(Photo: Saddleback Church)
Churches across the country have rented out sports arenas in anticipation of big crowds for their Easter Sunday services.
Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in southern California is preparing to pack out Angel Stadium with some 50,000 people on Sunday.
Even in Vermont – which polls have shown to be the least religious state – the Essex Alliance Church rented a university gymnasium to accommodate an expected 4,000 people.
"The University of Vermont is accustomed to having good sized gatherings at Patrick Gym. We hope to be one of the largest," said Lead Pastor Scott Slocum of Essex.
Attendance numbers at churches typically swell for many churches on Easter. For Saddleback, Easter and other special days like anniversaries have been crucial to the church's growth, Warren noted. This weekend, the California megachurch is celebrating its 30th anniversary at its Easter services and even a baseball stadium has proven to be too small for the event.
The church had to add a Saturday Easter service to accommodate the additional tens of thousands of people who wanted to attend.
"I am always stunned at how much you care for your friends who don't know Jesus and how you bring them to our worship services," Warren said in a note to his congregation. "It saddens me that people who need to be saved by Jesus will be turned away from Easter Sunday because even a stadium was not big enough."
Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the fastest growing churches in the country, will also be taking its Easter services to a sports venue – Time Warner Cable Arena.
Pastor Steven Furtick has asked his mega-congregation to "egg the city" by distributing plastic eggs containing tickets to the Easter worship service to friends and neighbors. The church expects an attendance of 10,000.
"They need to go to church somewhere on Easter. Everybody in Charlotte needs to be in church on Easter so they may as well come to church with you," Furtick said at a recent Sunday service, noting that people are usually open during Easter.
Elevation Church will also be gathering items such as food and clothing to "practically demonstrate the love of Christ" to the city.
"I think this is really going to be a great demonstration of what the body of Christ looks like when we walk in the resurrection power of Jesus," he said.
The big Easter celebrations come as a recent Barna Group study found that 31 percent of active churchgoers said they would definitely invite an unchurched friend to accompany them to an Easter service. Most active churchgoers said they would be open to doing this.