The C & E Problem

Guest post by David Clark

On Saturday I went to pick up my son who was playing at a friend’s house. While waiting for him to get ready to go (an interminably long time, as anyone with 9 year old kids knows) I was chatting with my son’s friend’s mother. The subject came around to church attendance when her daughter asked if they were going to church tomorrow. Her response was that they would be attending that evening to avoid the madness of attending church on Easter morning.

“You know, avoiding the C & E Christians,” she summarized.

“C & E Christians?” I asked.

“Yeah, Christmas and Easter Christians,” she replied.

Now I understood. Having only been a mainline Christian for a short period of time I understand the problem she was referring to. Last year while trying to find a church to attend on Easter, since I was still churchless, I drove past the Catholic church in my area. It was literally bursting at the seams with people standing outside the front doors trying to hear what was going on, and that was for the morning mass. I arrived at my intended destination, the local ELCA congregation only to find out they had rearranged the meeting times to accomodate one more service, meaning I was about 15 minutes late. Moreover the parking lot was packed and cars had spilled over into an adjacent empty field. So I turned around and headed for the Episcopal church arriving about 30 minutes early for the first service. By the time service started the entire meeting area was jam packed, as was the narthex. From where I was sitting I couldn’t see if anyone was standing outside, but it would not have surprised me.

Fast forward to this year. My home UMC congregation doubles its capacity for Easter Sunday. The church is right next to a YMCA, so on Sunday morning the YMCA gym hosts 3 Easter services, which run concurrently with 3 services in the chapel. My best guess is that the capacity of the YMCA gym packed with chairs is about the same as the chapel. The gym was packed, and I assume the main chapel was as well. Also indicative of doubled attendance was the fact that instead of 1 cop directing traffic for the later meeting times, there were 2 cops directing traffic for all three meeting times.

I think it’s fairly obvious that this represents one of the big problems in mainstream Christianity, there are C & E Christians for whom religion is something you do twice a year. I think it’s fairly obvious why this is a problem.

Switching to the LDS church now. There are no C & E Mormons, or if there are they are so few that it doesn’t really make much of a difference. I have never attended a ward on Easter which has had capacity problems. The only real adjustment that needs to be made is setting out an extra tray or two for the sacrament. Sometimes it is used, sometimes it isn’t. I think the LDS are to be commended for being as dedicated to their meetings on every Sunday as they are on Easter Sunday.

I do think that some of observations are in order. Every church has issues it is dealing with, and I think that the biggest obstacles facing the LDS church are encapsulated in the LDS Easter experience.

One of the biggest problems facing the LDS church is high levels of inactivity. But the problem goes even deeper than the statistics, the church faces problems of intractably inactive members. Anyone who has gone to visit inactive Mormons in an attempt to invite them back to church knows that it is largely a fruitless endeavor, usually eliciting at best apathy or at worst hostility from the incactive Mormons. On my mission every missionary figured out that it was much easier to increase Sunday attendance by baptizing new members than it was to reactivate inactive members. Of course this only increased the problem of inactivity because most of those new converts would soon be inactive, which magically made them very apathetic about attending the LDS church again.

So why does the Easter experience highlight the inactive problem? On an average Sunday, my UMC congregation averages around 50% attendance of the total church membership (coincidently, as far as I can tell, this is about average for an LDS ward in the U.S.). But, since the church doubled capacity, and filled it, the church had about 100% attendance statistically speaking. Now, I am sure that at large chunk of those attending were not members of the congregation, but that still leaves attendance of members at a very high level. This seems to mean that “inactive” for people in my local congregation does not mean utter apathy or complete alienation, because these people will get off their butts for special ocassions. “C & E Christian” may mean lazy, but it doesn’t mean completely apathetic or alienated. And just to clarify, by “apathetic” I mean someone who won’t come to church for any reason, and by “alienated” I mean they won’t come to church for any reason and they are actively hostile when invited to do so.

