The Work of the People
Being Shaped as the People of God: Planning Lenten Worship
What comes to mind when you read the word Lent? For many of us who have been raised and nurtured in the Nazarene Church, we don’t have much to draw from. Perhaps we remember a Catholic classmate who tried really hard not to eat sweets for the 40 days leading up to Easter. We may have memories of co-workers who came back from a weekday mass during their lunch break with a black cross (sometimes looking like a big smudge) on their forehead. We might be reminded of our school cafeteria that always cooked some kind of smelly fish on spring Fridays.
In all honesty, Lent isn’t something that has been practiced very often in our tradition. And yet, in recent years, the Church of the Nazarene has begun to explore ways that celebrating the Christian year can be transformational for our congregations. Churches across the denomination have begun to use the Ashes to Fire resource offered through Nazarene Publishing House and are finding that the faithful celebration of Lent, Easter and Pentecost have brought the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection new meaning in our services of worship. But, many are still asking the question of what exactly the season of Lent is and how to make Lent a significant time of discipleship in the lives of our people.
The celebration of Lent began early in the church’s history as people were converting to Christianity from other religions. After someone showed interest in Christianity, they began a long process of initiation into the church during which people would learn what it meant to be a Christian, the theology and doctrine of the church, and prepared their lives through practices to become a part of the church. This season of preparation culminated in the baptism of a believer during the Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday service. This time of preparation, attention and discipline eventually became known as the season of Lent. Lent is observed for 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday and finishing on Good Friday. The length of the season, 40 days, was determined because of the significance of the number 40 in scripture: Jonah spent 40 days in the belly of the big fish, Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tested. It seemed fitting members of the church discipline themselves for 40 days to prepare for the celebration of Easter.
The season of Lent is particularly focused on two ideas. First, thinking about our humanity and confessing the ways that our lives fall short of living the life of holiness. Second, the season of Lent gives the opportunity to seriously consider how our everyday lives are shaped by our faith in Christ. As holiness folk, these two ideas – holiness in heart and life, and the practical ways that our faith is lived out day to day – are at the center of who we are as a people. The season of Lent gives us the incredible opportunity to spend intentional time with our people in understanding how we might continue to give ourselves to God’s work within us - allowing God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to continue to make us and shape us as the people of God. Of course, our hope is that they should be a part of our daily lives all year long, but often that is easier said than done. The 40 days of Lent give us, and our people, the opportunity to be intentional about our lives of discipleship in hopes that a lasting change will be made.
So, what can the season of Lent look like in our churches? One theme or focus area that works well during the season of Lent is the theme of covenant. Take time during these 40 days to look at the ways that God makes covenant with God’s people. Look closely at Noah, Abraham, David, the Israelite people as a whole, finishing with a celebration of the new covenant that has been made through Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. What can we learn through the story of God with God’s people about who God is, and who the church is in response to God’s covenant faithfulness?
Another theme for the season of Lent is that of confession. We Nazarenes aren’t always great with this, but I have heard it said of confession, “Confession is merely looking at who God is, then looking at who we are and naming the difference.” Lent gives us the opportunity to delve into deep questions of discipleship: Are we being the people that God has called us to be? Are there ways in which God is calling us to go deeper in our faith journey? Are there ways that we (personally and corporately) can be more faithful to the call of the gospel in our lives?
When I teach on the season of Lent, students often think that Lent is necessarily a sad and somber time (this tone is most appropriate for Holy Week and Good Friday services). Lent does not need to be 6 Sundays of dull and depressing worship. Instead, focus your service and music on themes of discipleship, surrender, the work that God does to take that which is broken and dead and makes it new, and the preparation of hearts and lives to celebrate all the gift of God in Jesus Christ. Lent is a great time to hold church revival or renewal services!
One more word about Lenten worship. For many in your churches, the idea of observing Lent will be foreign and perhaps even unwelcome. Sometimes, it’s okay to try some new things in worship without naming it for your congregation. You do not need to announce, “This year, we’re going to be observing the season of Lent.” Instead, you can introduce your people tthe idea of confession, discipleship, preparation without mentioning its tie to the church year. Then, as your congregation becomes comfortable with these ideas, let them know what you’ve been doing. More often than not, you will find your congregation much more receptive than they would have been had you made a grand declaration. The point is not “We’re celebrating Lent now!” The point is that we are using this time to allow God to shape us as more faithful disciples.
I don’t have to tell you that the Christian life and walk is not always easy. Our people need every opportunity to be nurtured in their discipleship and encouraged in their daily lives of faith. My prayer is that as you observe Lent in your worship, God will be faithful to mold your congregation evermore into a Christlike people.
-Heather Daugherty has served congregations in Illinois, Massachusetts and Nashville. She is currently the Director of the Center for Worship Arts at Trevecca Nazarene University.