The perils of Easter preaching
Bigger crowds, importance of message and reptition pushes pastors to search for ways to find fresh approaches to the Resurrection.
By Jeff Brumley
Regardless of denomination, congregational makeup or worship style, crafting a fresh and compelling Easter sermon, year and year out, can be a major challenge for many pastors.
But the solution lies in the holiday itself, said Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
“You should preach Easter,” Younger said. “Anything else is a mistake.”
Stay away from messages told from the perspective of the stone that rolled away or the guard at the tomb, Younger said. Also avoid debating the nature of miracles or the historicity of the resurrection.
“It’s not a good day to show how clever you are,” Younger said.
The good news is there are many ways to share the Easter theme of overcoming death.
“You tell stories of resurrection because that is who we are,” he said. “And people who only show up once a year are better off hearing about the central beliefs of the Christian faith.”
ABPnews queried a number of Baptist preachers about how they intend to convey those themes this Easter. They wrote back to share their sermon topics and what, if any, challenges the holiday poses for them each year. Here is some of what they had to say.
Dennis Atwood, pastor of First Baptist Church, Mount Olive, N.C.
Atwood suspects his “Happiness After the Cross” sermon on Sunday may not win him any popularity contests. He will seek to challenge the American obsession with the “pursuit of happiness” with the reminder that Christ’s death was for much more than personal well-being and joy.
“I think Jesus is more interested in his followers ‘taking up their cross daily’ and living abundantly while helping bring the kingdom of God on earth,” Atwood said. “This flies directly in the face of the self-centered pursuit of happiness as the end goal of life.”
“I’m not counting on this sermon idea going over well with the Easter crowd,” he added. “But I feel strongly it is a much needed word of correction for us today.”
Amy Butler, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Washington D.C.
A decade of preaching has convinced Butler that the extra pressure she feels on Easter is for naught. “I am beginning to suspect that people don’t really care that much about the sermon,” she said. “They are there to hear the story one more time.”
And this time, Butler said that story will come from the passage in Luke when the disciples hear about – but don’t see – the resurrection. “I mean, nobody in that version of the story actually sees Jesus. So I wonder how we witness resurrection in our own lives.”
Kevin Glenn, senior pastor of Memorial Baptist Church, Columbia, Mo.
For Glenn, Easter is the beginning of a new series titled “Losing my Religion,” which is based on Acts chapters 3 and 4.
“The idea is to differentiate between the religious baggage that has cluttered Christianity, and the central message of the gospel -- resurrection, forgiveness, grace, hope, and love.”
With just three years in the pulpit, Glenn said he hasn’t found it a struggle – yet – to craft fresh Easter preaching ideas. “There are so many different people involved, and so many details from which to draw perspective, that it’s hard to imagine not finding a creative and fresh way to tell the story.”
Mart Gray, pastor of Covenant Community Church, Elba, Ala.
The church will watch an Easter musical on Sunday, leaving Gray to deliver a brief meditation titled “Dancing Past Easter.”
Long or short, Gray said he lets the lectionary guide his topics for Holy Week and Easter. “I don’t know if I’m always creative or diverse in my thoughts, but I have never felt a great deal of angst about telling the same story from a different perspective.”
The crowded sanctuary doesn’t bother him much, either. “However, I do feel very intimidated by trying to ‘open’ the Easter story in the minds and spirits of the congregation in such a way that brings a bit more illumination to all that Easter could and should mean to us.”
Todd Higginson, pastor of White Oak Baptist Church, Clayton, N.C.
Higginson said he will preach a sermon Sunday titled “Come and See,” which presents how Jesus’ resurrection should inspire Christians to share with the world that there is victory over death.
With eight years in the pulpit, Higginson said it’s gotten easier to preach on Easter each time.
“Easter sermon preparations have become simpler for me over time when I allow for Christ's resurrection narrative to shine without fiddling around too much with my own interjections.”
Rodney Kennedy, lead pastor of First Baptist Church, Dayton, Ohio
Kennedy said he will preach a sermon on the resurrection titled “God’s Big Bang.”
“I see Easter as the second big bang and thus the power that created the universe is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead,” Kennedy said. “Part of the rhetorical strategy is to use the knowledge of science and have it pay homage to the creating, resurrecting power of God.”
Kennedy said he feels no more pressure or nervousness on Easter than he does on any other Sunday – because he feels the drive to preach the perfect sermon every week.
“Preaching on Easter is hard only if I make the mistake of getting in the way of the story.”
Sarah Jackson Shelton, pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant, Birmingham, Ala.
Shelton said she will preach on Luke 24:1-12 on Sunday. The passage tells of the disciples’ reaction to the women’s news of resurrection, considering it to be an “idle tale.” Shelton said she does not mind if it’s a story worshipers have heard before.
“Just like at Christmas, I believe that people come to church to receive the comfort of this familiar story,” she said. “I do not worry about what feels repetitious. A good story should always be told more than once! That is our privilege to tell this story again at Easter (and at Christmas).”
Shelton has been preaching now for 12 years and said she does feel those butterflies when she takes to the pulpit on Easter morning. “Those ‘nervous jitters’ tell me that the message of the gospel is still vibrant….”
Craig Sherouse, senior pastor of Second Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
On Easter, Sherouse will deliver the concluding sermon in a series titled “Handelings of the Messiah,” based on the scriptural texts used in Handel’s famous work. The Easter message will be on “Hallelujah!” and the hallelujah chorus from Revelation 19.
“Easter has always been the most challenging day to preach for me,” said Sherouse, who has pastored five churches in a 37-year career. “What better subject and crowd, but the pressure is immense.”
Coming after an intense Holy Week adds to the pressure – as do the packed sanctuaries. “The crowds, drama and opportunity all make me want to do my very best.”
Susan Sparks, senior pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York City
Sparks’ will preach a sermon framed around a bar in Chapel Hill, N.C. called “He’s Not Here,” because bartenders always answer the phone with that phrase. She’ll draw parallels to the passage in Luke, in which it is declared that “He’s not here, He is risen.”
“The lesson: We all get ‘calls’ in the tombs of life; do we hide in fear and shame, offering excuses like ‘he's not here,’ or do we transcend the fear, answer the call and, like Jesus, take life back?”
Sparks said she’ll be dealing with her own fears on Sunday. “I've learned to trust the voice I've been given, but on Easter the old doubts and questions tend to come out more: Is this worthy of Easter? Is this theologically sound? Inspiring? Memorable? Will the world be transformed in the 15 minutes it takes to preach?”
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