I didn’t do it for Lent or anything, but I am on a very strict diet and doing my level best to stay away from the dessert table. Honestly, I have felt for a long time that I could live on ice cream and cookies. But more recently I have been experiencing the good feeling of doing the harder work, avoiding the quick sugar high—and waking up each day feeling lighter, fresher. Seems obvious, I guess, but bad patterns persist for more reasons than ignorance… like ease and familiarity.
Feast deeply upon the message of the cross as preparation for authentic empty-tomb rejoicing.
Paul Baloche, a worship leader loved around the world, has given more than three decades to training other worship leaders and writing songs that help us express our love for Christ. Paul joined our team this past year, and last Saturday night after service he stayed at our home. We were talking about ‘Holy Week’ at Harvest, and I was surprised to see the surprise in his eyes. He was clearly blessed and reflective about our website The Day Jesus Died, and the decade of dedication we have put into Good Friday as preparation for our Easter celebration. He encouraged me to write about it and let others know of the culture we have developed around Good Friday, where our attendance is more than 4/5 of our Easter crowd.
I have long thought that the way evangelical churches often run to Easter without stopping at the place of suffering—without seeing Christ crucified for my own sin—seems so 21st-century ‘western world’. Even good, gospel-saturated, Bible-preaching churches seem to give more time to the empty tomb than to the reason it is cause for celebration. In an overdue way physically, but for a long time spiritually, I don’t want the dessert without the main course…
Here are 5 things we do to lead our people to feast deeply upon the message of the cross as preparation for authentic Easter/empty tomb rejoicing.
1: Passion Week is a week, not a day or a weekend.
We give our people special materials to work through personally—a devotional and music to listen to on their way to church, and this year a 24/7 vigil of remembrance at the cross. I had been thinking about how our culture shows grief differently than in New Testament times. How we don’t beat upon our breast, or wear sackcloth and ashes, or wail aloud for the most part. We come as individuals and pour our cup of grief into the ocean of community anguish. The first time I saw this was after the death of John Lennon in 1980, then Princess Diana, now 20 years ago. This week we are doing the same as a church community.
2: The primary goal of Good Friday remains the exaltation of Jesus Christ, not the winning of lost people.
Too, too often (in some churches every single week), we subordinate the needs of Christ’s body to what a lowest common denominator lost person would understand. This is so backward and unbiblical. Worse, it brings less glory to Jesus by trapping His children in business-as-usual “let’s revisit the plan of salvation” services. Start dreaming about a service designed solely for the purpose of stirring fresh heart passion for the cross in the soul of a sixty-years saved person—it will pour incredible energy and vitality into those already in your church family. We have been doing this for a long time, not as the best or only way, but as a very good way you might prayerfully consider for your church, too. Maybe most surprising is how, despite our designing Good Friday services exclusively for impacting believers, we later learn that people are saved in these services every year. (For more on how effective evangelism is best as a byproduct of a vertical church, not a primary goal of the church gathered, check out “Unafraid Witness” from Vertical Church.)
3: Somber reflection is not the enemy of Easter celebration, but rather the means to its highest expression.
At Harvest we’ve built a very particular culture around our Good Friday services. These services are sacrificial and sad. We ask our whole church to drive, some as much as 75 minutes, to our original campus. There the most talented music, spoken word, media, and creative arts people in our entire family pool their gifts together with all the production, tech, lighting, and others who are serving to create something incredibly special and impactful. The fact that it is inconvenient is good. Jesus didn’t lower the discipleship bar to build numbers and neither should we. Ask people to do a hard thing, challenge them to change their pattern, turn off the TV, lean in to the Lord.
Jesus didn’t lower the discipleship bar to build numbers and neither should we.
Everyone wears black, enters in silence, and leaves in sorrow. There is not a moment of victory or celebration, because that’s the way it was that first Friday—would anyone have labeled it ‘good’ that day? Just because you know how it ends, doesn’t mean you should rush to the conclusion or that doing so won’t damage what you experience when you get there. Not a single melody of joy, not a note of triumph in the Good Friday service.
The cross and death of Christ are only seen as good—the greatest good—when looking back. For the first disciples, the death of Christ was the end, the loss of who and how every hope might find fulfillment. They DID NOT KNOW or understand that Christ wasn’t gone for good when He said “It is finished” (John 19:30). We have many years invested in the observation that celebrating “He is Risen” without “It’s Friday, but Sunday is coming” is incomplete—and in the end may actually be shorting God’s people.
Good Friday reflection is like being pulled back in a slingshot. Looking into the empty tomb and rejoicing from the depth of your soul are massively amplified through your heart awareness of what sin’s payment cost God’s Son. Of course you don’t need a service to do that, but it is our joy to serve our people by leading them down the road of suffering, as a preparation to the shouts of “Hallelujah!” Here are some highlights from years past…
4: Then on Sunday, proclaim “Christ is Risen!” from the house tops!
After years of teaching “Clap your hands, all you people! Shout to God with the voice of triumph!” (Psalm 47:1), our people show up early with banners and bright clothing. This year pennants are being handed out with names of Jesus on them.
Our church family will make themselves hoarse singing, shouting, and rejoicing from the bottom of their hearts. The music will be incredible and celebratory. Vertical Church Band and some 2000 volunteers will be out in force taking the good news to each of our campuses across the great city of Chicago. We try as best we can to follow the mental/emotional cycle of the first disciples that very first weekend.
For this year, our team actually filmed a recreation of the scene where Mary reaches the disciples with the resurrection news, and Peter and John run to the empty tomb. Two years ago, it was Mary at the empty tomb…
The compelling thing about the resurrection of Jesus is its life-changing, irrefutable reality. Don’t apologize for it or give the impression that lost people need to appreciate it. Lead the saved to celebrate it, and the Lord Himself will descend in saving power, calling to Himself those He has been drawing. Get fired up yourself, Pastor. Think long and deep about this awesome, history-altering event. This spring I’ve been preaching on the kings of Israel—the vast majority of whom were walking disasters—and cannot wait to lead our church family in celebration of the only King of Kings, who still today makes wonderful stories from wrecked lives.
5: Pray and lead your people to pray for God’s manifest presence in your services this week. “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might tremble at Your presence” (Isaiah 64:1).
This is Easter #29 for Kathy and me at Harvest Bible Chapel, and I am undiminished in my delight. Listen, my pastor friend, you may not have a parking problem or an overflow room or a shortage of bulletins. You may not yet be experiencing the victories you have been seeking for in life and ministry—but you have the living Christ, the bloody cross, and the empty tomb. Determine now to revel in that personally, and then from the pulpit more than you ever have before. Bow this moment and pray for the fire of God’s Holy Spirit to kindle fresh heat in your heart for this timeless message. Stay on your knees with your Bible open till you have it—then you need not fear phoning it in this Easter. I promise that is what I am doing, even as I pray for you, too.
It’s going to be another AWESOME Easter.