published Sunday, April 20th, 2014

New Chattanooga area churches forming Easter traditions

Children take off running to collect candy and Easter eggs which were dropped into a field by a helicopter Saturday, April 19, 2014, at an Easter festival hosted by Church of the Highlands in Harrison, Tenn.
Children take off running to collect candy and Easter eggs which were dropped into a field by a helicopter Saturday, April 19, 2014, at an Easter festival hosted by Church of the Highlands in Harrison, Tenn.
Photo by Doug Strickland.
  • photo
    Duncan Roelfs, 2, reacts as he finds Easter eggs in a field Saturday during an Easter festival hosted by Church of the Highlands in Harrison, Tenn. The festival included a helicopter Easter egg drop and an evening service.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

At Church of the Highlands in Harrison, there are no Easter traditions. Yet.

"I don't think our church has been around long enough," said Jeremy Roberts, the pastor.

The church opened more than a year ago after its predecessor, Highland Park Baptist Church, shut its doors. This is its second Easter as the new church. Like other young churches in the area, the Church of the Highlands is experimenting with how to grow its congregation and find traditions that stick. In church last Sunday, Roberts took an unconventional approach to get people to invite friends to Easter services. During his sermon, he handed out fliers with information about the services, and he asked people to get out their phones and take a picture with the piece of paper.

"Everybody took selfies," Roberts said. "I had everybody put them on their social networks right then, in the middle of services."

Normally, there are between 300 and 350 people in the congregation, but Roberts hopes to see 500 over Easter weekend.

The Church of the Highlands is one of several contemporary churches that have sprung up in Chattanooga over the last few years. These churches are trying to attract congregants from a variety of backgrounds, and many of them practice nondenominational theologies. Their message of Jesus' death and resurrection is old, but they are building new rituals to spread the message, or doing away with tradition altogether.

For years, different sects of Christianity have built rituals and traditions around Easter, including re-creating the Last Supper and Stations of the Cross. Alongside the Easter egg hunts, there are palm leaves, Paschal candles and potlucks this time of year. Churches plan special services to commemorate Holy Week, as believers celebrate by candlelight or at vigil and sunrise services.

While Christmas gets all the fanfare in popular culture, churches would argue that Easter is the highlight of the church calendar. It's a season of redemption and hope. Many churches will see their biggest crowds of the year today. And for the new churches that are searching for identity, they want to make sure everyone feels welcome.

Joli DeLaughter attended the Church of the Highlands when it was still Highland Park Baptist. She says the old church was traditional and low on energy. She went to services because she felt like she was supposed to, but she would never invite friends. Last week, she was one of the congregants who posted a selfie on Instagram to invite people to Easter services. She likes to bring new people to her church now.

"Hey, you can come here," DeLaughter will tell her friends. "This is a place that's not intimidating."

The Venue, a new church on Shallowford Road, is taking a similar approach to the Church of the Highlands in attracting people to Easter services and celebrating the holy day.

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    A man drops easter eggs from the rear door of a helicopter onto a field Saturday, April 19, 2014, at an Easter festival hosted by Church of the Highlands in Harrison, Tenn.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

The church, which opened in October 2013, also threw a huge Easter festival with a helicopter egg drop and bounce houses.

The pastor, Tavner Smith, said he doesn't want to set any traditions, because he thinks he'll always want to out-do whatever he did the year before. While this year's Easter festival had 50,000 eggs dropped from the sky, next year he hopes to have 200,000 eggs and fireworks.

"We're always going to go bigger," Smith said. "Our tradition is to break tradition."

On average, about 500 people attend Sunday services. Smith is hoping to have up to three times that this weekend. It's a nondenominational church, and Smith said people of all religious backgrounds and races attend.

"We're in a denominational city, where everybody's about, 'Are you Baptist or Church of God?'" Smith said.

Smith said church often can be "all about showing up for tradition's sake, rather than showing up because you just love Jesus."

By constantly evolving and bucking tradition, Smith hopes people will attend his church because they want to worship, not because they're following an expected routine.

"I just think people want something fresh," Smith said. "I love people to wonder, 'Man, what's going to happen today when I go to church?'"

Today's services will open with a light show and a rock band playing the song "Roar" by pop star Katy Perry. It will be followed by a video and a performance by a spoken-word artist.

ModernLife Church in Hixson is celebrating its third Easter this year. Rather than throwing big parties to attract large crowds, the nondenominational church is growing slowly and naturally, according to pastor Ian Shaw. They are expecting more than 100 people for Easter.

The members of ModernLife are from all backgrounds, Shaw said, including Catholic, Presbyterian and Pentecostal.

"All those different backgrounds all have very entrenched traditions," he said.

Instead of intentionally creating new traditions, Shaw said that his church is "seeing what things form organically out of the hearts of our members."

"We don't do a big production," Shaw said, referring to some of the other new churches that are hosting Easter blow-outs. "We can't really compete with anything like that. ... We want to have an Easter that is family-oriented and that's really about building relationships."

Sometimes the intimacy of family and a tight-knit community can be lost in a huge party atmosphere. He said his church is just big enough to be able to celebrate in special ways, but it is small enough that parents can make meaningful memories with their own children.

"I have three children, and I'm trying to think of my children and what they're going to remember," Shaw said.

He wants them to remember that on Easter, "We did stuff with our parents."

Contact staff writer Mary Helen Miller at mhmiller@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6324.

about Mary Helen Miller...

Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...

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