Clergy see Easter sermon as way to entice more faithful

2014-04-20T01:00:00Z 2014-04-20T22:46:05Z Clergy see Easter sermon as way to entice more faithfulJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

Pews fill up so much for Easter the faithful have to show up earlier than usual to find a parking space, and some churches even tack on extra services to accommodate the crowds.

Church attendance is higher on Easter than any other Sunday during the year, according to a 2012 study by LifeWay Research. A survey of 1,000 pastors found 93 percent ranked Easter as one of the highest-attended days, compared to 84 percent for Christmas and 59 percent for Mother's Day.

Priests and pastors have an opportunity to reach out to infrequent churchgoers who have nicknames like Creasters, an amalgamation of Christmas and Easter, or CEO, an acronym for Christmas and Easter Only. Churches have been placing emphasis on outreach as they cope with declining attendance and an aging core of devoted parishioners.

"You have to make people you don't always see feel welcome," said the Rev. Sammie Maletta, who presides over St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in St. John. "The message should be that that having an active faith life is a positive that will make their lives better."

During the Easter service, Maletta will conclude a Lenten series of homilies aimed at convincing parishioners the church should become an evangelizing parish that focuses on welcoming new people.

"Our Holy Father has called on us to be more concerned for the poor and disenfranchised, and for a new evangelism," he said, referring to the pope. "There are international efforts to make our church more welcoming. Anyone coming to our church will find there are no comments here. No one will be chastised for just coming on Christmas and Easter. They are welcome, for we would be less without them."

This Lent, his homilies have encouraged church members to develop more personal relationships with Christ and move in the direction of evangelism, such as by knocking on neighbors' doors and inviting them to church.

The Gospels call on the faithful to make disciples of all nations, and Catholics need to be more effective in doing that, Maletta said. They need to figure out how to best go about it, and can learn from Protestant churches that have placed more of a focus on evangelism.

St. John the Evangelist started a new ministry two years ago after meeting with the leadership team in Faith Church in Dyer. They learned spontaneous prayer, and now lay hands on and pray over parishioners with special requests after Mass. About 20 to 30 people with specific issues, such as a family member with cancer, sit in a chair and are prayed over.

"A study had the strong statistic that 52 percent of Roman Catholics do not believe they have a personal relationship with God," Maletta said. "The question is how to motivate them to draw closer to the Lord."

Church attendance has suffered across denominations, as society has grown more complacent, said the Rev. Darnell Johnson, pastor of the Mount Hermon Missionary Baptist Church in East Chicago. But high-intensity services, such as on Easter and Mother's Day, offer a great opportunity to encourage more people to develop direct connections to Christ, he said.

Johnson normally spends at least 30 hours a week preparing for a sermon by studying scripture to ensure he is accurately recalling what the passages really mean and offering his flock a true interpretation. But he devotes extra time to readying his words for the Easter service.

"Like Christmas, Easter has a sentimental and spiritual value to anyone of the Christian faith," he said. "It places an additional responsibility on the sermonic presentation to capture the essence of the journey to Calvary to be sacrificed, because that is that foundation of the Christian faith: that Jesus died for the sins of the world.

"It requires additional responsibility from a meditative standpoint, and time and preparation to make sure that story of his crucifixion lives year after year, and remains interesting and effective."

He also is trying to incorporate the youth into the Easter service, such as by having members of the church's youth department do dances and other performances.

The Rev. Charles Niblick, at St. Maria Goretti in Dyer, said his church strives to be welcoming to children, since congregations everywhere are shrinking and getting older. The young are crucial to the church's future, but are not as religious as previous generations because of technological distractions, he said.

"There's a cultural shift," Niblick said. "Catholicism had been an immigrant religion, and now it's the second or third generation and people find they can organize and live their lives very well, intentionally and consciously, without a creed or religion."

Niblick noticed fewer people attend only Christmas or Easter Masses at his parish. Some still go to church only sporadically, but many are so distant from the church now they no longer feel the need to observe major holidays.

"The pattern is if they leave, they leave," he said.

Previous generations went to church, signed up for bowling leagues and joined social clubs like Kiwanis International partly for a social experience and sense of community, Niblick said. But Facebook, Instagram and other social networks have removed barriers to communication, and made it possible to instantly talk to someone halfway around the world, rendering traditional gatherings obsolete, he said.

Young people often do not feel there is a need for religion, and mainstream Catholicism needs to figure out how to rejoin the conversation in a post-Internet world, Niblick said.

St. Maria Goretti reached out to younger congregants on Easter by having an Easter egg hunt and a concert by Australian composer Andrew Chinn on Saturday. Chinn, who writes Catholic worship music, also will teach children a new song as part of the Easter service.

"If we don't get though to the kids, we'll be dying as a community," Niblick said. "It's a very tough market with the young families, who have schedules filled with sports and school and activities. You have got to get a piece of their life, and got to start early to make church attractive for their children."

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