In Utah, as elsewhere, seek and ye shall find the Easter-only churchgoers

‘Chreasters’ • Pastors hope to “plant seeds” in those who attend services only on Christmas and Easter.

It happens every Easter.

On the Christian calendar's holiest day — when the devout mark their conviction that Jesus rose from the dead — plenty of Utah churches will see two or three times as many people in the pews as the average Sunday.

Some in the throngs might stumble through the services, unsure whether to kneel or sing or shake hands with the person sitting next to them. They may have forgotten words of the hymns or the pastor's name.

That's because they belong to a populace known as CEOs — Christmas and Easter Only. They're Chreasters.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report of Google trends, more Americans search for "church" around Easter than at any other time.

There is no single explanation for why people flock to the sanctuaries on Easter, but a lot of possibilities. They could be drawn to the grandeur of the day — clergy in vivid vestments, churches bedecked in lilies and aglow with candles, blazing lights and blaring trumpets, eloquent sermons and searing scriptures.

They might still consider themselves Christian but are too lazy or unmotivated for weekly or monthly attendance. They might feel guilty about forsaking their faith or drawn back by the power of memory.

Salt Lake City's magnificent Cathedral of the Madeleine will be packed with occasional worshippers, including some Mormons who want a taste of the majesty of Catholic liturgy on sacred days such as Easter.

"There will be a lot of complete strangers there, people the clergy have not ever seen before," says the Rev. Carl Schlichte, pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center on the edge of the University of Utah campus. "We'll see our numbers swell, too, but they tend to be relatives of parishioners or children of members who were more active in the past but aren't so now."

The phenomenon of these holiday attendees has been going on for decades.

"I don't know what draws them. Maybe they feel some connection to the day within themselves," says the Rev. Jeff Beebe, pastor at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Holladay, who expects to see his congregation double on Sunday. "Maybe it's just a spiritual feeling."

Whatever the reason, Easter is not a time for guilt-inducing sermons or shaming the un- or not-recently initiated, Beebe says. "We shape the service in a way that makes everyone feel welcome and can follow it. We try to keep it simple, rather than do things a little more insider-based."

That means no chanting, he says, which seems foreign to the occasional worshipper.

Beebe also will try to connect with a broad group of listeners, rather than offering a sophisticated theological treatise.

"Planting seeds is part of what we try to do on big days like Easter," the pastor says. "They might bear fruit down the road. Who knows where the Spirit leads?"

These days, though, the returnees are largely baby boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — and Generation Xers — born between 1965 and 1980. Majorities in both groups experienced church as children.

However, many millennials, coming of age around 2000, have not had religious upbringings and thus wouldn't have even a "trace memories" of Easter.

One in four millennials "are unaffiliated with any particular faith," according to another Pew Research Center survey, and they are "significantly more unaffiliated" than boomers or Gen Xers.

During their lifetimes, millennials have seen Easter become increasingly popular as a holiday — but mainly in a nonreligious way. Easter egg hunts, cuddly bunnies, mounds of candy, family feasts. Instead of reverencing the Resurrection, these revelers focus on fertility and the rebirth of nature.

"Secularized Easter celebrations are what most people do these days," says the Rev. Yvonne Lee, pastor at Salt Lake City's Centenary United Methodist Church. "They are not at church."

A few visitors may join her 30-member congregation of mostly older believers, Lee says, but the majority of the congregants' kin "stay home and watch TV."

The Rev. Sam Wheatley, pastor at New Song Presbyterian Church, says his east Salt Lake City church has struggled to attract the fresh-out-of-college crowd.

"They've grown up without church, where going to church is not even an option," Wheatley says. "It's not even a memory."

Millennials are not opposed to church, he says. They believe it's just not for them — like how he feels about 1980s Jazzercise music.

"You can't start with the 'if-you-build-it-they-will-come' premise," Wheatley explains. "You have to recognize that there aren't a lot of young people, waking up, looking for a church."

Still, spiritual longings rest in many people, and the church needs to find a way to tap into such yearnings, he says, but it takes a lot of "translation work."

Churches need to "create ways to serve" this younger set, Wheatley says. "We need to understand their spiritual questions."

If you provide "preaching that's relevant, music that's good, and a community that's solid," he says, "you can appeal to all ages."

Even though she's no millennial, Su Armitage, now in her 60s, credits these same attractions for transforming her from a Chreaster to a regular churchgoer.

As a child, Armitage attended All Saints Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City with her parents and brother. At age 12, her parents allowed the kids to go to the church of their choice so, naturally, they chose none.

Armitage later explored various Christian faiths in several cities. Eventually, she moved back to Utah, got divorced and went occasionally to Easter or Christmas services through the decades.

At 50, Armitage became friends with a cyclist, who invited her to join a bicycle club sponsored by All Saints. For the next 10 years, she routinely attended holiday services at the Episcopal Church she knew so well.

"Mostly, it was because I liked all the people I met at the bike group," she says. "I am really a social person. I can't have too many friends."

Plus, she says, "85 percent" of her beliefs correspond to the group.

Last year, Armitage began attending All Saints' services weekly.

"I felt for a lot of my life that I was an inner tube floating alone on an ocean," she says. "Finally, I have found a place where I fit in."

The experience hasn't been "a religious awakening," Armitage says, "but a spiritual one."

For pastors such as Beebe, that's the seed he hopes to plant in other Chreasters this Sunday.


Twitter: @religiongal