As I was preparing for my third church Easter celebration as a lead pastor, I remember wrestling with the desire to make Easter fresh for those who attended our church. Many of them had been following Jesus and attending church for more years than I had even been alive. How could Easter capture them in a way that not only inspired them, but changed them? What could we do as a church that would be encouraging and exciting, but not activity for the sake of activity?
Rather than looking forward for something new, I found myself looking backward to something true.
True, because it had helped shaped the spiritual lives of so many over the centuries. True, because it helped strip away some of the distractions and preoccupations we have attached to the Easter holiday. And true, because it invited us to draw closer to the very heart of Jesus.
The Season of Lent
I discovered the season of Lent. It is a practice that is primarily associated with my Catholic friends in my area of the country. As I explored Lent further, I felt myself being drawn to intentionally preparing myself to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus in a way I had never experienced before. I realized that my desire to enter this season of spiritual preparation was shared by many people in my church. Ultimately this led us to an incredibly powerful time of spiritual growth, excitement, appreciation and celebration.
Lent is a special season in the church year, beginning on Ash Wednesday, and lasting forty days, not counting Sundays, until Holy Saturday. It is a time of self-reflection and sacrifice to help us prepare ourselves to celebrate the beauty of the empty tomb. Lent does not include the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Practice of Lent
How did we enter into this time and make it meaningful? We gathered for a special Ash Wednesday worship service. It focused on the confession of our sins and our brokenness before God. I shared a brief devotional from Psalm 51.
During the service, I explained that Lent was a time early Christ-followers observed with great devotion. They did this as they looked forward to Holy Week. We talked about the the value of entering into a time of self-examination, repentance, forgiveness, and sacrifice as we prepared ourselves to face the cross of Christ. I challenged everyone, from young to old, to choose something to give up during the season. This self-denial would be a reminder of the great sacrifice Jesus made for us. But not only give something up but to also take up something, such as reading scripture, praying more regularly, or visiting those in need.
…not only give something up but to also take up something, such as reading scripture, praying more regularly, or visiting those in need.
Then we invited everyone to come to the front of the church as they were ready. They could write sins they were struggling with on a piece of paper, then burn that paper over lit candles. Following this time, we shared in communion and dismissed with a blessing.
On the first Sunday of Lent we started a new message series which focused on the life of Jesus. That Sunday, and each Sunday throughout Lent, I reminded our people of the challenge. To give something up and take something up as we made the meaningful journey with Jesus to the cross.
During this season, our people became more spiritually engaged than I had ever seen before. Families would share what they had given up, from Starbucks, to eating meat, to video games, to social media. People of all ages gave up something from their daily lives. Parents found it especially powerful to be able to remind their children of the sacrifice Jesus had made for them when they began craving the desserts they had given up for Lent.
A Profound Spiritual Growth
Something else very special began to unfold. I witnessed a spiritual growth across our church family unlike I had seen in the past. There personal growth as individuals drew closer to Christ. And there was corporate spiritual growth as people grew closer to one another. They were recognizing the vital truth that, “we are all in this together,” and began bonding in new ways.
We heard stories that this was impacting family members, friends, coworkers, classmates and neighbors. Many of these people has no connection to our church. Or any church for that matter. As people began to see the spiritual practices our members were engaging in, they began to ask questions, like, “Wait, tell me again why you are not drinking anything but water right now?” These questions led to spiritual conversations that provided opportunities for our people to share about Jesus and invite others to experience church.
Our staff, ministry leaders and I were so excited to see God’s work in the lives of our people, our church and our community after that Easter. We realized the power of being very intentional about opening space in our lives to allow God to do what God does best: transform hearts. From that year forward, the season of Lent became a part of my personal spiritual practices. It also became an important element of my ministry as a pastor. We opened our eyes to the need those around us had for the saving hope of Jesus. And our lives were opened to celebrate Easter with great joy and boldness.
This is the first of a two-part article. Read part 2
With 20 years of pastoral leadership experience, Jason Daye is passionate about helping ministry leaders discover how God is already working in their unique ministry contexts. Daye also strives to help them uncover opportunities to build bridges into their neighborhoods to extend the hope of Christ. He dedicates his time to encouraging and equipping churches, denominations and ministry organizations to develop their Kingdom effectiveness by creating a culture that is both incarnational and invitational. Jason is the Director of Ministry Development at Outreach, Inc. and lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with his beautiful wife and six children. He enjoys hiking with his family, fighting rainbow trout, summiting 14ers and swapping stories with good friends. Connect with him on Twitter @jasondaye.