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Lenten observance becoming more widespread in Protestant churches
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A growing interest in the tradition of Lent is giving Protestants something in common with the Catholic Church, where the Lenten season goes back to its beginnings.

"There's a tendency (among Protestants) to see ritual as lifeless, routine," Dale Coulter, Regent University associate professor of historical theology, told Catholic News Service.

Historically, resisting Lent would have gone "hand-in-hand" with resisting the recitation of prayers and other forms of liturgy, he explained.

Many Protestants, however, have since adopted what up to now they have seen as the predominately Catholic tradition of Lent. Though it's slightly different in practice, some call this a step toward convergence in the global church.

An expert on ecumenism and ecclesiology, Christopher Ruddy said there "seems to be a growing appreciation" of the observance of Lent in Protestant churches.

"There's certainly a sense of a spiritual desire to prepare for Lent ... a desire of conversion," the associate professor at Catholic University of America told CNS.

Washington's multisite National Community Church is one among several Protestant churches to have adopted the practice.

"Lent is about repentance, it's about confession," Joel Schmidgall, the church's executive pastor, said in his March 2 sermon. "It's about pruning and cutting things back so that you can grow closer to Christ."

Teaching of the practice of Lent varies from year to year, small group pastor Will Johnston told CNS. Attendees of National Community Church services observe it in a variety of ways.

Some people are "very intensive," he said, and partake in the Daniel fast, based off Chapters 1 and 10 of the Book of Daniel, where for example Daniel eats just vegetables and fruit and drinks only water. Others give up material possessions or pick up habits to grow closer to God.

Either way, the church encourages "doing something to incorporate time with God in your day in a very intentional way," Johnston said.

Though the Bible makes no reference of Lent, some of its practices are very relevant in Bible, he said. Fasting, for example, is a biblical, spiritual discipline.

"(Lent) is not a thing you have to do," he said. "It's not prescribed in Scripture, but it is a way of coming in line with what Christians ... around the world are doing."

This year, the National Community Church is presenting a "40-Day Lent Challenge," encouraging participants to read through the entire New Testament before Easter.

Traditionally, low churches have not partaken in the practice of Lent, Coulter said. Low churches, as opposed to high churches, are those that don't follow as much of a liturgical pattern.

Capitol Hill Baptist is a Washington church that doesn't formally celebrate Lent, though it doesn't discourage the practice among members of the congregation.

Pastoral assistant Matt Merker said Capitol Hill makes a point of "always (presenting) the good news of the Christian faith." Each week they remember the Cross, their sins and the Resurrection.

In a sense, "every Sunday is Lent," Merker said.

For the Protestant churches that are adopting Lent, they're "translating" it into more of a low-church practice, Coulter said.

"We have to allow these churches to ... adapt the framework to their situation," he said. "We have to let them localize it."

Though some may be critical of this idea, Ruddy said Catholics should "look at it as ... a growing awareness for the need of preparation."

"Yeah, it can be kind of eclectic, but there can still be some good coming out of it," he said. "There's some yearning there."

Michael Root, a professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, told CNS that the concept of Lent is "diverse but not dividing."

Despite its variance in practice, Lent isn't necessarily a division point in the church, he said.

"I think it's part of a larger phenomenon," he said. "They're adopting the liturgical calendar. Churches have drawn closer together (and) not just in Lent."

Some Protestants are confused on the subject of Lent and whether or not they should observe it. Organizations such as Renovare, a nonprofit Christian ministry in Colorado, provide resources to educate evangelicals on the Lenten season.

This season, Renovare released the book "Engage: A Lenten Guide for Spiritual Growth," telling evangelicals they can practice Lent, even if they aren't Catholic. Lent also is an age-old tradition for others, including Anglicans, Lutherans and the Orthodox.

"This season of the church's calendar really helps point us toward Jesus as we prepare for Easter, no matter what your denomination or tradition," Renovare executive director Rachel Quan said in a March 5 press release.

The devotional book serves as a guide through the Lenten season, helping readers understand the significance behind the practice. Kai Nilsen, pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Ohio, wrote it.

Nilsen was traveling abroad and unavailable for comment.

Despite pushes for education in Protestant denominations, Coulter said, "We are a very long way off from ecumenical unity. But we can achieve a similar framework that connects Catholics and Protestants. We can draw on these mechanisms that are historic."

Lent is one of these historic mechanisms.

He also said widespread adoption of Lent is a way to minister to the secular world. If all denominations celebrated Lent, "it would help discipleship in all forms of Christianity," he said.

If every Christian were to start observing Lent tomorrow, secular businesses would have to respond accordingly, he said.

He called it a way of "changing the culture without engaging in a direct culture war."

"On the whole, the convergence is real," Root said. "It's part of a larger reality, (and) it's a positive thing."

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