Fewer churches continue tradition of sunrise services

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By Lisa King

"Just as the sun comes up, you can hear the birds singing, and it's very peaceful and beautiful," said Allen Clark, minister of music and education at Highland Baptist Church.

Allen was remembering Easter sunrise services he attended for years at the church.

"We would move ours around, and a couple of times we had them in the park at Colonel Sanders Pavilion," he said.

Highland Baptist no longer holds sunrise services, he said, because they discontinued them when they started to hold two worship services on Sunday instead of just one.

"We thought three services would be too many, so we stopped having them, but I miss them," he said.

Only a few churches in Shelby County are having sunrise services, including Cropper Baptist, Pleasant View Baptist in Eminence and Simpsonville United Methodist.

Doris Cissell, secretary at Simpsonville United Methodist, said her church's sunrise service is going to be held indoors.

Although she works at a Methodist church, she is a Baptist, and says she remembers with fondness the sunrise services she attended as a child at Bagdad Baptist Church.

"It was very moving," she said. "I personally like the service better when it is outside, because I feel God more in the outdoors. It's almost like you can feel God's arms around you."

Sunrise services are held on Easter morning, traditionally in Protestant churches. The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran counterpart is the Easter Vigil, held the night before Easter. This service is when new converts are welcomed into the church and take Holy Communion for the first time.

Some churches in the South still hold traditional sunrise services in cemeteries as a sign of recognition that Jesus no longer lay in the tomb on Easter morning.

One notable sunrise service in the United States is that of the Salem Congregation in Winston-Salem, N.C., held annually since 1772. Thousands of worshippers gather in front of the church and move to the graveyard in a procession, accompanied by a 500-piece brass choir.

Clark, who leads the singing during the service at Highland, said that an outdoor sunrise service usually begins with a reflection of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.

"It is not quite daylight at this point, and so we did a quiet reflection of what Jesus' sacrifice means to each of us," he said. “And then when the sun starts to rise, there is singing and the talk turns to the hope in the Resurrection, and then we end on a celebratory note," he said.

Cissell said she would attend Simpsonville Methodist's sunrise service and then go across the street to the Baptist church.

"I will be a Methodist first and then a Baptist, so I am going to do double duty," she said, laughing.

Cissell said more churches used to have sunrise services years ago than they do now.

What dictates whether a church will have them or not?

"It all depends on the pastor and what he wants to do," she said. "A lot of the older pastors like to have them because they grew up in that tradition."

Her voice took on a reverent note as she recalled the feeling of attending an outdoor sunrise service.

"I feel like I am walking in God's presence," she said.