NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)—Working through a time of grief. Exhausted from what they’ve been through. Excited about what’s to come.

As pastors prepare for Easter this year, they may have more insight on how Jesus’ followers felt leading up to the first Resurrection Sunday.

And much like those early gatherings of believers, Easter celebrations at church services may not be full of people but will probably be full of hope and optimism for the future.

Click on image to enlarge

Around 2 in 5 Christians (39 percent) say they plan to attend Easter services in person this year, according to Pew Research. That’s significantly lower than the 62 percent who say they normally attend such services.

But Easter 2021 is shaping up to be much different than 2020, when only 7 percent of churches held normal in-person services, according to Lifeway Research. At the beginning of 2021, 76 percent of churches were physically gathering for worship services, with more expecting to do so as the year progressed.

Several pastors shared how they are preparing for an Easter different than last year, but still not back to what it was before the pandemic.

Scott Reissen, executive pastor of Frankfort, Ky., Buck Run, said in previous years, his church went door to door in the community around the church building and did mailers, along with digital and print advertising.

Last year, he said they streamed a Good Friday service, a sunrise service and an Easter service. They also held a drive-by missions offering, so they could collect money for North American missions and provide a way for the pastors to see church members they hadn’t been able to see in person for a month.

This year, Reissen said, things are somewhere in between.

“We are having an in-person and streamed Good Friday service. 2020 was the first year we held this service, so we’ll see how in-person attendance goes,” he said. “We are offering three Easter services to allow for social distancing. We have not put our normal efforts into promoting our services because of capacity limits.”

At Kinston, Ala., First, Jonathan Jenkins said they did a drive-in service last year and plan to incorporate that into their Easter services this year as well.

“We are going to offer a hybrid worship celebration outside, allowing for folks that are still concerned to drive in,” he said.

Like many pastors, Jenkins said ministering through the pandemic has been exhausting. At the height of the pandemic, 12 percent of pastors said they were personally exhausted, stressed and isolated, according to Lifeway Research.

“Personally, I am struggling to get excited,” he said. “The last year has been so draining emotionally, that my overall excitement level is down.”

He hopes a planned getaway with his family this week will enable him to rest and recharge before preaching Sunday.

Last Easter, Louis Cook had recently been asked to serve as an interim pastor at Oak City, N.C., Oak City. He preached from the front steps of the church building to everyone parked in their cars.

This year, Cook is no longer the interim and says Easter Sunday will be the first time Oak City will observe the Lord’s Supper without using the prepackaged cups since last spring.

“This past Sunday saw one couple return after having both doses of the vaccine,” he said. “We still wear masks without pushback, but there is excitement about one day taking them off and singing all four verses of hymns, shaking hands and having a potluck. I am constantly learning and am optimistic about the coming weeks and months.”

Studies from both Pew and Lifeway Research give pastors reasons for hope and optimism about future gatherings.

When asked what their church should be doing right now, most want their churches open even if they have some pandemic-related changes, according to Pew Research. Only 18 percent of evangelical Protestant churchgoers say their church should not be open for in-person services. Another 18 percent say their church should be open and holding services in the same way they did before the pandemic. More than 3 in 5 (64 percent) say their church should be open for services, but with adjustments due to COVID-19.

According to Lifeway Research, Protestant churchgoers seem anxious to meet again. When COVID-19 is no longer an active threat to people’s health, 9 in 10 (91 percent) churchgoers say they plan to attend in-person worship services as much or more as they did before the pandemic.

In Pew’s study, 82 percent of evangelical Protestant churchgoers feel at least somewhat confident they can safely attend in-person worship services without spreading or catching the coronavirus. Half (52 percent) say they feel very confident.