The final countdown to Easter Sunday is here. Churches across the nation are putting the final touches on sermons, worship songs and preparation for large crowds on a day when many unchurched and dechurched decide to attend services.
Willow Creek Community Church is anticipating a crowd of more than 40,000 people at one of their six Easter services on April 7 and 8. Creative Director Blaine Hogan said that Easter services are a challenge because they come so soon after Christmas, and it's always a question of, "How do I make it new or different this year."
He noted on the South Barrington, Ill., church website that the hardest part of planning for services is coming up with the initial idea or theme for the year. But once that is done, things begin to fall into place.
This year, he said, Willow Creek is looking at more than just the resurrection and final days of Jesus' life. They are starting the story in the Garden of Eden and looking at the fall and resurrection through the lens of five key words: Love, Evil, Remedy, Choice and Restoration.
"We came to the conclusion that oftentimes when you tell the Easter story, it can kind of feel like you've entered the theater during the last minutes of a movie. So you kind of get the story and kind of get the meaning of the ending but really when we look at the metanarrative it's really a story that's meant to be told as a complete whole – the beginning, middle and the end," he explained.
The creative portion of the service will look at Love, Evil and Remedy and then Bill Hybels, founder and lead pastor of Willow Creek, will preach an Easter message on Choice and Restoration.
Other churches are focusing on a more theatrical side of the Easter message. In Canada, Church of the Rock, which describes itself as a charismatic, interdenominational, evangelical church, puts on a full rendition of the resurrection using pop culture icons.
"Nobody on the planet does it quite like Church of the Rock. We have taken the amazing story of the resurrection and have presented it in modern parable form that can only be described as 'Hollywood does Easter,'" said Pastor Mark Hughes on his blog.
While their Good Friday services are more traditional and centered around the passion of Christ, "Easter ... is something all together different," he described.
In previous years the church has performed "The Wrath of Khan," featuring the death and resurrection of Captain Kirk of Star Trek, as well as "Pirates of the Galilean." This year, they are featuring: "Batman and Robin in The Dark Night: An Easter Story."
Some church culture experts wonder if these event-driven services might be doing a disservice to the real message of Easter.
Matthew Anderson, author and church culture blogger, told The Christian Post in a previous interview that he understands the church's desire to spread the news of Easter, but there is a danger that lies in advertising and marketing as it can often "render [the church's] services as an event rather than the most unique thing in the world."
The church, he said, needs to start looking again at its missional focus.
Gimmick driven events at Easter, Anderson said, strike him "as an attempt to grab the news cycle by creating an experience that gets people talking, regardless of whether they are really talking about merits of church or works of Christ. Gimmicks neuter the power of the message."
The Easter message is one that martyrs have died for, he emphasized. Anderson said that gimmicks and event-driven initiatives make these martyrs' stand for Christ "cheap and trivial. It's disrespectful to Christians who have gone before and died for this message."
Hogan of Willow Creek acknowledged the difficulty of balancing creativity and art with presenting a clear message.
"We have a lot of creative freedom here," he stated. One of the hardest parts of planning such big services as Easter, he said, is "trying to find the line between what is art and what is clear and is there a difference?"
"As Christians we tend to want to veer on the side of clarity," Hogan said. What Willow Creek is looking to do is marry the two and give attendees "an experience that moves them."