Protestants increasingly observe Lent

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On Ash Wednesday, Pastor Mark Hladek will gather his congregation -- Crossroads Christian Fellowship -- together to begin the 40 days of Lent.

Church members will fast that day, which Hladek hopes will remind them of their hunger for God, and they will pray for physical, emotional or spiritual healing. Hladek will ask the congregation to pray and spend more time in Bible study and to set aside a small sum each day during Lent.

"It will be a season for building our hope and expectation in the Lord, culminating in our Easter celebration," Hladek said.

That his church, which is associated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, is observing Lent at all is a surprise.

Long the province of the Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, Lent -- a period of penitence, fasting and almsgiving -- has always been regarded by many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, as ritualistic or extra-Biblical.

Yet increasingly, Protestant church communities are embracing Lent as a period of reflection and spiritual growth.

Hladek said Crossroads began observing Lent a couple years ago after reading Rick Warren, the pastor-author of The Purpose Driven Life , describe the significance of 40-day periods in the Bible.

Church members, Hladek said, embraced Lent.

While Hladek does not impose ashes on the foreheads of worshippers, as do most mainline priests and pastors, he does ask church members to focus deeply during the 40-day period on a particular theme. Last year, the theme was the many names for Jesus and God. This year, it is hope.

Devotions and scriptural passages related to hope will be e-mailed each day to church members during Lent, and Hladek expects that on Easter Sunday, members will toss in a basket the $1,500 or $1,600 in "small sums" they've saved during Lent. The money will be donated for needs in the community.

"It gives us as a church a common way to approach the season and gets us on the same page," Hladek said.

Steve Goodier, pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, said Methodists began observing Lent more in recent decades.

"We've become more ritualistic," he said, a direct result of ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants since in the 1960s.

"My sense is that the church today may feel like the early Protestants threw out the baby with the bath water," he said. "Now a lot of the stuff is coming back in."

In short Ash Wednesday services early in the morning and in the evening on Ash Wednesday, Goodier will inscribe the cross on the foreheads -- or the hands -- of members and suggest the ashes remind them of the hope they have in Jesus.

The words he uses vary each year. Hope is the theme of the Lenten season for his congregation this year.

Rather than focusing on penitence, Methodists use Lent to focus on the spiritual life and growth, Goodier said. Rather than give something up, Methodists often take something on. "It's a time to deepen our relationship with God."

Neal Humphrey, pastor of Westminster Church in Fruit Heights, said he will impose ashes, as is the Presbyterian custom, on Ash Wednesday, and those seeking confirmation in the church will begin meeting with their mentors that night.

Humphrey said he will remind those gathered Wednesday night that the ashes represent the old life and Lent -- derived from an old English word for springtime -- means "time for a change."

He hopes to tap into members' "holy sorrow," or perhaps even anger, for falling short of God's purpose, he said. "The most hope-filled word in the Christian language is repent. You really can change, you really can lead a better life and Lent is an opportunity to intentionally do that."

"I hope they'll take it to heart and realize that God can help them live a transformed life ... that they can be opened up to what God's purpose is for their life."

Westminster members are encouraged to amp up their spiritual practices -- prayer and study -- during Lent, and a study group will delve into the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.

At Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sandy, Ash Wednesday is like New Year's Day, a time to resolve to put the past behind and resolve to do better, Pastor Jeff Nellermoe said.

"It's a time of repentance. It's a reflective time."

Good Shepherd has mid-week services during Lent, usually after a soup supper.

Lent, Nellermoe said, is time that Christians rediscover the resurrection. "Lent stirs all that up again and so you have a fresh appreciation of that grace."

Where to observe Ash Wednesday

Observances on Feb. 25 with imposition of ashes include:

» The Cathedral of the Madeleine, 309 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City, 8 a.m., noon, and 6 and 8 p.m.

» Cathedral Church of St. Mark, 231 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City, 7 a.m., noon and 7 p.m.

» Christ United Methodist Church, 2375 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City, 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

» First Presbyterian Church, 12 "C" St., Salt Lake City, 6:15 p.m.