At the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that Jesus Christ, fully God yet fully man, died upon the cross and was raised from the dead. Jesus’ disciples were eyewitnesses to these events. These same disciples were those who first told the great news of Jesus, recorded it in the gospels, established the first Christian churches, and set forth new and distinct patterns of Christian life and worship.
As Christianity became more and more structured in the early centuries of the church, a liturgical calendar was developed. The liturgical calendar set patterns for both the life and the worship of the church. In each season, particular worship practices became customary as the church celebrated by intentionally focusing on specific events within the gospel story. The season of Lent was one of the liturgical seasons that rose to particular importance early in the church. The New Handbook of the Christian Year records, “Lent is a time for evangelism and for true conversion—a time for growing through repentance, fellowship, prayer, fasting, and concentration upon our baptismal covenant.”
It is important to note that Lent is addressed as a time for both “evangelism and true conversion” in the church. The word “conversion” here means more than an initial decision or acceptance—instead it conveys transformation from one way of life into another. As Origen wrote in the third century, “the fruits worthy of conversion” were displayed “in the change of conduct and habits.” Thus, Lent is not only a time for Christians to think into a new way life; it is also a time for Christians to live into a new way of thinking.
The forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) are purposed for a time of dedication, devotion, penitence, confession, and repentance. Most the practices of Lent are observed through acts of discipline—abstaining from certain things (like ice cream, chocolate, soft drinks) or dedicating ourselves to others (scripture reading, fasting, prayer). Historically, however, Lent has had a broader focus than personal spiritual discipline. Laurence Hull Stookey writes in his book, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, that throughout the ages there have been three main foci areas in the church during the season of Lent:
1) Those joining the community of faith
2) Those within the community of faith
3) Those apart from the community of faith
In the early centuries of the church, Lent was a time of increased initiation for those joining the community of faith. Specifically, the church came along side of this group and provided an intense time of teaching about the doctrines of faith, the practices of the church, and the narrative of scripture. This was done in preparation for their joining the community of faith, marked by their baptism on Easter Sunday.
The second is the area I believe we are most familiar. Lent is a time for those within the community of faith to focus on spiritual reflection, devotion, and repentance. It is a time for the community to dedicate more fully to God, recognizing brokenness and the need for a Savior, preparing hearts and lives for Holy Week, ending with the great Easter celebration. Fasting, prayer, and increased giving to the poor are common ways for the church to participate in the process of renewal.
Apart from these two groups, Lent has also been a time to focus on those outside of the church. For instance, Lent has historically been a time to deliberately seek out those who have backslidden from the faith or walked away from the church. Likewise, Lent has been a time for evangelism, seeking to bring new people into the Christian faith.
Holding these three foci in balance with one another, an obvious inward and outward purpose for the season of Lent is revealed. This then begs the question: are we limiting Lent? Which of the three foci is most pervasive? Is it to the detriment of the others? What do we lose with such limitation of the season? Perhaps healthy discussion on the following questions might be important for our churches this year as we begin to consider the process of renewal during the season of Lent:
- Are there those who have backslidden from the faith that we need to seek out and bring back to the church?
- Who has disappeared from our community of faith and will we be intentional about seeking them?
- Who are the unchurched around us that we can be intentional about trying to bring into the church?
- Are there people within our community of faith we need to be intentionally discipling and teaching?
- Are there new believers that need someone to come along side of them and teach them the doctrines of the faith, the practices of the church, and the narrative of scripture?
- How will we within the community of faith dedicate ourselves to fasting and prayer, discipline and almsgiving?
- What repentance do we need to make both as individuals and as a church?
I pray that this season of Lent will be truly blessed one for the Church. May the grace and truth of God be with us all!