"We're changing the way kids and ps think about church," exults StuHodges in one of his almost 2,000 tweets to 333 followers on the social media network,
. Stuart Hodges is the lead pastor at the 7-year-old Waters Edge Church, a congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, in York County. In its own building for less than a year, the congregation has grown from a group of 50 meeting at the Victory YMCA to 2,000 worshipers each week. More than 5,000 are expected at
services today. To accommodate the numbers, the church will meet in two services at the
Convention Center. The service, Hodges promises, "will change the way you think about Easter."
His goal is to show people that the cross and Resurrection has relevance to people for daily living. "A lot of people view it as a historical event that we celebrate once a year — as traditional, stuffy, you get dressed up. It lasts an hour and then you depart," he says.
He's striving to make the holiday applicable today. "I'm a 35-year-old dad with three kids in the suburbs of York County. Something that happened so long ago, 2,000 years, affects how I love my wife, how I coach Little League. It can impact them as well."
"Them" are largely people who didn't grow up in a traditional church. "There aren't many churches for people who don't know anything about church. There aren't a lot of places for people, the unchurched, to go," says Hodges, whose congregation is an offshoot of Liberty Baptist in Hampton. Hodges started his church work there and Liberty sponsored the new church and its outreach.
Special holiday services
Using dynamic marketing efforts including direct mail and a much-hyped helicopter "Easter egg drop" in past years, Waters Edge has become "synonymous with creative, quality and engaging holiday services," says Hodges. "It doesn't matter where we're meeting. Name recognition drives the experience. It's going to be different."
The differences this year are manifold: A scheduling conflict moved Waters Edge from its holiday home of the past couple of years at the
; the church's creative team came up with the theme, Easter Rocks!; and for the first time the church is employing free social media to publicize its holiday services.
The Easter Rocks theme gets a boost from a Web site, Easterrocks.com, which takes users directly to the church's own Web site, watersedgechurch.net. To invite people to the Easter services, a brief video uses the popular yellow "peeps" to tell viewers that "All your peeps will be there."
At Palm Sunday services, Hodges invited attendees to emblazon the message "Easter Rocks" on their cars as a moving advertisement. "Everyone has a message on their cars these days. I hope 2,000 vehicles will generate some interest. I'm pretty certain the overwhelming number of attendees will do it," he says. "We're capitalizing on creative and free ways to get the word out."
Reaching out online
In addition to using cars as moving billboards, the group is expanding its reach through social networking online. David Ferrell, one of the church's founding members and a volunteer teacher at Waters Edge, is an administrator for the church's
page, which has 475 members. On his personal Facebook, he regales more than 700 friends with his doings along with news of the church. He posts daily. "It's reaching out to a generation that doesn't normally come to church — teens and people in their 20s. Easter has always been a big production for us to attract people who are distant from God and make it a welcoming and comfortable experience. It's the most important event of all time, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ — the fact that He rose from the dead gives us hope and a reason for living," says Ferrell.
Rob Shepherd, director of community groups and students at Waters Edge, maintains a daily blog, robshep.com, linked to a hundred other bloggers. He also maintains a Facebook presence and tweets about a mix of topics. The church's Twitter site is twitter.com/waters_edge.
Church member Lindsey Brooks, a young mother with two sons, comes from a traditional Methodist church background, where she sang hymns and dressed up. A year ago, she heard about Waters Edge from a friend and hasn't missed a Sunday since. "It's really wonderful. It's like a mountaintop experience every Sunday. I love the energy and the feel. The average age is near to mine — I'm 31," she says. She's also a regular tweeter with a profile that reads, "I love my God, my boys and my church. Each day i try to be a living example of what Christ wants me to be. Often times i fail, but I keep trying. 1Thes 5:17."
Brooks loves that more than half her 140-character Twitter conversations with friends are about church — in between talk about meeting at restaurants, shopping, and playing with her children. "It's wonderful that people are so open and excited," she says. "I've had at least three people join me at church from reading my Facebook. It really is cool to be able to get the word out. I can reach 400 people ... it's way easier than calling people," she enthuses. A recent tweet reads, "I am praying for you ALL THE TIME. Easter WILL rock!"
The "rock" theme is apt as the church projects a high-energy environment and typically employs a professional light show. "'Easter Rocks' is ingenious. It's catchy. It captures what we are," says Brooks. And Hodges confirms that at the Easter services, "We'll be edgy and rocking." A professional illusionist will help communicate the day's message. "There'll be a variety of props to help people see 'hey, it actually did happen.' It will be a very engaging, enjoyable and entertaining experience for people," he says.