January 31, 2018
In the past several years, it seems that more and more Protestant Christians have begun to observe Lent, a season of about six weeks before Good Friday. Lent is a time traditionally set aside for fasting, prayer, and reflection to focus on the hope of Jesus Christ through his death on the cross and his resurrection. Many have viewed Lent as a primarily Catholic or Orthodox tradition. And yet, this growing interest in Lent among evangelicals has been both corporate and individual. Corporately, for example, churches from various denominations, whether Reformed or Southern Baptist, have put increasing emphasis on Lent in their liturgies. While at the same time, many Protestant Christians quietly observe Lent on their own. I see three key motivators for this increased interest by Protestants.
Most people associate Lent with “giving something up.” Certainly self denial plays a role, but Lent is much more than that. At its heart, Lent is a time to remember Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, and to ready our hearts to celebrate his resurrection. Fasting, reflection, and prayer all serve this main purpose. Lent is a process that builds a sense of preparation, anticipation, and appreciation for what Jesus did for us.
Many Protestants remain wary of the trappings of rituals like Lent, and for good reason. For centuries, people have mistakenly viewed their participation in Lent as a way to earn God’s favor. In his article “Why Has Lent Become Cool With Evangelicals?”, Doug Ponder suggests the internet, unsettled lives, and love of experience play big roles is making Lent “cool” for Protestants. However, he affirms that Lent is something that Christians can redeem:
The heart of Lent is a season of fasting, which Jesus seemed to expect for his followers to do. After all, he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (Matt. 6:16). In Lenten fasting we abstain from worldly pleasures to realize their power over us, to remind ourselves of our frailty and continual need of grace, and to rejoice that our appetite for sin has been forgiven and will one day be erased. I know of no Christian who would object to that!
Jesus taught us how to recognize a false prophet or teacher (Matt. 7:16 ESV), “You will recognize them by their fruit.” The true and sustained Lenten emphasis on Christ, his crucifixion, and his resurrection, is the good fruit confirming what might otherwise be written off as just another popular, “Christiany” trend.
Although some mistake “giving something up” as the point of Lent, there is valuable purpose to fasting. As Ponder observes, Jesus appeared to expect that we would fast at times. Lenten fasting reflects Jesus’ fast in the wilderness to prepare for his ministry; therefore it’s expected to actually be sacrificial. Setting aside food, technology, or some other need, desire, or distraction, builds space to devote to meeting with God. Many Christians recognize that value goes beyond the mere exercise of self denial; God speaks to those who earnestly seek him. But as Eric Ferris, founder of the Lent Experience, points out, to reduce Lent to “just giving something up, misses the point.” Fasting is about setting aside time normally spent eating, or doing some activity, to tune in to God’s Spirit in prayer and reflection. It doesn’t necessarily make one more spiritual. Again, it’s about what the fasting person is seeking. Is it Christ in prayer and meditation, or is it man’s recognition? I like what Doug Wilson, another somewhat skeptical blogger, says about this: "In short, if everybody on Facebook knows what you are not doing for Lent, with fifteen minute updates, along with a snapshot of the burrito you are not eating, you already have your reward." (I will neither confirm nor deny that my own Lenten fasts have involved, in part, abstaining from Chipotle burritos. I will provide no updates or photos.)
Besides fasting, Lent is a time to exercise other disciplines, such as service and giving. In addition to “giving something up,” or instead of it, some Christians “take something on” by doing service or giving in ways they don’t regularly do. This might be stepping up to help a total stranger, or reaching out to someone whom God has laid on your heart by sending a note or calling them on the phone. It might be volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, serving at a homeless shelter, or visiting the sick at home or the hospital. Sacrificial serving and giving can be important aspects of Lent.
Finally, many Protestant congregations have rediscovered the Christian liturgical calendar, a progression of seasons for anticipation, reflection, and activity. It includes items like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Pentecost, as well as “ordinary” worship times. The liturgical calendar offers a rhythm to the worship year for which many evangelicals have found a renewed appreciation. Southern Baptist writer and musician, Bobby Gilles, shares his views about the liturgical calendar:
More and more Christians are rediscovering this historic practice, and growing in the truth and knowledge of Christ. We shouldn’t treat the church calendar as if it were commanded in Scripture, like baptism and communion are commanded. It is simply a practice of historic Christianity that continuously stirs reflection, anticipation and action in the hearts of God’s people for the whole, big story of the gospel.
I couldn’t have said it better, so, I didn’t try. In fact, Gilles makes such a good case, I highly suggest reading his blog on the subject.
It’s true that more Protestant Christians observe Lent these days. They take it in measure, and call it what it is: a season for self-denial, prayer, and reflection to focus on the hope of Christ. It’s not about them, or what they do. It’s about Jesus and what he did. “You could observe 1,000 Lents,” says Eric Ferris, “and it won’t ever accomplish in your life what the cross of Jesus has.” Protestants have gained a new appreciation for the Church Liturgical Calendar and for a season to reflect on their need for the cross and to prepare their hearts to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. It’s definitely not all about “giving something up,” but they see fasting is a true spiritual discipline that gears the heart and mind to Christ. In the end, whether Christians observe Lent corporately or individually, it comes down to Christ on the cross and a tomb that was found empty.
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