Not the Thing that Comes from Your Dryer
Born in the Bible Belt and raised in an evangelical church, I didn’t know what Lent was until after I graduated from college. That was nearly ten years ago, and since that time I’ve seen an explosion of evangelical observation of Lent.
I’ve seen that surge in the church where I pastor, without any promotion from me. I’ve seen the same on social media, going hardly more than two minutes without bumping into a post by a friend describing what they are doing, reading, or giving up for Lent.
Of course, my congregation and my circle of friends is a limited sample. But I don’t think we need a national survey to see that among evangelicals Lent is more widely observed than ever before. As the great theologian Bob Dylan once said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
But you might need a weatherman to know if this sudden gust of wind is a genuine move of the Spirit, or if it’s just the latest breeze blowing in from Zeitgeist Bay. So, what gives? Why the sudden trend among evangelicals? And what should evangelicals think about Lent anyway?
Trendspotting (or “How Lent Became Cool”)
Figuring out why anything becomes popular always involves some speculation, but the following factors seem to play the largest role in Lent’s growing trendiness among evangelicals:
The Internet rapidly exposes us to new ideas and social media gives us a virtual window into the lives of others, putting names and faces on practices, like Lent, that once may have seemed strange to us. For better or for worse, this has had the effect of softening of the ‘harder edges’ of people’s beliefs.
2.An Unsettled Life
The average family will move almost twelve times in their life. Advancements in technology nearly double every year. And sociologists say that the cultural turnover rate may occur as quickly as every seven years! Because everything is so new and constantly changing, people have a subconscious desire to connect with something certain and unchanging—the long-standing tradition of Lent is an obvious fit.
3.Lovers of Experience
Our society has a double-love of experience. Economically, most people can afford the goods and services they need, so experience is ‘the last frontier.’ That’s why we pay top dollar for unique experiences—like floating diners in the sky, movie theaters that serve gourmet meals, Brazilian steakhouses that carve a king’s feast at your table. Philosophically, most people today believe that experience trumps reason. What we feel about something is more important than what someone else says about it. In our experience-loving culture, is it really a surprise that Lent has become so popular?
Cause for Concern or Celebration?
None of this tells us what we should think of Lent. It its rising popularity cause for celebration or concern? Should evangelicals embrace the liturgical traditions?
One popular evangelical blogger says, “No.”
In a post titled “Young, Restless, and Reformed Homeboys on Lenten Fasting,” Keith Miller of MereOrthodoxy.com registers his concerns with the growing trendiness of Lent among evangelicals. In particular, he is concerned that evangelicals are so quickly embracing a practice that our theological forerunners staunchly opposed. Drawing from the likes of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, he offers an impressive array of quotes that speak strongly against Lent as a harmful ‘tradition of men’.
But when it comes to ‘traditions of men,’ how is Lent any different from Advent, Christmas, or Easter? Are we really ready to dispose of every tradition? Is that even what God wants?
I don’t think so.
Christians today commonly speak of three different options for engaging ideas and practices in the world. We can reject them as inappropriate and unhelpful. We can receive them as good and helpful. Or we can “redeem” them by changing what is bad and reframing what is good. Reject. Receive. Redeem. (Others describe them as: abandon, accept, accommodate, but the meaning is essentially the same.)
I think that Lenten observance can be “redeemed” (or accommodated). The heart of Lent is a season of fasting, which Jesus seemed to expect for his followers to do. After all, he said “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (Matt. 6:16). In Lenten fasting we abstain from worldly pleasures to realize their power over us, to remind ourselves of our frailty and continual need of grace, and to rejoice that our appetite for sin has been forgiven and will one day be erased. I know of no Christian who would object to that!
And yet, Keith Miller joins with other evangelicals in offering a needed warning. The Reformers fought against the abuses of human tradition, which had been placed on part with Scripture and were being used to bind the consciences of believers. This explains their strong words against Lent, and I think they are highlighting a critical point: the grace of God—not the religious practices of men—is what forgives us and transforms us.
That is something all people, even followers of Jesus, are prone to forget. It is what led Martin Luther to say that religion is the default mode of the human heart. He knew that we are constantly tempted to rely on what we do for God, instead of relying what he has done for us in Christ.
This is why the apostle Paul said, “These [traditions] have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).
Without focusing on the grace of God, all fasting—including Lenten fasting—is just self-made religious tradition aimed at making us feel righteous because of something we do. But it doesn't have to be that way. Believers who observe Lent should remember that their fasting does not make them more righteous than those who do not observe Lent. Similarly, believers who refrain from Lent ought to realize that not everyone who observes Lent does so believing that their efforts make them righteous in the eyes of God.
So this Lenten season, whether you eat or fast, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.