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Helping Your Church Catch Lent Requires Slow Effort

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For Baptist churches following the liturgical worship calendar, Lent is a given. However, there are exponentially more pastors who, if they speak the word “Lent,” will be greeted with resistance or even an anti-Catholic rant.

Our Puritan forefathers removed virtually all the symbols and liturgy of the ancient church. It took centuries for crosses and crèches to reappear. Christmas and Easter were even wiped from their calendars.

In other words, Baptists stopped commemorating Lent by design and intent.

Church fathers wrote about a fast occurring in various churches as early as 200 A.D.

In some places, the fast was for three or seven days before Easter. Early writings speak of other congregations that fast from meat and fish for 40 days prior to Easter.

The church was talking about Lent around the same time it began conversations about the Trinity.

Shortly after the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), the length of the season seemed fixed at 40 days.

If it took the ancient church a century to birth Lenten practices, realize you aren’t going to make it all happen this March. Here are a few ways to begin introducing Lenten liturgies:

  • Engage in casual conversation with significant lay leaders.

Visit with those who know and trust you as their pastor. Test the waters for openness instead of unpacking the full plan.

  • Call attention to the Lenten practices of churches around you.

Encourage your leaders to mingle with Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and even Catholics during March and April so they can catch Lent more easily.

Many communities share ecumenical meals where ministers from different churches offer a Lenten devotional at a luncheon that raises funds for a local community project.

Fellowship shared around the table, followed with litanies calling for repentant hearts and a Lenten devotional sermon, will allow a congregation to begin sipping Lenten waters.

  • Introduce other liturgical observances first, including Advent, Pentecost and All Saints’ Day.

Once these days are notched upon our calendars, celebrating Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Eastertide as well as Trinity and Christ the King Sunday will be much easier.

  • Sing hymns of confession, repentance and the cross in worship from late February through March before ever announcing the Lenten observation.
  • Preach on the transfiguration on the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday to regularly set a direction moving into the Lenten season.
  • Use Wednesday evening sessions to teach about Lent.

You may need to do this over several years. My current congregation endured years of historical and biblical teachings on this subject from different pastors before we ever held an Ash Wednesday service.

Even in that first service, most of the members entered tentatively. Most shared communion by intinction and prayed with a minister who laid a hand on their shoulder, consciously touching them.

Most did not receive ashes that first year. A few received ashes via the symbol of the cross on their hand. Now, most of our people who attend Ash Wednesday services accept the ashes, marking the cross upon their head.

Yet, we began gently, allowing and encouraging persons to participate as they chose.

  • Work from Holy Week backward in developing Lenten traditions.

Establish ways in worship to emphasize the shift that takes place from Palm Sunday to Passion Sunday, which are wrapped into the same service.

Many Protestant churches share in a congregational reading that moves from Palm to Passion text.

  • Plan a Maundy Thursday service, a foot washing experience or a service of darkness before launching into Lent. Consider having a rabbi lead your congregation in a Seder meal prior to Holy Week.
  • Build into worship a movement toward confessional prayer in your worship during February and March.

Baptist churches have been known for decades as being against sin. However, we seldom build moments of confession or even a period of silent prayer focused upon confessing repentant prayer into our worship.

Many Baptist churches omit an assurance of pardon because the people have never left anything at church that required forgiving. The assumption is that sin belongs to the world and the lost, and not to me.

An aspect of Lent is helping our people to understand Christ died for our sin, the sin of each and every person in the pew, and that we are all sinners.

The churches I’ve served were not argued or shoehorned into Lent. It wasn’t another program. Lent has been caught, built slowly and intentionally into our communal spiritual life.

Use the multitude of creative resources often available outside of Baptist circles. Don’t take steps so large that the congregation is off balance and anxious. Always add and build on the tradition you’ve begun or inherited.

Plant and nurture, and you will see a wonderful Lenten tradition emerge.

Larry Coleman is senior minister at Churchland Baptist in Chesapeake, Va.

Editor’s note: “Eyeing Easter, Walking through Lent,” EthicsDaily.com’s eight-week Lenten Bible study curriculum, is available here.