Depending on your background, you might know a lot about Lent or hardly anything at all. Either way, there’s probably more to the Lent tradition than you previously realized, from its origin to its relevance today. The history is really fascinating and points to some of what you know and understand about Lent today.

What is Lent?

The New Oxford Dictionary describes Lent as “the period preceding Easter that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence in commemoration of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness.” 

Lent is a 40-day season to repent over sin, lament over the rebellion in our hearts, and anticipate the power of Christ’s death and resurrection. Often, Christians have fasted or abstained from things or behaviors (food, sweets, meat, coffee, television, social media, etc.). In addition to abstaining, some Christians also add something to their lives during Lent (more church attendance, prayer, giving, Bible reading, etc.).

Where Did Lent Come From?  

The first documented mention of this practice was part of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. In addition to producing the Nicene Creed, this council also produced twenty practical directions (called “canons”) for church practice. 

Lent is mentioned in the fifth canon of Nicea—not explained, just mentioned—in such a way as to indicate that Christians were already familiar with the practice. In this document from Nicea, the word used for Lent is tessarakonta (in the original Greek), which means “forty.” 

So, where did this familiar practice come from?

Long before Nicea, Christians had begun celebrating Easter Sunday as a day to commemorate the Lord’s resurrection. Many of these early churches fasted for two or three days in preparation for this special day.

Additionally, many early churches celebrated baptism on Easter Sunday and instituted fasting as a way for baptismal candidates to mourn their past sins, consider their need for cleansing through Christ’s blood, and anticipate their baptism.

By the time of the Council of Nicea, many churches had extended this time to forty days, modeled after the forty days of Jesus’ fasting in preparation for His public ministry (Matthew 4:1-2).

You don’t have to go all-in on Lent to benefit from this helpful tradition. In this article, you will discover everything you need to know to leverage the Lenten tradition for the spiritual health and evangelistic impact of your church.

We’ll first take a look at what a Lent-like sermon series could give your church and then further uncover the themes and practices of Lent and how you can take this tradition beyond the Lent season itself.

We’ll first take a look at what a Lent-like sermon series could give your church and then further uncover the themes and practices of Lent and how you can take this tradition beyond the Lent season itself.

Lent Sermon Series Quote 01
You don’t have to go all-in on Lent to leverage the Lenten tradition for the spiritual health and evanglelistic impact of your church.

What a Lent-like Sermon Series Could Give Your Church

People in your church want to be challenged to grow spiritually. Not only do they want to be challenged, but they need to be challenged to grow.

When your people grow spiritually, their lives get healthier and stronger. They become more patient and caring at home, they become more integrity-filled and courageous at work. They become more resilient to face suffering and pain. 

Most of all… when your people grow spiritually, it impacts the world around them. 

You’re going to preach evangelistically on Easter and you may even do an outreach-oriented series to encourage guests to come back. But what if you prepared for those moments by challenging your church with a spiritual growth series that focused on themes from Lent?

Imagine what would happen to your church and community if, for the 40 days (6 weeks) leading up to Easter, your people experienced:

  • Increasing frequency and fervency of their prayers — through a focus of consistent prayer during the Lenten season

  • Growing desire to connect with Jesus — through greater reflection on what Jesus has accomplished for us

  • Deepening dissatisfaction with what the world has to offer — through experiencing the greater joy of walking closely with God

  • Expanding habits of generosity — through practicing the joy of giving to the church and beyond

  • Surging distaste for sins that normally go ignored — through intentional reflection on areas that need repentance

  • Swelling faith that relies on God instead of on self-medication with food or screens — through fasting from some of our typical comforts

  • Hungering deeply for the things of God — through redirecting our appetites toward Jesus

  • Escalating courage to face a hostile world with boldness — through contending prayer for God to work through Easter

A series that grew your people in those ways would be worth doing anytime. But imagine the impact that it could have if this was how you prepared for the biggest day of the church year!

Preaching Lent and Atonement
Rather than getting bogged down in rigid approaches to Lent, it may be more valuable to consider the major themes and practices that Lent can leverage. One theme is Atonement, which came through the blood of an innocent animal in the place of a guilty person (Leviticus 17:11).

Themes and Practices of Lent

The good news about Lent is that Christians throughout history have practiced Lent differently. This means there’s no one right way to lean into Lent. 

Rather than getting bogged down in rigid approaches to Lent, it may be more valuable to consider the major themes and practices that Lent can leverage. 

The Lenten tradition emphasizes a number of important biblical themes.

Following Jesus. Jesus’ call to be His disciples included the expectation of self-denial (Luke 9:23). The call to discipleship is not one involving ease and comfort, but one that is costly. 

Repentance. Jesus’ first gospel preaching announced that His kingdom was at hand, so repentance was required (Mark 1:15). We can’t get to Jesus without repentance, and we can’t grow in faith unless we embrace a lifestyle of repentance.

