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Lent Planning Guide

An introduction to Lent and comprehensive guide to Lenten planning.

An Introduction to Lent

The Worship Sourcebook (TWS) gives us this excellent explanation to the Lenten season of Christian worship (pages 551-552):

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the heart of the Christian gospel, and Good Friday and Easter are two of the most significant celebrations of the Christian year. Lent is a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate Good Friday and Easter. Just as we carefully prepare for big events in our personal lives, such as a wedding or commencement, Lent invites us to make our hearts ready for remembering Jesus' passion and celebrating Jesus' resurrection.

The practice of a forty-day preparation period began in the Christian church during the third and fourth centuries. The number forty carries biblical significance based on the forty years Israel spent in the wilderness and Jesus' forty-day fast in the wilderness. The forty days of Lent begin on Ash Wednesday and continue through holy week, not counting Sundays (which are reserved for celebratory worship). In practice, many congregations choose to focus Sunday worship on the themes of repentance and renewal.

As a period of preparation, Lent has historically included the instruction of persons for baptism and profession of faith on Easter Sunday; the calling back of those who have become estranged from the church; and efforts by all Christians to deepen their piety, devotion, and readiness to mark the death and resurrection of their Savior. As such, the primary focus of the season is to explore and deepen a "baptismal spirituality" that centers on our union with Christ rather than to function only as an extended meditation on Christ's suffering and death.

The traditional color for the season is purple. Some congregations choose to highlight the contrast between Lent and Eastertide (the period from Easter to Ascension Day or Pentecost or Trinity Sunday) by omitting the singing of "Alleluia" during the Lenten season, and yet other congregations stress that all the Sundays of Lent are "little Easters" and thus may appropriately feature Easter-like praise.

Scriptures and Statements of Faith Applying to the Theme of Lent
For a complete list of lectionary texts for Lent, see page 825 (of TWS). The following texts, which focus on three main dimensions of Lenten spirituality, are especially appropriate for supplemental liturgical use.
Belgic Confession, Art. 21
Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A's 37-39
Canons of Dort, Pt. II, Art. 2-5, 8
Westminster Confession, Chap. VIII, Sec. 4; Chap. XV, Sec. 1-6
Our World Belongs to God, st. 25-28

Penitential psalms:
Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143

The importance of heartfelt repentance:
Psalm 50
Isaiah 1
Joel 2:12-17
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Baptismal spirituality and unity with Christ:
Romans 6:1-14; 8:12-17
2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 4:1-16; 5:20-6:2
Galatians 2:19-21; 3:27-29
Ephesians 2:4-20; 4:1-6
Colossians 2:9-3:7
Titus 3:4-8

Looking at Lent

The season of Lent is familiar to many churches. However, most Reformed churches did not observe liturgical seasons until shortly after World War II, and some still resist it. We believe there are good reasons for the church to take a fresh look at Lenten observance and see great benefits for its worship life.

From the beginning the Christian Church has focused on the celebration of Christ's resurrection at Easter. Each Sunday is seen as a celebration of Christ's resurrection, and the annual anniversary of that resurrection is a special holy day.

Holy days require careful preparation—that's where Lent comes in. Reformed churches have always recognized the need for careful preparation for special events. Our worship usually opens with a time of preparing to approach God through confession and forgiveness. We observe a time of preparation for coming to the Lord's Supper. In the same way, Lent is a necessary time of preparation for marking Christ's sacrifice and the celebration of an annual Easter.

The local congregation will find great value in observing Lent, if it is done thoughtfully. There is much we can learn from the early church. A valuable Lenten season will require careful work ahead of time by pastors, musicians, and other worship planners.

Sermon Series

Pastors usually present, and parishioners often expect, a special series of sermons during Lent. In planning a series of sermons, two matters should be obvious. First, the sermon series must be charted out before other worship planning can begin. Second, the pastor must take the lead in preparing the series and passing that information along to others with sufficient advance notice so that all others involved in planning have adequate lead time. This will require careful effort by the pastor so others can plan well. A Lenten series of messages should be charted out at least a couple of months before the season begins.

