For the first 23 years of his life, Pastor Douglas Ponder had never heard of the word “Lent” because he was raised in a Southern Baptist household. Now, over a decade later, the 38-year-old pastor can’t get enough of the Lenten season.
Lent is an annual season of fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends the day before Easter Sunday. This is a period of 40 days plus Sundays, as Sunday is a day of rest and is not considered part of the observance.
Although more commonly practiced among Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations, some Evangelical and non denominational Christians are observing the traditional liturgical season of Lent.
For Ponder, who founded and serves as teaching pastor for the Acts 29-affiliated Remnant Church of Richmond, Virginia, Lent became part of the fabric of his faith shortly after he entered seminary school in 2012.
“I discovered Lent in seminary school as I studied a lot of older church authors, church historians, and discovered that there were lots of practices that were common at different points in Church history that weren't part of my upbringing. And so Lent was among those,” Ponder said in an interview with The Christian Post.
“As I began to read and study more widely, I thought, ‘Hey, the Bible has a lot to say about fasting. And it would be great to take a season to fast more and focus on the work of Jesus leading up to Easter and identifying with Him through that.'"
Ponder said some of the ways he practices Lent is by setting aside time during the 40 days for daily meditation, Scripture reading, and focusing his mind on what Jesus has done through prayer.
The pastor said for the duration of the days of Lent he also selects something that has become a major part of his daily routine to cut out of his life, such as sugar or television.
For Ponder, over the past few years, the season of Lent, he said, has really changed his whole perspective on Christianity and it helped him to get in a more fixed spiritual rhythm of giving and loving and to remember more closely the sacrificial grace that comes from Jesus Christ.
When he does more faith-based things and denies himself something during the season each year, Ponder said it helps him to remember those who go without unwillingly, while remembering that no need is greater than the human need for Jesus Christ.
While many Christians are accustomed to hearing about Lent as a holiday practiced mostly by Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopalian churches, within the past few years, Ponder said, trends have changed to show that more Protestant, Evangelical and nondenominational churches have started to adopt the Lenten practice in their houses of worship.
With a church that averages 750 people a service, Ponder said that about 20% of his nondenominational church celebrates Lent. Even though Ponder celebrates Lent every year, he said, he tells his church that it’s a personal and private decision for each Christian on whether or not they choose to celebrate the season.
For the members of his church that choose not to celebrate Lent, Ponder said, he encourages them to incorporate regular spiritual rhythms in their lives where they are doing things that Jesus encourages His followers to do.
“Our church doesn't celebrate Lent officially. But I counsel the members of my church, to see the freedom that they have in Christ to do it or not. If they want to observe Lent, I encourage them to use it as an opportunity to do the kinds of things that God says are good all the time; such as: reading from God's Word, spending time in prayer and cutting out things from their life that has taken up too much of their time and attention,” Ponder said.
As more counter-traditional denominations begin to adopt Lenten practices, Ponder said this can potentially be a beneficial thing. However, he added, more churches celebrating Lent simply because it’s “trendy and popular” could be problematic.
“I think that the trend is mainly becoming popular in nondenominational churches that do not have a deep history; or deep connection with the Christian Church's history. These types of churches sometimes feel rootless and they go in search of ancient practices, to feel more connected with their faith,” Ponder explained.
Ponder also noted that the Bible is full of warnings against people approaching their faith in a way that is all about chasing after a religious practice or concept or idea, even if it is a longtime practiced custom.
“I've seen a trend among people who just sort of mindlessly began doing Lent simply because it's popular. They don't ask questions like: ‘Where did this practice or idea come from? Has it always been practiced? If it was rejected, why was it rejected? Were those good reasons? Are they bad reasons? Do I have good reasons for doing it? Bad reasons for doing it? Is this something I have to do? Is this something I'm free to do,'” Ponder said.
“Adopting Lent mindlessly is not always a bad thing, but it certainly can be because then these churches begin to do and practice things not because they understand what they are, but because of the feelings that it brings,” Ponder added.
Lent has the potential to bring someone much closer to Jesus if practiced unto the Lord, according to Ponder.
“It really all depends on how you approach Lent. In other words, it really boils down to what you think it's doing, and not doing. If somebody was not in the habit of reading God's Word, praying regularly, focusing on the Gospel and thinking more consciously about their life. Can Lent help them do that? Absolutely. That's a beautiful thing. And if that's what it does for people, I praise God for it,” he said.
Ponder said, however, that Christians who are just beginning to practice Lent need to be mindful about their motives in doing so, telling CP that while "Lent can be beneficial," it can still "have an opposite effect."
"Remember that in the Bible, there are two ways to miss Jesus. There's sin on one side, but there's also self-righteousness on the other side,” Ponder explained.
“Self-righteousness is that path that people walk where they think that they're becoming closer to God because of what they do. They think that if they do good things, then God thinks better of them because they avoided bad things and as a result; they think they're becoming a good person."
Christians should be careful not to become like the Pharisees of the Bible, Ponder said, who he said can be viewed as enemies of Christ in the Gospel. Ponder said he takes a neutral stance on the growing trends as long as churches that do start to practice Lent and those who don’t practice Lent are all doing so unto the Lord.
