Easter Follow-Up: Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants

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Well Holy Week is over and Easter has begun!

Although I find myself with a lot of energy today, I am completely unable to focus on even menial tasks.  I went to my phone several times to call people in my church and every time forgot who I needed to call right as the contacts loaded (which takes .07 seconds).

I sat in front of my computer for an hour thinking about my sermon before I got to my very first sentence, which read, “I want you to close your eyes and think back to the last time.  .  .” Yes, I know that is not even a complete sentence.

But things have got better since then, so good in fact, that I am able to post this blog.  Normally I would wax poetic but Holy Week is the time for poetry.  The Monday after Easter is the time for as little work as possible, which means today I am giving you a fun list.

But this list has a point.  You see, last week I led my congregation through the movements of Holy Week using the traditional Maundy Thursday, Tenebrae Friday, Easter Sunrise schedule.

As I was thinking, praying and planning these amazing times, Facebook pictures reminded me that other churches (considerably larger churches) don’t do the special services.  They do pageants.

You probably know what I am talking about:  live donkeys, live palms, live disciples, automated live thunder and live lightning, real life crosses and an ironically not “live” but paper mached tombstone, and a tall, bearded white guy pretending to be Jesus getting crucified.  They usually charge money to see them, but don’t worry they discount the matinees.

Haha, I love live donkeys!

I am not against these at all.  In fact, I acted in one when I was a kid.  My dad was a palm seller and I was a kid that got driven out of the temple with a whip.  Yes, I understand the irony now.

Still, I like the Holy Week services better than the pageants.  So here is my list: Reasons Why Holy Week Services Are Better Than Easter Pageants!

1) The Holy Week Services Are Shorter

I like long worship services.  I do.  There is something to say for that.  I even like long movies and long pageants.  There is probably even something to say about acting out the same story six times in 4 days.

However, I love more that the Holy Week services are short and different from each other.  The short, sweet and powerful moments of Maundy Thursday and Tenebrae Friday remind me that drawing people into the Easter story doesn’t have to be complex.

2) They Are Ancient

A painting of the first Maundy Thursday

This year I added something new to my traditional greeting.  I reminded the congregation that what we were doing on Thursday and Friday night has been done for at least 1600 years.  More than 400 generations have commemorated the last week of Jesus through these services.  That is powerful!  Pageants, on the other hand, are only 50 or so years old.

A polaroid of an “early” Easter pageant.

3) They Happen In Real Time

The pageants don’t take people through all of Holy Week in real time.  They just do Good Friday and Easter over and over and over and over.  The Holy Week services do Holy Week in real time.  Jesus ate the Last Supper on Thursday, so we eat the Last Supper on Thursday.  Jesus was crucified on Friday so we do Tenebrae on Friday.  The women waited on Saturday so we wait on Saturday.  I love the time between the services because it reminds me that the disciples didn’t just experience a 2-3 hour ordeal (with intermission to buy candy) but they had time in that week to process, to despair, to mourn, to be confused, to wonder and to be filled with hope.

Holy Saturday always hits me the hardest.  I live in the tension of Tenebrae and Sunrise for a whole day, struggling with the things the disciples struggled with before the new day dawns.  In an Easter pageant, all that would happen between Tenebrae and Resurrection is that I would buy more popcorn during intermission.

4) They Are Easy and Cheap

There are more people in this picture than go to my church! And the set probably cost double our annual budget!

Okay, the Holy Week services are not easy.  I spent hours and hours planning them last week and my worship team was exhausted by the end of the week.  With that said, most pageants take thousands of dollars and at least fifty people to pull off.  They take months of planning and loads of prep work.  Last week, I did Holy Week with 4 music leaders and 2 pastors.  And we spent less than $50 dollars.

Plus you have to have a gigantic sanctuary or stadium to pull them off, which brings me to my next point.  .  .

5) Small Churches Can Do Holy Week Services

Man, live donkeys are so much fun! Look at all those body parts!

Let’s face it, pageants are new events that happened alongside the phenomena of the Mega Church.  Small churches don’t have the people or the energy or the time or the money to pour into a pageant.  But the Holy Week services are just as powerful (if not more so) and can help breathe esteem into your small, struggling church.  Even though the pageants are fun (I mean, who doesn’t like watching a live donkey walk down your church’s center aisle? with its hock knees and hoofed feet and fetlock ankles?) you can draw people into the presence of the crucified Lord using only bread, grape juice and a few candles.  This brings me to the next.  .  .

6) People Don’t Have to Pretend To Be Jesus

How Jesus Asked Us to Tell The Easter Story

When my church did an Easter pageant growing up, there was always this awkward thing that happened when you couldn’t find someone to play Jesus.  For all of our faults, we really love Jesus and respect Jesus and don’t want to pretend to be Jesus.  So it is really hard to find someone willing to fall on the, “I Want To Be Jesus For Easter” sword.  In strong contrast, during the Holy Week services, Jesus is remembered in the bread and the cup, which is how Jesus asked us to remember him.

