Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend a St. Louis-area church Sunday to celebrate Easter, filling more pews than normal in the process.
With regular church attendance on the decline nationwide, St. Louis priests and pastors say knowing more people will hear their Easter message gives added importance to the words they share.
“With the climate today, people working on Sundays, that seems to be the one Sunday they tend to focus (and) go to church, or family members that don’t go to church go to church with their families,” said Bishop Larry Jones of Greater Grace Church in Ferguson. “Easter is the one day we have that allows us to be able to share a message with a larger group of people, but we want to share that message every day and every week so people can really build a hope back in Christ,”
About 600 people attend the apostolic church on an average Sunday, but Jones said Greater Grace sees as many as 50 percent more on Easter.
All Saints Catholic Church in St. Peters expects about 1500 people this Easter, about 500 more than average.
“I always try to craft a message that would involve welcoming people because I think every weekend there’s somebody there who’s never been there before or doesn’t feel comfortable in church,” said All Saints’ pastor, Father Don Wester. “But there’s just more people so I try to make the welcome a little bit more clear and precise so they know that they’re certainly welcome in that place and then I try to craft a message that would be for all us, so whether you’re just there for the first time or there every week it’s part of the resurrection message that would have something to do with all of us.”
The Word at Shaw, a six-year-old United Methodist church plant in south St. Louis also sees a big bump in attendance on Easter, as does Concordia Lutheran Church in Kirkwood.
The Word at Shaw focuses on outreach to people who didn’t grow up in church or who stopped going to church, so Pastor Keith Scarborough tries to keep his message simple even on Sundays that don’t have as many visitors as Easter.
“If I speak words that are church words then I try to explain them. You know, I don’t take ‘righteousness’ for granted. Like, I need to explain what righteousness is because that’s a church word. Same with grace. Same with what do we mean when we say ‘He rose?’ What is that? Why is that so important and what does that mean to us today?” said Scarborough.
For Concordia Pastor Scott Seidler, Easter is a chance to speak to people who may not have heard a sermon in a while.
“Within our American culture church attendance and regularity of church attendance is dropping, so at Concordia Kirkwood for instance, we’ve had 300 new members come in over the past two years but our average worship attendance on a Sunday morning hasn’t changed,” said Seidler. “All of that to say, for folks that haven’t been there maybe for 51 Sundays it’s the opportunity to remind them that they are created children of God, that they have purpose beyond this life.”
Concordia averages about a thousand people at worship each Sunday, with double that number on Easter.
Seidler said it’s important to him to make sure his Easter sermon connects with people of all ages and personality types, but at the same time he tries not to place too much weight on delivering every line perfectly.
“A lot of times pastors I find will put more time and energy into their Easter preaching and their Easter sermon, and they will tend to get very, very structured and very controlled,” said Seidler, who also teaches preaching as a guest instructor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. “One of the tests that I’ve always held myself to is: am I preaching the same on Easter Sunday as I preach the other 51 Sundays of the year? Because If I’m not preaching same on Easter Sunday as I am the other 51 Sundays of the year it may be an indicator that I’m being too handsy, too manipulative, too rehearsed and not just simply being the human pastor that God has called me to be.”
Easter is the day Christians celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, and all four pastors are basing their Easter message on the resurrection.
Bishop Jones plans to draw a parallel with the popular AMC television series “The Walking Dead.”
“If you kind of stop and think about our society today, how many people are actually zombies themselves today?” asked Jones. “People living in fear, people living in frustration, financial distress, emotional despair. They’re going through the motions, they get up in the morning, they go to work, they go home, they eat, they go to bed. But they don’t have the fulfillment of life. And that’s where with Jesus’ death and his resurrection he paid a price for our sins, but at the same token he wanted to give us a better life.”
Father Wester, who also teaches preaching at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, said he hopes his congregants leave Easter mass knowing “that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus does offer hope to each and every human being today, not just reminiscing what happened thousands of years ago.”
Seidler is starting a new six-seek sermon series on Sunday about taking the next step on a spiritual journey, beginning with Jesus stepping out of his tomb.
Scarborough said he hopes people leave The Word at Shaw Sunday with the message that “Christ is living. We serve a living God and God knows us, loves us and wants to be a part of our lives today.”
About 23 percent of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion, according to the PEW Research Center. That’s up from 16 percent in 2007.
Roughly 60 percent of Americans who are affiliated with a religion attend religious services at least once a month.
According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, more than a million people from the St. Louis area are affiliated with a Christian denomination, including almost 500,000 Catholics and more than 400,000 Evangelicals.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.