Death by Addition: A Reflection on Holy Week

By guest blogger Mark Foster, pastor of Acts 2 Church

In many churches, Holy Week is the high point of the annual church calendar. It’s also like the Super bowl and a marathon rolled into one. I’m always amazed at the number of extra events churches plan during holy week: noon lunches, men’s prayer breakfasts at 6am, extra Bible studies, special women’s get-togethers. And of course there are the traditional services: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and a sunrise service on Easter.

If we are not careful, we can find ourselves limping into Easter, the biggest Sunday of the church year, less prepared and more exhausted than on any of other week. By Holy Saturday, we’re wondering, “Am I really ready for this?”

I remember when Bob shared his metaphor of the path climbing the mountain. I thought, “That’s right, we are on a path and Easter is the peak! Yet, the way we are going about it is ridiculous, because at the very moment when we need to be our lightest and most nimble, we are adding weight to our backpacks. We are thinking, ‘The youth needs this, our children need that, and don’t forget to bring this tradition along too,’ and it’s killing us.”

I understand the weight of tradition. I grew up in a parsonage family as my father was a United Methodist minister. I then became a United Methodist minister and served in churches before planting my current church back in 1999. Through my 46 years of living church life, I’ve found that churches have a very difficult time stopping ineffective programs or ministries. Culturally it’s difficult to do.  Every program, service, Bible study, and ministry carries a lot of emotional history. It was important and life changing for someone at some point or we wouldn’t be doing it.

Yet adding on new initiatives without ever shedding any of the old ones is killing us. Take my own church as an example. Over the years we’ve had labor-intensive Holy Thursday services complete with communion, a table seating 100 with a meal set up together where we hear the Exodus story, and it ends beautifully with foot-washing. But last year, with limited staff, and exhausted volunteers, we realized that over time the attendance at these services had dwindled down to less than half of what it used to be and it was all Christians. (I’ve never heard a non-Christian say, “I’m curious about Jesus. I think I’ll show up to a Maundy Thursday service.”)

Meanwhile, we were running out of room during the Easter services, where non-Christians were showing up. People were actually standing the previous year because we ran out of seats. It was suggested that we add a Saturday night Easter service to accommodate the overflow. Our staff sat down together and asked ourselves, “Can we add one more thing?” The answer was a clear, “No.”

So we decided to add the Saturday night Easter service instead of the Maundy Thursday service. Some people, longtime members exclusively, called the office to say we forgot to put the Maundy Thursday service in the bulletin and to ask what time it would be. Amazingly, no one complained! Last year, our Holy Thursday service reached 80 very committed Christians. This year, the switch to an Easter Saturday service reached 167 people from various backgrounds and differing levels of faith development. We think that Jesus is happy about us reaching more than twice the number of people in our community with the resurrection message. We had had a 15-year tradition of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and doing absolutely nothing between the end of Good Friday and Easter services. This year with the change, we reached more than 1,000 people over Easter weekend.

The church faced a similar struggle in the book of Acts. What do you have to keep to be faithful as a church and what can you lay aside?  Circumcision? Food laws? Who can serve and how? As we wrestle with these questions, we have the choice to make our backpacks lighter in order to go where Jesus calls. We have the choice of whether to drop things, even when they are important to us, if they are not in line with the mission. The day you stop making those kinds of decisions is the day you die as a church.

Here’s my advice: Never put your service times on a permanent sign.