The invitations pop up on yard signs, in mail boxes and now even in tweets and on YouTube: Join us for Easter services.
Churches work year-round at attracting new members, but they ramp up the effort at Easter. Churches know that Easter — with its message of forgiveness and new life — is a time when even folks who haven't attended in years might consider stepping in the door.
“We recognize that Easter is when more people are willing to come to church and plug in,'' said Silas West, associate pastor at Omaha's Waypoint Church. “It's when people think about spirituality and faith.”
Clergy do more than attract people for Easter, often one of the biggest days for church attendance. Church leaders also plan steps to encourage them to return and become active members, whether it's by participating in a faith-sharing group or doing volunteer work.
Eileen Burke-Sullivan, associate professor of theology at Creighton University, said churches realize that pulling in new members is about more than filling pews and collection baskets.
“The function of the Christian church is calling people to Christ,'' she said. “It's what we exist for.”
Fulfilling that call can be more challenging than ever these days, and a survey by the Pew Research Center provides some evidence, she said. The survey released last year showed that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace, and now makes up one-fifth of the U.S. public.
West said his church is responding to the challenge, which is one reason it launched a first-ever direct mail effort for Easter. Waypoint, which was established five years ago and holds services at Norris Middle School, sent postcards to 20,000 households inviting people to Easter services.
King of Kings Lutheran Church in Omaha has spread the word about Easter services through such steps as yard signs and car magnets, along with Facebook and other social media, said Danelle Schlegelmilch, a church spokeswoman.
The church created a graphic with details about the service and encouraged members to post it on their own Facebook pages.
“It's like their own little personal billboard,'' she said.
This is the sixth year that King of Kings will hold its Easter services at the CenturyLink Center. It's expecting between 5,000 and 7,000 people. It's the 21st year the church has hosted Easter services at a place that can handle big crowds.
King of Kings figures that a neutral location like the arena is less intimidating than a church for people who haven't attended in a while, Schlegelmilch said.
Other Omaha-area churches using social media to invite people on Easter include The Waters Edge United Methodist Church, St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, Christ Community Church, Lifegate Church and St. John Lutheran Church in Council Bluffs.
While social media is an important tool, face-to-face invitations can be the most powerful, church leaders say.
Members at Lifegate receive cards with the date and time of the services, and are encouraged to invite friends, said Mike Ballard, associate pastor. Church members will give friends a ride to church or meet them at the front door.
“The key is, let's do it together,'' Ballard said.
Connecting with visitors once they walk in is essential.
During services at the CenturyLink, more than 100 King of Kings volunteers will serve as section hosts, welcoming people, answering questions and telling them about church activities.
The Rev. Craig Finnestad, pastor of The Waters Edge, said people who become involved in church activities are more likely to become permanent members.
Lindsay Ludden, her husband and their 5-year-old son joined The Waters Edge two years ago. Their son participates in Sunday school and the Luddens joined a small group in which members talk about the role faith plays in their lives.
Ludden said those activities helped her family develop friendships and feel they belong.
“We love the fellowship,” she said.
Activities at area churches include Bible study, yoga classes and volunteer work.
Church leaders say potential members are increasingly interested in volunteer work such as helping at homeless shelters, building homes for Habitat for Humanity and traveling to places like Uganda for mission trips.
“There are a lot of people who say faith is one thing, but you have to live differently,” said Mary Eileen Andreasen, director of adult faith formation at St. Wenceslaus. “It has to change your life in some way. A lot of people are seeking that.”
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