As families nationwide prepare to participate in one of the most heavily attended church days of the year—second only to Christmas Eve—floral print dresses and frilly fold-down socks for little girls, matching navy blazers with pastel tops and ties for fathers and sons, and if she’s old school, mother’s best and brightest Sunday hat, will likely be on display. Droves of Christians, believers and back-sliders alike, will crowd the doors of their nearest house of worship to see and be seen, enjoy all of the best musical selections and special programming sure to be on the queue, and of course to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But why all the pomp and pageantry?
Let’s keep it casual
In recent years, and probably also in response to declining church attendance (The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion reports that less that 20 percent of the population attends church regularly) attire requirements have become much more relaxed and jeans and flip-flops have come to be increasingly commonplace in the House of the Lord. Depending on who you ask, this informality may be padding the decrease in loyal churchgoers, but isn’t conducive to breeding devoted followers of Christ.
According to theologist and Pastor Jim Modlish: “The decline we are seeing in the church is directly related to the casual “worship” model of doing church. This model is the most widely used in America. It is the ‘come as you are, enjoy your coffee while listening to some great music, and catch a short inspiring message that is always relevant for your life whether you believe in Christ or don’t. We won’t ask anything of you, and we won’t expect anything from you. Just come!’”
Of course, church leaders knew this wasn’t enough to develop faithful followers of Christ. The idea was that eventually, these casual observers would come to know Christ, and they would be transformed into zealous followers who would go to the ends of the world for their faith and perhaps even be willing to die for their Lord and Savior.
That is not what has happened.
In 2009, George Barna released a book, “The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter” where he discusses these “Casual Christians:”
“Casual Christianity is faith in moderation. It allows them to feel religious without having to prioritize their faith. Christianity is a low-risk, predictable proposition for this tribe, providing a faith perspective that is not demanding. A casual Christian can be all the things that they esteem: a nice human being, a family person, religious, an exemplary citizen, a reliable employee–and never have to publicly defend or represent difficult moral or social positions or even lose much sleep over their private choices as long as they mean well and generally do their best. From their perspective, this brand of faith practice is genuine, realistic and practical. To them, casual Christianity is the best of all worlds; it encourages them to be a better person than if they had been irreligious, yet it is not a faith into which they feel compelled to heavily invest themselves.”
So really, the Easter holiday (or Resurrection Sunday, as it preferably called by many staunch Christians) has become the catch-all day for followers of all devotion levels, but these more sporadic attendees certainly aren’t to blame for the showy nature of the Super Bowl Sunday of Christianity.
In the early days of Christianity, newly baptized believers wore white linen robes at Easter to symbolize rebirth and new life. But, it was not until 300 A.D. that wearing new clothes became an official decree, because the Roman emperor Constantine declared that his court must wear the finest new clothing on Easter. Eventually, the tradition came to mark the end of Lent, when after wearing weeks of the same clothes, worshipers discarded the old frocks for new ones.
As superstition would have it, a 15th-century proverb from Poor Robin’s Almanack stated that if one’s clothes on Easter were not new, one would have bad luck: “At Easter let your clothes be new; Or else for sure you will it rue.” In the 16th century during the Tudor reign, it was believed that unless a person wore new garments at Easter, moths would eat the old ones, and evil crows would nest around their homes.
According to fashion history expert Lily McCallister, by the middle of the 20th century, dressing up for Easter had lost much of its’ religious significance and instead symbolized American prosperity. A look at vintage clothing ads from the time showed that wearing new clothes on Easter was something that every wholesome, all-American family was expected to do.
When you look good, you feel good
In a Washington Post piece, Robin Givhan called Easter Sunday “the last tenuous link to the days when a wide swath of the culture believed fashion could be used—without a hint of sarcasm or irony—as a marker of moral rectitude, a symbol of earnest faith, a show of respect. On Easter Sunday, folks got dressed up because they wanted to celebrate life and generosity of spirit. When is the last time anyone ever equated those characteristics with the fashion industry? It’s almost impossible to conceive that fashion once played an integral part in helping people express the joy and redemption that they felt deep within their souls.”
Givhan rightly observed that of all the rampant commercialism of most every holiday, Easter remains relatively modest in comparison, with regard to fashion ad buys.
“There is still something pure about Easter,” said Daliah Thomas, “and I’m unashamedly one of those once-a-year churchgoers.
“I grew up in a very Christian household when it was church every Sunday morning and Sunday evening and Wednesday night bible study, minimum. Then, as a preteen I joined the choir which brought me back to church on Thursday nights for rehearsal. I guess as I got older, and particularly during college, attending church really became more of a choice for me, rather than something I did out of habit. The more I began to figure out what faith looked like for me, I realized it wasn’t traditional “church-every-Sunday-faith” and it took a while for me to be OK with that, but I am now. But, on Easter, I go because I’m excited to see people I haven’t seen in a long time, the music is always great, the praise dancers are beautiful, the message is always very powerful, and it brings my family together for dinner afterwards, so it’s just a joyous day overall.”
When asked if she was planning to buy a new dress, Thomas laughed and responded, “well yes, but what woman doesn’t want any excuse to buy a new dress? Touché.”
Thomas’ sentiments marry into Givhan’s statement that on no more clear a day does fashion symbolize something good, mighty, and redemptive.
But Thomas and other occasional Jesus drop-ins aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the Sunday that packs the most punch.
Recruiting ain’t easy
Rev. Joel Anthony Ward of St. Paul Baptist Church in South LA. admits that all churches “ratchet up a lot” for Easter, explaining that some even bring in special musical performers for the occasion. Ward’s own church has hosted the likes of Etta James, Ray Charles, and Nat King Cole on Resurrection Sundays of the past.
“Black people especially will equate how well your music ministry is to how well the preaching is and that sets the tone for the whole service.
Some people may even leave after that portion if they don’t enjoy it, so you really want to put your best foot forward. When you have company coming over, you make sure your house is perfectly clean and everyone is on their best behavior. Easter Sunday is no different.”
Ward goes on to explain that a stellar Easter Sunday experience is an important component of garnering new members to the flock. Each Sunday service that follows is structured to be a microcosm of the Easter celebration.
Rev. Ward acknowledged the decline of church attendance and believes the problem is particularly taxing in California.
“Folks in the West, particularly in Los Angeles, come to church when they have nothing else to do. Now that the new football stadium is being built for the Rams and the Chargers, it’s rumored the Clippers may start playing at the Forum in Inglewood, you can go to the beach, Las Vegas is only a short drive away, some people go up and pick strawberries in Oxnard, this is surely the entertainment capital of the world. If people look outside their window in the morning and it’s cloudy, they will skip church so they don’t have to go out in the rain. In the South, people go to church in the dead of winter; in the snow. So, when you are trying to promote your product, which in this situation is Jesus Christ, you really only get one chance to make an impression.”
When it comes to those “casual Christians,” Rev. Ward welcomes them with open arms and reminds others that you never know a person’s story and therefore should never judge them. “But for the grace of God, there go I,” he quotes. “In L.A. where there is a church on just about every corner, and in a society where the most important commodity is a person’s time, be grateful that they came to worship at your church, and at all.”