I used to attend a church where every Sunday was a celebration, but Easter was so riotous I sometimes wondered if we were planning to overturn and burn cars in the parking lot afterward. We never did, but don’t read too much into that since I never openly suggested it.
I’ve really only been part of a similarly unhinged public celebration in one other location: at a particular sports-centered wings establishment during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. I remember in particular the scene one night during Adam Morrison’s senior year, when the restaurant was inarguably more crowded than the fire marshal would ever tolerate, and the standing-room only crowd screamed and brayed in unison as events unfolded on the dozen or so screens broadcasting four simultaneous games around the room. For every bucket there was a cheer and a groan, but even in the midst of what I assume to have been some gambling-induced disappointment on the part of at least half those present, the room had a sense of community and explosive joy that I hadn’t felt since the raucous Easter’s at the aforementioned church. We numbered several hundred, but we were together and we were having fun.
I’ve never attended a church that had anything remotely close to that much joy and enthusiasm about anything since that brief time (I didn’t live there incredibly long), but it’s been on my mind as Easter approaches. You see, for as much as evangelicals like to talk about putting Jesus at the center of our lives, Easter always make me wonder just a little bit; it seems to me that if Jesus really was the leader and most important person in our religious communities, celebrating Easter would probably be more unhinged and less (for lack of a better word) ‘churchy.’
You know what I mean. There are different types of celebrations; a wedding reception is (one hopes) as different from an office birthday party as possible. But if I stipulate that a wedding reception is typically a laughter and dancing filled celebration of two people, whereas an office party is little more than an obligation to exchange pleasantries of indeterminate sincerity while eating cake in the middle of the day without being judged, which picture is more like Easter at many churches?
Optimists will answer, ‘the wedding reception,’ but I have my doubts. One glaring problem is the nature of the gathering, of course: a wedding reception is spectacularly focused on one thing only, whereas office politics are present even at social events; as a result, wedding receptions function as though there is no tomorrow (and there arguably isn’t for the specific collection of attendees), while the office party is as dominated by yesterday’s power struggle and tomorrow’s meeting as any other work interaction. But since churches resemble the office gathering in that respect – politics are ever present, and you will all presumably see each other again next week – the results are often similarly restrained.
Another key point of comparison arises in the guest list. The wedding reception admits only those who have been vetted, approved, and invited by the celebrants, whereas the office party presumably admits any stiff hired by HR. One is a recipe for friendships and fun, the other begets opportunities for The Office Creep to corner you. Call me cynical, but in my experience, Jesus calls people with problems, not the well-adjusted and ‘normal’ people you and I would choose; consequently, churches (and thus Easter) are packed with a social menagerie that resembles the guest list at an office party, not a wedding.
I reassert my claim: at many churches, Easter is more like an office party than a real celebration.
There are major problems in the world. This is not one of them. Even so, I hope we can all agree that putting Jesus at the center of church life is of vital importance and a worthy goal; if so, I hope we can also agree that a generally blasé feeling about the commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection – and His resultant ongoing life – runs broadly against that goal.
That’s not the only reason that this matters, however. Being at that eatery during the NCAA tournament wasn’t at the center of anyone’s existence that night (unless there were some illegal bookies present; for them, maybe it was at the center), but it was one of the most fun experiences of my twenties. I’d always enjoyed the tournament before that night, but that night changed it for me forever. I look forward to it each year now more than I did before, and I relish it when it arrives, even if I’m sitting alone on my couch. One transcendent night has made all the ones since more enjoyable, because each tournament since then reawakens just a little of that joy from within me.
I won’t argue that church should be more fun. But since I know that it could be, and since I know how long the residual emotional buzz from a particularly fun experience can last, why aren’t we trying a little harder? Is the idea that people would feel fondly towards a church holiday – and maybe even the faith – seven years after an amazingly fun Easter so terrible?
Any of you who’ve recently planned – or should I say paid for – a wedding reception, of course, have already identified a crucial parallel between the office party and Easter: the size of the budget for said celebration. That’s a difference worth mentioning, but not because I think churches should spend tens of thousands of dollars to make Easter fun. It’s worth mentioning because one thing all that wedding reception money buys – one thing absent from most office parties – is serious planning. So if my little rabbit trail has started you thinking, permit me to offer that as a suggested starting point: serious planning.
It’s a case that could be made about every Sunday, or about Christmas, or about any one of a number of church dates, really. But Easter is supposed to be the high point of the Christian calendar, for obvious reasons, so it seems like a logical candidate to me. So what if the value of Easter was reflected in more intensive planning and more intensive efforts? Might it be less like an office party and more like remembering the resurrection of Jesus is central to our lives? I know I wouldn’t mind, as long as it doesn’t end up with people roasting cars in the parking lot.