Every year the Easter pitch doesn’t change. Ministry gurus have long told us that this holiday is the one time of year that the unchurched may walk through the doors of your church, so seize the day.
I still think this is true, but increasingly churches in the West face a new reality. Despite the consistent strength of the evangelical movement, attendance is down. Many attribute this to the decline of nominalism—when people give at least a feinting nod toward Christianity, even if they aren’t truly regenerate. Today, Easter pews are less full of the lapsed who come seeking to assuage “annual holiday guilt.” Instead, we’re finding a whole new generation of skeptical—perhaps even antagonistic—attendees. Churches are also challenged by shifting demographic patterns and rising immigration, bringing whole new people groups and adherents of other religions.
So how should this shape our Easter message? If churches just roll out a typical evangelistic presentation—one that assumes a basic Protestant understanding of Scripture—it likely will fall on deaf ears. People today may not be thinking about going to heaven when they die, because they may not believe in heaven at all.
Churches need to adjust, but not in ways that we might think. The temptation is to ramp up the attractional value of Easter, to show the “normalness” of Christians by giving away nice things or entertaining the masses with fun and games. There’s a place for this kind of creativity, but a bigger inflatable is not going to win over the skeptic.
Another temptation is to despair, to dig in and offer a defensive gospel loaded up with apologetic zingers that sound foolproof in the green room but fall flat to sophisticated ears.
Instead, what we need is a simple, fresh retelling of the ancient story. That’s because the Bible’s redemptive historic narrative is just the thing that postmodern ears need and, I would argue, crave to hear. The questions people are asking today about the presence of evil, justice, and their place in the cosmos are the very ones we find in Scripture.
Every person is attached to a narrative through which they see the world. Look deep enough and you’ll find someone’s core questions. They’re almost always the same: What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? Why is the world so messed up? Why can’t I do what I want to do?
I’m reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend born into another religion. In years past I would have been scared to even broach the topic of my faith. I didn’t know much about this man’s beliefs. How could I present a point-for-point rebuttal? But this time I tried something different.
I asked my friend to tell me why he loved his faith and how it answered the basic questions of life. Effusive about it, he was eager to share. Then I responded by saying, “Let me share with you why I find hope in the Christian story.” I told it, from creation and the fall to redemption and consummation. I finished by saying, “I don’t expect you to believe it, just as you don’t expect me to believe your faith story. But I do hope you find it compelling. I believe this is the only narrative that makes sense of the world.”
He came away, not repenting and ready for baptism, but genuinely interested in Christianity. Marveling, he said, “I hadn’t heard this about Christianity. I never heard the full story—only bits and pieces.” I wasn’t defensive. I wasn’t pushy. But I presented the gospel, in its fullness, to a newly captive audience.
I think part of the reason we are afraid to share the good news, at Easter or other times, is that we’ve convinced ourselves of two untruths. First, we’re sure that we have to “close the deal” and produce a conversion on the spot. Second, we’re sure that nobody wants to hear about Jesus anymore. It’s true that many are closed to the gospel message, but I suspect what they are closed to is the way we think we’re supposed to deliver it. If we instead tell the story the way the Bible presents it, if we lift up Christ in the compelling way He reveals Himself, many will hear and believe. People have in every generation since the birth of the church.
Rising skepticism, increasing pluralism, and the presence of other religions in our once-Christian communities are not a threat to gospel advance but a welcome opportunity to present the truth in a fresh way. We can lift up Christ as unique among the world’s many gods. When we do this—without shame, without defensiveness, without fear—the Holy Spirit does His work in the hearts of those who hear.
Illustration by Andrew Baker