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.