Easter Sunday — the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus
Christ — is for Christians the culmination of their community life, expressing
the heart of their faith. But among Baptists and other evangelicals, an
intentional period of preparation for their holiest day is often understated or
absent — in contrast to Christmas, the other great Christian observance,
typically the focus of elaborate church festivities for weeks prior to Dec. 25.
Many Baptists are seeking to reclaim that pre-Easter focus —
historically called Lent — which has been an integral part of many Christians’
experience since the earliest years of the church.
“It’s a biblical thing, not a made-up Catholic thing,” says
Kyle Henderson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Athens, Texas, acknowledging
a robust Baptist suspicion of spiritual practices seen as too closely
associated with the Roman Catholic Church or its distant cousins, the
Some Baptists say they sense those suspicions — in part
a legacy of the Protestant Reformation — have left them with a diminished
“There is an uneasy sense that something got lost,” says
Phyllis Tickle, whose 2008 book, The Great Emergence, chronicles the blurring
of denominational distinctions in late 20th- and early 21st-century American
Every 500 years or so, says Tickle, the church
metaphorically holds a great rummage sale, “getting rid of the junk that we
believe no longer has value and finding treasures stuck in the attic because we
didn’t want them or were too naïve to know their true worth.”
The Reformation was one of those rummage sales and the
current “great convergence” is another, she maintains. For evangelicals, the
long-forgotten treasures in the attic include a wide array of spiritual
disciplines — including Lent — with roots in the church’s first centuries.
For Sterling Severns, discovering Lent and other seasons of
the Christian year was “an eye-opening experience,” which he encountered at the
first church he served after graduating from seminary.
“It tapped into something in me that surprised me,” says
Severns, now pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. “I remember I
almost felt as if I’d been let in on a great secret.”
Lent — a 40-day period of fasting and self-sacrifice
preceding Resurrection Sunday — began as early as the second century, probably
as a period of preparation for new Christians who were to be baptized on
Easter. Eventually the entire Christian community, not just baptismal
candidates, observed the fast.
Among Christians in Western Europe it
universally began on Ash Wednesday and culminated in Holy Week — the days just
before Easter that include Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
After more than a millennium as an essential element of
spiritual formation, Lent and other spiritual practices were reduced in
importance as unbiblical innovations by the Protestant Reformers and eliminated
entirely by the Baptists who emerged from their influence. Today some Baptists
who are recovering disciplines like Lent say they’re struck by their spiritual
richness. First Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., inaugurates Lent with an Ash
Wednesday service — in which the ash of burnt palm branches are imposed on
worshipers foreheads — and in the last week includes a contemplative service.
Touching the emotions
Baptists involved in intentional preparation for Easter —
whether referred to as Lent or some other name — view it as an effective tool
for teaching and spiritual formation.
Lenten practices can help Baptists get in touch with an
often-neglected side of worship — the emotional dimension, said Bill Tillman,
who holds the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics and teaches spiritual
formation at Hardin Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, Texas.
“It’s appropriate to grieve over one’s sins and to grieve
the death of Jesus. At the same time, Easter should be the ultimate celebration
for Christians,” he said. “Spiritual disciplines are things that can help
people get into the emotional side of their faith practice, experiencing grief
Severns called Ash Wednesday “a teaching day.”
“Our service is a way of teaching people what it means” — a
key consideration in a church which had never observed Lent before Severns was
called as pastor.
Community is essential to spiritual formation at Mosaic, a
congregation in Austin, Texas, with Baptist ties and roots in the city’s lively
artistic scene. In recent conversations held between Mosaic’s leadership and
its worshippers to determine how the church had contributed to spiritual development,
one theme emerged repeatedly, said pastor Don Vanderslice.
“It was how important observing the Christian year —
including Lent — had been in their spiritual formation,” he said. “Focusing on
the seasons of the church year reminds us that the spiritual life is a journey.
… The idea behind journey or pilgrimage is that we’re going somewhere, and not
just landing on a holiday here and there.”
For Henderson, Ash Wednesday is a two-fold teaching
experience. First, he emphasizes the Old Testament meaning of bearing a
mark and using ashes as a sign of repentance. At the same time, he explains the
meaning of terms such as Lent so members who did not grow up in churches that
follow liturgical practices will understand what fellow Christians do during
the weeks leading to Easter.
“It’s a way to connect to the broader Christian world,” he said.
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