Problem number two is that I saw no visitors, other than active Mormons visiting family, at the LDS church. A large part of the boost in the attendance at the Methodist church was people walking in off the street to hear Easter service. I am guessing that because I saw many faces I had never seen before. This is a problem for the LDS church because it highlights an incongruity. As a missionary church the LDS church dearly would love people to be naturally open to and feel comfortable with attending an LDS congregation to investigate what it teaches. But, if you can’t get any strangers to visit on Easter Sunday, then people by and large are either totally uninterested in what you are teaching or feel very unwelcome. Either or both may be the case for the LDS church, but neither is something that is very helpful for a missionary oriented church.

The final problem is that of Mormons wanting to be seen as Christians. To put it bluntly, if you don’t have an Easter themed service on Easter, that doesn’t help perceptions that you are Christian. In the sacrament meeting yesterday there were four talks. Of the four, two could on a very charitable interpretation be considered Easter themed. Even more telling was that all four talks were given by the recently called Relief Society presidency, showing that at least part of the point of the Easter service was to engage in organizational maintenance. Neither the Sunday School lesson nor the 3rd hour adult lesson were in any way Easter themed. I asked my kids if their Primary lessons had anything to do with Jesus or the resurrection. They all said no. My wife found out later that the teachers were confused about what lesson to teach, so instead of teaching the Easter themed lesson in the back of every Primary manual, they all taught the lesson that was next in the sequence.

Perhaps my family’s local LDS congregation is particularly bad at this, but I was actually pretty happy that they did that much. Two years ago the entire Easter service consisted of testimonies by the outgoing bishopric and more testimonies by the incoming bishopric that had been called that day. The counselor who was a holdover in the transition was conducting. At one point he started apologizing profusely to the visitors that day (I don’t know if there were any) who had come to hear an Easter message and begged them to come the next week when the church would have a belated Easter service.

But the funniest part of my Easter day was hearing my six year old son argue vehemently that we didn’t have to go to church because it was Easter. I couldn’t figure out where he got that idea into his head. Then I remembered that last year General Conference was on Easter and none of my family attended church. He had over generalized and thought this was what normally happened on Easter. My wife and I chuckled that he was probably the only kid who thought that Easter meant no church, as all of the kids of the C & E Christians knew they were going to be dragged to church for their bi-annual church attendance.

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35 thoughts on “The C & E Problem

  1. I love C&E Christians. Theyacknowledge , however rarely, the Incarnation and Resurrection. I’m glad they feel welcome. At Midnight Mass one recent Christmas, the priest was welcoming those who had travelled, those who celebrated on C & E, and, “we welcome those of you who are here simply as an act of love for family or friends.”

  2. Even if you proceed from the assumption that everyone should be in church every Sunday, then C&E Christians are two Sundays less of a problem than the people who never come at all.

  3. The final problem is that of Mormons wanting to be seen as Christians. To put it bluntly, if you donโ€™t have an Easter themed service on Easter, that doesnโ€™t help perceptions that you are Christian

    I agree, a little more paganism in Mormonism might make them fit in with everyone else! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. I think part of the C & E attendance impact is caused by churches encouraging people to bring visitors. For example my church always makes pass along invitations for people to handout, buys billboard space and this year ran Facebook ads for our Easter celebration. We always more than double our weekly attendance on Christmas and Easter and it’s because we’re specifically trying to get people on the fringes of Christianity in on those two days.

    Easter is our biggest day of the year and we want as many people at the party as we can muster.

  5. My best friend is Jewish. He’s a high holidays Jew–he really only participates during the high holidays. So, the Jewish equivalent of a C&E Christian, I guess.

    Anyone who has gone to visit inactive Mormons in an attempt to invite them back to church knows that it is largely a fruitless endeavor, usually eliciting at best apathy or at worst hostility from the incactive Mormons.

    My experience has been the opposite, more often than not. When Kullervo and I were dating, he home taught a guy who was about 5-10 years older than we were, who had gone inactive at some point. I used to visit with Kullervo, and this man came back to church, diligently waited through all of the stuff related to his being disfellowshipped, and wound up meeting a girl, falling in love, and getting married in the temple.

