In 1995, newly arrived District residents Mark and Lora Batterson decided to attend the Sunrise Easter Service at the Lincoln Memorial. “It marked us,” Batterson remembered. “It is such a significant event, not just for the Kingdom, but I think for the city and our country at large.”
By then the DC tradition was already in its 26th year. The Battersons marveled at the crowd of nearly 10,000 that gathered to experience the celebration together. As the rosy-colored sun crept over the stone of the nation’s memorials, Capital Church pastor Amos Dodge declared, “The tomb is empty!”
The sunrise service approximates the moment at dawn when, as Batterson relates the Biblical telling, Mary Magdalene “makes what is the greatest discovery ever, I think; that He is not there, He is risen, just as He said.”
Batterson never imagined that he, who would go on to lead National Community Church (NCC) in 1996, would someday be entrusted to lead thousands in worship at this historic site. But at 6:30 a.m. on April 9, that’s exactly what will happen as NCC takes over the leadership of the Easter Sunrise Service from Capital Church.
43 Years of History
The first Easter Sunrise Service took place at the Lincoln Memorial in 1979. Capital Church minister Amos Dodge said he had simply felt a call to worship there. “In the spring of 1979, I was walking on the mall, praying for the city and headed toward the Lincoln Memorial,” he said. “I had a thought, which now I know was a whisper from Heaven: “Have a sunrise service at the Lincoln Memorial.” So we did.”
“127 people came and now these years later, only God knew what was going to happen at the Lincoln every Easter,” Dodge said.
By 2015, attendance at the event was up to 8,000. That year, the Washingtonian ranked the Sunrise Service 5th on The Great Washington Bucket List, a compilation of “things we’d regret not doing if we moved away”.
The service brings visitors from all 50 states and many other foreign countries; thousands more watch the event via livestream. “Seeing Lincoln Memorial at sunrise and on Easter Sunday is a memorable experience,” one 2013 attendee wrote. “To be there worshipping with 6000 other believers is a must. To reflect what Lincoln did as president and his sacrifice for the nation and comparing that to Jesus and his ultimate death and resurrection is something to think about.”
Passing the Baton
When COVID hit in 2020, the in-person service was cancelled. It was cancelled again in 2021. Capital Church organized the 2022 Sunrise Service, inviting Pastor Mark to pray, an experience he describes as extremely moving.
Shortly afterward, Amos Dodge of Capital Church invited NCC to take over planning for the entire event. After 43 years, Batterson said they explained to him, it was time to pass on the baton. “Forty years is a long time to do anything,” Batterson said. “I think they just felt like this was the moment, and this year, they have gone through pastoral change.”
Staging the event is no joke. “But we have discovered that it’s a lot of work,” Batterson said, laughing.
Easter is a busy time for any church. NCC, however, adds the Sunrise Service to a host of other events. They will still hold regular 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Easter Sunday services at both the Capital Turnaround and Northern Virginia churches, in addition to the Easter Eggstravaganza, the egg hunt they have hosted at Lincoln Park for more than 25 years (this year’s is April 1. Preregister and get info at national.cc/eggstravaganza).
That’s a lot of work that requires a lot of hands, Batterson acknowledged. But blessing the city is their mission. So NCC began planning for the Sunrise Service as soon as they accepted the mission, working with the National Park Service (NPS), outgoing Capital Church Minister Travis Goodman and hundreds of volunteers over the next year to prepare for the 2023 service.
“It’s a big lift,” said Batterson. “Some of the volunteers will pull an all-nighter on the mall.” The event requires extensive permitting, in addition to erecting and tearing down staging, audio equipment and about 2,000 chairs near the front. It’s a full production; this year Grammy-nominated international Gospel/worship artist Todd Dulaney will perform.
But, Batterson noted, the NCC congregation are well-practiced stage hands. Most of their early years were spent in rented facilities where they would also set up and tear down staging in a single day.
This year will have a bit of the NCC stamp, Batterson acknowledged, but they want to be good stewards of the Sunrise Service. Founding Capital Church Pastor Amos Dodge will give a welcome. “We want to honor those who have come before and made this possible,” Batterson said.
What to Know
The service lasts about an hour. Worshippers will dress for the weather and sit on blankets on the steps or out in front of the memorial. Some come very early to try to claim a chair. That requires a lot of planning; Metro service does not begin Sunday until 7 a.m., although buses begin running by 5 a.m.
But, Batterson notes, one of the great things about being in DC on a holiday is the feeling of peace. “It’s almost like you have Capitol Hill to yourself,” he said (Batterson is himself a Hill resident). On Easter Sunday, the mall is largely empty, adding to the aura; parking is more widely available on the surrounding streets. Worshippers can also take ride share, bike share, or walk to the event.
It is both a Washington tradition and a deeply moving experience, Batterson said. NCC does not take the responsibility lightly. Both Batterson and NCC congregation are cognizant of the gravity of this event.
“There’s something about the Lincoln Memorial and the National Mall that it feels like you’re speaking to the nation and that carries a certain weight,” he said. “So, we’re excited about declaring the resurrection of Jesus Christ over our city, over our nation. It’s going to be a special moment to have thousands of voices praising the name of Jesus.”
Learn more about the Sunrise Service by visiting eastersunrise.com. Learn more about NCC at/national.cc.