Just as churches have gotten the hang of digital worship and socially distant ministry, they must pivot to another challenge: Easter.
Over weeks of planning, leaders have grappled with how to mark the church’s most theologically significant celebration, Christ’s victory over death, when members cannot gather and the sting of death hovers so near.
Should they re-tool the traditional egg hunts and activities that accompanied the celebration and provided a bridge to the community? Should they instead channel Easter celebrations toward the neighbors and community members who could use a boost right now? Or do they settle for an online Easter that might not feel as jubilant and victorious as a typical Easter morning?
From take-home projects to virtual egg hunts to service opportunities, churches are finding creative ways to pierce the darkness of the pandemic and mark Resurrection Sunday.
According to a new survey from LifeWay Research, half of churches have known for weeks that they will not be together in person for Easter. A small number (3%) say they will have an in-person gathering no matter what, but the vast majority of US Christians will be proclaiming “He is risen!” and “Alleluia!” from the confines of their own homes.
Egg hunts to-go
Rachel Thompson was disappointed when she realized that Bethel Grove Bible Church in Ithaca, New York, could not host its annual Easter egg hunt. The event had attracted 800 attendees last year, and they’d hoped to draw in even more.
She and her husband, Jeff, got approval from the church’s mission committee to host an Easter egg hunt to-go. On Saturday, hundreds of participants drove up to the church parking lot to pick up bags with pre-filled eggs, an egg-dyeing kit, and a kids Easter book, Sunday Morning Miracle. They included instructions for an at-home scavenger hunt, and participants who post on social media have the chance to win a restaurant gift card. The bags also included information about the Bethel Grove livestream and an invitation to visit the church after the quarantine is lifted.
Based on advice from the health department, the Thompsons worked to ensure participants stayed in their cars while picking up take-home bags. They limited themselves to just six or seven volunteers to help with distribution and disinfecting bags.
Hundreds of churches, some already armed with tens of thousands of plastic eggs, have similarly resorted to delivery or drive-through systems to distribute their goodies. Others are moving the festivities for kids online.
Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, developed a virtual space for students to come together by designing a Minecraft Easter egg hunt. The church released the game on March 30 as part of a weekly Bible study.
“What we wanted to do was build a place where our kids could come and they could actually play together and build stuff together ... and interact with one another and kind of be together in some way when they can’t actually be together physically,” Curtis James, the church’s family pastor, toldBaptist Press.
Tate Springs built its own server for the game and provides videos from Church Media Hacks on its website for churches that want to make their own games.
“It allows our kids to go in and build something that other people see,” James said. “We’re going to do some sort of digital Easter egg hunt, put things around the Minecraft world and kids have to go find them.” (For safety, Tate Springs’ Minecraft world is only available to members and invited friends, and by building its own server, the church could disable inappropriate content. The church has opened up its Easter Minecraft event for everyone at tatesprings.com/Minecraft.)
Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan also invited members to a virtual egg hunt, in which eggs will be hidden on pages of the church website starting Sunday morning.
Churches are also deliberately reaching out to serve vulnerable community members and first responders around Easter. Lancaster Baptist Church in Lancaster, California, delivered snacks to first responders at two local hospitals, the prison, and sheriff and California Highway Patrol stations.
Across the country, congregations have joined community-wide efforts to deliver masks, meals, and Easter baskets to hospital workers.
Bellevue Presbyterian Church, near where the US coronavirus outbreak first appeared in Washington, has focused its attention to reaching out to their members over 60. Not only have staff members been calling them to check in, the church initiated a pen pal program paring kids with older members.
“There’s something God can do in this, and maybe we can shift the culture in how generations connect,” said Colin Robeson, pastor for family life ministry at Bellevue. “We kept trying to look at this as a gift God has for us in the midst of the challenge.”
Churches are also finding ways to cheer up their neighborhoods around the holiday, including putting up yard signs (either handmade or printed and distributed by the church) or coordinating neighborhood “stoop sings” or shouts on Easter Sunday. Churches in the Chicago suburb of Aurora invited residents to join a “minute of joy,” ringing bells and shouting “Alleluia” at noon.
As policies and circumstances change week to week, plans continue to change.
Adventure Church in Yuba City, California, had hoped to host a drive-in Easter service and worked closely with county and health officials to plan the event. But as cases of COVID-19 spread through the community and the death rate spiked, the church had to cancel the event
“It’s been a wonderful collaboration, but the concern for safety ultimately outweighed the benefit of the opportunity,” pastor Greg Mansur told CT.
Jason Draper believes that once local governments lift the quarantine and God’s people can gather together again, worships services will be abuzz with a joyous energy. Since Easter Sunday already feels triumphant, Draper, senior pastor at Bethany Road Bible Church, wants to piggyback on the reunion energy and celebrate Resurrection Sunday together.
“It started with the biblical conviction that Easter is our biggest celebration of the year,” Draper said. “From 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says that Christ crucified and raised is of first importance for the church. Practically speaking, when people are able to finally come back together again, there’s going to be a buzz and exuberance, so why not marry those two events together?”
When he proposed to the elders at the DeKalb, Illinois, congregation that they wait to celebrate Easter until the ban on gatherings has been lifted, the leadership immediately agreed. Draper will still preach a Resurrection message on April 12, but all of the creative and artistic energy that the worship director invests in Easter services will emerge after the quarantine.
And in the meantime, believers are developing creative ways to demonstrate the hope of the gospel.