    Also, when I first went to college, I was a new Mormon (like, seriously–I’d been baptized a month before I moved). I mentioned I was LDS to a girl across the hall from me in the dorms, and she said that she’d been raised LDS also. Being new, I didn’t hear the nuance of what she said, and enthusiastically told her that I’d figured out what ward we were in, and that we could ride together to church, and I dragged her to the Institute building so we could sign up for classes together… only to find out later that she hadn’t gone to church in about 8 years. She returned to full activity, and her long term boyfriend wound up converting and they married in the temple, and are still active and happy in the church (and with each other).

    I would suggest instead that the reason that people don’t have a lot of success with reactivating many people who have gone inactive is that they are apologetic about inviting them back, or pushy. People don’t respond to someone who is sorry they have to try to invite you, or people who badger you. But someone who is genuinely enthusiastic about the church and not expecting defeat (perhaps through naivete) will be more successful. And while I don’t think that the LDS church is true the way that it claims to be… I think it’s hard to resist the people when you start going. LDS people are some of my absolute favorite people.

    A large part of the boost in the attendance at the Methodist church was people walking in off the street to hear Easter service.

    I don’t see how you can claim that is a problem with the LDS church. There is a lot more fluidity between different denominations of Christianity, so you could have all sorts of people walking in off the streets. We went to a Catholic mass on Christmas Eve. We are not Catholic, don’t want to be Catholic… but the cathedral is close to our house, and so we went.

    I think people are less familiar with what the LDS Church is, and thus are less likely to just wander in. Most Christian Americans are likely to have heard of Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Catholics… and know generally what to expect at a service. I’m not going to wander into a foreign church when I won’t know what to do, what I should be wearing, etc.

    However, I do agree with you that not having an Easter themed set of meetings at the LDS church is just a major fail on the leadership’s part.

  6. I will also agree that lack of an Easter theme is enough to keep me from a ward meeting on Easter Sunday. I’ve heard enough “horror” stories about tithing centered talks that I just wouldn’t chance it. Easter’s just about my favorite holiday, and I would be really crushed if I went to a church service that didn’t have an all out celebration. Brunch is nice, but…it’s never enough.

    I will also agree with the above commenters that it’s fantastic that so many people are at least C&E Christians. Considering the frightening statistics about declining church membership, it’s actually kind of amazing that so many people still put in the effort for The Big One.

  7. Along with Katyjane, I’ve seen more success with formerly active Mormons resuming activity than with nonmembers joining and becoming participating members. And I agree with her that one reason we might not get as many people wandering in off the street is because people may not know what to expect.

    Or maybe it’s because they do know what to expect. I don’t think we do a very good job of being welcoming to nonmembers. I’ll say more about that later when I have time.

    And, for what it’s worth, I’ve never been at an Easter LDS service that didn’t follow an Easter theme. At least in the wards I’ve been in (two or three, depending on how they’re counted), talks and music (but not Sunday school) on Easter Sunday have always focused on the Resurrection. According to what I’ve read in the bloggernacle, however, that isn’t everyone’s experience (and that’s a shame).

  8. I mean, how does that even happen, where an Easter Sunday service isn’t centered on the Resurrection? Of all the things a church could be criticized for, how could the theme of the day possibly even be a question?

  9. Katy, loved your comment (of course).

    I also imagine that most people who leave the LDS church (especially outside the I-15 Corridor) leave out of apathy, loss of interest, and/or something because new comes along, not because they had some major crisis of faith or disciplinary problem or whatever. So they don’t have hard feelings, they just don’t care all that much anymore.

    Like Katy says, anyone can get a little fussy when they’re approached in a disingenuous or pushy way, but the majority of “inactives” I know simply have more pressing matters (vs. a very small minority of intellectual de-converts, most of whom I’ve met online).

    (Hmmm…maybe there are Internet exMormons and Chapel exMormons. Let’s do another post!) ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Completely agree that LDS Easter services are beyond underwhleming. Went to a local non-denom church where I take a class on the life of Christ just to be sure I could celebrate with the rest of Christendom. ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. the fact that it even occurs to Mormons to go to a non-LDS church so they can be sure to get in on Easter is mind-blowing to me.

  11. Well, in fairness, I’m a really weird Mormon.

    Most Mormons don’t do stuff like that.

    Still, your point is very well-taken.

    And Eric is right: it’s very crazy culture sometimes.