During Tenebrae we represent Jesus using candles instead of a live person.  It is just less awkward.  All it takes to draw people into the Easter story are some bread, some juice (or wine), some candles, some songs, a great worship planner and the faithful congregation.

And that seems to have something to do with what Easter is all about!  The cross and resurrection mean we don’t have to bribe God with live donkeys.  We just need to break some bread, drink some juice, read some Scripture and sing some songs.

Well now I am suddenly preaching!  So let me go work on the sermon while I am still in the preaching mode!

May God Bless Your Post Easter Monday!

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The Stuff Jesus Never Always Did

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I read a lot of pastoral leadership resources, also known as pastor self-help books.  I fly through at least 20 a year and they cover the bases on how to be a better counselor, preacher, administrator, leader, follower, mentor, mentee, disciple maker, disciple becomer and spiritual guide.

Many of them come from the same stock.  A pastor somewhere in America discovered some principle or practice that really changed his or her church for the better.  They started sharing it with others and eventually a publisher asked them to write a book about it.  So they went to write a book and felt obligated as a preacher to make it sound like the idea came straight from Jesus.  Though, when you dig deeper than their shallow arguments, you find the idea actually came from a conversation or through a prayer meeting or from another book.  After having the idea, the pastor went to the gospels to find out if Jesus practiced this principle and found a case where Jesus may have done it.  Then they concluded, “Jesus ALWAYS Does this.”

The first chapters of these books describe these things that Jesus always did and ask the question, “Don’t you want to always be like Jesus?”

One book about pastoral counseling concluded that Jesus always asked questions.  .  .except for the fact that there are plenty of conversations recorded in the gospels when Jesus asks zero questions.

One book about “self care” said Jesus always fought off temptation by quoting Scripture.  Except we only have three examples of ways in which Jesus was tested.  That is hardly a trend.

One book about spiritual disciplines argued Jesus always made people feel warm and cozy around him and never insulted anybody.  .  .except in Luke 6:24-26 and the other passages like it.

One book about board meetings said Jesus was super patient with everybody and never lost his temper.  .  .except that one time in all 4 gospels when he beat people out of the temple with a whip.

One book about social justice concludes Jesus was always eating with poor people.  .  .except that one time he crashed Zaccheus the rich tax collector’s house.

The Children’s Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with little kids, except the “let the children come to me” incident only happened once.

The Youth Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with teenagers.  .  .except for the fact that to be a tax collector, which a few of the disciples were, you had to be a bit older than a teenager.

The anti-church growth books say Jesus always had 12 disciples so we shouldn’t have mega-churches.  Except the disciples are numbered at different times as 12, 72 and 120 and never once did Jesus command his 12 to only have 12.

And speaking about those megachurches, people were always leaving Jesus so if you preach the Jesus-truth people should always be running away from you.  .  .except for the fact large crowds were always following Jesus too.  It was kind of a wash as far as the numbers went.

They all say that Jesus always led by example.  .  .except that one time he told his disciples to bring a sword and then yelled at Peter for using said sword.

If you read all four gospels, you will find the only thing Jesus always did was breath.  .  .except there were 3 days that he wasn’t even doing that.

Instead what the gospels give us are incomplete accounts of the things Jesus sometimes did and sometimes taught.  And those things changed from context to context.

The problem seems to be that in a church still desperately struggling to rid itself of the CEO Ministry Model, we still think Jesus can be boiled down to a formula of leadership self helps for the 21st century.

But when I read the Gospels I find a Jesus who is so much greater than a formula, even if that formula “always works every time.”  When the Sadducees come at him, he answers their questions with questions but when Nicodemus the Pharisee comes at night, Jesus issues proclamations about new birth before Nicodemus even asks the question.

To some crowds, Jesus spoke in parables.  Other times he adopts the formula, “You have heard.  .  .but I say” and when it is just his 12 disciples listening in, he utters mysteries about the Spirit.

Sometimes He says, “come follow me.”  Other times He flees to the desert before anybody can, though they did try.

One time He said, “let the children come.”  Another time He waited before going to a child so that he could heal an elderly woman.

All of this would make it seem that in the full person of Jesus we do not have the confines of 21st century leadership practices.  Instead we have a full and free personality whose life and teachings could not be adequately summarized even in 4 books (see John 20:30-31).

This should give us great freedom to adapt to our changing culture without having to proof text every principle and practice through the gospels.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always asked questions,” we should note that psychiatrists conclude in our time and place successful therapists ask good questions.

Instead of saying, “Jesus only had 12” we should note that currently several pastors report that having more than 15 people make discipleship groups unmanageable.

Instead of saying, “Jesus always hung out with one age group” we should note that in the right context children and youth can provide wonderful gifts and insights.

And instead of boiling down Jesus to 21st century leadership principles and practices, we should recognize that we worship and follow an eternal Savior who invites people from all contexts and all times into a loving relationship with the Triune God.

Sometimes that means listening to children.  Sometimes it means befriending those poorer than you.  Other times it means hanging out with tax collectors.  Sometimes we tell stories and sometimes we utter mysteries and sometimes we ask questions.  But at all times we pick up our crosses and follow.