Why Your Church Should Consider Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent

This year, our church is observing Lent and we’re kicking it off with an Ash Wednesday gathering. I wanted to write a brief post on one reason your church should consider observing Ash Wednesday and Lent (and why you should not).

Your church should consider observing these church traditions if it makes sense missiologically. By that, I mean if observing these traditions sparks gospel conversations with outsiders and builds bridges with the lost, it might be a good thing for your church. Living as missionaries in our culture demands that we become like those we are trying to reach. In other words, we learn how the people around us speak, dress, eat, converse, recreate, relax, celebrate, persuade, discuss, debate, etc. We engage with them in these practices as they do without compromising the gospel (and by extension, of course, our holiness, morality, etc.). In other words, we compromise everything but the gospel itself.

The classic text on this idea in Scripture is 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. There Paul says,

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

When Paul says, “I have become all things to all people” he means he lives like a particular culture, but not at the expense of the gospel. Why? He does “it all for the sake of the gospel.”

Ash Wednesday and Lent are, for good reason, primarily associated with the Roman Catholic Church. Here in the Capital Region (Albany area), only about a quarter of the total population professes some kind of religious affiliation. Of that group, around 70% identify as Roman Catholic. Because of this, basic missiology says that observing Ash Wednesday and Lent could be a contextual “win” for us. It is well known that Lent for some Roman Catholics (either individually or congregationally) can be legalistic or ritualistic. We want to do it differently. If we do, it will naturally build a bridge to the nominal and lapsed Catholics (and others) in our community and, by God’s grace, spark conversations so we can graciously talk about a Christ-centered and gospel-driven Lent.

Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent is a prime opportunity to zone-in on lamenting our sin, repenting of sin, looking to the cross, and anticipating Easter. It is a season of intentional and focused spiritual formation, and that’s valid reason to observe (I mention that here). We’re trusting God to do a work of grace in individuals and as a church. However, in the bigger picture, our spiritual formation should serve as a gospel witness to nonbelievers. Ash Wednesday and Lent can be tools to shape us. But they can also be tools to help us be good missionaries.

So consider your context. Is it a heavily Roman Catholic area with many nominal church attenders? Are there many former Roman Catholics in your area who have fond memories of Lenten practices?

On the other hand, if you are in an area where there are no Roman Catholics, you’ll need to consider what’s best for your context. No matter where you are, if you want to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent to give your congregation a “cool worship experience,” because “it’s hip to be ancient,” or to provide them another box on the church calendar checklist, then you had better think twice.

In the end, remember that everything we do is “for the sake of the gospel.” That was Paul’s motivation, and it should be ours, too.


Ash Wednesday at Grace Chapel

Wednesday, March 5, is Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period before Easter (46 including Sundays). The word Lent comes from a Latin word meaning “spring,” which comes from an earlier Germanic word meaning “lengthen” or “long” (since the days get longer in spring). At Grace Chapel (a non-denominational, Protestant Evangelical church), we’re encouraging our congregation to observe this season—not to merit favor with God or even because it’s hip to be ancient. We want to take advantage of these valuable observances so we can dive deeper into the gospel. That’s it. It’s really all about Jesus.

Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent are not commanded in Scripture. Therefore, we’re free to observe them or not. However, there’s a few reasons you may want to consider observing them. Ash Wednesday and Lent can provide us the opportunity to:

  • Connect with the historical church. Our faith is not born in a vacuum. We aren’t the first of our kind. We have descended from a great community of faith which has gone before us, of which Ash Wednesday and Lent have been significant traditions.
  • Be confronted with reality of death and our need for Jesus. How often do you think about death? Ours is a death-averse culture, but we must face the reality that we are all going to die because of sin. In the midst of this bad news, however, the good news of Jesus’ death for us is our glorious hope.
  • Freely experience sorrow and lament. Individually and corporately, we make little room for mourning our sin and brokenness. This season provides a ripe time and space for that.
  • Fast with anticipation. We fast (abstain from food or other things) to deny temporal pleasure in order to pursue the ultimate pleasure of knowing, loving, and obeying Jesus as we long for his kingdom to come.

So to kick-off Lent, our church will gather this week on Ash Wednesday to lament and confess our sin, meditate on the glories of the gospel, and worship God.

Our Ash Wednesday gathering will be an interactive time. One aspect of the gathering that some Protestant Evangelicals may balk at is what Christians have historically called “the imposition of ashes.” This is when you receive ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross. Why would we do such a thing? Isn’t that meritorious? religious? legalistic? ritualistic? It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. Ashes and dust in Scripture are symbolic of the brevity of human life and picture repentance (e.g. Gen. 3:19; 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6; Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13). The ashes are simply a tactile and solemn reminder that we are finite creatures and death looms over us all; they are drawn in the shape of the cross to remind us that in the midst of this bad news, there is infinite hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me be up-front: the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament, and observing Ash Wednesday or Lent can’t save us. At the same time, even our repentance can’t save us. God alone saves us through his Son Jesus! Repentance is a response to God’s saving work, and while Christians are by no means required to participate in Ash Wednesday or Lent, we are praying that God might use these rituals to drive our congregation to repentance and faith in Christ. Who knows whether or not, in his grace, God will use these instruments to spur renewal in the hearts of individuals and our congregation as we anticipate the glory of Easter. Of course, this should be the normal rhythm of the Christian life! However, Lent provides us with a special time to zero-in on this as a church community. This approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent is undeniably Christ-centered and gospel-driven.