  12. For what it’s worth, my ward had an awesome Easter-themed Sacrament meeting, with three special musical numbers and two talks (one of which was given by yours truly). The first talk was on the events leading up to the Crucifixion, the second (mine) was on the Resurrection and the impact it has on our lives. Also, the Primary classes all used the Easter lesson in the manual.

    Now, I know that there are many wards that have not done this, and that makes me incredibly sad. But there are wards out there that get it right.

    As far as why people walk in to other churches, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the simple marquee-type signs out front advertising the messages have a lot to do with it. If you drive by any one of the dozen or so Protestant churches in the Champaign area, you’ll see signs announcing the time and theme of the Easter message. Drive by the LDS chapel and you are lucky to see the name of the church on the building before you are past it. (And it probably doesn’t help that we are right next to the local Masonic Lodge with their rather large sign between their parking lot entrance and ours.)

  13. the fact that it even occurs to Mormons to go to a non-LDS church so they can be sure to get in on Easter is mind-blowing to me.

    I just listened to something which also blew my mind. In this Mormon Expression podcast:

    http://mormonexpression.com/2011/04/21/episode-130-grant-palmer/

    John Larsen was commenting that he attended a Unitarian congregation for 4 or 5 years. Apparently the Unitarians always gave an Easter presentation on Easter.

    If you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, it starts at the 18:30 mark.

  14. Correction, I should have written “the Unitarian congregation he attended” instead of “the Unitarians” in the paragraph below the link. As it stands, it is a false generalization.

  15. I see lots of problems or shortcomings or opportunities to improve in the LDS Church. Easter celebrations are nowhere near the top of that list.

    I recognize the importance others put on the Easter holiday, but personally, I don’t give a flip whether we have a big Easter to-do or not. The Atonement features prominently at least once a month at church (which does not include all the other times it is referenced or briefly discussed in relation to other topics), so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing something if Easter wasn’t given a “special program.” (I speak in the hypothetical because I can’t think of a time when my ward didn’t do a special Easter program.)

  16. Where do they celebrate Christmas or Easter in the Bible anyway?

    If it is not a purely biblical tradition, It’s a strange criticism coming from Evangelicals that Mormon’s don’t celebrate easter very well. If you believe in sticking closely to the Bible, grand easter services may be more of a “problem” for the other Christians.

  17. So I suppose married couples don’t need to celebrate their anniversaries, since they get to be awesome to each other everyday anyway?

    I’m someone who generally appreciates the liturgical calendar, because I value ritual, and I value having “special” days to recognize the amazing things God does for us. Yes, I celebrate and study the resurrection throughout the year, but Easter’s a day I get to build up to (through Lent) and focus my entire day on just giddy celebration. The Mormon church seems to see an importance in ritual as well…why any part of it would de-emphasize a day devoted entirely to the celebration of the most important miracle we know is beyond me. Like I said above, this is The Big One. I have a hard time believing any Christian church (besides JW’s) would say they “don’t give a flip” about celebrating Christmas. So why is Easter any different?

    Does this go back to the general rejection of Protestant and Catholic traditions?

  18. One time I saw a comment at FMH in a discussion of temple weddings v. civil weddings. One woman was kind enough to say that her family was extra righteous and celebrated God’s Plan every day, so there was no reason to put any special emphasis on a wedding for those who really devoted their lives to God’s work.

    I mean, I guess…but religion is very much culture. And while rejecting some aspects of a broader culture is good (e.g., materialism, elitism, -ism, -ism, -ism), I think you have to expect some surprise and even dismay when you’re part of something that so many people hold as good and exciting and sacred–so much so that they’ll drag their butts to a church once a year to recognize it.

  19. Part of the problem is that, for better or worse, our sacrament meetings aren’t really geared for outsiders. Of course, nonmembers are welcome to attend, but we don’t really do anything to make things inviting for them.

    I remember a few years ago when we were on vacation and wanted to attend sacrament meeting. On the first Sunday, we found a church’s location and showed up on time for sacrament meeting only to find the church empty. We looked in some windows and saw that the church was being refurbished (pews were missing) — but could we find a sign anywhere that indicated where the meeting was? No — this wasn’t very welcoming to visitors.

