This Easter Sunday is going to be unlike anything in living memory.
It’s likely every person reading this post has been impacted by the fight against coronavirus over the last few weeks. In most states, public gatherings have been limited or restricted. Many churches we work with have canceled services at least through Sunday, April 5–Palm Sunday. That specific Sunday was chosen intentionally, with some sense of lingering hope that churches can “get back to normal” and gather in person for Easter.
Most churches I’ve spoken to or heard from have already made the hard decision, even if it isn’t public yet. To move forward with a full, in-person gathering–even a few weeks from now–would go against almost all local, state, national and global health recommendations being made by scientists, doctors, and health professionals. Schools here in Indiana are closed through May 1 and some states (Kansas and Virginia, at the time of writing this post) have canceled the remainder of their school year.
I understand how hard the choice to cancel individual church services, and especially Easter services, feels. Canceling feels like giving up control. It takes us out of a place of routine and familiarity. It stirs up feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration and even fear. When we delay making any hard decision, personally or in leading a church, it feels like our only way to keep those uncomfortable and unwanted feelings at bay, at least a little bit longer. It’s less about the decision itself and more about our own grief and disappointment. Thousands of churches are wading through this and countless pastors are wrestling with choices they never imagined they’d have to make.
In the Gospel of John, the writer paints a picture of Mary Magdalene going to Jesus’ tomb the morning after he died. There’s something powerful in her willingness and choice to simply be present, to get up out of bed and walk to the tomb. I can imagine myself being in the same position and using the deep and devastating reality of a crucified Jesus as a reason to sleep in, to isolate, to just hide. But because Mary was willing to step into an uncertain future, she “went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.”
You know how the story unfolds from there: she sprints to Peter and John, telling them Jesus’ body is missing. They all run back to the tomb and see with their own eyes this troubling, confusing news. The cloth was still there, but Jesus’ body was gone. In the NIV, verse 9 is in parenthesis and says, “(They still do not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” Outside the tomb, Mary stood crying. Jesus meets her, speaking her name and surely bringing a joy she had never experienced before.
We do not understand all that is happening in our world right now. The science, the scope and scale, how long closures and isolation will last. We only see in part what God knows in whole and so we are left with disappointment, sadness and anxiety. For some, it’s a daily choice to get out of bed and face this new reality we’re in now.
If you are willing to choose hope and faith, we can have our own moment of meeting Jesus in the midst of disappointment and confusion. This is what Jesus has to offer us and what the Church has that no other company or organization can lay claim to: a hope that does not disappoint.
The history of the Church is filled with stories of unexpected twists, unwelcome oppression, disappointments, confusion and more. It’s also filled with stories of perseverance, resilience, hope and the faithfulness of God. If you need encouragement as you face hard decisions, be encouraged that the Church will not fail and that God is inviting us into a unique moment, to co-create with Him new ways of experiencing resurrection comfort and love, ways we couldn’t have imagined even a few weeks ago.
As you make the decision to not meet in-person for Easter in the coming days and weeks, here are a few things to keep in mind as you move forward in faithfulness to your people:
Nothing about the Gospel or the Church is at risk in these times.
Our “success” can only be faithfulness to what God is calling us to do, not numbers or events.
Scientists and public health officials have made very clear recommendations that we should not be gathering in large groups right now.
Though there are voices in the public conversation pushing for a quicker return to normalcy, wisdom says to listen to the science and the facts over any kind of wishful thinking. If you are afraid of looking fearful by not gathering or returning to meet on Easter Sunday, remember that it is wise to limit gatherings. Protecting the health and wellbeing of everyone is the wise choice.
God has not been caught off-guard by all of this.
The Spirit is ever-present and always active, working in ways we can’t fully comprehend or see. Trust that as you move forward God is still the one drawing people to Himself, empowering people to grow in their faith, and meeting needs that we aren’t able to.
You have a unique opportunity to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection in a new way.
Expectations (kind of) go out the window at this point. Keep things simple, but look for ways you can try something new, take risks and share the Gospel in a compelling way that is both celebration and comfort in this season.
Empower the people of your church to take ownership of Easter.
It was never enough to just come to church, sing some songs and listen to a message. The church staff was never meant to do all of the ministering and serving. Rally people to find ways to celebrate Easter, serve others and be a light in a season that may feel very dark to others.
Keep things simple.
You shouldn’t try to replicate the elements of past Easters. Paint on a clean canvas and ask yourself, “What is the simplest way we can share the Good News, celebrate the resurrection and love people well?”
We know there are hard decisions ahead, but we also know that God is faithful and He has promised to make all things work for His good. Rest assured knowing that the celebration of Easter is not dependent on you, because God is already at work. Christ is risen and He is with you.