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Easter fills pews for one Sunday
Local church leaders seek to bring Christian faithful back more often
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Many Christians who perhaps haven’t been to church often this year will don their Easter Sunday best and flock to their parishes today.

Local ministers said while they wish their congregation would attend services weekly, they are thrilled to see a full church on Easter Sunday.

“It’s a running joke that sometimes we only see people twice a year,” said the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham with Grace Episcopal Church. “But I’m in the camp that actually enjoys that, for lack of a better word. I think it’s fine if people come twice a year because I think it’s fine that people come at all.”

The Rev. Bill Coates from First Baptist Church said he never aims anything toward his parishioners about only coming once or twice a year.

“I’m glad they come even if they come twice a year, because there’s always the possibility it will ignite something and make them want to come more often,” Coates said.

Coates is expecting more than 2,200 people between three Easter services today. An average good Sunday, he said, has about 1,300 people between two services.

The Rev. Calvin Haney of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church is expecting about 400 today, over an average of 220 in attendance. But Haney said he realizes some of the increase in attendance on Easter is due to the number of people who want to be at their own church with their entire family.

“We will obviously have those who are coming to church because it’s Easter,” Haney said. “But I think during the year, we have a lot of people who travel and all the little things that go on. Easter is important, so they lay everything aside for that Sunday. I think that’s a part of the reason Easter attendance is altered.”

Higginbotham said Grace Episcopal Church will usually have 600-700 people on Easter Sunday, and he makes a point of making sure they feel welcome.

“What I usually do on Easter and Christmas as well is just make a point to welcome people who have come to join together,” he said. “... The message that I guess I would want to get across to them is that they’re welcome, and that hopefully they feel something in that space and in that community that might make them feel intrigued and want to explore coming more often.”

Higginbotham said there is no need or room for people to feel guilty on Easter, and he would never want to say something that would make people feel that way.

Coates joked that he hasn’t yet figured out how to reel everyone in on Easter Sunday and get them back the next week.

“What I do though, is always hope the service is so effective and joyous that people who maybe have been out of church awhile or just check in twice a year might think, ‘Maybe there is something here for me after all,’” he said.

Terry Walton with First United Methodist Church is expecting between 2,500 and 3,500 people for Easter services. His  average Sunday has between 900 and 1,100.

He chooses creative ways to encourage his congregation to participate more.

“We try to make Easter a service that really is a celebration of resurrection,” he said. “But we also try to put information out about what’s coming up that will be a benefit to their families.”

He said they will be sure to let everyone know about spring and summer programming they can get involved in at the church. At Christmas, the church passes out food bags to bring back two Sundays after Christmas with food for the food bank or pantry.

“We look at those creative ways to reach people when they walk in the door and get them to understand the church is really not a dry place,” he said. “It’s a place attempting to bring relevance and hope to their lives.”

It is possible for people to improve their church attendance after a particularly moving Christmas or Easter Service.

“Most years we will find a few people who we haven’t seen much of, and they show up for Christmas or Easter,” Coates said. “Then the next thing you know, they’re back the following week and stay with us.”

Coates said people often ask him, “Why is Easter so important to Christians?” And he loves to consider the answer, because it is not the day Christians believe Jesus died for man’s sins, but the day he rose from the dead.

“I like what it says about God and about who Jesus is,” he said. “If Jesus was raised from the dead — as we as Christians believe — then he had to be more than just a man. That is so simple, but it’s the foundation of the Church. And I just like thinking about that.”