Houses of Mammon

04.20.14

Can’t Fill the House On Easter? Try Handing Out Gadgets

Desperate to stand out, some megachurches are baiting Easter crowds with flat-screen TVs, iPads, and Starbucks gift cards. The craziest part? They don’t think it’s crazy.

It’s Easter Sunday, y’all, the most important day on the Christian calendar, a day when many of us Christians hashtag our tweets with #HeIsRisen and plaster our Facebook profiles with memes featuring pictures of sunrises, empty tombs, drops of blood, and casually anti-Semitic medieval poetry. For America’s churches, Easter is the busiest Sunday of the year. According to statistics, more Americans attend church on Easter than on any other day, many congregations reporting swells in attendance ranging from 25 to 50 percent. Which is why so many churches are going to such great creative and promotional lengths to capture our attention, setting attendance goals, adding services to their schedules, hoping that, if we’re one of the millions of Americans looking for a church to attend on Easter Sunday, we will choose their church as opposed to another church. Because for many churches, in addition to Easter being about Jesus, it’s also about getting you inside their doors.

“There was a time when hell sold Easter,” said Thomas, the creative director at an evangelical church in Houston that he requested remain anonymous. “But not today. Nobody wants to hear about hell on Easter.” Thomas believes that many churches have reverted to creating extravagant marketing campaigns and branding their Easter services because of competition. “There are far more churches than there once was. It’s hard to stand out.”

In the last few years, churches have used Easter as a platform to give away cars, vacations, electronics, free gas and groceries, and movie tickets.

But some churches do stand out. Or they try to. In fact, many of the country’s most popular evangelical megachurches started trying to stand out weeks ago with elaborate branding initiatives and YouTube commercials.

In hopes of standing out amid the Easter crazy, some churches are borrowing themes from popular culture. One popular trend among churches this year is to brand Easter services. “Life in Color,” an idea one church insider told me is inspired by the One Republic song of the same name. Another trending meme among churches, a concept that started gaining popularity last year, is designing Easter services around themes inspired by AMC’s The Walking Dead. One church using the zombie idea this year is ACF Church in Eagle River, Alaska, a concept partly developed by Ross Montgomery, the church’s visual storyteller. How is Montgomery using zombies to celebrate Easter?

“We are using rules to survive (mixing in some Zombieland inspiration) that tie in with the salvation story,” he tells me. “ACF is in a unique position because we’re located right next to a military base. Our church tends to attract a younger crowd of singles and families with small children. We see using The Walking Dead for Easter as a way to break down some barriers for people who may have a bland taste in their mouth from church or have been hurt in the past.” Montgomery admits that a church mixing zombies with Easter is a bit ironic, especially considering the popular Internet meme showcasing Jesus as a zombie, but he says, “We hope that our Easter service will break down some walls for the unchurched/dechurched population.”

But if visual stimulation or pop culture doesn’t interest potential attendees, how about free shit? Sound too good to be true? Think again. For instance, all first-time visitors at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, outside Nashville, will receive a $5 Starbucks gift card just for showing up. That might not sound like a big investment, but  considering the fact that Long Hollow is planning 31 Easter services at five locations, five bucks for every visitor could add up rather quickly.

Still, David Hopper, a Nashville marketing blogger, says that the church’s marketing campaign is “smart” and worth the investment. After receiving Long Hallow’s promotional ad along with a rubber ball inside a plastic Easter egg at his front door (two different times!), Hopper wrote a blog post about the church’s “come to Jesus” gimmick called “5 Marketing Lessons from a Hipster Church.” Regarding the Starbucks gift card, Hopper praised Long Hallow’s “ethical bribe,” writing that, considering the “lifetime value of a churchgoer ... $5 is a bargain to get somebody in the door.” That might be true if this was Target on Black Friday, but this is a Baptist church on Easter Sunday; usually when a church discusses its conversion rate at Easter they aren’t talking about marketing.

But Long Hallow Baptist isn’t the only church spending money on giveaways and prizes in hopes of boosting attendance on Easter Sunday. Christian Life Church in Lexington, Oklahoma, an Assembly of God church with two locations, is giving all of today’s attendees the chance to win one of “several prize giveaways … including 32-inch flat screen televisions, $50 gift cards, Nintendo Wii’s and more.”

In the last few years, churches have used Easter as a platform to give away cars, vacations, electronics, free gas and groceries, and movie tickets. Do giveaways get people through the door? The churches say yes.

But how do these trends, gimmicks, and shenanigans affect the story of Easter? Maybe they help sell church services, but do they do a disservice to the gospel? Sure, these ideas might help churches stand out (though even that’s up for debate), but by embracing the frills of consumer culture, is it possible that the people who do attend miss out on escaping the noisy spectacle they encounter every other day of the week? And do we run risk of making the message that we love so much into little more than a parody of society’s pop cultural fare?

From my vantage point, consumerism always harms the Christian message, partly because it’s an American lifestyle that conflicts with the values Jesus taught, and for that reason will always leave us spiritually empty. If Christians really believe in the story of Jesus, if we really believe that the resurrection story is relevant to our lives in the here and now, then why in the world would we contaminate the narrative with noise and promises of earthly gain just in hopes of getting a few more butts in the pew? Because in our attempts to make Jesus’s story stand out, we actually might be crucifying it again.