RiverLife Church is expecting a special guest Easter Sunday. It's someone well known, but it's not a visiting star pastor or a prominent worship musician.

For the first time, the St. Paul church is preparing to host the Easter bunny.

As the holiday approached, Greg Rhodes, the church's pastor, booked a costumed character so the church could add photos to the annual indoor egg hunt.

Most U.S. churches once focused only on the religious aspects of Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus in sermon and song, leaving the holiday's secular traditions — egg hunts, chocolate consumption, photos with the Easter Bunny — to backyards, parks and shopping malls.

Now, a growing number of church leaders in Minnesota and around the country see Easter as an opportunity to connect with families in their neighborhoods, provide value to the community and bring in new members at a time when many congregations are dwindling. One in three Americans say they never attend religious services, the Survey Center on American Life found in January.

A Blaine church runs what has become the Twin Cities' largest egg hunt, scattering a whopping 60,000 plastic eggs stuffed with candy and prizes. In Edina, Meetinghouse Church hosted its second annual Easter Eggstravaganza on Saturday, with an Easter Bunny photo booth, egg hunt, petting zoo and a food truck offering free egg rolls.

"Church is spiritual and it's meaningful and it's religious, but it's also a place filled with joy and filled with community and we can do all these things together, " said Nicole Smalley, a member of Meetinghouse Church's youth ministry team. "Just the idea of Easter as a holiday and spring and new life — that gives us all hope, having survived the Minnesota winter. The church is also a place that gives hope and we can mix the two pretty easily."

Many Christians have long seen the bunny business (and its attendant holiday consumerism) as an unwelcome distraction from Jesus' story at Easter time. Rhodes said his church's leadership considered that perspective, but they also factored in what makes the holiday fun for kids.

"We believe fundamentally about giving families great experiences, and we have wonderful spiritual experiences that happen during service, and then wonderful, family-oriented, kid-oriented experiences that happen after service," said Rhodes, whose multicultural Hmong church began hosting egg hunts five years ago.

"That's part of why we're very comfortable with the idea of having the Easter Bunny there to take some photos. We joked, 'We already had eggs, Peeps, candy. We were like: We're 75% already there.' "

His church takes a very holistic view on spiritual growth, he said, and providing a way for families to have fun and be together is part of it.

Easter time traditions

Easter egg hunts have origins in pagan spring equinox celebrations, early Christian traditions and German tales of the "Oschter Haws," a hare that laid eggs and left them for children to find. They were popularized in Victorian England (in her childhood diary, Queen Victoria wrote about her German-born mother hiding eggs at Kensington Palace) and came to America with German immigrants.

In Minnesota, the secular Easter tradition has changed with the times. In 1937, the Minneapolis Star chronicled the egg hunts well-to-do families were planning at their Lake Minnetonka homes for their grandchildren. By the 1960s, nearly two-dozen Minneapolis parks hosted a hunt, with kids competing to find a single golden egg for a prize. In St. Paul, a helicopter would drop thousands of foam eggs on the State Capitol lawn.

Later, many hunts became less competitive, with children collecting empty eggs and turning them in for prize bags of candy, one for every child in attendance. While some municipal rec centers still host hunts (Minneapolis parks will have 14 this year, including one for dogs), a number of neighborhoods now hold plant swaps or other springtime events instead.

Go big, go to church

What organizers at Blaine's Renovation Church now bill as the "Twin Cities' largest egg hunt" began as a smaller affair in 2015, with 10,000 plastic eggs. Now it stretches over two days, and the egg count has grown significantly — to 60,000. It requires nearly 200 volunteers, who gather for plastic egg-stuffing parties and get up early to rope off zones for different age groups.

"Ultimately we want to see people come to church and get closer and grow in their relationship with God, and we thought 'Oh, this is maybe a neat opportunity,' " said David Sorn, the church's lead pastor.

From the start, Renovation decided to make its egg hunts a little different from other area churches — by requiring participants to attend church. At Easter programs designed for children or one of the main Easter services, the church hands out wristbands that allow kids to participate in one of the eight hunts, which are held over two days. This year, the church is expecting 3,500 egg hunters and their families.

"If you go to the store and you look at Easter decorations, it doesn't have anything to do with the cross and the tomb," Sorn said. "It's bunnies and flowers, and I think for a lot of people that's what Easter is. It's spring and you get together with your family and you maybe have a dinner.

"I think this is an opportunity to still remember what historically Easter is all about, and yet also still have fun with a great American tradition at the same time."