The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 30, 2013

Churches putting on their Easter best

By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer

NORTH MANKATO — Across Mankato and across the world, faithful churchgoers and “CE Christians” alike are filling places of worship this morning to celebrate the most important day of the Christian calendar. They come in numbers seen no other day of the year, with the possible exception of Christmas, and they often come anticipating an extraordinary service.

At Crossview Covenant Church in North Mankato, between 600 and 700 people were expected at each of two services this morning — double a typical Sunday. What they would see has been weeks in the planning with hundreds of hours of preparation both by paid church staff and a cadre of volunteers.

“Sunday morning is the tip of the iceberg,” said Chris Willard, worship director at the Howard Drive church. “It’s two services that are an hour long that represent many hours of work.”

Interim Pastor Rich Theilen set the spiritual message back in early February, based on verses in the third chapter of 2nd Corinthians that teach that the glory of Easter can be the glory of anyone who follows Christ. Since then, musicians, set builders, producers of video images and others have been constructing a service that reinforces that central theme.

On Saturday morning, a quartet of guitar players, a drummer, a keyboardist and three vocalists rehearsed for nearly four hours. There was special emphasis on the service’s opening, which included a three-minute dramatic reading by Chris Pappenfus, the pastor of student ministries, that tied Old Testament teachings to the events of Palm Sunday, the Last Supper and Good Friday’s crucifixion.

The music slowly grew in intensity as Pappenfus connected those events to Easter and talked of the “unspeakable joy” that Christ had risen from the dead.

The opening sequence was something new for the Crossview congregation, which is part of the expectation, Willard said. The church outgrew its small worship space off of Lookout Drive several years ago, moving its Easter services to a ballroom at Mankato’s civic center for three years as a new church was planned and built.

During the civic center years, the services grew in complexity and spectacle.

After the move to the new church on Howard Drive, people still expect that the staff and volunteers will “pull a rabbit out of the hat” on Easter Sunday, Willard said. But there’s also a strong desire for the traditional, and the dramatic opening segued directly into conventional Easter Sunday hymns such as “Christ The Lord Is Risen Today” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns.”

Everyone involved in the service said the goal is to strike a good balance.

Mike Pierson, a guitarist who leads one of the three teams of volunteer musicians who split Crossview’s musical duties between them, was piloting a hybrid band including members of all three teams for the Easter services. Working with Willard and Theilen, Pierson picked the music and the keys and the orchestration.

He was looking for something that was somewhat sensational but not hokey. Mainly, though, Pierson said he was aiming to make the music serve God and convey his message to the congregation.

“I hope they have a sense of celebration, but not only because it’s Easter,” he said. “... We can have this every day of our lives.”

Theilen, the interim pastor, said it’s not strategically wise to make Easter or Christmas services too extraordinary. Part of the hope of leaders of any church is that some of those CE Christians — who show up only at those two holiest days — will be inspired to return sooner. So Theilen doesn’t want a standard Sunday service to pale in comparison.

“We try to be conscious of that,” he said. “Certainly we give (Easter) extra attention, but we don’t want it to be so different.”

Still, Christians believe that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus makes salvation available to them. So Crossview volunteers gave the church a thorough pre-Easter spring cleaning, obsessed a bit over every aspect of the Easter services and enthusiastically welcomed the regulars and the occasionals when the doors opened.

And in the end, the nine musicians and the pastors, the sound man and the pair of video  people, the communications director and every other volunteer turned the service over to the amateurs — concluding with another well-known hymn that everybody could join in on: “My Savior, My God.”

“There’s nothing like having 700 people in a room singing at the top of their lungs,” Willard said.