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The toughest sermon: Winning over worshipers on Easter

The Rev. Joseph Kyles, seen with some of the Loyola University Medical Center team who cared for him after his double lung transplant, is calling his Easter sermon "The Second Wind of God."

Fidgeting limbs. Wandering eyes. Yawning. People getting up to use the bathroom in suspiciously high numbers.

All are signs of an Easter sermon gone awry — and ministers say they’ll go to great lengths to avoid them on Sunday.

“It’s a preacher’s worst fear: We’re losing them,” says the Rev. Joseph Kyles, 54, of Promise Church of Chicago, in Austin.

Distractions in church can seem especially acute on Easter Sunday, as thoughts of family and food, not to mention cellphone-peeking, compete for parishioners’ attention.

“When I was in seminary, we were taught about these little cues,” says Pastor Daniel Ruen of Grace Lutheran Church of Evanston.

Pastor Daniel Ruen of Grace Lutheran Church of Evanston. Sun-Times file photo
Pastor Daniel Ruen of Grace Lutheran Church of Evanston. Sun-Times file photo

“Even babies pick up these little signals from adults, and they’ll start crying and become restless,” says Ruen, 45. “But if you’ve really got somebody, got their full attention, and there’s a sense that everyone’s together in a moment, they’ll withhold a lot of things — like a cough, even.”

“Good preachers are good performers. Some of the best pastors are theater wannabes,” says Ruen, a former thespian himself.

The Rev. Tom Hurley, 48, pastor of Old St. Patrick’s Church in the West Loop, says he tries to avoid pitfalls by telling personal stories.

“There’s nothing better than if you have a good life story,” says Hurley, who planned to go for a five-mile jog Saturday evening to clear his head and think about his Easter homily. “If you’re just trying to connect to people with religious and theological talk, you’re going to lose them.”

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, 66, of St. Sabina Catholic church in Auburn Gresham routinely loses sleep over Sunday sermons. Easter is no different.

“I’ve been a pastor for 40 years, and I’ve never had a good sound Saturday night sleep yet,” Pfleger says.

“If I sense I’m losing a crowd, I might say a phrase and have them repeat it back,” says Pfleger, whose parishioners make up Chicago’s largest black Catholic congregation. “It’s one of the things I love about the black church is the give-and-take, the engagement. It’s not speaking to. It’s speaking with.”

Pfleger also relies on a few people in the crowd to check how he’s doing.

“Every preacher has some people that he or she looks at to realize if people are getting it or not — not the ‘Amen-ers’ — but the folks you know this thing is serious to them, and you can look at their face or their expressions and know, ‘OK, I know this message is getting across,’ ” he says.

To reel in a drifting audience, Kyles says he’ll throw a curveball.

“I’ll say, ‘Give your neighbor a high five, and tell them to take it to the bank tomorrow!’ — because any time you talk about money, people will wake up,” he says.

Kyles says he also likes to gives his sermons catchy titles — like last Easter’s, when ears perked up at the news he’d be speaking about “Your Momma,” on the challenges and sacrifices of motherhood.

This year, Kyles is calling his Easter Sunday sermon “The Second Wind of God” — fittingly, as it marks his return to the pulpit after a double-lung transplant six weeks ago at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

Another way to keep from losing parishioners’ attention: Don’t go longer than 15 or 20 minutes.

“Don’t make people glad twice: glad to see you coming and glad to see you going,” Kyles says.

Rev.. Tom Hurley, Old St. Patrick’s Church.
Rev.. Tom Hurley, Old St. Patrick’s Church.

Rambling is an occupational hazard, Hurley says. That’s where his sister helps.

“If she feels like I’m just a plane circling with nowhere to land this thing, she’ll give me a look that’s kind of like the guy at the airport with orange wands telling me, ‘Bring it in for a quick landing, spare ’em the pain,’ ” he says.

Ministers say they also take into account that many people they see on Easter might come to church just once or twice all year.

“Christmas and Easter are huge opportunities for us to try to capitalize and win some people back,” Hurley says. “There’s no place for making people feel guilty for not coming the other Sundays.”

Pfleger says he aims to “tap them to touch that thirst for something more. Like a good restaurant: ‘That was good. I want to come back.’

“It’s the biggest day of the year, in one sense,” he says. “But I treat it like any other Sunday, too. I’m not here to make them like me or feel good. I’m here to get them to wrestle with living the gospel.”