A Memo to the Session: Easter at the Hollywood Bowl
From Dr. Bob Paul, Pastor of Discipleship
For several years, Bel Air Presbyterian Church has vacated its campus on Mulholland Drive in favor of holding an Easter worship celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. This practice is not without its problems, and critics.
For some church members, going to the Bowl is a practical impossibility. Beyond the inconvenience of transportation and parking, some who suffer physical limitations or disabilities simply cannot handle the Hollywood Bowl. For others, worshipping in the vast open-air venue simply does not “feel” like worship. It is more like attending a concert, complete with picnic lunches, rather than a meaningful spiritual experience. Utilizing the Bowl is also expensive, and offerings received at the Bowl fall short of covering the church’s monetary outlay.
Despite these difficulties, we have justified going to the Bowl as a matter of Bel Air’s “mission.” I’m not convinced that our congregation is clear about the mission. In fact, I’m not sure we have been completely clear about it as church leaders. I think there is a need to re-think WHY we go to the bowl, because getting clear on this might change HOW we go about it. What exactly is our mission, or purpose, in going to the Bowl?
One answer might be that we can “reach” more people in one service at the Bowl than in multiple services in our sanctuary. The numbers support this, and partnering with Christian Alliance last year definitely boosted attendance. So, is the main goal of our mission “outreach,” or “evangelism,” or “gaining more members for Bel Air”?
Last year, special effort was made to invite a response to the message, something like a Billy Graham Crusade. However, the number of people who actually got out of their seats and “came forward” were very few. And as far as we know, only a tiny handful of people found their way to Bel Air in the following weeks because of the Bowl. If the primary “mission” was evangelistic outreach, the results were not impressive. Indeed, it is likely that the vast majority of people who came to the Bowl for Easter were already believers, and already involved in some church (Bel Air or another). They came to the Bowl for Easter, and went back to their own church the next week. That would be my take on it.
So, is it worth going to the Bowl if it contributes very little to either evangelism or member-increasing outreach?
I want to suggest another way to define the missional purpose of Easter at the Bowl.
We live in a culture and a city where it is easy for Christians to hide from public view in our relatively private enclaves. At the same time, there are other churches around the country who attract a lot of public attention by the extremist ideologies they represent (Westboro Baptist is a notorious example). Such churches represent a theological viewpoint and an attitude towards society that is aberrant relative to mainstream evangelicalism, and abhorrent to most Christians. Yet they too often become the “public face” of Christianity.
There is a need for Christians to stand up and bear witness to their faith in the public square—and to do so in a way that does not degenerate into antagonistic shouting over political issues. In Los Angeles, the Hollywood Bowl comes as close as anything to being a town square.
Easter is the Christian festival that celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ—the very center of the Good News we proclaim. What better time than Easter to stand up in a public place and bear witness to the Resurrection?
The mission of bearing public witness to the Resurrection does not need to be justified in terms of numbers, or evangelistic impact, or some kind of cost-benefit analysis. Some things are worth doing for their own sake. If we saw a lone Apostle standing in the middle of a public square, facing the skeptics and critics, yet boldly telling the story of Jesus crucified and risen, we would admire the courage and applaud the effort regardless of cost or results.
It is always worthy to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is good for our souls to get out of the sanctuary and into the public square with our witness, at least once a year.
Our Lord, after all, was crucified in public and he made it clear that the gospel is to be shared with the world. Our mission is to keep telling this story—out there, in public places—and to do it in a way that honors the name of Jesus.
If God has given us the vision and capability to make this happen once a year in one of the most iconic public venues in this great city, and perhaps the world, it is a worthy thing to do. Indeed, we ought to consider it a privilege to serve our Lord’s gospel in this way.
Why go to the Bowl at Easter? Because bearing public witness to the Resurrection of Christ is a high honor and a worthy act of mission.