In between Holy Week services, Father Joshua Whitfield sneaks away to his office at St. Rita Catholic Church in North Dallas to write.
“Preparing to preach is always going on in my head,” he said. “I write when I have time and I write when the spirit moves me. But it is an organic thing and, to be honest, sometimes I just stand up and let the Holy Spirit do the work.”
Preparing Easter sermons takes particular talent, Whitfield said, because a significant number of the people who come to listen to him have not visited him since Christmas. His congregation, like many in Dallas, can double or even triple in size on the two holiest days of the year.
Friendship West Baptist Church draws 6,500 to 8,500 on most Sundays, but they expect more than 20,000 people to attend one of their three Easter services.
“I have to honor the fact that they’ve come, right?” Whitfield says of the congregants who only attend on holidays. “I trust something good has brought them there, whether it’s family or God or curiosity. And it’s my job to honor whatever brought them here and to make them feel welcome and entice them.
“When preparing a homily, words are important, but the first thing is to honor the fact that they’ve come.”
While the large holiday crowds offer a chance to reconnect with people who’ve strayed or reinvigorate those who might have considered straying, Easter sermons do present a challenge in modern times, Whitfield said.
“We don’t know the Bible as well as we used to,” he explained. “I could talk to people about Game of Thrones and they’ll know all about it, but if I talk to them about the gospel of Mark they might not be as well-versed.”
Finding a way to inspire people of all political persuasions while alienating none of them is perhaps even more difficult.
“I have to honor the people who are on the far right of things. I have to honor the people who are on the far left of things, because they’re all here,” Whitfield said. “In a divided world, in the highly-politicized society that we’re in, it is something of a miracle that in a church like this we can still gather people who otherwise would scream at each other.”
Whitfield is finishing up a book on preaching, in which he encourages clergy to offer congregations a view of the gospel that unites instead of divides, he said.
“When I look out on the congregation on a Sunday, especially on Easter Sunday and see all sorts of different people, I think to myself that only God could have thought this up. Only God could have brought this diversity together.”