“There's a kind of irony here that we have to be careful of. There are some people who practice Lent, and in the process of doing it, they become more self-righteous than they were to start with. And that actually pushes them further away from Jesus,” Ponder continued.
“Because instead of coming to a place where they are more thankful for Christ's work on their behalf, their eyes are not focused on Jesus, but they're focused on themselves and all that they've done; thinking that what they've done has brought them closer to the Lord,” he said, adding that the Lord does not get the glory in these cases.
While Ponder has noticed an overall increase in Protestant, Evangelical and nondenominationalchurches adopting Lenten practices in their houses of worship, another long timepastor Linda Bulloss of New York, who has observed trends in churches over the past two decades, said she has not seen this trend occurring all too often.
As the assistant pastor of Little Neck’s Edge City Church, Bulloss, who is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America denomination, told CP that she has noticed that although some Protestant, Evangelical and nondenominational churches are switching over and adopting Lenten practices, she said she believes the majority of the churches within those denominations are remaining closed off to the idea of celebrating Lent.
“I think by and large, Lent is still ignored and still looked at as a religious activity that has no value. But, I think in churches that are rediscovering old, true traditions, the older Church fathers and the traditions; in some of those churches, they're revisiting these things as a spiritual discipline. And spiritual disciplines yield good fruit,” said the 74-year-old pastor, who has been practicing Lent since she became a Christian in 1975.
Bulloss predicts that some churches are remaining closed off to celebrating Lent because their leaders could be worried that Lent won’t be taken seriously because their congregants will think the idea of giving up something small for something bigger has little meaning. Other churches, she said, might have a fear of becoming too sacramental or ritualistic and a fear of appearing too much like the denominations that typically celebrate lent traditionally.
“Although there is no specific biblical call to honoring that 40 days between the resurrection and Ash Wednesday, I think it evolved over time as people felt like there was a need inside of their souls to do something; a commitment to rise to a different level of commitment, by doing a time of fasting and prayer and attention to the Lord because of all that He's done for us,” Bulloss said.
“Because to put our attention on His sacrifice, death and resurrection during this time is a small price to pay for what He's done for us; even though it's not spelled out, particularly in the Scriptures,” she added.
Bulloss said that the way in which a church presents Lent to its congregants is very important because if it’s presented in the wrong way, the congregants will not benefit from the season.
“If it's presented in a trivial sort of way, like you give up the thing that maybe you don't even like anyway, then it doesn't really have much importance. But if one introduces it as a way of looking toward something or looking more fully at something, and other things falling away, I think it could have great benefits,” Bulloss said.
“I think it can change our souls. It can change our perspective. And anything that we do to just say no to our own pride and selfishness, and look to the Savior allows for the Lord to make us more Christ-like,” she added.
For others who have practiced Lent alongside a denomination that has been known to traditionally practice the season, the idea of other more counter-traditional Christian denominations adopting the season as a new practice is not necessarily bad news.
Paul Jarzembowski, the associate director of the laity of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that he loves when there’s an opportunity to learn from other denominations and he is glad that other Christians aside from Catholics are adopting Lenten practices.
“I know in our Catholic tradition we've learned from Evangelical mainline Protestant communities and we’ve kind of incorporated and learned from the wisdom there. And so Lent is part of the tradition that Catholics have held onto for many years. And so, I hope that whoever celebrates it and experiences it, even if it’s not part of their normal tradition, I hope it’s a gift and that it is a grace for them,” Jarzembowski told CP.
“It has been a special part of our Catholic tradition, so if it can benefit others what a wonderful thing. It speaks to the ecumenical desire. It makes me think about the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus said: ‘Lord I pray that they may be one as you and I, Father, are one,’" he added.
In a way, as many different Christian denominations commemorate the experience of Lent together across religious traditions, Jarzembowski said, that shows the unity that Jesus prayed in the New Testament.
“That must make the Lord smile, to know that at this time there is a oneness, there is a unity that is being brought — maybe not complete unity — but it’s a beautiful thing,” Jarzembowski said.
“It speaks to our common faith in Jesus Christ and that gives me great joy to know that I share that with others."
For the churches that believe that Lent is unbiblical and therefore do not follow the season, Jarzembowski said, they could potentially find within the Bible why Lent could be viewed as a precedent.
“We can all keep learning from each other. … The exact word 'Lent' is not in the Bible. So there's accuracy in that. And it’s not specifically mandated that we celebrate Lent. But it is an opportunity for us to draw inward,” he said.
The 40 days of Lent, Jarzembowski said, could potentially be viewed as a mirroring of a few different aspects of Scripture, noting that it "is reminiscent of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert."
"Not a Lent, but it is a time where Jesus took time away to spend time in prayer and fasting. We know that Moses spent 40 days on the mountain on Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments. Again, not exactly Lent, but again, it was a dedicated time where, he too, could be focused and in intense prayer and fasting,” Jarzembowski said.
“And so, we too, at this time, follow in the footsteps of Moses and Jesus who took those 40 days. So in some respects, there is a biblical precedent to Lent."