By Kara Witherow, Editor
More than 25,000 eggs were scooped up in less than five minutes at Harvest United Methodist Church’s annual Easter egg hunts.
Nearly 5,000 people attended one of Harvest Church’s five egg hunts, which were held immediately following five of the church’s eight Easter worship services. What used to be held on the weekend preceding Easter is now an event held in conjunction with the Easter worship services.
The timing is intentional and by design, church leaders say.
In years past, crowds for the hunt itself were large, but often did not translate into increased worship attendance or new visitors attending Easter services.
A few years ago, though, as Harvest Church was planning for its annual egg hunt, bad weather loomed and the church was forced to cancel the event. Not deterred, they rescheduled it for the following weekend, which also happened to be Easter.
The event worked so well that church leaders never again considered hosting it on a weekend other than Easter.
“So often at Harvest, we stumble onto something and it’s not necessarily by design,” said Rev. Jim Cowart, Harvest UMC’s senior pastor. “We didn’t invent this or anything, but what we’ve found out, at least in our area, is that there are people who want their kids to go to an egg hunt maybe more than they want them to go to church. But that’s who we’re targeting – people who don’t go to church and for whom church really isn’t on their radar. So the egg hunt is a little bit of an excitement and enticement for them to come to the worship service.”
Harvest UMC’s Easter egg hunt is one of several “bridge events” that the church hosts throughout the year. Intended as a connecting “bridge” between the church and community, the egg hunt and other similar events are designed to welcome and introduce newcomers to the church and its members.
One such bridge event is the church’s hosting of the African Children’s Choir. In the past, the concert was typically held on a weekday evening, or whenever the choir’s calendar coincided with the church’s. Much like the egg hunts, the concerts attracted large crowds but church leaders did not see an increase in visitors or new attendees the next week.
But now that the concert coincides with a worship service – Rev. Cowart preaches a 10-15 minute message, the band plays a few songs and then the African Children’s Choir performs – the church has seen an uptick in the number of new attendees. The week following the combined concert/worship service Harvest UMC saw a 14 percent increase in attendance – nearly 200 visitors and new attendees.
“What (hosting an event in conjunction with a normal worship service) does is that it lets people who are just coming to hear the children’s choir also experience a worship service at Harvest,” Rev. Cowart said. “And then hopefully they’ll think, ‘hey, I kind of like this,’ or ‘I was made to feel welcome at Harvest,’ or ‘my family could fit in here.’”
Hosting these types of bridge events is possible for any size church in any location. All that’s needed is organization, planning, volunteers and an emphasis on community.
“Using the word ‘community’ is key,” Rev. Cowart said. “It says that we want you guys, we want you here. And when they’re here be nice to them! We think these events can work in any church, any size. It’s just a matter of organizing and doing things a little differently. I can’t imagine now why anyone wouldn’t do this.”
Harvest UMC’s message is that the experience that guests have the day of the event is the same experience they’ll have during a regular worship service.
While those who attend a bridge event service may hear a shorter-than-usual message or fewer worship songs than during a typical worship service, the message is never compromised or diluted.
“What better time to do an Easter egg hunt than on Easter or that weekend,” said Jennifer Cowart, Harvest UMC’s director of Christian Education and Emerging Ministries. “We let people know very clearly in the service that Easter is not about the eggs, it’s not about the bunny, it’s about Jesus Christ. Until that becomes your reality, though, it is about the bunny, it is about the eggs. So we use the egg hunt as a way to draw visitors in. Like Paul said, become all things to all people, so we want to speak their language so they can come and hear about who Jesus is.”