Each year, the Finke family teams with our neighbors to host an Easter Sunrise Gathering in our neighborhood. It is a simple undertaking that has had powerful long-term results. For instance:
- Neighbors who are not yet ready for church, willingly hear the good news of Jesus.
- Neighbors have a common spiritual experience that changes the status quo of relationships in the neighborhood. (Grace does that.)
- We have seen de-churched neighbors re-engage local churches.
- We have seen neighbors baptized in Jesus’ name.
None of this is even remotely surprising since Jesus is already on the loose in our neighborhood. And here’s the thing: He’s already on the loose in your neighborhood, too.
If you are ready to see what Jesus can do with an Easter gathering in your neighborhood, here is a simple plan for getting started. Easter is April 1 this year, so it’s not too late to plan yours. (No fooling!)
As You Begin...
- Keep it simple. Don’t approach this as you would a big church event with lots of moving parts. Instead, approach it as a low-key neighborhood gathering. The focus is fostering relationships… with Jesus and each other.
- Start small. Don’t shoot for LOTS of people coming from all over. Start with your immediate block. Give yourself the grace to start small and learn as you go.
- Check your motive. Is your real motive to get neighbors to eventually come to your church? (Been there done that.) Or is it for them to meet Jesus in the neighborhood? Remember, neighbors can smell your bait-and-switch tactics from a mile away, no matter how good your intentions may be. Instead, focus on simply introducing neighbors to what Jesus has done for them. Let Jesus be in charge of where they go from there. We will get much further if our neighbors know us as joyful Jesus-followers rather than church-sales representatives.
- Pray. Pray for the Lord of the Harvest to prepare the way in the lives of your neighbors. In fact, take a moment to start now… Invite many others to pray the same intercession. “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”
Some decisions that need to be made soon: (Note: Before you make final decisions, ask your immediate neighbors for their input. If you don’t yet know your immediate neighbors, honestly, it is probably best to postpone an Easter observation and instead plan a gathering where neighbors can get to know each other first.)
- Where will it be? Will you have the gathering outside or inside? In a home or in a public venue? In many parts of the U.S., being outside is a great option and capacity isn’t an issue. However, if you are where Easter weather is not so pleasant, gathering in a home or neighborhood club house makes sense. Plan to invite just enough people to fill the space, whether that be a small group or larger. If hosting is not your gift, ask someone who enjoys hosting to open up their home.
- What time will it be? The Finke’s stick with sunrise, which is usually around 7:00 a.m. in our area. (This year sunrise is 7:10 a.m.) Why have the gathering so early? Because the excitement of the original Easter kicked off at sunrise! But sunrise also works well because the gathering happens well before people have other activities. You might think early is not the best choice. But it works! We have gone from a few dozen people gathering the first year to well over 100 today. And most of the participants are not church-goers.
- What’s the win? In other words, what will success look like for you? Again, this is “motive-checking time.” Decide now that the win isn’t wrapped up in the quantity of people who come but in the quality of the time you have together.
Here’s how we do our Easter Gathering:
- Invite immediate neighbors to help. Something good happens when neighbors are invited to give of themselves for the good of others. You might think it is easier to do everything yourself. Don’t do it. When the gathering is something “we” (the neighbors) do together, the impact is deeper. Invite neighbors to help with things like the following:
- Bring chairs and tables
- Provide coffee, juice, donuts, paper products (etc.)
- Come a little early so they can welcome other neighbors as they arrive.
- Help with the devotional part of the gathering (see below).
2. Get information about Easter out to the neighborhood approximately 10 days early. The Finke’s use social media, printed fliers, word of mouth among neighbors and a yard sign to invite people to participate. We work hard not to use churchy words. Remember, this is a neighborhood gathering not a Festival Worship Service.
Here is a sample of what we include:
- “Join Your Neighbors on Easter Morning!”
- When: Sunrise, April 1, 7:10 a.m.
- How Long: 30 minutes-ish (plus coffee and conversation time)
- Where: In the green space at the end of Wickford Court
- What to Expect: a reminder of what Easter is about, a message for the kids, some simple music and a great time with neighbors.
- Bring a lawn chair if you can
- Don’t know much about Easter? This is a good time and a safe place to find out more.
- Hosted by your neighbors on Wickford Court
3. Keep the devotional portion short. 25-30 minutes tops. For your neighbors “less is probably more.” So here is a sample of how we lay out the devotional part of the gathering:
- To start: we start with some simple guitar music to help alert people that we are gathering together (we have a simple altar area set up with a cross to help provide a focus for the space).
- Greeting: welcome them as neighbors. Remind them why we are gathered. Explain why sunrise.
- Song: with the music, be realistic. We may love big music on Easter - bands, orchestras, organs, bells, lots of hymns, etc. However, we are talking about a neighborhood gathering here not Festival Worship at church. Regarding group singing: less is also more. Our experience is that people are generally not comfortable with singing along. So, invite them to sing, but be ready for them to choose simply to listen. Keep the length of songs brief.
- Prayer: give thanks to God for the death and resurrection of Jesus to take away our sins (see sample below)
- Scripture Reading: read one of the Easter Gospels
- Kids' Moment: use Google to find one you like
- Devotion: Keep it brief and simple. 10 minutes or less. Invite everyone to receive Jesus’ love and forgiveness – after all it’s why He did all the work of suffering, dying and rising again. And then invite them to freely offer that love and forgiveness to their family, neighbors, coworkers and classmates every day. It’s what everyone needs.
- Prayer: pray for neighbors and the neighborhood (see sample below)
- A blessing: choose a blessing from Scripture to speak over everyone (see sample below)
- A final song verse
We have found great value in asking neighbors to help with the devotion:
- Someone can read the Easter Gospel
- Help with a kid’s moment
- Help with music
- Lead a prayer. Here’s a couple samples:
*Dear Jesus, thank you for dying and rising in order to take away our sins and make us right with the Father. Help us to believe that you love us that much. Help us to receive the love and forgiveness you freely offer each of us. And then help us to share that love with our neighbors who need it so badly. In your name we pray.
*Dear Father, we know you so loved this world and this neighborhood that you sent your only Son to die on the cross and rise again so that we would not perish but have abundant and eternal life. As we head back to our homes and into this new week, help us to freely receive your love and life and to freely give it away to others. In Jesus’ name we pray.
- Announce a closing blessing on the neighbors and neighborhood. Here’s a sample:
*The Lord bless us and keep us. The Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us. The Lord look upon us and this neighborhood with his favor. And give us his peace. Amen.
*From Luke 24, Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, “The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.” Remember his words. Believe his words. And now let’s go with him back into our neighborhood, our workplaces and schools so that we can be a blessing to the people there. Amen.
While we as Christians will place the highest importance on the devotional time of the gathering, the things that happen before and after the devotional time may be just as important for the non-Christian this Easter! Especially when you consider the long term. Remember, the friendly conversations and connections that happen before and after the devotional time set up ongoing conversations and connections over time. The good news of Jesus is the seed and the friendly conversation and connections are like the cultivation of soil so the seed has a better place to land.
Enjoy your Easter adventure with Jesus!
A final note for nervous congregational leaders:
In my 25+ years of pastoring, I have rarely seen 100 Lutherans gather for an Easter Sunrise Service in my congregations. And yet more than 100 people gather every Easter sunrise in my neighborhood. So here’s an idea: what if we stopped emphasizing coming to an Easter Sunrise Service at the church building and started preparing members to have Easter Sunrise Gatherings in their neighborhoods instead? Members can still come together for congregational worship later in the morning. Could this be a win-win, both-and opportunity?
Think of it this way: we can struggle to get a few dozen of our members to our congregational sunrise services, or we can send out a few dozen of our congregational members into their neighborhoods to do Easter Sunrise Gatherings. A few dozen becomes hundreds hearing the good news of Easter. If three dozen members have just 10 people each at a neighborhood gathering, that adds up to 360! Something to think and pray about…