Megachurches' preparation for Easter even more intense than usual

One site expects as many as 9,000 to attend

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Getting a megachurch ready for Easter Sunday is a little like getting ready for the Super Bowl: What’s usually huge will be even huger.

The preacher or preaching team settles on a message, and the media team develops a stylish visual presentation featuring inspiring graphics and words from the Bible; the print shop cranks out programs and other related materials; the band rehearses spiritual classics and maybe some originals; the technical director checks all the connections and tightens all the screws while the custodial staff pushes brooms and sets up chairs; and hundreds of volunteers sign up to manage cars, crowds and child care.

All of which may not be too different than preparing for any other weekend of megaservices. If you handle a crowd of thousands every week, the periodic arrival of thousands plus thousands more isn’t all that extraordinary — despite the obligatory jokes about visiting CEOs (“Christmas and Easter Only”).

“It’s not like we put on our A-game once or twice a year,” said the Rev. Matt Hannan, senior pastor at east Hazel Dell’s New Heights Church, which has typical weekend attendance “in the thousands” and expects something like 9,000 for Easter, he said.

“We do Easter every week,” said Teresa Petker, the program director at Living Hope Church in central Vancouver. “It’s not exactly glitzy and glamorous. We show tons of energy.”

“Excellence honors God and inspires people,” said the Rev. John Bishop, Living Hope’s senior pastor. “We approach every weekend as if it was the only weekend, but also realizing Easter weekend is the weekend.”

Living Hope sees 3,500 people cycle through during a typical weekend of services, officials said. Last year’s Easter services drew closer to 6,000, and the hope for this weekend is 7,000.

The sprawling interior of Living Hope can handle the crowd. Living Hope is nicknamed the “Kmart church” for the former commercial building it bought a few years back. In addition to an immense central greeting and sanctuary area, Living Hope’s 85,000 square feet of interior space includes a teen-hangout room, a “Live Love Center” that serves 150 hot meals every Sunday and provides free clothing for the poor, a cafe-style “living room” where it’s easy for folks to mix and mingle, and a child care center that’s larger than some elementary schools.

Children’s ministry leader Jessica Layne said Living Hope plans for at least 500 children at Easter. Every single one needs to be provided snacks, arts-and-crafts materials and activities — and, of course, an Easter basket. Volunteers have cut, glued and painted three cardboard castles for an ongoing “knighting ceremony” series.

“We have to think on a huge scale,” said Layne.

Another unique use of Living Hope’s vast indoor space is the baptismal “font” erected a few times a year, especially for Easter and its aftermath: a full-size above-ground swimming pool. There’s no telling how many hundreds or thousands may want to get baptized. The Rev. Neal Curtiss said he’s watched bad-boy biker dudes jump into the pool while completely decked out in their shiny black gear.

“They are so excited to take a public step and declare their faith. Everything leads up to that moment,” Curtiss said.

Space age, old school

Matt Hannan paused during a tour of the 13-acre main New Heights campus and pointed to the mountain ridge in the eastern distance.

“We bounce our signal off Larch Mountain,” he said. “It’s all very space age, isn’t it?”

That is, New Heights video productions and sermons recorded at this central campus, generally during Saturday night services, are then beamed over to a high-altitude radar relay facility that beams them back to the three other New Heights locations — in downtown Vancouver, the eastern edge of Vancouver and at Battle Ground High School.

All of this is managed with equipment that looks awfully impressive to the visitor but, Hannan assures, is anything but brand new. Much of it is used, borrowed and reconditioned by the gleeful geeks in the back shop, he said.

“I’m so proud of our technical team and our ‘scrounges,’ ” Hannan said. “We have the best scrounges in the world.”

From space age to old school: Because of the sheer number of people who do turn up at church on Easter Sunday — those “CEOs” and many others — Hannan said there’s one major, and majorly mundane, thing New Heights does differently this weekend. “Sadly, we do inconvenience people in that they have to get tickets,” he said.

Those tickets are free, of course. They simply ensure that churchgoers who’ve made special plans — maybe they’re hosting special visitors — won’t have those plans disrupted even if they run late. Even if it takes 16 tries to tie Johnny’s tie. Their seats are waiting for them.

Highway to where?

Living Hope spreads the word about its Easter services well in advance. It prints up laminated invitation cards that get distributed at services and out on the street to anybody who’ll accept one. “By the time Easter happens, we’ll have distributed maybe 25,000 cards,” said spokeswoman Carly Major.

Plus, the church’s Facebook website boasts more than 8,100 “likes.”

Once those likely churchgoers are in the door, they’re largely in the hands of pastor and musician Dave Clinton and videographer Kevin Anderson. Anderson said there’s a usually a creative team meeting every Wednesday, and then he’s got 72 hours to create three video presentations in time for the weekend. Those are mostly testimonial stories from church members. Sometimes they star Bishop himself, who likes relating the story of how a life-threatening karate accident landed him in the hospital — and drew him to deep faith.

“People love realness and rawness,” said Bishop. “When you see a true story on screen, you’re challenged and encouraged by that.”

On Wednesdays, worship leader Clinton also begins brainstorming ideas, selecting music, composing original sounds and even tweaking mainstream songs that will startle listeners with new twists. That’s in keeping with Bishop’s philosophy that Living Hope must be “predictably unpredictable,” he said.

The church band recently broke out the pop hit “Say Something” by Real Big World during a series of sermons on relationships — with the church context “moving the song so it’s really about our relationship with Christ. It is really cool how music can move the heart to a whole different level.”

One time, he said, the band burned down the “Highway to Hell” by notably noisy rockers AC/DC. It sparked some laughs — and it made the point.

“My Bible talks about that highway,” said Clinton.