NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Though traditionally viewed as a Catholic rite, increasing numbers of Baptists are discovering the discipline of Lent.
Belmont University, until recently affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, marked Feb. 25 with an Ash Wednesday service co-officiated by a Catholic bishop.
“As a Christian university, we are strengthened by marking the seasons of the Christian calendar,” said Todd Lake, Belmont’s vice president for spiritual development. “It is thanks to our sisters and brothers in the liturgical churches that we add these practices to our rich Baptist heritage at Belmont.”
Growing from the free-church branch of Protestantism, Baptists traditionally have been highly suspicious of virtually all of the rituals associated with the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. That began to break down in recent decades as more Baptist (and other Protestant) churches began observing the season of Advent, the four Sundays immediately before Christmas. Some of those congregations also began to incorporate other parts of the liturgical calendar into their worship planning, including the 40-day period of fasting and prayer before Easter known as Lent.
It begins with Ash Wednesday, in which Christians are reminded of their mortality and their share in Jesus’ death on the Cross.
As Advent is intended to prepare Christians by identifying with ancient Israel in its long anticipation of Christ’s birth, so Lent is intended to prepare Christians by identify with his sufferings in preparation for the Resurrection. For hundreds of years, believers have practiced small acts of self-denial during Lent, such as giving up favorite foods or other habits they enjoy.
Bo Prosser, coordinator for congregational life with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said he sees interest in Lent growing in Baptist churches every year.
“It’s not a program,” he said. “It’s an appreciation of liturgy.”
Prosser incorporated an Ash Wednesday service into the ninth annual True Survivors conference for Christian educators held Feb. 23-25 in Orlando, Fla.
“I think it’s the receiving of a blessing as you move into Lent that really has meaning for people,” Prosser said.
“We’re in the doldrums after Christmas, and now the economy is taking a hit, and I need somebody to say to me, ‘This is going to be OK.’ My pastor touches me and makes a sign of the cross and reminds me that God is with me,” Prosser said. “I think it satisfies a need for a spiritual sign from God that God is still with us.”
Not all Baptists are jumping on the bandwagon. Jim West, pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Petros, Tenn., said real Baptists don’t observe Lent “because for Baptists repentance can’t be confined to a mere 40-day period preceded by the most intense gluttony and occupied with the setting aside of trivial pleasantries and followed by a return to the same-old, same-old,” he said.
“True repentance, real repentance, authentic repentance is a 365-and-1/4-day-a-year occupation which, if pretentiously or lightly observed, becomes nothing more than a joke and a charade and a mockery,” West wrote in a blog. “That’s who Baptists are.”
Randel Everett, who recently took over as executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, reported receiving a mild rebuke when he suggested a season of prayer, fasting and repentance for Texas Baptists during Lent.
“After I had mentioned this idea at a pastors’ conference, one of the pastors helpfully reminded me that I was no longer in Virginia but back in Texas, and our Baptist churches don’t celebrate Lent,” Everett wrote in a column for the Baptist Standard. ”He is right. Some of our churches emphasize Advent, but not many mention Lent. So, I began to say, let’s celebrate 40 days of prayer between the first day of deer season and Super Bowl Sunday. Use whatever calendar works for each church.”
Seasons of prayer and self-denial are nothing new in the Baptist tradition. Southern Baptist churches observe a “Week of Prayer” leading up to annual offerings for both home missions and foreign missions that are promoted — like Lent and Advent — during the seasons leading up to Easter and Christmas.
The notion of a 40-day focus on renewal gained traction in evangelical circles with the runaway success of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, written in 2002.
Warren, a Southern Baptist pastor, explained in a 2006 newspaper interview why he chose to spread his devotional readings over 40 days.
“You don’t feel comfortable in something till you’ve done it for six weeks,” he said. “In 40 Days of Purpose, I was trying to get people to feel comfortable with daily reading, a weekly small group. Some things like these become habits. And, in the Bible, 40 days is used over and over and over in many examples.”
“Noah was on the ark for 40 days,” Warren said. “Jesus was in the desert for 40 days. When Jesus resurrected, he spent 40 days with his disciples. There are lots of 40 days in the Bible.
Today, it’s interesting, a lot of Catholic churches count 40 days during Lent and a lot of Pentecostal churches count 40 days of Pentecost, after Easter.”
Unbound by long traditions of Lent, some Baptist churches adapt the observation to custom-fit their particular congregational needs.
Steven Meriwether, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, recently moved to Tennessee from a church in New Orleans. He said he found it hard to observe Ash Wednesday without preceding revelry — the season New Orleans observes as Carnival or Mardi Gras — so he incorporated a Shrove Tuesday element into this year’s Ash Wednesday service. The church’s regular Wednesday-night meal featured a menu with hot pancakes. It was to be followed by a mini Mardi Gras parade with children before moving to the sanctuary for a service of hymns, prayer, confession and imposition of ashes for those who desire.
Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh offered members and neighbors a Mardi Gras celebration on the Tuesday before Lent begins, and then an Ash Wednesday service the following day.
First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has observed Ash Wednesday for several years, but does not use ashes. Instead the pastor invites worshipers to pick up a small square of sackcloth (the other dominant symbol for penitence in the Bible) and use it in private devotions during the 40 days until Easter.