The practices of Lent should be useful for Christians. If something is useful to Christians, it brings us to the person of Jesus. Rather than being pragmatic, we are seeking Messiah Jesus. So, is Lent useful?
Lent originally served to help prepare candidates for baptism. It became an important part of discipleship as lives were set aside for kingdom consecration. Lent provided a formative season in discipleship before ultimate commitment. As the church grew into a world-wide movement, practices of fasting and observance spread to help believers solidify their identity in Christ. How fares the identity of the church in the United States?
Most churches in the United States are facing decline today. Individual churches as well as denominations struggle to attract and even keep members. Young people are leaving the church. For me, three things come to mind as I think about this struggle for identity.
First, gatekeeping seems to be one of the problems in the last few decades. If you aren’t familiar with gatekeeping, it’s the process or manner in which individuals decide with their practices and actions who is allowed to be a part of something. These people try to decide who can or can’t be part of the church community.
Second, the idea of evangelicalism needs addressing as part of our identity. Even for those from other Christian traditions, evangelicalism has had an impact. According to an article in The Atlantic, evangelicalism has the following characteristics:
Personally, I think this is both a good summation of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has brought the church some positive things, but it is also fraught with problems.
To be clear, I have no problem with proselytizing or evangelism. For some people, those are dirty words. I do think they can be used in the wrong times, in the wrong ways, for the wrong ends. Proselytization can be abusive when it is about control.
We need to reclaim evangelism from hero worship and the idol of emotionally charged decision making – i.e. revivalism has not done the church any favors in making disciples. Christian identity should not be wrapped up in charismatic preachers or authors. Evangelicalism has encouraged an identity crisis as regional and national followings have emerged for individual leaders. This adds one more reason to believe evangelicalism has failed as a project, even if it is not yet dead.
Third, we need a new way forward. Evangelicalism has inexorably tied itself to politics in American culture. Whether it be politics or celebrity preachers, we fixate on gifted and moving rhetoricians. We have let American culture become embedded in Christianity. This leads to devastating effects in our local churches and in our national identity as Christians. Preachers feel lost while calling people to Christ. Leadership fails in matters of integrity. Denominations succumb to struggles of sin. Our mission cannot be fulfilled if we are not living as called out people.
When I was younger, I would have probably identified with evangelicalism without hesitation. After all, the word is associated with the share and spread of the Good News. American religious culture obscures, obfuscates, and obstructs this message. We don’t know our identity. We don’t know to whom we belong. It doesn’t bring us closer knowing and following Christ.
As we approach Lent, we should be reminded of what it means to be a Christ follower. We are disciples. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 will always be important along with its parallels in Luke 24:44-53, Mark 16:15-20, and Acts 1:1-11. Evangelicalism has lifted proclamation while admiring its smiling preachers. Proclamation will never be enough though.
Disciples live a mixed-up life as we follow the Risen Messiah. Our clarity doesn’t come in the form of statements, credos, or mission statements. Our view of the Bible must be one bringing us to Jesus Messiah. As we give up the things we hold dear culturally, we may better be able to know and share Jesus.
In Luke 7:34, Jesus quotes his critics as saying he is a “glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners (NIV).” One of the most interesting things about this passage is the context. In the narrative, Jesus almost immediately after breaks cultural taboos by allowing himself to be anointed by a woman who the religious elite consider sinful. He then makes it clear to Peter and the other disciples his message is about grace.
Look back at what evangelicalism is known for as a movement: Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Converionsim, and Activism. Does it have grace as a central tenet? And yet here is Jesus showing us what must be central to following him, to knowing him. I’d rather be known as a friend of sinners than an evangelical.
Lent is useful. Lent brings us back to our roots and calls us to cast aside the things which distract. Maybe it’s time to lose some of our religious trappings and focus on Jesus. He is our identity. -Christopher