Area churches find hope in Easter

Holiday of new life helps rejuvenate faith, membership
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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For many Christian churches, Easter is a time of renewal in more ways than one.

Whether driven by guilty consciences or family traditions, members flock to the pews every year for their religion’s most important holiday. They refill cathedrals and auditoriums with a vigor their leaders struggle to keep alive the rest of the year. Pastors at most Christian churches in Auburn say the Lenten season brings a significant rise in attendance for various reasons, but it rarely lasts.

Ken Winter, a pastor at Auburn Presbyterian Church, said his two Easter Sunday services collectively host far more people than the average Sunday service, but the inevitable drop off is soon to follow.

“It holds up pretty much through the season coming up to Easter, the season of Lent, and then there’s what we call ‘Cannon Sunday,’” he said. “After any major religious festival, people don’t show up, so it’s like you could shoot off a cannon and not hit anybody.”

This may be because of spring break schedules, travel plans or any number of reasons, Winter said. But they come for one reason – “hope” – and are sometimes driven away in the long run by indifference. He said nationwide statistics show a decades-long decline in church attendance, and the best way to bring people back is by making church a more personal experience with smaller faith groups.

At Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Auburn, Pastor Bryon Hansen said annual membership has remained fairly stable, but the Easter message certainly helps.

“I think it’s just a sense of central identity, people remembering again that they belong to God, and they want to go deeper into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection,” he said. “I think that works for people on a number of levels, and I think that’s what happens in a lot of people’s hearts and minds.”

Pastor Dan Spacek of the First Congregational Church of Auburn pointed out a distinction between attendance at individual masses, which peaks on Easter and Christmas, and official membership, which grew by almost 10 percent at his church last year but is generally stable. He said the heyday of popularity from the 1950s and 1960s is gone for many churches, but the United Church of Christ sees Easter as an opportunity to draw people who are not Biblical literalists and prefer a critical-thinking faith.

“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” he said. “I think it’s a question of relevancy. I think it’s a question of church not really keeping up with modern sensibilities. It’s not just about bending (belief) to fit all of that, but I think there’s a disconnect that has long been happening where churches just sort of expected people to come, and that’s not happening anymore.”

Cedric Lee, a pastor who leads non-denominational services at the Celebration Church of Auburn, said the Lenten season sends ripples through the culture that makes religion more visible to everyone, as with the popular Bible-based miniseries currently airing on The History Channel.

“I think there’s a combination of tradition, and it’s a time of the year when there is just more talk about Jesus, and it’s more in front of people, and it makes people think about the Lord and worshipping God and what they believe,” he said. “I think there are a number of people who maybe don’t normally go to church but tend to pick the holidays, like Easter and Christmas, to go.”

What that means in the long run was difficult for a non-denominational pastor like Lee to answer, as the situation is different for different churches.

“There are certain denominations, certainly the more traditional, main-line denominations, that are definitely losing members,” he said. “And there are others, especially more non-denominational churches and charismatic denominations, where their churches are growing.”

Rev Michael Carroll, a priest at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church, said his congregation returns every year for the joy and meaning they find in the message of the resurrection. He sees a full crowd most weeks, but his two Easter Sunday morning masses are standing-room only.

“I think there are Catholics that have kind of gone away, but they know where home is. They might not come that often, but they come at Easter,” he said. “Especially this time, since we got our new pope. He’s had a tremendous effect on attendance. They all wanted a priest. He’s the pope, but he seems to be able to relate to people … with the things that he is saying – ‘Live your life and don’t be ashamed.’”

Carroll said as long as the church follows Easter’s message of hope, the rock of tradition will remain strong, and the people will come.

“Even though sometimes you’ll hear criticisms and everything, people want the sacraments, and they want their local church to be credible,” he said. “I’m Irish, and I go to England and Ireland, and any place where the clergy are working and welcoming, people are there. It doesn’t matter where in the world.”