Monday, February 20, 2012

Richard Beck on the Ambivalent Practice of Lent in Non-Liturgical Churches

Two years ago Richard Beck wrote a thoughtful and highly relevant reflection on the practice of Lent in traditionally non-liturgical churches, highlighting some of its more theologically problematic aspects such as spiritual individualism and what we might call the "cafeteria calendar" approach to the liturgical year. I called attention to it then, and I thought I would again now, in light of Ash Wednesday this week. Here's a quote to whet your appetite:
And it's this voluntarism--opting in or opting out--that makes me ambivalent. The observance of Ash Wednesday at my church is an optional deal. And this, as I experience it, exacerbates one of the problems of contemporary Christianity: Its individualized nature. Ash Wednesday at my church isn't communal. It's an add-on feature. Which strikes the wrong note for me. What ends up happening in my church is that some individuals or small groups celebrate Lent and others don't. For example, some people or groups give up something for Lent like the Catholics do. Others don't. And it's this lack of being on the same page, a very different vibe than the one I experienced in the Catholic church, which leave me cold. Of course, I could celebrate Lent. But I hate the fact that this is something that I, as an individual, choose to do (i.e., opting in). It's just the completely wrong vibe. I hate that autonomous choices sit at the center of the practice. I'm not celebrating Lent with my church.


  1. Thank you. In an effort to deepen my own spirituality and spend more time with God, I came across your blog.beautifully written. Moving. You speak well of God and of us, too. Best of luck with your studies

  2. I have tried for years to find Lent meaningful. This year, I kind of abandoned the project. Like many, I was raised in a non-liturgical Evangelical tradition. As I sorted out how that knit together with the rest of the Church, and as I deepened my theology, I saw with what approached envy the richness of the broader tradition and the rhythms of the purple seasons of Advent and Lent. 'Ahhh,' I said to myself, 'I will step away from the tinny and cheap evangelicalism of my youth, with our disregard for beauty and things like written prayers, and move towards the rich and moving "authentic Christianity."'
    Except when I got there, I realised that not only was I underwhelmed with the power of liturgy, qua liturgy to move me, but more significantly, I have come to realise that the Evangelicalism I grew up in--one that I have a centuries-old heritage in--is no less part of the Church of Christ than any other tradition. Even if we favoured stacking chairs to oak pews, and upright pianos to evensong. Yes, Evangelicals, especially my strain, were and are tacky, often simplistic, unromantic specimens of followers of Jesus of Nazareth. But they are still mine, and they--we--still belong to the Church, even if we called it chapel. My 'giving-up-feeling-bad-about-Lent-for-a-bit' is an attempt to see my modest tradition as part of what is a project that is larger than any of us. I am glad when a fellow Christian comes to or continues a Lenten practice. It is just, for me, it would be like affecting a posh accent to sound smart.
    Michael Burdge