When the doors open at St. James Church in Haverhill for Easter services today, the Rev. Robert Murray expects a full house.
Usually there is a swell in attendance — from about 950 on a regular Sunday to about 2,500 on Easter, he says
Traditionally, Easter is one holy day of the year when Christians who may not normally attend services during the year, make an effort to show up. It is also when ministers have an opportunity to put some spit and polish into their sermonizing.
“Ours is a faith that goes on all year long and you are always welcome and Easter is the perfect time to start over,” Murray said.
LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian agency surveyed 1,060 adults about attending Easter services and found that 58 percent of Protestants, 57 percent of Catholics and 45 percent of non-denominational Christians plan to attend Easter services today.
Similarly, a Knights of Columbus-Marist poll of 2,000 Americans showed 58 percent will celebrate Easter this morning. When it came to the survey’s 515 Catholics, 70 percent said they were attending, though for those Catholics who identified themselves as practicing, 92 percent said they were going.
The Rev. Scott Gibson professor of preaching, director of the Haddon Center for Preaching and director of the master of theology program in preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, said preparation is key to writing a good sermon.
He said the first step is to choose a Bible text on which to base the sermon, come up with a theme, write an outline, followed by a manuscript. Gibson said students at Gordon-Conwell are taught to preach without notes.
“It’s not that they’re shooting from the hip. If they have studied the text well and the dominant idea is developed, then you have a message to communicate,” he said.
“Preaching is an oral communication, so you want to make sure the wording is for the ear,” Gibson said. “If the sermon is not clear to the preacher, it’s not going to be clear to the listeners.”
The Rev. Dennis McManus, professor of liturgy and homiletic at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, said when writing a sermon, priests must start with prayers because preaching is part of their vocation.
“This is not his personal message. It’s the Holy Spirit that speaks to him as a priest,” McMannus said. In addition to prayer, McManus said they must have a relevant topic.
“He needs to take his message and use it in a language that lifts them up. I don’t care if they’re Easter and Christmas Catholics, they still need to be lifted up,” McManus said.
McManus said priests can use humor or examples from popular culture to deliver their message including stories of people who have overcome adversities.
“Those are the best examples because when people go home, they can tell the story, because they can identify with it as human beings, saying, ‘I can do that,’ ‘I can try that.’ The door is wide open for priests to use anything appropriate for people to get the message across so that the hearts of the listeners are filled with faith, hope and love,” he said.
The Rev. John Delaney, pastor of Sacred Hearts in Bradford and St. Patrick in Groveland often uses stories in his homilies.
“Every one knows about ‘American Idol,’ has gone to Dunkin’ Donuts or stood in line. What we have to remember is that the priest is not the focus, it’s Jesus Christ,” Delaney said.
McManus said an Easter sermon should not be longer than 10 minutes.
The Rev. Larry Peacock, executive director of Rolling Ridge Retreat Center in North Andover, agrees.
“Sermons should be long enough to incite the spirit and hopefully it doesn’t take 45 minutes,” he said. “The whole service is important from the flowers and colors on the sanctuary to the sense of spring time.”
While churches will be filled with people who have not worshiped for a while, the Rev. Kevin Deeley, pastor of St. Michael Parish in North Andover said he’s “happy that they’re there.”
“The Easter message is obviously very important because it is the center of our faith and our belief that Christ has risen from the dead,” Deeley said. “I try to present the message of the gospel, the joy and hope that Christ brings us at Easter time. It’s the hope of every priest that people participate regularly.”
The Rev. Barnest Patton II, associate minister at Third Baptist Church in Lawrence, said it takes him between 10 to 14 hours to prepare his sermons, and not just at Easter. He reads scriptures in Greek and Hebrew to help expand on the English translation.
“I pray, meditate, listen for the voice of the Lord to lead me. It is God who does the calling of his people, not the minister, we are only instruments in his hands,” Patton said.
While some ministers preach with notes and others without them, some like the Rev. Wesley Palmer, pastor of Londonderry United Methodist Church, has adopted technology in delivering his sermons, by using PowerPoint, a presentation program that uses a projector.
“The goal is to always have a message that connects people, something that captures their hearts and takes them on a journey of faith and understanding of who God is,” Palmer said.
The Rev. Frank Clarkson, pastor of the Universalist Unitarian Church in Haverhill has often wondered how to reach people who are not grounded in the traditional church.
“Preaching is an ongoing conservation with the congregation and I am thankful for that,” Clarkson said. “There’s a lot of hunger in our culture for experiencing the living God and I hope that in my preaching, I can give people a sense of that.”
In addition to reading the scriptures, Clarkson uses life experiences and weaves it in his homilies.
Preaching experts such as the Rev. Charles Crabtree, president of Northpoint Bible College in Haverhill, say keeping the Easter message simple is the best way to maintain interest.
“If you give a history lesson about the Resurrection, it doesn’t make it personal. But if you study the story of the Resurrection in a fresh and new light weaving the culture around us, we’re not so much rejoicing at a historical event, but looking at a living person,” said Crabtree, an Assembly of God minister.
Crabtree said he studies 10 hours and it takes him another 10 hours writing his sermon. He usually preaches between 25 to 35 minutes and does not focus so much on people who only attend services on certain holidays.
“The key to Easter is seeing lives change and as a pastor it’s a wonderful thing to see,” he said.
One way he uses to capture people’s attention is using everyday experiences, famous people who have converted, atheists who have found a new life in the Lord and testimonials from drug addicts who are part of Teen Challenge.
“People can’t relate to the message if you preach about the Christ of yesterday, you have to talk about fervent Christians who have found new life in Christ,” Crabtree said.
Some times, his topics come from outside the box including “The Day the Sun Rose from the West” and “If Christ had not risen?”
The Rev. Susan Gleason, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Haverhill, also uses unfamiliar themes. She does first person narratives and have played the part of Pontius Pilate or the donkey on which Jesus rode on when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
During the narration leading to her role as the donkey, the animal is standing by the side of the road when he hears ‘they need me; the Lord needs me.’
“In my sermons I hope to invite people to enter into the mystery; to believe Jesus is alive and among us,” Gleason said. “I hope to encourage people to look for Jesus among us and to do so with a sense of hope and expectation.”
Gleason said she prepares for the Easter sermon throughout the 40 days of Lent reading the New Testament, thinking about her topic. She also reads Bible commentaries, theological dictionaries, then starts the writing process.
“I start by praying so that God would be with me and that my words be God’s words,” she said.
She boils all of her studies into a 12 to 15 minute sermon.
“The struggle is, ‘What can I say that’s inspirational and hasn’t been said before? What new insight or new way can I look at it?’ There’s so much mystery and I don’t want to deliver some haggle message. I want people to know what it means in their life, if God is calling their name, and if we really expect to see Jesus in our life and in our world,” Gleason said.
The Rev. Thomas McMillan, pastor at West Parish in Andover agrees.
“The hardest part is the opening paragraph to get people’s attention right off the bat,” said McMillan, who said the congregation doubles on Easter.
“It gets more challenging. What is left to say that I haven’t said before; the well runs dry?”
“The service and the sermon are incredibly important because they declare the Resurrection of Christ which is the hope of Christians,” said Gibson, a Baptist minister who served churches in Pennsylvania and New York before joining the staff at Gordon-Conwell.
“This is yet another great opportunity to remind believers and to encourage non believers of the changing power of the Resurrection. If they don’t understand the Resurrection, there is no hope.”