(RNS) There's something new this Easter season at the front of the sanctuary of Ozark Highlands Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a rural Missouri congregation of 50 worshippers. To mark Lent and Easter, the pastor and a member with carpentry skills fashioned a 6 1/2-foot rugged cross from an oak tree, placed it in a Christmas tree stand and covered its base with a brown quilt to represent the earth. Each Sunday, elders carry forward symbols brought from home to recall Jesus' Passion -- a crown fashioned from a member's thorn tree, a sign reading "King of the Jews" in four languages, and a whip made from a leather belt. On Easter Sunday, these stark symbols will be replaced with a brighter one -- lilies placed on the cross to celebrate their belief in Christ's Resurrection. "It has brought the crucifixion and the Lenten season to life to help us prepare and see that visually," said the Rev. Russ Hamilton, pastor of the church 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 yet symbolic ways of celebrating Easter, the annual holiday that usually swells the number of congregants one spring Sunday. "It is a struggle because we don't have a lot of resources to buy banners," said Hamilton. "We don't have a lot of people to have a big cantata. 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 traditions surface across the country -- from those tired of the institutional church to those who seek religious observance via the Internet or in new congregations meeting for the first time. Last year on Easter, author A.J. Kiesling recalled being squeezed into an overflow area when her Episcopal church was filled with the regulars plus the 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 But Not on God" said she expects to either spend time in a natural setting or join a fellowship of a dozen or so people at a community center this Easter Sunday. Alternatives to the larger services are as varied as the reasons people may have left a traditional church setting, Kiesling has found from her research. One woman who's been burned out after moving from church to church told her of plans to spend Easter weekend at the movies and a Bible-focused theme park. "She's actually waiting to see `The Passion of the Christ' on Good Friday," said Kiesling, a writer and editor in the Christian publishing industry, in Orlando, Fla. "She wants to experience it on the day that Christ was killed. Later on in the weekend, she's going to go to the Holy Land Experience in Orlando." Fay Key, a spiritual director of an ecumenical contemplative community in Adrian, Ga., considers the Saturday before Easter "waiting by the tomb
day" and will spend the day in silence, recalling the sorrow of those who accompanied 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 and ringing 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 the Green Bough House of Prayer, in an interview. "But the emphasis is always on the 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 Lenten calendar" with suggestions of how to mark each day (April 2: "Choose not to honk."). 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 Protestant traditions. "It seems like people use it ritualistically," Waldman said of the devotional 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 church where he used to be a youth pastor, Jim Perdue will preach at the first official service of the Southern Baptist church he's starting in the booming
Atlanta suburb of Forsyth County. He'll spend the week between Palm Sunday and Easter doing "servant evangelism," delivering microwave popcorn door-to-door, giving out free water and soda, washing cars -- all in an effort to attract those who might not normally darken a church door to the first service at a local high school. "We wanted to focus on them and really show them that there's something valuable for them at church," said Perdue, the 26-year-old son of Georgia's governor. "There's a reason for them to be there other than just on Easter Sunday." Ed Stetzer, church planting specialist with the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, said Easter is a common day for "new church starts" although some churches open their doors on Palm Sunday in hopes of beginning with "two strong Sundays." Smaller churches in rural areas aren't new, and in some cases, neither are their Easter traditions. Richard Lischer, author of "Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery," recalled what it was like 25 years ago to pastor a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation in Southern Illinois on Easter Sunday. Rain or shine, members of the congregation assembled before dawn in a cemetery behind the church for a sunrise service, standing amid the burial plots of their relatives and ancestors. "I think it was our way of dramatizing Christ's victory over death, a way of taking the message of life into enemy territory," said Lischer, now a
Duke University professor of preaching, in an interview. The Rev. John Bennett, director of the Missouri School of Religion Center for Rural Ministry said that sunrise tradition remains in rural settings and the cemetery is a typical location. "There will be a lot of those that are ecumenical and then there's probably a breakfast in one of the churches in town," said Bennett of Jefferson City, Mo. "For the main service of the day, the groups would separate to go to their individual congregations." In Catholic rural parishes, worshippers marking Easter may bring the lilies from their greenhouses or the wine from their vineyard, said Brother David Andrews, executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

"There's a certain way in which the assets and the gifts of the community come to the fore because you don't have the range of options," he said. "But they have their own charm and their own dignity."

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