Two or three times a week, Allison Griffin meets business associates at a Starbucks around town. Each time, she pays $3.75 for an iced espresso drink.
But during Lent, which began Feb. 13 and ends on Easter Sunday, March 31, Ms. Griffin is foregoing the espresso and making do with a cup of ice water.
“It’s just a small, baby step toward keeping my focus on the fact that it’s Lent, a season of preparation,” she said.
Ms. Griffin, a member of University Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, joins many United Methodists who are giving up favorite treats or time wasters in honor of Lent this year. They’re passing on soda, alcoholic beverages or red meat, foregoing TV and computer games, staying off Facebook or limiting the time they spend checking email.
Others are “taking on” something for the season of Lent—adding a daily devotional habit, like prayer or Scripture reading, or committing extra time or money to a mission project. And many are doing both—repurposing time normally spent on Pinterest for prayer, or sending money saved on treats to a charitable cause.
“The busyness of ministry can swallow up your spiritual life,” said the Rev. Catherine Koziatek, lead pastor of Albright UMC in Mishawaka, Ind. “A Lenten discipline is a correction course.”
Lenten observances like these have gathered momentum among Methodists in recent decades. Fifty years ago, “giving up something for Lent” was largely a Catholic practice, according to the Rev. Mark Stamm, professor of Christian worship at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
In the past, “Lent just wasn’t something that was emphasized” among Methodists, he said, but a confluence of factors changed that: Catholic churches in the U.S. began offering Mass in English after Vatican II, fostering ecumenical ties among Protestant and Catholic liturgical scholars. Catholic liturgists developed the three-year lectionary in 1969, and Protestants began to adopt it in the 1970s. For Methodists, Lenten worship resources soon followed. (The first official Methodist text prescribing a ritual for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, for example, didn’t appear until 1979.) Personal Lenten devotions among United Methodists seem to follow naturally.
“There was no great pronouncement,” Dr. Stamm said. “It just started to make sense to people.”
Now, there’s enough interest in giving up something for Lent to spark a minor backlash, with some bloggers questioning whether giving up chocolate or beer is really what Jesus had in mind.
But Dr. Stamm sees even small sacrifices as right in line with Lenten tradition.
“Giving up something for Lent reflects the old practice of fasting during Lent,” he said. “The purpose is to open up space in one’s life for God.”
Some churches are giving the practice a creative twist, turning Lenten sacrifice into material for mission. That’s the idea behind Wylie (Texas) UMC’s “Give it up for Lent” campaign. When it kicked off on Sunday, Feb. 17, church members gave up the shirts on their backs—literally.
Worshippers wore T-shirts with college logos and, after the service, doffed the shirts and dropped them in a donation box. (Those who wanted their shirts back could “redeem” them for a cash donation.) The church donated the shirts to the local high school, which allows students to wear college T-shirts, instead of uniform shirts, once a week for “Think College Thursdays.” The donated shirts will allow needy students to participate.
“Lent is the season we focus on Jesus’ giving of himself for us, and so it’s a good time to focus on giving ourselves to others,” said the Rev. Kathryn Strempke, Wylie UMC’s senior pastor. School counselors were “ecstatic” to receive over 60 T-shirts from the church, she added, and the $140 in cash collected will buy uniform shirts for needy elementary school kids. Similar “giveaways” are planned for each Sunday in Lent—worshippers will give up shoes, belts, coats and coins to support local charities.
Morgan Timbs, 14, is also turning her Lenten sacrifice into a mission project. Allowance money she’d normally spend on movies, iTunes or trips to the mall will go to a donation to Methodist Family Health, providing healthcare for needy families and children in Arkansas.
A member of First United Methodist in Bentonville, Ark., Morgan created a Facebook page to invite others to chip in a dollar. Last year she collected $2,164, and she hopes to raise $3,000 this year.
Asked why she’s giving something up for Lent, Morgan was a bit stumped.
“That’s a hard question, because I have never thought about not giving something up,” she said. “For as long as I can remember, I have always participated in Lent.”
Some United Methodists are giving up more intangible vices. Cassie Wade, minister of spiritual formation at Holy Covenant UMC in Carrollton, Texas, gave up worry for Lent—in particular, the “fretting kind of worry that gets you nowhere.” A church-wide study she’s spearheading, based on The Five Practices of Fruitful Living by Bishop Robert Schnase, is helping.
“The first lesson is called ‘Radical Hospitality,’” she said. “When we practice that, when we allow God to take the center place in our hearts . . . it allows us to give up worry.”
“The Path to Happiness—Giving Up!” is the Rev. Gary Nims’ Lenten sermon series at Immanuel UMC in Des Moines, Iowa. He’s exhorting church members to give up “position, preferences, possessions and privileges.” As an example, he asked church members to “give up” their favorite pews on Easter Sunday so that visitors can sit where they feel most comfortable.
“It’s about giving up what we often take for granted about how life is supposed to be serving us,” he said.
Among those United Methodists who are “taking on” something for Lent is Ms. Koziatek. She’s adding more daily devotional time, and is “praying her way” through the church directory, meditating on individual church members’ concerns, and while she’s at it, learning their names.
She’s still fairly new to her church, and “there are still a few faces that I don’t recognize,” she said. “Praying this way helps me put names and faces together.”
Bishop Gary Mueller of the Arkansas Conference is taking a cue from John Wesley, adding a bit of Moravian spirituality to his daily devotional routine. The great grandson of a Moravian pastor and bishop, he’ll follow a daily Scripture and prayer reading sent via email from the Moravian Church.
In a YouTube video, Bishop Mike McKee of the North Texas Conference invited United Methodists to join him in a series of spiritual disciplines he’s adopted for Lent: daily reading from the gospel of Mark and daily prayer for churches, laypeople and clergy around the conference. He’s also forgoing lunch one day a week, with the money saved going to a charity that feeds the hungry.
For some United Methodist churches, Lent’s 40 days serve as a cue for special projects.
At Travis Park UMC in Austin, Texas, the church’s “Living Green” task force urged members “to cut down on carbon, rather than chocolate, for Lent.” An online calendar suggests one carbon footprint-reducing challenge for each day of Lent.
In the Holston Conference, dozens of churches have pledged to “give up” malaria for Lent this year. Romeo UMC in Greenville, Tenn., challenged members to each give $10 a week for six weeks. Bearden UMC in Knoxville, Tenn., is aiming to collect $5,000, enough to save 500 lives.
The idea, according to the Rev. Michael Sluder, Bearden’s pastor, is to “give up your chocolate, your soft drinks, your iTunes, your Starbucks . . . and save a life instead.”