tampabay.com

Churches use basket of Easter enticements

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published April 7, 2007


Easter Sunday marks the holiest day of the Christian calendar, but the holiday is also the high point of another important ritual for churches: recruiting season.

As churches celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they are increasingly involved in reanimating their own ranks by reaching out to people who might only come once a year.

Sometimes it's a matter of putting extra greeters in the parking lot or passing out cards to collect new names and addresses or even asking regulars to introduce themselves to new faces.

Some churches go to greater lengths.

In Tampa, Without Walls International Church is renting out the Sun Dome at the University of South Florida and preparing to stage an elaborate multimedia service.

The event will feature an "illustrated sermon" by pastor Paula White. The preaching will be coordinated with performances from a dance troupe and singing from gospel star Tye Tribbett. The church also plans a number of film clips including scenes from The Passion of the Christ and a musical accompaniment from the Batman sound track.

The whole event will be super-sized on six to eight JumboTron screens for the 10,000 attendees. Two years ago for Easter 2005, the church brought in famed singer Patti LaBelle.

It's all part of expanding the church's appeal beyond its regulars.

"It will be very strong. It will be very dramatic," said spokeswoman Sheila Withum. "And that, I think, is what you do on Easter - you do something special."

In a similar vein, Calvary Chapel of Pinellas Park is planning to hold its Sunday services in the Mahaffey Theater to attract a wider audience.

"We are an event-oriented culture," said associate pastor Dave Dodge. "But you can also be lost in the crowd."

Others have turned to large mailers to raise their profile around Easter. Pinellas Community Church mailed out 75,000 invitations to its Easter services in addition to handing out 1,300 water bottles on street corners, each bottle with an Easter invitation wrapped around it.

"What we do for this week, we definitely turn it up several degrees," said lead pastor Mark Canfield. "But it's something we do all throughout the year."

Island Chapel of Tierra Verde is holding its sunrise service on Fort De Soto beach. On a regular Sunday the church draws about 250 worshippers, according to pastor Mike Wetzel. But for this sunrise service he is expecting between 1,500 and 2,000.

"A lot of the current members we've had, the first time they've heard of us is for the big Easter service," Wetzel said.

Some groups are even offering gifts this Sunday. The River at Tampa Bay Church in Tampa plans to give out a $75 Easter basket to all first-time visitors on Sunday. One basket per family, the announcement warns. Kids under 12 get an Easter egg.

"Easter is the big day for Christianity. ... The day that churches will have the highest attendance," said Dell deChant, a religious studies instructor at the University of South Florida. "It's a great day for recruitment."

Of course, churches don't expect everyone to come back the week after Easter, but the fact that they're in church on that one Sunday offers a chance to entice some of them to come back more regularly.

"Easter and Christmas are much like what you would have at sweeps week for television stations," said John Bagwell, president of ChurchMax, a church marketing firm based in Dallas. "If you can't get people to come out for Easter with your marketing and advertising, then you might have a hard time getting them to come out for something else."

Even churches that take less aggressive marketing tacks are still conscious of reaching beyond the regulars on Easter Sunday. They're asking the regulars to park off-site or to come to less crowded early and late services. They're starting provocative sermon series on Easter Sunday, hoping people will come back week after week to hear more.

But many churches aren't planning to up their recruiting efforts, even if attendance is expected to swell.

"I don't know that we look at this as our opportunity to catch them and keep them coming back," said Father Len Plazewski, director of vocations at the Diocese of St. Petersburg. "Hopefully, the experience they have in terms of the liturgy and the preaching and the Eucharist is something that would want to draw them back."

He added that gimmicks like offering the best coffee and doughnuts in town - or exhortations to return - simply don't work because "we're talking about profound issues."

But church marketing and recruitment aren't going away, according to deChant, the religious studies instructor, especially not around Easter.

"There is no question that it is part of the American tableaux today," he said. "To do Christianity in America today, it is normative. It is acceptable to have recruitment efforts."

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com.