Several options are available to pastors when they consider a series of sermons for Lent. It is wise to vary the style of Lenten sermon series from one year to another. A number of different types of sermon series for Lent may be possible:

  1. Thematic—each week a different theme of the Christian life is explored: repentance, humility, fasting, prayer, piety, self-discipline, faithfulness, etc; or you may study together the fruits of the Spirit as Paul lists them in Galatians 5; and so on.
  2. Old Testament Preparations—a study of Old Testament events or passages that lay the ground for the work of the Messiah. A study of the Old Testament feasts, of Psalm 23 and Jesus' fulfillment of it, or of Isaiah 53 would serve well.
  3. Narratives—a Lenten series could focus on events in the life of Christ, on his miracles, or on his encounters with needy and broken people. Some of these narratives are often the highly concentrated events of Christ's final days—his betrayal and trial, his seven words from the cross, or the five miracles of his last days.
  4. Biographies—each Lenten sermon could explore an event or stage in the life of a person closely associated with Christ. These may be Old Testament persons who are involved in the preparation for Christ or who display foreshadowings of Christ. Or they may be New Testament persons who were in direct contact with Christ during his ministry. A biographical series may select a number of persons, one for each week; or it may be a series of messages that concentrates on various experiences in the life of one person.

Decisions for Lenten Worship Planning

Your Lenten season will likely involve special worship efforts. Therefore, your worship planning will certainly require many decisions that involve advance planning and preparation. In an effort to help you anticipate these decisions, we list a number of questions and issues here. 

  1. What will be our theme and emphasis in Lent this year? As worship planners work together to express and identify this theme in a carefully worded sentence for use in worship planning.
  2. Will we observe Ash Wednesday with a devotional service? (If so, you will find a suggested service below.)
  3. Shall we include a standard service of confession/renewal for the entire Lenten season?
  4. What visuals should we be preparing for the sanctuary space? Who will prepare them?
  5. Will we observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Vigil?
  6. During which services in this season will we include the Lord's Supper?
  7. Will we include other special styles during this season, such as Taize or Tenebrae, and what preparation will that require?
  8. How will we provide for continuity of our seasonal worship from Lent into Easter, Eastertide and Pentecost?
  9. How will our choirs, praise teams, ensembles and other participants be meaningfully incorporated into our worship during this season? Who needs to be consulted so that all communication is clear and complete?
  10. Using a variety of accessible hymnals and music resources, construct a full repertoire of congregational songs for your Lenten worship. This will become your list from which to make your choices for each service. You may want to use this season as a time to teach the congregation some new hymnody. Make preparation for how to teach them meaningfully.
  11. How can children be included in full and active participation in worship during this season? Who will lead those efforts, and what resources will be necessary?
  12. Who else will be needed for worship leadership? Readers? Instrumentalists? Prayer leaders? Children? How can they be prepared to lead well?
  13. Who will take responsibility to keep others fully informed, such as secretaries, ushers, sound operators, projectionists, custodians, those who provide visuals, etc.?
  14. What efforts are needed to issue an invitation to the community to join in worship during this season? How can we best make connections with our neighbors?

Services of Confession for Lent

We suggest that you consider having a standard service of confession for the entire season of Lent. The service of confession is an integral part of Reformed worship; the worshiper comes before the presence of God in humility and receives a renewed assurance that God's pardon covers all his/her sins. This act of confession and penitence is particularly consistent with the spirit of preparation in the Lenten season. And so we find that the repetition of a standard service of confession is healthy in this liturgical season. It becomes familiar as a recognizable part of each week's worship, and each week reinforces its message and spirit. This service of confession can be used as a unit and set into the service of each week. Note that we have included having the congregation rise for the reading of the Gospel for the assurance of pardon. Early Christians always stood for the reading of Scripture—a good practice.

The Call to Confession

The Scriptures tell us that God desires to forgive his people. We have sinned and Jesus has
come to pay the price for it. The prophet Isaiah says, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has
turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa.
53:6). Therefore, trusting the grace and mercy of God, let us confess our sins to God and to
one another.

