I grew up in a church that didn’t exactly roll with the church calendar. No Lent. No Advent. No Epiphany. But a few years ago, I discovered the joy of embracing this ancient church tradition.
There’s nothing magic about marking off the year in seasons. There’s not even a New Testament command to do so. But there is something wonderful about setting aside time to prepare our hearts for annual reminders of God’s goodness.
Lent, despite being tied to more liturgical church traditions, isn’t just for folks who prefer chants to praise songs and incense to potlucks. Rather, Lent is a way for Christians of all stripes to journey to the cross with Jesus.
What is Lent?
The very earliest Christians did not observe lent, but the tradition dates back more than 1,500 years. The season is traditionally marked off as the forty days leading up to Easter, with Sundays excluded from the count.
Why forty days? Before Jesus began His public ministry, the Gospels tell us that He spent forty days in the wilderness. He fasted and, at the end, was tempted by the devil. It was a time of testing and trial, a period of intentional preparation.
In the same way, believers spend forty days during Lent preparing for the commemoration of Resurrection Sunday. Jesus died for our sins on Good Friday; Lent gives us space to focus on His sacrifice, confessing our shortcomings and rebellions, our weaknesses and needs. At the same time, Lent is not just a period for sorrow. The more we look to Jesus and the cross, the more reasons we have to praise His name.
Because Jesus fasted for those forty days in the wilderness, Christians often use the season to fast as well, though most do not fast from all food outright. Some give up a certain type of food, or perhaps one meal a day. Others fast from something else that can normally be a distraction. Recently, some Christians have found it helpful to turn off social media and the like during the forty days of Lent.
We are free in Christ, not under any compulsion to obey these sorts of traditions. However, stepping into them freely for the purpose of focusing on Christ and His sacrifice can be a spiritual blessing in our modern world.
How to Start Observing Lent
Many believers want to use the weeks preceding Easter as a special season but aren’t sure where to start. As church leaders, we have a unique opportunity to help.
The first thing to keep in mind is that some people in your church may bristle at the mention of the word Lent. The tradition has gotten a bad rap in some circles, and that’s okay—this isn’t about a tradition; it’s about drawing nearer to Jesus.
So, be sure to communicate that this time is optional. The Lord should be the one to draw people in, not any pastor speaking from a pulpit.
Start by explaining what Lent is and why it may be a spiritually significant experience for those who choose to take part. In truth, confession, repentance, and devotion to Jesus are not seasonal for believers; these practices ought to be a regular part of our walk. Lent is simply an opportunity to recalibrate our hearts toward the cross.
Lent is also not a solo activity. Certainly, reflection and prayer can be—and should be—deeply personal, but the journey is not one we take alone. Here are some suggestions to bring a sense of community to your church family during Lent:
- Read Scripture together. Whether you create (or borrow) a reading plan that takes your church through different parts of Scripture or choose to read through a book of the Bible together, there’s nothing quite like the partaking of God’s Word as a family. Consider preaching through the same Scriptures or reorienting small groups to focus on the readings. The goal is not to “get through” any particular part of the Bible. Rather, it’s to soak in it, understand it with the heart and with the mind, and to mutually encourage one another through the experience.
- Pray together. Is there a particular need in your community? Or perhaps you feel burdened to pray for revival. Whatever it is, join together as sons and daughters of God to seek the Lord together.
In a time of social distancing, this can be virtual, using online prayer walls and video-conferencing software to join together. It could also look like weekly prayer meetings in person, if regulations allow. Another option is to have prayer signups on a certain day of the week, with the goal of having someone praying every hour.
In addition, encourage your members to set aside time each day for focused prayer, perhaps in conjunction with their BIble reading.
- Celebrate together. Lent has a reputation for being a somber affair, and rightly so. The Bible tells us, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10). But Lent is also a time for celebration. The reason that Sundays are not part of the forty-day count during Lent is that they are set aside for feasting. As a church, why not make Sundays special during Lent?
Consider outdoor lunch after Sunday services, if weather permits. Or you might want to consider special nights of worship during the season. If you’d like to keep everything virtual, ask members to share their favorite recipes so that families can celebrate in their own homes.
- Don’t forget about Easter! Lent is six weeks long, but it’s all leading up to the empty tomb. Our repentance and devotion would mean nothing if Jesus stayed dead. But He didn’t. He’s alive.
Although Christmas gets better press, Easter is the most important day on the calendar for followers of Jesus, and it can be made all the more special by observing Lent. Just be sure to keep the resurrection in view, no matter where Lent takes you.
During the season, we journey to the cross and lay our burdens down there. But the story of Jesus doesn’t end with Good Friday. Resurrection Sunday is the hope we desperately need.
Over to you
Lent isn’t mandated by Jesus, but I’ve experienced firsthand the joy that comes with setting aside normal life for a time in order to focus on the cross of Jesus. How might your church benefit from a change in pace during this important time of year?