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Pews will fill with holiday faithful

Preachers happy for full house, even if it's just twice a year

POSTED: April 3, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED The Times/

Children waving palm fronds enter the church at the beginning of the Palm Sunday service March 16 at the First Baptist Church on Green Street. Though churches often are very crowded on Palm Sunday, the biggest crowds traditionally are seen on Easter Sunday.

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Drive by any church in the Gainesville area today and you're likely to see a lot more cars than usual.
Today is Easter, the day Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many Christians consider it to be the most holy day of their faith.

It is also the day that more people come to church than any other.

For ministers, it's the day you will likely preach to your biggest crowd of the year. All of the pastors interviewed for this story embrace the idea of appearing before their largest annual audience, but privately ponder why many will not be back next week.

"Easter is an event we welcome," said the Rev. Doug Dailey, rector of Grace Episcopal Church. "It's wonderful to have all these folks come out to celebrate the central feast of the Christian faith, which is the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Dailey says he slips in a subtle reminder that the church is here 51 other Sundays a year.

"I've heard of pastors who will stand up and say, ‘We'll see y'all on Christmas.' I would never do that. We want to gather and celebrate," he said.

The Rev. Matt Wethington, pastor of Riverbend Baptist Church, welcomes the Easter crowd, but acknowledges that it troubles him.

"It bothers me," Wethington said. "It bothers me from the standpoint that they're not here and they are missing so much. It's not that I wished they would be here so the worship center is full, like it is on Easter, but more of what they're missing each week in study, worship and fellowship."

But the Christian faith is not alone in having higher attendance on high holy days.

Jewish congregations traditionally experience their highest attendance on the observance of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which take place in September or October, depending on the Jewish calendar. Some congregations charge admission for nonmembers on the two holidays. Ticket prices of $250 to $350 per person are common in larger cities.

The Rev. Dr. William L. Coates Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church on Green Street, said he learned while recently visiting Turkey that the same may be true in the Muslim faith.

"We had a Muslim guide and I asked him if he was a practicing Muslim," Coates said. "He told me that he went to the mosque only during Ramadan."

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar when a period of daytime fasting is observed.

The Rev. Dr. Terry Walton, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Gainesville, said his church, which has 3,000 members, will see almost that many people come through the doors today.

"It's the day that everybody who has a faith comes to their church," Walton said. "That doesn't happen every Sunday. People seem to come in shifts, at least Methodists do. But on Easter and Christmas Eve, everybody that has a faith comes."

But why that surge in attendance on a single day?

"I think they have a God-shaped void in their life," Walton said. "And on Easter and Christmas Eve, those who have not had a bad experience with religious people and religious institutions will gravitate to a place because there is a higher sensitivity in the community about its availability."

For Coates the answer remains a question.

"I don't know," he said. "I know a lot of people don't necessarily believe in the church. So, people who have a genuine faith, I guess they have a need to express it on Easter and Christmas. I wish it weren't that way. To genuinely follow Christ means to be a part of the body, the church, and worship faithfully and regularly."

Wethington said tradition plays a role for the once- or twice-a-year attendees.

"Most of us, in this area, the Bible Belt, are familiar with church," he said. "The two times that were really promoted and encouraged were Christmas and Easter. I think there is a feeling that tradition says I need to go to church, based on a family or community custom. They may not understand what Easter is all about."

Dailey said the human condition plays a role.

"There are all sorts of things in life that come up to keep us away from church on a particular Sunday or maybe lots of Sundays. But when the high holy days come around, we want to be there."

The pastors said that one of the greatest rewards is when someone likes what they see and hear and show up the next week.

"They realize, ‘Hey, I need this every week' and will keep coming back. That's a praise and a blessing and we're excited about that," Wethington said.

For Walton, it's a welcome for everyone.

"We try to be gracious hosts," Walton said. "I don't get bothered by people who just come Christmas and Easter. I'm glad they come anytime and hope they get excited enough to come more."


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