So if you are in the Capital Region, consider joining us this Wednesday, March 5 at 7pm at Grace Chapel. Even more than that, whether you join us or not, consider how you might take advantage of these forty days to repent of sin and fix your eyes on Jesus.

Ministry Theology

Lent 2012

Ash Wednesday begins the season the church has historically called Lent. Lent comes from an Old English term simply meaning “spring.” The church has employed the word to serve as the forty day preparation before Easter (Lent lasts for 46 days but Sundays are not a part of the 40 day observance).

I am a member of an evangelical church in the Midwest, and I am probably not too far off base when I say that many evangelicals think Lent is “too Catholic for us to celebrate.” Let us remember, however, that Lent only has meaning for those who trust in the finished work of Christ for them, and not their work for God. Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter are all about Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death to remove the wrath of God that was upon sinners and provide a way for them to be justified before him so they might be reconciled to him. The Lenten season a one of preparation. Not fish fry Fridays or boycotting bon-bons. Fasting for fasting’s sake is not the issue. Fasting is good, if it propels you toward Christ. God desires a repentant heart that is earnestly desperate for his grace (see Ps. 51:17-18). Lent is a prime season to cultivate, by God’s grace, repentance to and faith in Jesus.

As a 27-year-old evangelical, I am concerned that American evangelicals, particularly those in the 40+ generation, have little regard for church history or the great community of saints spanning the last 2,000 years. Our evangelicalism does not exist in a vacuum. We tend to lean toward the modern and contemporary and think that new is always better. There is a rich, deep tradition that we can learn from, enjoy, be rebuked by, and praise God for. I don’t claim to know the history as well as I should, but I continue to learn and relish what God has done in times past.

Our gospel is not new. It is not contemporary. It is not modern. It is ancient. In a culture inundated with gadgets and toys that have new additions and updates before we learned how to use the originals, we are boring ourselves to death. Perhaps we need a breath of fresh air, one that can only come from the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:13-14).

Some resources to help you during Lent:

Life Theology

Passion Week – Monday

This is a re-post of the Passion series from last year.

Luke 22:24-30:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

As I read this passage, my own pride rushes to the surface of my heart.  It’s plainly exposed.  And you know what?  It’s ugly.  Jesus said, “Let the greatest among you become as the  youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”  Do I do that?  Am I that?  Most days, I am not.  I crave applause and recognition.  I want people to know my name and face. I want people to read my blog and visit my Twitter.  I want people to be impressed with what I know or how I present myself.  I want people to like me. But, it’s not just addiction to acceptance, as psychologists might put it.  Most fundamentally, it’s idolatry.  I idolize myself instead of worship God.

Jesus ends the disciples’ dispute in our passage by saying that the Father has given him a kingdom, and Jesus is giving that kingdom to his disciples so they may “eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.”  Jesus is bringing them in, not so that they can be the king, but so that they can be a part of Jesus’ kingdom. We, by grace, get to be participants. It’s all about Jesus.  Not me.

Father in Heaven, forgive me.  Help me be humble. Pride is a damning thing, and if I want to be great, I need to be the least. Let me be a servant in your kingdom; help me be like you.


Pie in the Sky?

During this Lenten season, I’ve been reading meditations by C.S. Lewis from various writings of his in a booklet called A Clean Heart Create in Me. Over the past two days, I’ve been in an e-mail debate with a student over the existence of God, the reliability of Scripture, and things of that nature. It’s sad to see someone who is so violent against the reality that a powerful God reigns over this world. In today’s meditation from Lewis, the reason for this student’s disbelief became clear.

We are afraid of the jeer about ‘”pie in the sky,” and of being told that we are trying to “escape” from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is a ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric. If there is, then this truth, like any other, must be faced, whether it is useful at political meetings or no. Again, we are afraid that Heaven is a bribe, and that if we make it our goal we shall no longer be disinterested. It is not so. Heaven offers nothing that the mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.

May we see that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:8 are so true, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Truly only the ones whom God has given mercy to in order to be pure want to see God. Why would a godless, wicked person want to meet God? That would be foolish! In fact, in Luke 12:20, Jesus told the story of a man who did not fear God and who stored up his treasures on earth and when he died, he met God and God said, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Those are words I never want to hear out of God’s mouth.

There are godless people all over the world–as close as across the street. So, let us pray fervently and with perseverance that God will put people in our lives who are not pure, so that he can use us as instruments of righteousness to lead them to the table where we eat and drink from.