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 you and/or 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. 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.