By Jason Yeatts
“Yes, we do have one, and it starts at 7 p.m. in the south worship center.” Our receptionist must have repeated that statement 20 times that day. The calls started early and went through the afternoon. The weekend before, Gary Johnson, our senior minister, had announced that The Creek would observe the season of Lent, starting with a worship service on Ash Wednesday. The announcement spread quickly, and on that first day of Lent we received a barrage of calls from people wanting to confirm that we, indeed, were having an Ash Wednesday service.
The idea to observe Lent at The Creek in 2014 surfaced in my office one afternoon in October 2013. Laura Dingman (director of creative arts), Todd Liles (student worship minister), and I began discussing the importance of liturgy and the Christian calendar in the life of the local church. It struck us that most, if not all, the churches in the Restoration Movement observe Easter, but most reject Lent. This is odd because the same historical currents that give us Easter also give us Lent; so why have we distanced ourselves from one season and not the other?
For many, Lent looks too much like Roman Catholicism and therefore gets branded as a product of man-made tradition, unnecessary for faith and practice. Easter does not carry such baggage. It has become a mainstream holiday in America, celebrated in both the church and the secular world. We struggle more with rescuing it from consumer culture than with understanding how it became a pillar in our faith and calendars. But if we dug deep enough we would find Lent grew up with Easter in Christian history.
Ancient Season, Sacred Rhythm
What, then, would happen if we resuscitated the ancient season of Lent and taught our people to prepare for the celebration of Easter? This is the question the three of us were asking that afternoon. And here was the more fundamental question: isn’t it our responsibility to give the people at The Creek a sacred rhythm that challenges the deeply ingrained rhythms of the world?
Whether conscious or not, our calendars are dictated primarily by the rhythms of education, sports, and the marketplace. School calendars impose a predictable order on many of our lives. They determine when traffic is heavy and light, when we take vacation, and when we spend extra time studying for exams. Sports do much the same. We “gear up” for the NFL season and look forward to baseball’s October magic. But above all of these is the marketplace. Consumerism is so dominant that nearly every educational, religious, or patriotic event has been hijacked by the market. Easter equals chocolate bunnies; the NFL season means ticket sales; the start of school involves buying back-to-school supplies.
The question is not, should we embrace rhythms? But rather, what rhythms should we embrace? Laura, Todd, and I believed the Christian calendar could offer people at The Creek an alternative rhythm that challenged the oppressive tempo of the world. We already celebrated Easter; why not add Lent—Easter’s close relative—to our calendar in 2014? It was a worth a try.
The practice of Lent as a period of fasting for 40 days prior to Easter emerged in the early fourth century. Its development and practice have varied over the centuries, but in general it has served as a season of preparation for Easter. The Book of Common Prayer describes it as a period of self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and meditation on God’s holy Word. It is a time “to make a right beginning of repentance” and “kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”
Spirit, Not Rituals
But regardless of its historical and spiritual depth, Lent would be a challenge at The Creek. We knew some people would resist anything that looked like Roman Catholicism. We had to find a way to redefine Lent for both staunch Evangelicals and former Catholics. Our answer was to emphasize the spirit of Lent, rather than the rituals often associated with it.
First, we picked a method. We chose a 45-minute worship service format as the best way to observe the season. We held a worship service each Wednesday night for six weeks.
Second, we chose a title and description that conveyed hope. We called our observance “Lent: Resurrecting Easter.” In our marketing announcements, we described the season as a journey:
Lent: Resurrecting Easter—Six-weeks (March 5–April 9)—For centuries the season of Lent has helped prepare the hearts of Christians to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Easter. It is a season that reminds us of our brokenness and sin and calls us to celebrate our healing and redemption in Christ. We invite you to come and worship with us as we journey through this ancient season and resurrect the wonder and power of Easter.
Last, we plotted the details of the journey. Our goal was to move people from struggle and lament to hope and resurrection. Each service included a tactile element, and throughout the season we varied the order of worship and worship styles to offer a variety of experiences.
In the end, we had an overwhelmingly positive response from people at The Creek. Many former Catholics deeply appreciated our observance of the season. They said Lent was one thing they missed since leaving the Roman Catholic Church. And some lifelong members of the Restoration Movement said it was one of their most spiritually moving experiences.
Personally, it was one of the most transformative seasons of my faith walk. I grew up Roman Catholic and was well acquainted with “giving up something for Lent” and eating fish on Fridays. But my experience with Lent at The Creek was radically different. This time it was not a dead ritual, but a robust and vibrant communal event.
I, along with 150 brothers and sisters in Christ, walked for six weeks in a different rhythm. Together we learned to live in a sacred tempo. We stood together in confession and hopefulness, and we sat still before God. When Easter Sunday arrived, my heart was ready to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Never have I enjoyed Easter as much as I did last year.
The rhythms of education, sports, and the marketplace will continue to swirl in our lives. But Lent can help teach us a different pattern of life. It is a season that trains us to move in the rhythms of confession, repentance, surrender, and hope. We would do well, as a movement, to give it a try.
Jason Yeatts serves as executive minister of adults with The Creek, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Six Wednesdays Before Easter
Each service, in its entirety, can be seen online at The Creek’s video page: http://thecreek.org/videos/. Here is a summary of each week’s service:
Week 1, Ash Wednesday: Poured Out (Luke 7:36–50)
Theme: Like the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet and anointed them with perfume, we pour out our lives at the feet of Jesus. We tear open our hearts and confess our sins.
Our Response: During the service, a clay pot was shattered on stage to represent our brokenness. We responded individually by coming to the stage, taking a piece of broken pottery, and writing our sins on it. Some took their pottery home, while others left their confessions on the stage.
Week 2: Struggle (Matthew 4:1-11)
Theme: We struggle under the power of sin, face the temptations of the evil one, and live in the shadow of the fall. We confess these things. But we know Jesus reverses the fall and rescues us.
Our Response: We read Psalm 32 and sat in silence for a long period. We reflected on our struggles and acknowledged God’s vast mercy.
Week 3: Darkness to Light (John 3:1-17)
Theme: We struggle in the shadows with our sin and brokenness, because we think God either is not big enough to forgive our sins or that we can restore ourselves by keeping the law. But we step into the light and see that God is big enough to save us.
Our Response: We handed out broken pieces of pottery on which people could again write their confessions. At the end of the service, we cast a beam of light onto the stage and instructed people to put their pottery on the stage in the light. This represented bringing the darkness into the light.
Week 4: Stay in the Light (John 4:1-26)
Theme: In our brokenness, Jesus finds us. Like the woman at the well, we drink from his well of living water and we remain in his light.
Our Response: Before the service, we placed broken pieces of pottery on the stage. On each piece was written, “You are Mine.” Like the previous week, we cast a beam of light on the pottery that was on the stage. At the end of the service, each person came forward and took one piece. No longer did the pottery declare their sin, but instead it announced their adoption as children of the light.
Week 5: New Eyes (John 9:1–42)
Theme: The man was blind but then could see, both physically and spiritually. When we stay in the light of Christ, God gives us new eyes to see his glory in the fullest.
Our Response: We participated in three responsive readings after the teaching. After each reading, we sat in silence and meditated on one of three questions: What was your brokenness five weeks ago? How has God called you to change? What new things are you seeing in the light of Jesus?
Week 6: Resurrection (John 11:1-44)
Theme: We participate in the resurrection of Jesus. We have new life through him and we celebrate his love and power to the fullest.
Our Response: We celebrated Communion together. Several of our staff stood at individual tables to hand out the elements. When giving the bread we said, “He is alive.” When giving the cup we said, “You are alive.”