The Horror of Sin. Sin distorts God’s good world in thousands of ways (Romans 8:21). What seems normal to us is an awful offence to a Holy God (Romans 1:32). Sometimes we need to be reminded of how bad sin is, so that we can appreciate our great Savior.

Hunger. Have you ever noticed how much of the Bible deals with food? Sin comes through food (Genesis 3:6), Israel’s exodus is remembered with a Passover meal (Exodus 12-13), food laws made the Israelites distinct (Leviticus 11), Jesus was known for His eating and drinking (Luke 7:34), His sacrifice is remembered through the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19), and history culminates with a wedding feast (Revelation 19:9). Lenten fasting invites us to hunger for what truly matters (Matthew 5:6).

Salvation by Grace. Our deep sinfulness means we have only one hope: to be saved by grace (Ephesians 2:1-9). As we remember our sin, we are drawn to the reality that He alone can save.

Forgiveness. Followers of Jesus regularly see their sin and plead for mercy (Luke 18:9-14). As those who have been forgiven, we also forgive others (Ephesians 4:32). Mourning for our sin reminds us that we need forgiveness, are forgiven in Christ, and can also forgive others.

Substitution. From the first sin of Adam and Eve, the way God atones for sin and covers His people is through the death of a substitute (Genesis 3:21). Atonement came through the blood of an innocent animal in the place of a guilty person (Leviticus 17:11). As we reflect on our sin, it becomes clear that our only hope is Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Hebrews 10:11-14).

Similarly, the Lenten tradition emphasizes a number of important Christian practices.

Prayer. All Christians agree that prayer is how we deepen our relationship with God. Though followers of Jesus are commanded to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17), having a focused season of intentional prayer can function as a jumpstart or reset to a life of prayer.

Fasting. Though fasting may be the most neglected spiritual practice in contemporary Christianity, Jesus assumed His followers would fast (Matthew 9:15). Fasting reminds us that our deepest hunger is for God, rather than created things.

Fighting Temptation. Sin leads to death and misery (James 1:14-15). It dishonors God and leaves us empty (Jeremiah 2:13). Christians must imitate Jesus in fighting temptation, and a season of introspection may be helpful in revealing areas of unbelief and sin. 

Confession of Sin. HealthyChristians regularly confess sin to the Lord. It should be a regular part of how we pray (Matthew 6:12), and is connected to our overall well being (James 5:15). Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we have confidence that confession leads to forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9).

Giving. Because of Christ’s generous sacrifice, His followers are generous people (2 Corinthians 8:7-9). Giving generously of our financial and material resources reminds us that all we have is God’s (Psalm 24:1) and that our truest source of life is Jesus, not stuff (Luke 12:15).

Trusting Jesus in Suffering. Not only did Jesus suffer, but He said His followers would too (John 15:20). Suffering produces endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-4). A season of embracing suffering and pain reminds us that our deepest treasure is Jesus.

Bible Reading. After His 40 day fast, Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations by remembering that “man does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). A season of focused Bible reading invites Christians to find their satisfaction in God, who sustains us with His word.

These themes and practices are not exhaustive, nor do they all demand our attention during the Lenten season. However, they provide a helpful menu of ideas for Christ-centered content that could shape your people in preparation for Easter.

Preaching Lent and Fasting
Some people may object to Lenten practices such as fasting or food restrictions. You can still preach on these themes without connecting it to Lent.

How to Engage Lent Beyond Sunday

Every pastor knows that sermon series are crucial tools for moving a congregation forward (which is why you spend so much time thinking about them). But every pastor also knows that if people engage beyond Sunday, the impact increases dramatically.

The Perfect Short-Term Window

Lent is the perfect opportunity to experiment with practices beyond Sunday because it’s a short-term window. It’s difficult to challenge people to begin a new lifelong habit, but many Christians are remarkably open to a short-term challenge.

Many churches have proven the effectiveness of 40-day spiritual growth campaigns or 90-daytithe challenges. The shorter commitment makes people more open and churches
more focused.

It’s hard to stay focused on something for too long. But challenging people to commit to their spiritual growth for six weeks feels totally doable.

History and Flexibility Offer Great Options For How You Choose to Address Lent at Your Church

Because of Lent’s rich history, there are many tried-and-true practices to borrow from. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to help people engage.

Because of Lent’s great flexibility (having been practiced in such varied ways), there’s no one right way to engage. You don’t need to feel the pressure to conform to something that won’t work for you.

We have some ideas and options for engaging your people beyond Sunday. Some will work wonderfully in your setting, others won’t. What might be a huge success in one place might be a disaster in another. Feel free to adapt and adjust.

At the same time, not everyone has all day to dream up perfectly customized spiritual growth campaigns. Feel free to borrow joyfully from our extensive list of ideas, just click here for the full article to read more about preaching Lent.