It’s come very quickly, but the church season of discipleship and renewal that we call Lent begins next week! If it takes twenty-one days to learn a new habit, the forty days (plus Sundays) of Lent give Christians more than twice that time to renew a past practice or start a new commitment. You may already have something in mind for Lent, but if you don’t let me invite you to double down on the church “habit” this year. I challenge you to attend worship every time it’s offered in Lent. If you’re out of town from your customary place of worship–like I will be on one Sunday–the challenge means finding a service where you are at. This starts with Ash Wednesday next week, continues with each Sunday between February 18th and April 1st, and culminates with Holy Week worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. (Some churches also offer Easter Vigil worship on Holy Saturday–it’s a remarkable service!) For anyone who is out of the regular worship habit, I challenge you to get these dates on your calendar now. Even for those who regularly lead worship as singers or readers, this may be a challenge if you’re tempted to take a day off rather than to come and receive the spiritual nurture you so often share with others. And if Sunday mornings don’t work in your calendar, most churches offer some sort of weekday evening enrichment possibility in Lent.
This Worship Challenge will mean choosing church ahead of other good things, or at least moving priorities around. Next Wednesday, for instance, you’re challenged to attend worship at a time when some might be at a Valentine’s Day meal. Will you observe Valentine’s Day earlier, later, on another day, or in the act of worship itself–a gift for relationships of all types? As I overheard one church member say, we can shift the “Hallmark holiday” in order to attend this hallmark of the church year, Ash Wednesday.
Now, some churches are inclined to offer material rewards for worship attendance, like a “punch card”, or tickets for a giant raffle on Easter Sunday. (Yes, those things really happen.) But here’s what every church tries to offer as an incentive already: meaningful and memorable worship, faithful activities for all ages, kind community that welcomes you just as you are, and fellow travelers in the journey of faith. I promise you that on the other side of this Worship Challenge, you will feel more in love with God, more hopeful about the world, more resilient against the things that grind you down in daily life, and more connected to loving community that will be there when you are in need. You are even more likely to live longer! In fact, as I heard Minnesota researcher Dan Buettner say in a program on the radio last night, those who attend worship four times a month tend to live between four and fourteen years longer than those who do not. I love doing funerals as much as the next pastor, but I’m willing to postpone them for members of my congregation if it means they receive the gift of more good years with the church and their family. Let this Worship Challenge be the start of something beautiful–and literally life-changing. See you in church!