Evangelicals, Ash Wednesday, Lent and Liturgy

Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent. Evangelicals, for much of their history, have moved away from these annual Church Year events. They have historical support as a tradition of the church, but they do not have biblical sanction. For this reason Evangelicals did not generally engage in them.

What is happening among a number of Evangelicals is that they adopt these traditions, but often without much biblical, theological, and historical reflection. There is a temptation to engage in them because they are trendy, or because they believe it connects them with the longer and larger historical church.

I have addressed the Church Year in the past, addressing both strengths and weaknesses of it, so I will not do so again. What does this attraction mean? What is the perceived (or real) gap that is missing in church life that this fills? Carl Trueman responds to some of these questions in his post Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety

Trueman does not see that it is wrong or sinful to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent, and he states this on the basis of Christian liberty. But when this practice becomes the expected norm for all Christians, then it is a practice to which it must be strongly objected. He believes that the attraction of Evangelicals to Lent

is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything. American evangelicals are past masters at appropriating anything that catches their fancy in church history and claiming it as their own, from the ancient Fathers as the first emergents to the Old School men of Old Princeton as the precursors of the Young, Restless, and Reformed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as modern American Evangelical. Yet if your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.

Trueman concludes in the following way:

When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is so often a symbol of this present age's ingrained consumerism.

I don’t agree with all of Trueman’s observations and criticisms, but he does have much to provoke thoughtful reflection. Here are some questions for reflection.

  • Do you agree with his assessment that this renewal of interest in and practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent among many Evangelicals is due to a weak ecclesiology or the “poverty of their own liturgical tradition”?
  • Do Evangelicals generally lack a solid “historical, liturgical and theological depth” in doctrine and practice?
  • Does a focus on Ash Wednesday and Lent serve as a substitute or replace what the Word and the ordinances are intended to convey making the former irrelevant?
  • Is an interest in and practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent evidence of “this present age’s ingrained consumerism”?
  • What do you do during this season and what are your biblical and theological reasons for doing so?

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