More Baptists observing Lent
    February 27 2009 by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press

    NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Though traditionally viewed as a Catholic rite, increasing numbers of Baptists are discovering the discipline of Lent.

    Belmont University, until recently affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, marked Feb. 25 with an Ash Wednesday service co-officiated by a Catholic bishop.

    “As a Christian university, we are strengthened by marking the seasons of the Christian calendar,” said Todd Lake, Belmont’s vice president for spiritual development. “It is thanks to our sisters and brothers in the liturgical churches that we add these practices to our rich Baptist heritage at Belmont.”

    ABP photo

    For Ash Wednesday, church leaders make the mark of the cross on people's foreheads with ashes.

    Growing from the free-church branch of Protestantism, Baptists traditionally have been highly suspicious of virtually all of the rituals associated with the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. That began to break down in recent decades as more Baptist (and other Protestant) churches began observing the season of Advent, the four Sundays immediately before Christmas. Some of those congregations also began to incorporate other parts of the liturgical calendar into their worship planning, including the 40-day period of fasting and prayer before Easter known as Lent.

    It begins with Ash Wednesday, in which Christians are reminded of their mortality and their share in Jesus’ death on the Cross.

    As Advent is intended to prepare Christians by identifying with ancient Israel in its long anticipation of Christ’s birth, so Lent is intended to prepare Christians by identify with his sufferings in preparation for the Resurrection. For hundreds of years, believers have practiced small acts of self-denial during Lent, such as giving up favorite foods or other habits they enjoy.

    Bo Prosser, coordinator for congregational life with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said he sees interest in Lent growing in Baptist churches every year.

    “It’s not a program,” he said. “It’s an appreciation of liturgy.”

    Prosser incorporated an Ash Wednesday service into the ninth annual True Survivors conference for Christian educators held Feb. 23-25 in Orlando, Fla.

    “I think it’s the receiving of a blessing as you move into Lent that really has meaning for people,” Prosser said.

    “We’re in the doldrums after Christmas, and now the economy is taking a hit, and I need somebody to say to me, ‘This is going to be OK.’ My pastor touches me and makes a sign of the cross and reminds me that God is with me,” Prosser said. “I think it satisfies a need for a spiritual sign from God that God is still with us.”

    Not all Baptists are jumping on the bandwagon. Jim West, pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Petros, Tenn., said real Baptists don’t observe Lent “because for Baptists repentance can’t be confined to a mere 40-day period preceded by the most intense gluttony and occupied with the setting aside of trivial pleasantries and followed by a return to the same-old, same-old,” he said.

    “True repentance, real repentance, authentic repentance is a 365-and-1/4-day-a-year occupation which, if pretentiously or lightly observed, becomes nothing more than a joke and a charade and a mockery,” West wrote in a blog. “That’s who Baptists are.”
    Randel Everett, who recently took over as executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, reported receiving a mild rebuke when he suggested a season of prayer, fasting and repentance for Texas Baptists during Lent.

    “After I had mentioned this idea at a pastors’ conference, one of the pastors helpfully reminded me that I was no longer in Virginia but back in Texas, and our Baptist churches don’t celebrate Lent,” Everett wrote in a column for the Baptist Standard. ”He is right. Some of our churches emphasize Advent, but not many mention Lent. So, I began to say, let’s celebrate 40 days of prayer between the first day of deer season and Super Bowl Sunday. Use whatever calendar works for each church.”
    Seasons of prayer and self-denial are nothing new in the Baptist tradition. Southern Baptist churches observe a “Week of Prayer” leading up to annual offerings for both home missions and foreign missions that are promoted — like Lent and Advent — during the seasons leading up to Easter and Christmas.

    The notion of a 40-day focus on renewal gained traction in evangelical circles with the runaway success of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, written in 2002.

