The Top Stuff to Consider When Beginning a Lenten-Series in Your Congregation
by Daniel D. Maurer, Arches 'n Bells Founder and Editor-in-Chief
I grew up in the United Methodist Church. Our family attended a small congregation in Champlin, Minnesota, a suburb just north of Minneapolis. Once per week, we'd make the trek from our home in Anoka to a quaint little church on the edge of a pond, just across the Mississippi River .
Our attendance was nearly perfect, mostly because my mother and father were so active in leadership roles in the congregation. Mom taught Sunday school nearly every year. (I have to say that I dreaded being in her class, not because she was strict or mean, but because I didn't want to mess up!) My dad mostly filled a helping role for the church, like assisting with unpacking boxes or serving on the church council.
Growing up in that tradition (our church was fairly "loose" liturgically, as far as UMC churches go), I never realized that there was any other way to do church—I came to expect exactly what to sing when the doxology came, and I certainly didn't believe that anyone would really ever NEED Holy Communion more than three or four times per year. And Lent? The season wasn't even on my radar!
There must have been something special with her—and the place where I was studying, an ELCA college—because whoda thunk it . . . I switched teams! Maybe it was in the water . . . but I started worshiping within the progressive Lutheran Church.
What's worse than that, I had to go all out. I went to Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa for my graduate studies to become an ELCA pastor.
Needless to say, I got to know about the wonderful season of Lent.
I write wonderful, because it really is. Lent is a time to ponder mortality, think upon Jesus' sacrifice, and just how the Reign of God manifests itself through the perceived weakness of the cross.
As a pastor, Lent also gave me the freedom to venture off the path of the Revised Common Lectionary and explore other themes in a creative manner. (The Narrative Lectionary, by the way, does this as well, but through offering a completely different set of readings!)
One creative outlet for the congregations I served in western North Dakota was theater. As I pointed out in posting this video and through writing this article, theater is fun, effective, engaging, and will launch your preaching into a renewed interest in the minds and hearts of your people!
But . . . maybe you're asking: where to start? More specifically, what sort of drama resources will not only be effective, but easy-to-use and relevant to your particular, theologically grace-centered context?
Never fear—Arches 'n Bells is here!
I've compiled a list of the ways (and specific resources for you to peruse at your leisure) how best to proceed when selecting a thematic trajectory for your congregational context.
Consider the BIG Themes of Lent
Lent, after all, is the season directly preceding and leading up to the light and wonder of Easter. Historically, Lent has been a "procession of darkness." This isn't to say that it's all glum and anti-hallejah (although I respect anyone who wants to honor that tradition). Instead, the readings in Lent lead people on Jesus' own journey to Jerusalem.
Although some theologians traditionally see that Jesus foreknew his own fate (he had to have some idea that the ruling class didn't care for him too much), I prefer to side on the progressive understanding, that as a human being, he was going into the situation blind. Where he differed, I believe, is that he was willing to die for the message of infinite love to be heard.
"Jesus matters [because he is] the decisive disclosure of God," according to Marcus Borg, Jesus Seminar scholar. Lent matters, because we need to convey the story of the passion. You can't have the passion without the events leading up to it.
Okay. Whew... So where does this all connect with the themes that you are seeking for Lent?
It's really quite simple:
The story of Jesus—and God's message through Jesus—directly intersects
what it means to be human.
What are the themes surrounding the human condition? As a professional freelance writer, I often bump up against these very themes all the time when I write. Why? Because it makes an interesting, tension-filled, and hopefully redemptive story! THE BIG STORY has these themes and asks the BIG QUESTIONS, because I believe God engages humanity through questions of ultimate concern.
Those themes of ultimate concern are things like:
- What does it mean that I'm afraid?
- Where is God when bad things happen?
- How can death not be a dark, foreboding abyss, but instead be a Lenten journey God's own self took to "fill all things up" in Jesus the Christ? (Ephesians 1:10b – a flipping amazing passage.)
- Do the bad guys (and gals) eventually win?
- How can a person harmonize the loss of a loved one not only to get through the experience, but find a sense of meaning and purpose by it?
- Why do ancient and sometimes strange stories still draw us to ponder God anew?
I bet you can think of a bunch more of these. (After all, I'm out of practice in the clergy biz.)
The point is asking the right questions and authentically listening to people's hurts, fears, joys, frustrations, hopes, and sorrows give you a theme from which to launch a series.
Still, maybe you're asking: Where to turn for resources?! I don't have enough time!
Again, never fear . . . funchurchplays.com is here. Again. (I know I just wrote that.)
What Resources are Already Out There to Explore Additional Themes for a Lenten Series?
Here's a list of books I've found helpful in the past:
1. Eastertide: Prayers for Lent Through Easter by Phyllis Tickle
2. 40 Days of Living the Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight
3. Lectio Divina Bible Study: Learning to Pray in Scripture by Stephen J. Binz
4. A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor by Chris Seay
5. One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
6. A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton
7. Online, I used to love the site, Textweek. Here's their Lent stuff.
8. Read works from the mystics and Church Mothers, such as: Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux.
9. Joseph Sittler's books are all worthwhile, in my opinion (albeit many are short and some hard to find). But this one in particular is relevant to this article.
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention Arches 'n Bells.
We've taken pains to produce theologically progressive and grace-centered, inclusive-language replete, and hands-down fun and super-awesome monologues, dialogues, reader's theater, skits, plays, and theatrical resources for you!
It's our goal here to do the heavy lifting and write the best stuff . . . so you have time to focus on actually sharing the message the best way you can.
What Current Themes Do I Need to be Addressing in my own Congregational Context?
How the heck should I know! I'm not there. You are!
The point we aim for at Arches 'n Bells is that theater resources should not be too "churchy." That is to say, it's fine once and while to create a plot where people are discussing a topic with their pastor (we offer a few of these plays, as some folks still want them), but that just isn't where most people are at in their lives! Where are people at? They're living their lives! (In REAL life.) If you want church to be relevant and for people to connect their faith lives with the quotidian, everyday stuff. . . then you had better connect in ways they understand. Theater does this, and it will continue to kick butt doing this.
Believe me, I know. I used to be a pastor. I LIVED in the church. Now, I'm a person of long-term recovery and a layperson. I find it really challenging sometimes when churches fail to apply simple common sense when it comes to both designing a worship service, and also using new technologies or simply recognizing the new ways people form communities in our society! We're living in the 21st Century, folks.
That doesn't mean during Lent we need to go all hipster. No, not at all.
It means that we can use an already ancient method of telling the story of God . . . with theater and drama during Lent! Our mission at Arches 'n Bells is to make your life easier by writing high-quality resources so that you can do them the way you need to do them . . . in your own context.
Whatever you do, and however you prepare for a Lenten series, know that story matters. It will always matter. That means you—the storyteller—will always matter. Your job and mine (as a freelance writer), aren't actually all that different, in fact!
Ministry works best when you tell the story in diverse and creative ways. That's what we're about here and we hope to make your life easier . . . at least when it comes to picking out some cool resources.
About the Author
Daniel D. Maurer is a husband, a father, a writer, an author of two books (one here & the other here), a speaker, an editor, a website designer, and is owned by two cats and one dog. He founded Arches 'n Bells out of deeply-seated belief that dramatic resources belong in church to teach and engage. His non-fiction writing brand deals with the power of change and transformation in people's lives, because he's lived through a big change in his own life in embracing long-term recovery. Daniel also curates and edits and does other schtuff for Clergy Stuff, a provider of worship resources for congregations using the Narrative Lectionary.