Sung Prayer of Confession: "O Christ, the Lamb of God" PsH 257, RN 216, SFL 44
or "Kyrie" RN 86, SNC 52, 53, UMH 483
or "Lamb of God" SNC 253

*The Assurance of God's Pardon

Please rise for the Gospel Reading. [ pause ]
Hear the reading of the Holy Gospel in which we are told the story of the suffering and
death of Jesus Christ for our pardon and salvation.
The Gospel Reading from a Lectionary
This is the Gospel of Christ: “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by
his wounds
we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5b).

*The Passing of the Peace
Leader: The peace of Christ be with you.
All: And also with you.
(The worshipers greet each other saying, "The peace of Christ be with you.")

*Our Sung Response: "What Wondrous Love" (st. 1, 3) PH 85, PsH 379, RN 277, SFL 169, TH 261, TWC 212, UMH 292
or "I Love the Lord" SNC 227

The Call to Confession

Sung Prayer of Confession: “Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended” (st. 2) PH 93, PsH 386, RL 285, RN 183, TH 248, TWC 231
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon you?
It is my treason, Lord, that has undone you.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you;
I crucified you.

Assurance of Pardon

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases, yet we considered him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:1-6, NRSV)

Sung Response: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (st. 2-3) PH 101, PsH 384, RL 293, RN 236, SFL 166, TH 252, TWC 213
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ, my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them through his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

*The Gospel Reading:

*Passing the Peace
The peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.
(The worshipers are encouraged to greet each other saying,
“The peace of Christ be with you.”)

*Sung Response: “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” (st. 4)
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The Call to Confession

Our Prayer of Confession

Most holy and merciful Father,
We confess to you and to one another,
that we have sinned against you
in thought, word and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you
with our whole heart and mind and strength.
We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.
In your mercy forgive what we have been,
help us amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be,
so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name.
For the sake of Jesus Christ, Amen.

The Assurance of God's Pardon:

Pastor: The Gospel of Christ speaks to us of the assurance we have of God's pardon. Please rise for the reading of the Holy Gospel.
(worshipers rise; readings are by lay persons)

March 9 – John 3:14-17
March 16 – John 4:7-14
March 23 – John 6:35-40
March 30 – John 10:11-18
April 6 – John 14:1-6
April 13 – John 14:23-27

The Gospel of Christ.
Thanks be to God!

Song: “There Is a Redeemer” RN 232, SNC 145

Passing the Peace:

Pastor: The peace of the Lord be with you.
People: And also with you!
(the worshipers pass the peace to each other and then are seated.)

Our Commitment to Holy Living:

Since we have been saved by grace, how shall we live in relationship to Him who saved us?
We will have no other gods before Him; we will not make for ourselves any substitute gods; we will not abuse the name of the Lord, but speak it only in reverence and love; we will honor the Lord's day through worship, witness and fellowship with His people.
How shall we live in relationship with others?
We will honor our parents and hold the family in high esteem; we will not abuse, hate or injure our friends or neighbors by words, gestures or deeds; we will not commit adultery, but live holy disciplined lives; we will not steal; we will not lie; we will not grasp for what we do not have, nor reject others for having it.
How does Jesus summarize these commandments?
He says that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, and by God's grace, we will do it!

Glossary of Hymnal Abbreviations:
PH The Presbyterian Hymnal (Presbyterian Church USA; Westminster/John Knox Press)
PsH The Psalter Hymnal (Christian Reformed Church; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
RL Rejoice in the Lord (Reformed Church in America; W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
RN Renew! (Hope Publishing Company)
SFL Songs for LiFE (childrens' songbook; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
SNC Sing! A New Creation (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Christian Reformed Church, Reformed Church in America; Faith Alive Christian Resources)
TH Trinity Hymnal (Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in America; Great Commission Publications)
TWC The Worshiping Church (Hope Publishing Company)
WOV With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress)