Most American pastors are euphoric on the Monday after Easter. With its record attendance, people coming to Christ and volunteers abounding, Jesus’ Resurrection Day is the high point of the year. This euphoria tends to carry into the coming week with thoughts like, “With all these visitors, surely we’ll have excellent attendance next weekend, too!”
Then reality strikes. Attendance doesn’t go up the next weekend; in fact, it goes down—significantly. And with it goes the pastor’s spirits. For many of the pastors I know, the weekend following Easter is one of the year's toughest weekends.
Avoiding the Post-Easter Blues
Setting realistic expectations can help, recognizing that many people just don’t attend church every weekend. Since so many came to church on Easter, it’s unlikely that the once-in-a-while, once-a-month, and twice-a-month people will show up the next weekend, too. When they stay home the week after Easter, it doesn’t mean they’ve left us; it just means they’re following their typical patterns.
And the Easter visitors? The truth is, retaining Easter visitors is one of the greatest challenges of the American church. In our culture, going to church on Easter is something we do by tradition. It’s a societal norm. The majority of Easter visitors aren’t seeking God, and they’re not looking for a church to join. They’re doing what Americans do on Easter:
(1) Give their children presents on Easter morning.
(2) Hold an Easter Egg hunt.
(3) Attend church.
(4) Eat a nice meal together as a family.
“Attend church” is simply the third item on their checklist—nothing less, but certainly nothing more.
Retain Your Easter Visitors
The vast majority of Easter guests attend with no thoughts of returning again before Christmas. Around our church, we call these people “CEO’s” (“Christmas and Easter Only”). On a normal weekend, our church will have fifty guests. Forty will come because they are looking for a church or checking out God and Christianity, and the other ten will come because they’re visiting relatives from out of town. Those out-of-towners will only return to church on their next visit, whereas the other forty have a decent chance of coming back in a week or two. CEO’s, on the other hand, come to church on Christmas and Easter with no thoughts of returning the following week. In fact, CEO’s think about intentionally not returning. “I come on Christmas and Easter because that’s just what our family does,” they think. “But we're not church people or anything like that.”
How can your church overcome this challenge? It won’t be easy, but if you want to reach these no-intention-of-returning types, then you’re going to have to develop an intentional strategy.
Think about it this way. When you invite neighbors to your house for the first time, they’re not automatically going to come back a second time. Certain things have to take place for that level of relationship to begin. Guests need to feel comfortable. There has to be a certain chemistry, the beginnings of a connection and some reason to come back. The same is true for Easter visitors.
No church bats a thousand in getting visitors to return, but I believe you will increase your average if you implement four simple steps:
1. Prepare for Them
When my wife and I invite guests to our home, we always plan for them. What would make them feel comfortable? How can we add value to them? What would they enjoy doing with us?
Our church’s plans are by no means perfect, but for Easter, we try to think through all the obstacles that could discourage a visitor from returning, and all the actions that could increase this likelihood. For instance, we know that the church’s parking lot will be full, so two weeks in advance we start asking regular attendees to free up spaces by parking in the business park adjacent to us. Most of our guests will need directions on where to go once they arrive, so we add extra parking lot greeters, front door greeters and lobby hosts. (We train them by having them role-play ahead of time. We ask our greeters to be friendly, but not overly friendly. Visitors like to be welcomed, but not accosted.)
Our visitor plans also include additional chairs and additional services. We change the configuration of our auditorium to accommodate the maximum number of chairs. We add overflow venues to our two largest services so everyone is ensured a seat, no matter how many people show up. Some of the guests we want to invite are out of town that weekend, so we hold a service on Wednesday night; it empowers our members to invite these folks to dinner and then to church.
We know that most of our visitors won’t know our usual music, so we keep the worship songs upbeat and easy. We typically sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” because almost all CEO’s know it. (After all, they sang it somewhere last Easter). We also incorporate some type of multimedia into the service—since “the medium is the message,” we try to keep that medium as relevant and familiar as possible. It helps us speak in the language our visitors understand.
2. Pray for Them
Before talking to our friends about Jesus, we want to talk to Jesus about our friends. Several weeks before Easter, we pass out cards to the congregation, asking them to write down the names of seven friends they want to see come to Christ on Easter. We build a replica of the Jerusalem Wailing Wall and mount it on our stage. Each member gets two cards: one to keep, and one to pin on the Wall. Every week from then until Easter, the Wall reminds us that we’re praying together for our unchurched friends.
