I assumed it was a circus advertisement.
The flyer advertised “the big top” with bright and colorful banners. Fire-eaters and clowns were promised, as was carnival food, games, and giveaways. Bemused, I went to throw it away, then looked more closely and realized that it wasn’t an ad for a circus.
It was an ad for a local mega-church’s Easter service.
This isn’t unusual. My mother informed me recently that a local church in her area is giving away a trip to Pigeon Forge on Easter Sunday. My mailbox has been full of promotional material from local churches promising giveaways, raffles, movies, major events, prizes, carnivals, games, and fun.
This bothers me.
I understand, of course, the fundamental motivation behind it. Easter Sunday brings a lot of visitors to churches, some of whom have never attended and some of whom haven’t attended in a long time. It’s one of the biggest days, apart from Christmas, for outreach and evangelism, for bringing people in. In fact, I imagine that’s the motivation behind all of these festivals and circuses and giveaways: bringing people in.
But if “bringing people in” means rendering the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ secondary to a glorified carnival—if “bringing people in” means, at least on the outside, turning Easter into something that even secular people wouldn’t instinctively associate with the holiday—we’re doing something horribly wrong. Why are we so obsessed with making our churches look not at all like churches but instead of like slickly-branded coffeehouses with inscrutable logos? Why are we so afraid to express the solemnity and the joy and all the complex wonder of Easter that we instead wrap a cheap carnival or a slew of consumer goods around the message?
I’m not a killjoy, I swear. I grew up celebrating Easter as a Christian, and I also celebrated the silly secular fun of the holiday—Easter baskets, egg hunts—with it. I understood that this was not the meaning or the purpose of the holiday, and yet I delighted in Reese’s eggs (I still do, to be honest) and, when I was little, the “Easter bunny prints” my mom made on the carpet with flour. I don’t begrudge anyone who enjoys some candy, some fun festivities, or a good brunch on Easter Sunday. I understand that churches might want to apply a little polish and shine a little brighter on that day.
Yet I am alarmed, nevertheless, by how divorced Easter seems to have become from its purpose in God’s own house. In a church growing disturbingly more defined by consumer culture and material goods, do we really want to advertise Easter as the holiday of free giveaways and throwaway festivals? I already worry about how much churches have turned worship and Scriptural learning into congregant-centered wish-fulfillment machines where novelty and fun and new and more exciting experiences are the order of the day; do we really need to double down?
Mostly, though, I am concerned about the message we are sending, which is primarily this: Jesus isn’t enough.
When I was little, my doctor used to prescribe me cough medicine that, he said cheerfully, “tasted just like bubblegum!” It did not taste like bubblegum. It tasted like a doctor’s sad approximation of what bubblegum should be. But the bubblegum wasn’t the point: the bubblegum was a lure. It was meant to entice me in to consume the medicine that was good for me but that was also sort of gross. It was a bait and switch.
When we cloak Resurrection Sunday in circuses and carnivals and giveaways, we’re sending the same sort of message, intentionally or not. Jesus is good for you, but we don’t expect you to be interested in Him for His own sake! So come and have a few hot dogs and watch a few fire-eaters and we’ll sneak the Good Word into your heart!
It’s not that these incentives never work; I’m sure they do, actually. For a time, at least. But the older I get and the more I think about Easter and Christ’s sacrifice, the less I’m sure that they should. Easter Sunday is wild joy and celebration, yes, but it’s a wild joy that emerges from unspeakable pain, suffering, and sacrifice. As believers, our lives are meant to mirror the actions of Christ: we die to self. We kill the old, and are reborn as new creations. That process isn’t always glamorous, or fun, or easy. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s just plain work. Sometimes it’s hard. The renewal and delight of Easter Sunday is inseparable from the grit and blood and sorrow of sacrifice. I wonder if in our desire to offer a happy “fun” Easter we miss out on the enormity of what it means to be born again, to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Moreover, when we cloak Easter in fluff and cheap fun, or when we dress it up with expensive giveaways and money, we undercut and subvert the very heart of what the day is meant to be about. Is our job as believers not to always prioritize the message? The wonder? The impact of what it meant for a holy God to walk among His people, to suffer and die, and then to conquer everything just to provide a way for them to remain with Him?
When Mary no doubt ran back, breathless and panting, to the disciples, her message—He’s alive!—was enough. It was everything. When Jesus came and stood in the center of that room crowded with his fearful, sorrowful friends—when they looked at the face of the man who was their God, who had died and come back to them—the truth must have whip-snapped into their hearts. He’s alive! The fear fell away. The sorrow disappeared. When Thomas actually reached out and touched a scar—when His resurrected God encouraged Him to test out the truth—He immediately forgot all his doubts. My Lord and my God!
The lure of Easter isn’t—or shouldn’t be—free food or cool stuff or face-painting or, heaven help us, fire-eaters. The lure of Easter is a risen Christ. The lure of Easter is death destroyed. The lure of Easter is the promise of a future and a hope: no more tears, no more pain, grace in abundance, a second and third and fourth and nine hundred and thirty-secondth chance for anyone who asks, the promise of a redeemed creation, of a new heaven and a new earth.
The lure of Easter is that the happy ending is real, and the bad stuff isn’t forever.
The lure of Easter is that God wanted to make it that way even though we don’t deserve it.
And my sadness, as I looked at that pamphlet of fire-eaters and garish red and gold and balloons and smiling clowns, is that even we—the people who should surely know better—feel driven to couch that joy in something cheap and consumable and shiny and distracting in hopes that it will “bring people in.”
But even if it does, it doesn’t keep them there. Only Jesus can do that. And we’d be wise not to forget it—to forget Him—in our efforts to appeal to everyone we want inside the doors.