries a different theme each year. At the Ash Wednesday service, participants receive a small symbol of the theme. "Last year the theme was changing perspectives," said Associate Pastor Vernice Thorn. "We carried prisms on a chain. You have a different picture, depending on where you look through it.'' The message? Learn to see life, faith and other people from different perspectives.
Thorn still carries with her one symbol from a previous year — a laminated road-caution sign with a squiggly line to represent the theme of trusting the way. "The symbol is a warning that the road ahead is different from the road behind," she noted. "Because the way is not always clear, we have to trust we're on the right path."
Leaders at Bethany Church, Summerville, combine Lenten services with a meal.
Dr. Robert J. Howell Jr., senior pastor, explained members share a meal every Wednesday except Ash Wednesday, followed by Bible studies or classes on topics ranging from parenting to building a doghouse. During Advent and Lent, special worship services replace weekly classes. Because people are in the habit of being at church on Wednesday evenings, attendance spills over to the Lenten services.
The dinner and services draw about 300 people each week. A food-service staff prepares the meals at a minimal cost to parishioners.
"Our goal is to target what McDonald's would charge to serve a family, and we're going to be under it a little bit," Howell said.
Another idea is to create a blog. An online journal can reinforce messages from live services. With free sites like Wordpress, it costs nothing but time.
First Church, Jackson, Tenn., asked 40 people to write short entries-one for every day in Lent, except Sundays. The result was a mix of reflections, meditations and life lessons that anyone with a computer and Internet access could read.
Bethany Church performed the play "DaVinci's Last Supper" by the Rev. Ernest K. Emurian, which was first presented in 1954.
"The cast is in costumes, and there are 13 monologues," Howell said. "In a somber environment, they prepare us for Holy Communion."
Broadway Church holds an all-night vigil following a Passover meal on Maundy Thursday. Parishioners commit to sitting in a darkened sanctuary for hour-long intervals until the vigil ends at 6 a.m. At the top of each hour, a bell calls attendees into the sanctuary for a Scripture reading.
While the vigil is in progress, other things happen in the church: prayer stations, readings, music programs and yoga classes.
"The vigil is powerful because people don't normally take the time just to sit and reflect," Thorn added. "Sitting in the sanctuary in the dark, by yourself, gives you time to think about what you're doing and why."
The event draws 30 people to start, and about half stay the night. "There's a real connection for the people who make the commitment to stay," Thorn said. "It makes the Lenten journey more meaningful."
Do you ever consider holding sunrise services outdoors? First Church, Munroe, La., holds its early-morning service in Gloria Garden in front of the church and facing the bayou.
Similarly, Bethany Church has its sunrise service in a city park, directly behind the church. People from across the United States have attended.
About 2,000 people total go to the four Easter morning services at Bethany.
"The music is majestic," Howell said. "The hymns are accompanied by brass, and there is fanfare. It is big music for a glorious day."