There is a story to be told this weekend, and local pastors are focused more on “share” than on “where.”
First United Methodist Church will offer its Easter message to some 3,000 people again this year at Easter at the Mathewson, the church’s annual large-scale service held in the Mathewson Exhibition Center on the Missouri State Fairgrounds. And for the second year, Cornerstone Baptist Church will hold its Easter service at the Heckart Performing Arts Center. In both cases, the change in venue serves two missions: More capacity for church members to attend services on one of the Christian calendar’s most special days, and creating an opportunity for those with a phobia about church to take in a service in a more comfortable setting.
“It helps that you can be as anonymous as you want to be, coming to Easter at the Mathewson, and there is such a connection to, ‘Hey, you watched tractor pull in this place, I watched a monster truck rally,’” said the Rev. Jared Wheeler, pastor at First United Methodist. “It’s not as arresting as coming into a church building, and we understand that coming into a church building was the bad thing that they need change from — for whatever reason, that there is a connotation with church that they need help processing in a different way.”
The Rev. Chris Guffey, senior pastor at Cornerstone, said the Heckart center, housed at Smith-Cotton High School, is “a unique place. It may be more comfortable for some people; they can come as they are and hear the message and hopefully be changed by it.”
“Changed” is the theme of this year’s presentation at the Mathewson.
“We’re focusing on the metamorphosis that happens in the lives of persons when they encounter something that inspires transformation,” Wheeler said. “While obviously we take a specific approach to that — and believe that it’s Jesus and the Resurrection that does it — I think folks love the idea of change. That’s why we have diet pills, that’s why we have hair salons and plastic surgery and self-help books. We are naturally wired to want to transform.”
To get that message across, both churches will use a collection of methods to tell the story. Cornerstone will employ its worship band to amplify “a 21st century drama on the first century message of the story of Christ,” Guffey said.
First UMC uses spoken word, music, video and images “to create as many opportunities for people to remember a moment,” Wheeler said. “People in my profession, we love the idea that somebody is going to remember 25 minutes of a message — that is not what happens. … But they remember that there is a giant chalk drawing on the floor, or that a 30-second video was really insightful, or maybe a crescendo of music. Whatever it is, if that creates a place where they can feel, ‘Maybe there is more around me than I think there is,’ then we are willing to do whatever it takes to help people come to that place.”
While this is the seventh year for Easter at the Mathewson, it is just the second for Cornerstone’s event at the Heckart.
“We have noticed around town that there are other churches that are moving off campus — I would love it if that was the future for Sedalia, that churches had to move off campus for Easter because there are too many folks who want to know this story,” Wheeler said. “We have spent weeks praying over and working hard for what we are going to host, but we also spent weeks praying over all of these other community celebrations that are taking place in all of these different places, so we are really excited about it.”
Guffey said, “Churches too many times are in competition, and Easter is not about competition, it is about exalting Christ.”
Cornerstone’s theme this year is “Freedom Revealed,” which Guffey said is “about how man gets his freedom through Christ, how he leads to an abundant life. We will be telling the story of Christ from creation all the way through the cross and the resurrection. We will be putting an emphasis on the fact that it doesn’t matter whether you are first century man or 21st century man, you find an abundant life through Christ and him alone.”
Last year, nearly 700 people came to the Heckart service; this year, Guffey is hopeful for about 900.
“We’re hoping to pack it out,” he said.
Both Guffey and Wheeler stressed that these off-campus worship opportunities are proof that faith exists beyond church walls.
“We think God lives in every place,” Wheeler said. “There was a writer who said that Christ plays in 10,000 places, and we think he plays everywhere in Sedalia on Easter and on every other day of the week.”
“Our ministry is that the church exists in people, not any building,” Guffey said.
But no matter where it is heard, no matter what denomination is hosting the service, Easter is about the power and connections that faith can provide.
“We think this is a good story. It is the best story,” Wheeler said. “And whether you have heard it before or not, give us a chance to tell it again and maybe there is room to experience a change that you have been hoping for and just haven’t found yet.”