Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Last week a person responded to the post on the beginning of Lent. A few of the issues I raised proved to be helpful. What you will read is written by an Evangelical who has been a part of an Evangelical church that has not done much of anything with the Church/Christian year, with the exception of Christmas and Easter. That is until now.
Here is the description of the person’s experience.
Our church has never really mentioned Lent much, and it wasn’t a significant idea or event on our minds. This year we have a couple of new pastoral staff who are young which has resulted in big changes. Suddenly there is a major emphasis upon Lent. . . . tonight is an Ash Wednesday service. They are urging people to pray, fast and give alms during this time of Lent. (My honest, personal reaction has been that it seems like those shouldn’t be limited to a certain time of the year!)
It’s been a little unsettling for me, not understanding what it is all about, and wondering about my tendency to want to withdraw from it all! I’m sure that there are others like me in the church, feeling confused and bewildered about the whole thing.
Here is my response.
A problem with many pastors, especially those who are younger, eager and excited for what God can do, and remember we were at one time as well, is that they want to add or change something in the local church, and to assume the best, they do so for good reasons, for God’s glory and the good of His people. And yet (1) they do so either with little to no understanding of the history of the Church/Christian year and some of the celebrations, (2) they are unaware of the excesses and baggage of these celebrations that can become rituals and ritualistic, (3) they conclude, naively, that simply engaging in these celebrations connects them with the great cloud of witnesses in the church that have preceded them thus connecting them with the great tradition (or Great Tradition), and (4) they downplay or diminish the history of a local church and how the people of God in this local setting perceive these issues. Understanding, humility, communication and instruction are all critical.
Autobiographically, I was raised in a mainline, liturgical, High-Church setting. When I came to faith in Christ I progressively left this setting shaking the dust off my feet as I left. In essence I lived the proverbial expression, “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” As God has enabled me to grow, I have sought to recover the baby while leaving the bathwater. There certainly is no biblical mandate to remember and follow the events of the Christian/Church year, nor is there a biblical mandate prohibiting it. My point is that regardless, we will follow some structure. Let’s follow one that highlights the person and work of Jesus Christ. And let’s make Him the focus, not the seasons in which we remember Him. And if they distract from, then let them go.
One more issue on this topic. Not all young Evangelicals are attracted to the Christian/Church year. Here is an article in which this low-church Evangelical is glad to remain low-church and not celebrate Lent by giving something up, for abstaining for the season leading up to Easter. After outlining the reasons why those in church history have not practiced abstention during Lent, and standing in solidarity with many who have also given up Lent, he concludes, “Evangelicalism is a tradition with attendant folkways and liturgical practices. One of the practices low-church Evangelicalism has long embraced is not participating in lenten abstention. As a traditionalist, I walk in the steps of these historical homeboys and am the richer for it.”
Trevin Wax addresses this in "Evangelicals Embracing (and Rejecting) Lent." Wax states that engaging in some spiritual discipline associated with the Lenten season can be helpful or harmful, like any other spiritual discipline. He provides counsel for those who engage in Lent and those who refrain, with the following conclusion: "What is more important than the practice we take is the heart attitude behind them. If there's anything we should give up this time of year, it's our sense of superiority either to those outside the church or those inside the church who do things differently than we do. The cross levels us all. And that's true whether or not you practice Lent."