(RNS) There's something new this Easter season at the front of thesanctuary of Ozark Highlands Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a ruralMissouri congregation of 50 worshippers. To mark Lent and Easter, the pastor and a member with carpentry skillsfashioned a 6 1/2-foot rugged cross from an oak tree, placed it in aChristmas tree stand and covered its base with a brown quilt to representthe earth. Each Sunday, elders carry forward symbols brought from home to recallJesus' Passion -- a crown fashioned from a member's thorn tree, a signreading "King of the Jews" in four languages, and a whip made from a leatherbelt. On Easter Sunday, these stark symbols will be replaced with a brighterone -- lilies placed on the cross to celebrate their belief in Christ'sResurrection. "It has brought the crucifixion and the Lenten season to life to help usprepare and see that visually," said the Rev. Russ Hamilton, pastor of thechurch in Rolla, Mo. "I think that they will see just exactly what the Lord had intended --to take the ugliness of the cross and make it beautiful." For smaller churches, it can be a challenge to develop simple yetsymbolic ways of celebrating Easter, the annual holiday that usually swellsthe number of congregants one spring Sunday. "It is a struggle because we don't have a lot of resources to buybanners," said Hamilton. "We don't have a lot of people to have a bigcantata. We don't have resources to really bring in a lot of big flowers.... We try to use what we have." As Christians pause to mark the Easter season, smaller traditionssurface across the country -- from those tired of the institutional churchto those who seek religious observance via the Internet or in newcongregations meeting for the first time. Last year on Easter, author A.J. Kiesling recalled being squeezed intoan overflow area when her Episcopal church was filled with the regulars plusthe folks who tend to show up only on that holiday and Christmas. The author of "Jaded: Hope for Believers Who Have Given up on Church ButNot on God" said she expects to either spend time in a natural setting orjoin a fellowship of a dozen or so people at a community center this EasterSunday. Alternatives to the larger services are as varied as the reasons peoplemay have left a traditional church setting, Kiesling has found from herresearch. One woman who's been burned out after moving from church to churchtold her of plans to spend Easter weekend at the movies and a Bible-focusedtheme park. "She's actually waiting to see `The Passion of the Christ' on GoodFriday," said Kiesling, a writer and editor in the Christian publishingindustry, in Orlando, Fla. "She wants to experience it on the day thatChrist was killed. Later on in the weekend, she's going to go to the HolyLand Experience in Orlando." Fay Key, a spiritual director of an ecumenical contemplative communityin Adrian, Ga., considers the Saturday before Easter "waiting by the tombday" and will spend the day in silence, recalling the sorrow of those whoaccompanied Jesus to the cross. Then, at the conclusion of an Easter vigil,she'll join about a dozen others in reading verses from the Gospels andringing bells to celebrate their belief in the Resurrection. "I think that's one thing that maybe larger churches don't do as well --is to remember that Good Friday comes before Easter Sunday," said Key of theGreen Bough House of Prayer, in an interview. "But the emphasis is always onthe final note, on the joy." Another way individuals mark the Easter season is by going online. Beliefnet.com, an interfaith Web site, offers an "interactive Lentencalendar" with suggestions of how to mark each day (April 2: "Choose not tohonk."). Steven Waldman, the site's editor-in-chief, said a "flash"devotional also has been popular. It features wood-block art of Jesus'Passion, mournful music and words from the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestanttraditions. "It seems like people use it ritualistically," Waldman said of thedevotional titled "Bitter Journey: The Way of the Cross." "It's not just something they kind of look at once, but they actually --at least some of them -- use it repeatedly."
Instead of attending a musical production at the North Carolina churchwhere he used to be a youth pastor, Jim Perdue will preach at the firstofficial service of the Southern Baptist church he's starting in the boomingAtlanta suburb of Forsyth County. He'll spend the week between Palm Sunday and Easter doing "servantevangelism," delivering microwave popcorn door-to-door, giving out freewater and soda, washing cars -- all in an effort to attract those who mightnot normally darken a church door to the first service at a local highschool. "We wanted to focus on them and really show them that there's somethingvaluable for them at church," said Perdue, the 26-year-old son of Georgia'sgovernor. "There's a reason for them to be there other than just on EasterSunday." Ed Stetzer, church planting specialist with the Southern BaptistConvention's North American Mission Board, said Easter is a common day for"new church starts" although some churches open their doors on Palm Sundayin hopes of beginning with "two strong Sundays." Smaller churches in rural areas aren't new, and in some cases, neitherare their Easter traditions. Richard Lischer, author of "Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith andDiscovery," recalled what it was like 25 years ago to pastor a LutheranChurch-Missouri Synod congregation in Southern Illinois on Easter Sunday.Rain or shine, members of the congregation assembled before dawn in acemetery behind the church for a sunrise service, standing amid the burialplots of their relatives and ancestors. "I think it was our way of dramatizing Christ's victory over death, away of taking the message of life into enemy territory," said Lischer, now aDuke University professor of preaching, in an interview. The Rev. John Bennett, director of the Missouri School of ReligionCenter for Rural Ministry said that sunrise tradition remains in ruralsettings and the cemetery is a typical location. "There will be a lot of those that are ecumenical and then there'sprobably a breakfast in one of the churches in town," said Bennett ofJefferson City, Mo. "For the main service of the day, the groups wouldseparate to go to their individual congregations." In Catholic rural parishes, worshippers marking Easter may bring thelilies from their greenhouses or the wine from their vineyard, said BrotherDavid Andrews, executive director of the National Catholic Rural LifeConference in Des Moines, Iowa.
"There's a certain way in which the assets and the gifts of thecommunity come to the fore because you don't have the range of options," hesaid. "But they have their own charm and their own dignity."