Evangelicals and Lent: Spirit-Led Renewal or Calendar-Driven Cop Out?

Holy Week at Santhome Basilica, Chennai (HDR)
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This is not an anti-Lent post.  It is a plea for evangelical churches to think carefully about it what they are doing.  If Lent is entrenched in your denomination by centuries of practice or a deeply held component of your walk in passionate obedience to Christ, then I am not talking to you.  I am talking to other Southern Baptists like myself.  I am talking to others in the evangelical world, especially those under 30 or so.  I am talking to all of those who believe and live by the conviction that the Word and Spirit of God are all that is necessary for a life of faith and righteousness in Christ.  For whatever reason, many believers and churches who undoubtedly live by the preceding statement have in recent years and in increasing numbers taken up observing Lent.  Though this trend started to gain traction years ago, recent conversations, experiences, and media coverage cemented its urgency in my mind.

Lent is of course the forty day period of time leading up to Easter Sunday in which faithful parishioners (previously only those of more sacramental stripes) forego some modern day luxury to more readily contemplate the extraordinary realities of the Resurrection.  It is an ancient and intriguing rite (though not as ancient as some might believe or desire having been observed uniformly beginning only in the early middle ages, not in the early days of the church according to Catholic Encyclopedia).  Thus many evangelicals, perhaps looking for a more meaningful way to celebrate the holiday than dragging stubborn male relatives to a hard packed pew to see back hair popping out of Easter pageant togas, have recently taken up the practice.

So what’s the problem with this?  Well, maybe nothing.  I think it depends on the person.  But indulge me if you will for a moment.  Certainly the Bible condones fasting as a practice for believers.  Jesus talks about it, and we see it repeatedly done in the pages of Acts.  I have fasted on occasion, usually to clarify decisions at crucial junctures in my life or to prepare for a heavy spiritual experience.  My church just completed a 21 day congregation wide fast as a time for renewal and seeking God’s purposes for our future direction  The result was sobering and powerful.  So I am not talking about fasting generally.  It is a tool capable of connecting us to the workings of God and tuning us in with the whispers of the Spirit unlike anything else at our disposal.  Most evangelicals who advocate for Lent observance do not seem differentiate at all between the two, fasting individually anytime and Lent.  Click here, here, and here for a few of examples.

There are at least three problems with this approach.  First, it is confusing.  I am not anti-ritual and any Christian who is has never read church history.  I think evangelicals can learn much from our more “high church” sisters and brothers.  That being said, I am an evangelical and a Baptist for a reason (other than birth) and there are doctrinal concerns tied up with the history of Lenten fasting especially on the nature of sin and forgiveness.  This history, along with popular misconceptions of how God works in daily life, can lead people to thinking they are earning God’s favor through fasting at Lent.  This is especially true for churches heavy with new converts and otherwise immature believers,  and even more so for cities such as mine where many new believers grew up nominally in more ritual oriented traditions.  Furthermore, two of the authors listed above recognize this danger but do nothing to address the issue.  Paul’s exhortation to refrain from causing the weak brother or sister to sin should weigh heavily on us at this point (1 Cor. 8:9-13).  Lent simply carries too much cultural baggage to be useful on a church wide level in my opinion.

Secondly, it concerns me to have Lent on the calendar every year and expect everyone to observe it when some are not ready to do so, many do not need to do so, may not want to do so, or have grown so used to doing so it amounts only to rote fatalism.  Does it not make it easy to use annually giving up Twitter or sweets as a substitute for true and deep spiritual reflection?  Why not instead encourage people to fast when the Spirit leads as the person is growing and learning in community under the regular teaching of scripture?  Sure, there is a danger this type of fasting could become an empty ritual or means of earning God’s favor as well.  But it seems much less of a danger if undertaken willingly by a person seeking spiritual maturity under the guidance of those experienced in the faith.  I hope what I am saying is clear.  I am not against Lent per se if God is leading one to do it.  I’m just against completing Lent as a value in and of itself.

Lastly, Lent can be a problem because it appears many younger evangelical churches are treating it as a new fad of the “ancient future” sort, though as demonstrated already it is perhaps not quite as ancient as many assume.  In this case, the value and majesty gained from observing a church calendar or liturgy in a heart felt way is lost by evangelicals looking to appeal to the masses coming through and ransacking other traditions for anything that can fuel a new trend.  Once again, I’m not against going back to the past for inspiration.  I am against going back and using the past solely for the purpose of making formerly nominal converts feel comfortable in evangelicism or for making 20-somethings feel superior to and more original than their elders in the First Baptist Town Squares back home.

I think I can sum up my argument here by simply urging evangelicals to be evangelical.  Don’t cheapen other faith traditions by cherry picking their practices which seem appealing.  Let the Gospel speak for itself and trust the Spirit to move and work through the Word as it is taught faithfully.  Our spiritual forebears staked their lives on the proposition of that being enough, that too is a tradition we would do well not to forget.

Peace,

Ben

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7 thoughts on “Evangelicals and Lent: Spirit-Led Renewal or Calendar-Driven Cop Out?

  1. I think you need to be careful here (which by and large you have been). There is nothing wrong with having a particular calendared time of fasting. It’s not substantially different than the “church wide” fast you mention yourself (what if some congregants aren’t ready?). It sets up a date on the calendar of when you will actually do something. Unfortunately, as with most things (but especially spiritual practices), we mean to do them, we just never get around to it. Lent offers the Christian a set date to do so (it’s already on the calendar, often the hardest step). Granted, some leeway needs to be given, especially if someone isn’t in a good place spiritually to participate, but it’s been my experience that most churches who practice Lent give this leeway (or more exactly, don’t really focus too much on the public fasting as it’s supposed to be a private thing anyway). And I can’t think of anyone I know who practices Lent as a “work” that in any way contributes to his or her salvation. Most seem to recognize it for what it is: an intentional period of reorientation toward the crucifixion and (more importantly) resurrection of Jesus. Lent is useful in that it provides a structure to the fast/celebration of Resurrection Sunday that most Christians (particularly newer Christians) seem to need. Then again, it shouldn’t be compulsory (which I don’t think it is, really), it shouldn’t be advertised (a FB status announcing “I’m giving up X for Lent” is almost always inappropriate), and (somewhat paradoxically) it shouldn’t be done in isolation. The last point, I think, is the real promise the practice of Lent can hold. It is a community event. We stand in solidarity of this celebration with Christians around the world. Further, if done in the context of a growing, thriving, biblical community, proper checks can be in place to keep people from viewing it as “work” for salvation instead of its proper view as a “practice” done in light of the already received salvation. I’m not trying to come down on you, I’m just trying to say be careful not to push too far the other direction (and this comes from a fellow SBC’er)

  2. You make several good points. Thanks. I guess my main concerns are expressed in the last paragraph, ie the confusion it can cause in some areas and circumstances. Nonetheless what you say is true. It can be a powerful tool if used correctly.

  3. I love this, buddy. Well done. It raises the right questions within the proper context and is done with a thoughtful approach couched in humility. What a scholarly mind you have.

    1. Agree completely. That is the point I was trying to make. Following a liturgical fast is great if your motive is holiness, but not so if you are just trying to look pious or “hipstery.” Thanks for reading.

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