    Warren, a Southern Baptist pastor, explained in a 2006 newspaper interview why he chose to spread his devotional readings over 40 days.
    “You don’t feel comfortable in something till you’ve done it for six weeks,” he said. “In 40 Days of Purpose, I was trying to get people to feel comfortable with daily reading, a weekly small group. Some things like these become habits. And, in the Bible, 40 days is used over and over and over in many examples.”

    “Noah was on the ark for 40 days,” Warren said. “Jesus was in the desert for 40 days. When Jesus resurrected, he spent 40 days with his disciples. There are lots of 40 days in the Bible.
    Today, it’s interesting, a lot of Catholic churches count 40 days during Lent and a lot of Pentecostal churches count 40 days of Pentecost, after Easter.”

    Unbound by long traditions of Lent, some Baptist churches adapt the observation to custom-fit their particular congregational needs.

    Steven Meriwether, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, recently moved to Tennessee from a church in New Orleans. He said he found it hard to observe Ash Wednesday without preceding revelry — the season New Orleans observes as Carnival or Mardi Gras — so he incorporated a Shrove Tuesday element into this year’s Ash Wednesday service. The church’s regular Wednesday-night meal featured a menu with hot pancakes. It was to be followed by a mini Mardi Gras parade with children before moving to the sanctuary for a service of hymns, prayer, confession and imposition of ashes for those who desire.

    Hayes Barton Baptist Church in Raleigh offered members and neighbors a Mardi Gras celebration on the Tuesday before Lent begins, and then an Ash Wednesday service the following day.
    First Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has observed Ash Wednesday for several years, but does not use ashes. Instead the pastor invites worshipers to pick up a small square of sackcloth (the other dominant symbol for penitence in the Bible) and use it in private devotions during the 40 days until Easter.

    2/27/2009 7:24:00 AM by Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press | with 1 comments

Dr. James Willingham
It is sad to see the importation of ritualism in to Baptist churches which have historically stood for freedom in worship. The really sad part of the whole deal, however, is the failure to see the value of free worship. One of the interesting things for me in observing church architecture was to note that the early Baptist meeting houses were rooms with pulpits in the middle of one of the long sides with the pews gathered in a semicircle around the pulpit. The entrance might be on the end of the building. In my research materials I have a drawing of a celtic church building from Wales which was still standing circa 1900(?). What it was like on the interior was not presented, but on the exterior it looked like one of the frontier Baptist meeting houses from the 1700s-1800s. The presence of the invisible, spiritual God in such places was experienced in those early meeting houss and in the open fields. I can speak from experience that the encounter of God in His spiritual nature, in His invisible presence, is far better than any visual impression of Him. I was converted from atheism by a vision or a hallucination of Jesus standing at a door knocking. I saw Him who I identified as Jesus facing me with His hand up raised like He was knocking at a door. He was facing me, looking at me. Tht was Dec. 7, 1957. Some time near the end of September or the first of October of 1972, I awoke in our seminary apartment at SEBTS crying tears of joy. The Lord Jesus was there, present, invisible, more real than can be imagined. The experience lasted for a solid half hour while I prepared for class. My wife was witness to the experience. I think it was a preparation for a later event, a tragedy beyond words. During that event (the tragedy) I would feel an invisible presence right behind my left shoulder so real that I would turn to see who was there. A retired Navy Chaplain told me of some experiences which he had that were of the same nature. The reality of the spiritual being, the God who had revealed Himself in the person of His one of a kind son, the Lord Jesus Christ,and has made known His attributes in Scripture and in encounters designed to make us fully aware of who He is and what He is like and how He desires that we should respond to Him is more related to the simple worship of our predecessors and ancestors than to ritualism as it has been practiced. Some of our ancestors paid with their lives for their anti-ritualistic views and practices. I do want it understood that I have no desire to hinder those who wish to use such methods. I only wish the Baptists would continue with the reality of what God gave us which reality has dimensions to it that far exceed what ritualism can accomplish. We are to worship God in Spirit and in truth as Jesus said.
2/27/2009 10:55:46 PM

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