Many Americans Will Skip Palm Sunday and Easter Church Services to Gather with Family and Friends

For many people holy days such as Easter and Passover have become simply holidays -- celebrations with loved ones. But many see spiritual value in these gatherings.

Pictured: Ambra Virban, age 30 of Denver considers herself Catholic, but on Easter Sunday and other Christian holidays she prefers to be with friends or outdoors enjoying "God's creation" in places such as Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colo. (Photo: Ambra Virban)
Emily Hilliard will cook a festive brunch with friends on Easter Sunday. But none in her Washington, D.C., social circle of foodies, folklorists and fiddlers will go to church that day.

In Denver, Ambra Vibran will enjoy an Italian feast with cousins that Sunday. But she says, "My spiritual life is in hiking, skiing, kayaking and enjoying God's creation." It's a stretch to recall when Vibran last went to church.

Eleanor Drey plans a Jewish traditional meal where family and friends will talk about freedom. But it won't be on Passover, Monday night this year. Folks are tied up with their kids' spring vacations. They'll gather at Drey's San Francisco home in April instead.

This week, most Americans will celebrate essential stories of Christianity and Judaism: God freeing the enslaved is a key Passover theme. Easter's core is Jesus' resurrection, offering a doorway to salvation.

But many will celebrate with a twist.

While 73% of Americans call themselves Christian, only 41% say they plan to attend Easter worship services, according to a March 13 survey of 1,060 U.S. adults by LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research agency. Passover is a home-centered celebration, but it's not known how many Jews plan to recite the prayers and serve symbolic foods at their Seder meal.

In the gap between faith and practice are millions of people who will delight in Easter and Passover as "holidays," not "holy days."

They're just as Christian, just as Jewish, in their own eyes as people who follow traditional scripts -- church on Sunday before carving the ham or the Seder rituals before slurping the matzoh ball soup.

They've simply redefined their spirituality to center on the people at the table -- shared time, shared values with their nearest-and-dearest.

"Relationships have replaced religion for many Millennials," says Esther Fleece, who spent three years specializing outreach to young adult Christians for the evangelical group Focus on the Family.

Fleece, now a literary agent in Orange, Calif., is a devoted churchgoer herself. This year, as always, she says, "I'll invite my Creaster (Christmas and Easter) friends to come with me Easter Sunday."

Still, Fleece says, many won't come. They don't think they need it.

"Religion gives people a basis for morality, for hope and a greater purpose. Millennials form their friendship groups around similar interests. They reinforce and encourage each other," Fleece says.

Fleece's friend Vibran, 30, takes the view that "religion has evolved over the years. I feel like it's whatever you want it to be. I believe the Catholic moral values, but I don't feel I have to go to church to consider myself a believer in that."

Hilliard, 29, might find herself singing old-time hymns on Easter. However, the singing is not about theology. Hymns offer "a connection to tradition and history and to feeling part of something larger than yourself," says Hilliard, who plays the fiddle.

The meal that Hilliard's friends will cook together reflects their support for food from local growers and sustainable farm culture. At the table, "You are beholden to each other. You do talk about values and ways of living."

SOURCE: Cathy Lynn Grossman
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