    The following Sunday in a different town we arrived again to an empty parking lot and no signs posted about what was going on. Again, this wasn’t a friendly-to-visitors situation. (This time, though, a neighbor who happened to be a member saw us and walked out of her home to tell us that it was stake conference Sunday, and stake conference was in a different town.)

    Back before the days when meeting times were available online (although nonmembers might not know where to look), I remember calling churches to find out about meeting times. But since LDS churches never seem to have answering machines on their phones, the simple act of finding out when church starts was always a chore. Even as a member who wanted to attend church, getting such basic information sometimes turned out to be more work than it was worth — now imagine how a nonmember thinking of visiting might feel.

    Contrast that with most non-LDS churches, which often have a prominent sign advertising the times of worship services, or that at least have answering machines on their phones. These are little things, but they are (unfortunately) telling about our attitude toward visitors.

    And LDS meetings themselves? They’re seldom geared for visitors at all. It’s the opposite of “seeker-sensitive” approach taken by some evangelicals, where the church goes out of its way make a worship service appealing to newcomers.

    Our lack in some wards (definitely not all) of making a to-do about Easter fits in with this pattern. We seem to be happy living in our own little world.

    I’m not sure at this point what I’m suggesting as a remedy. The seeker-sensitive approach has its problems too, sometimes including a reliance on shallow sermons and fluffy music, so I’m not necessarily saying we should emulate it. At the very least, though, we should be aware of how we may come across to nonmembers — not to win their approval per se, but to help make them fell welcome. We can do better.

  20. Whitney: if you see an analogy between Easter and wedding anniversaries, then that’s fine with me. I do not see it.

    I’m happy to hear that you look forward to the build-up toward Easter and that you get something out of that added emphasis.

    I also don’t give a flip about big Christmas productions at church. Making a big to-do about an occasion is not the way I worship—it doesn’t compel me in any way, and sometimes actually gets in the way of my worship. If you think that just because I don’t have a desire to spend my Easter/Christmas/etc. in “giddy celebration” that I must therefore reject those events as “good and exciting and sacred” then you are very wrong.

    And I never said anything about “rejecting” anything.

  21. So Brian, I guess my question is…what do you think should be a big deal? Humans like to celebrate. Jesus liked to celebrate. (Weddings and Passover and all that.) I’m pretty sure it’s in our nature. So if you’re not going to make a big deal out of the most sacred event of our faiths, what’s your standard?

  22. Whitney: I think you’re wanting me to fit into your mold.

    My “standard” is that I’m not particularly moved by recurring big to-dos. Something can be a “big deal” without being accompanied by a “big production,” and something is not going to be a “big deal” to me just because it is accompanied by a “big production.”

    In terms of organized religious events, my most important spiritual experiences did not happen in the middle of any big celebration; they happened on regular old Sundays. I don’t go to church because I’m moved by the occasional special program; I go because I get some small yet important thing out of church every week (sometimes even two or three very small yet important things).

    “Humans like to celebrate.” Yep, which is why I initially said that “I recognize the importance others put on the Easter holiday….” “Jesus liked to celebrate.” Good for him; I’m not trying to take that away from him or you. If both of you find that making a big production helps you to celebrate, then I won’t get in your way.

    On a personal note: I don’t think that Easter Sunday is really all that more special than any other Sunday. Sure, the first Easter Sunday was special, but now every Sunday I feel Christ inviting me to take the emblems of his sacrifice—to commune with him. That’s a big deal to me. A whopping big deal. What am I supposed to ponder on Easter Sunday that I don’t ponder every time I take the sacrament?

    {Here is a missing paragraph, re-written six times, then deleted because I still can’t figure out how to express the thought.}

    I wonder about C&E Christians: do they go to church on those days because they feel compelled to go on “extra special days,” or do they only go on those days because they don’t find the services on the ordinary Sundays valuable? Can a really good Easter program make up for that?

  23. Thanks, Brian. Not trying to fit you into a mold…I just don’t come across many people who don’t care much about celebrations. Or, “to-dos” as you put it. And that’s fine…I just wanted to flesh it out more.