Holy Week was the most important week on Jesus’ calendar, and I believe it ought to be the most important one on ours, as well. So, since it’s hard to invite seven friends to one service and care for them all, I personally ask from the pulpit for members to consider attending multiple services, bringing a different friend to each one.
3. Connect With Them
Easter guests are savvy. They know that churches put on their “best show” at Easter, so no matter how great your services are, your Easter guests are unlikely to return to what undoubtedly will be a “lesser show” the next weekend. What might get them back? Relationships. Events can draw people, but relationships draw them back. At our church, we concentrate on building relationships with guests in four ways.
(1) Our staff and key volunteers work the lobby before services. They watch for people invited by our regular attendees as well as people who just look disoriented. A smile, handshake and a sincere question or two are a good start to both a good first impression and a potential friendship.
(2) I try to connect personally with as many visitors as possible. I do this by offering them a free book at the end of the service. Just before the closing prayer, I'll say, “I know some of you have questions about God. I want to offer you a free copy of a book called The God Questions. As soon as we’re done, I’ll be right down in front with copies. I’ll even sign one for you if you’ll promise to read it.” Twenty or thirty people usually seek me out for this offer, and it gives me a chance to shake their hand, look them in the eye and say, “So, you have questions about God?” This takes us to a fairly intimate level of conversation and enables me to conclude with, “You know, if you’re serious about getting your questions answered, you ought to come back next week. This is a really good place to explore your questions about God.” This single action has done more to increase Easter and Christmas retention than anything else we’ve tried in our church's history.
(3) People don’t like to cook on Easter Sunday as much as they once did, so after each service, just outside our front doors, we serve a barbecue. Tables and chairs are set up with the aroma of hot dogs and burgers wafting through the doorway. We let a local grocery store cater the meal so we can concentrate on building relationships. Church leaders circulate among the tables introducing themselves, while regular attendees enjoy the feast and intentionally sit at tables with people they don’t know. The connections don’t go deep, but it breaks the ice and starts guests thinking about the church as a place to make friends rather just a place to attend services once in a while.
(4) On the Monday and Tuesday following Easter, a team calls every guest, thanking them for attending and inviting them to join a newly forming Small Group. Anyone who accepts this invitation is seamlessly linked into the church family as they become friends with the members of their group.
4. Give Them a Reason to Return
In the early years, I would script the same format for every Easter service: I’d preach the Resurrection, give an invitation and invite people to return the following weekend for a new series. It didn’t work very well. Less than one-third of those who received Christ ever returned.
Six years ago, we decided to participate in Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose Campaign. The campaign was designed to begin on Easter, so I followed Rick’s script (instead of my normal one) and announced that we were doing something a little different this Easter: we were starting a new series. I preached Rick’s message, gave an invitation and invited people to join Small Groups and to come back the next weekend for the rest of the series. It worked! A record number of guests enrolled in groups and became part of the church. We've followed this pattern ever since.
Now, every Easter, we give people a relevant reason to return. I preach the Resurrection and give a salvation invitation, but the message is slanted towards whatever topic we’re heading into the following week. To be effective, the topic needs to tap into a strong felt-need by a large number of attendees. This year, we’ll launch a series on family, a topic with broad and immediate appeal. So instead of talking just about Jesus, I’ll devote the Easter message to Jesus and His influence on His family: His cousins James and John, His mother Mary, his brothers James and Jude and other extended family members.
I don’t believe we’ll set attendance records the following weekend; as I said before, our once and twice-a-month people probably won’t be there. But many visitors will join Small Groups and return to church because they want and need the help that this series has already begun to offer them. Basically, instead of a 30-second announcement at the end of the service, I will have spent the bulk of the Easter sermon showing them why they ought to return.
Service clubs like Rotary and Kiwanis spend as much as one-third of every meeting selling the benefits of attending the next meeting—and these are highly committed members who will be fined if they don’t attend! Personally, I want to outperform the local Rotary Club! In 2 Corinthians 5:11, the Apostle Paul says that “Since… we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” During Easter week, I’m going to be trying my best to persuade lost people to come to Christ. At the same time, I’m going to try my best to persuade CEO’s to come back, so that I can further persuade them to become mature Christ-followers and part of His body, the church.
Pastors, I am under no illusion that you and I will persuade every guest to return following Easter Sunday. But these people have chosen to visit us—in effect, they have invited us to take our best shot at changing their lives. Enticing them to return is one of our greatest opportunities as well as one of our greatest challenges. We need to use every tool at our disposal. I’m convinced that good plans, fervent prayers and relational connections, together with a relevant series that visitors have already sampled, are some of the best tools available. May God bless your efforts this Easter!