    What stands out to me, though, is that it’s very much a personal preference for you. The LDS Church, on the other hand, makes a huge “to-do” out of Christmas, with intricately decorated temples, Tabernacle Choir productions, ward events, and non-member outreach. (The DC temple has a multi-night event for which it issues special invitations to members of Congress and other leaders, in addition to a night for regular visitors. I’ve been twice…it’s very impressive.) My friends joke about getting Pioneer Day off as a Mormon holiday. So…it’s not that I would expect the church to make the exact same effort for Easter–Christmas is a much more “visible” holiday than Easter in American culture, as opposed to cultures that reenact the Passion, or something like that–but I do wonder what it is that makes a globally recognized* High Holy Day so susceptible to being “just another Sunday” in some LDS wards.

    *I don’t mean that everyone observes Easter, obviously. Just like I recognize that Passover is a Big One for Judaism, that Diwali is a Big One for Hinduism, and that Ramadan/Eid ul-Fitr is a Big One for Muslims.

  24. As to your last question…I was pretty apathetic about faith/religion throughout college. But I still went to church on Easter, and when I was home during summers and over Christmas. For me, it was knowing that I should be making more of an effort to worship, but for various personal reasons, it’s not something I did as part of my weekly routine. Easter was always a Big Deal as I was growing up because of the extra focus and symbolism of the day…so for all the normal church routine that I rejected for those four years, Easter was where I drew the line. I don’t think I’d label it compulsion any more than my reinvigorated faith compels me to go to church/express my faith more often. Not going would have felt like I was being even more deliberately lazy and checked-out (and frankly, dishonest with myself) than I already was.

  25. I keep scanning the title of this post as “The C of E Problem.” Honestly? The Anglican Communion would be a more interesting conversation to me. Just saying.

  26. Whitney–this is why you must be Party Wife. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I often get uncomfortable during big religious celebrations, when I’ve been to them, because they seem overwhelming. And I can never shake the impression that some people seem to be putting it on, and acting more spiritually moved than they are. (I know, it’s not my place to judge, but insincerity makes me really uncomfortable.)

  27. Perhaps someone should write a post on his own heretical blog…

    Plus, I find it hard to believe you have nothing to say about the place of ritual celebration in religious practice. Dionysus would be pissed at you.

  28. Katy – word. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Also, I agree to a certain extent…I can’t handle Pentacostal churches for that very reason. Methodists like to celebrate, but…you know. We’re not prone to throwing our hands in the air. I also don’t think I could handle annual Passion reenactments involving actual nails and whipping. Maybe once, for experience. But not as a practice.

    And it’s true that people put on airs. It’s annoying. I don’t think it’s limited to celebration services though…there just tends to be a larger sampling of them there.

  29. Plus, I find it hard to believe you have nothing to say about the place of ritual celebration in religious practice. Dionysus would be pissed at you.

    I’m only interested in this kind of ritual celebration:

  30. Whitney: thanks for clarifying. I think you ask a good question about why the LDS Church does not play up Easter as much as other holy days. Just off the top of my head, I’d say it’s because:

    Easter decorations are harder to come by. Christmas decorations are obvious, ditto for Pioneer Day, but Easter? I can’t see the Church putting a bunch of bunnies and eggs all over Temple Square (to use the pagan symbols of the holiday, just as it wholly embraces the pagan symbols of Christmastime), so the only decorations left are the truly Christian ones—like crosses and…well, what’s another good Easter symbol? There aren’t really that many—maybe some white doves (not really Easter-specific though). But anyway, the Church isn’t going to put up a bunch of crosses now, is it? I think it’s left with a holiday that it can’t decorate for.

    That said, I think the norm is to have a special Easter program in sacrament meeting, the First Presidency issues a special Easter Message, an Easter devotional at BYU, an Easter Concert at the tabernacle—none of which, except the Mo-Tab concert, are really seen by outsiders (see Eric’s comment above). And even then, you’re right that the hoopla is much, much bigger for Christmas, at all levels of the Church. Not sure why—maybe partly from “riding the wave” of excitement that Christmas generates throughout American culture (secular and religious).

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