When our staff team plans out worship services, we first look at the liturgical season as a whole. What is it we want to have happen in our own lives and for others during this period of time? How do we enhance the worship to speak to what God would have us become? In Lenten planning, we tone down the mood of our worship, to become more reflective, so as to make the contrast with an explosive Easter Vigil and Easter morning even more joyous.
In that spirit, we use purple cloth to drape our baptismal font and Christ candle, symbolic of dry, dark times. We do not schedule any baptisms during Lent; rather Lent is when we hold Inquirer's Classes for faith exploration, and prepare our youth confirmands and others for baptism. (We then use the Easter Vigil service as the time to receive new members and baptize any persons coming to the faith.) We incorporate liturgical dance in an understated way, providing movement to a scripture reading, psalm setting or anthem. One Lent we “grew” a banner. Each week we pinned on prayer crosses with concerns written on the back. The banner was processed into worship for a front visual. We incorporated it into every service throughout Lent and Holy Week. Another year, our after-worship hospitality team decided not to serve coffee; rather they had bottles of water and simple cheeses and crackers as understated foods over which to share in fellowship.
Several years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, across from the Wayside Christian Mission was a “Cross Museum” with thousands of crosses on display. It no longer exists, but it is an interesting idea. Perhaps as a Lenten theme, the congregation could be invited to bring a variety of crosses to either have on the altar during Lent or in the gathering/entrance space of the church as a visual of this season of the cross.
We also use the change of the liturgical season to do different things in worship. If you do not regularly include a prayer of confession, reciting a creed, singing the psalm, music from other traditions, or using all four scripture lessons, those might be parts of worship to consider inserting into your Lenten Sunday pattern. This might be a time to introduce more congregational response. The collect can begin with “The Lord be with you,” with the congregation responding “And also with you.” Perhaps you would want to consider a format of Prayers of the People that uses a response such as the leader saying “Lord in your mercy,” with the congregation responding, “Hear our prayer.” Following the prayers, the sharing of the Peace might also be included. This would not be a time of greeting to say hello to neighbors, but the quiet intention of wishing God's deepest shalom for those seated close by. One might also consider including a “Response to the Word” through personal testimonies, saying a creed, adding a minute for mission, or introducing a new hymn and singing it each of the six weeks.
If you currently only celebrate Holy Communion monthly or quarterly, the Lenten season could be a time when the congregation experiences weekly or an every other week celebration of the Lord's Supper. Perhaps a sermon series on the sacrament could draw together the themes of sharing and sacrifice, cross and celebration, anticipating Maundy Thursday's table fellowship, and the sacrament on Easter.
Sara Webb Phillips is Pastor of Discipleship at First United Methodist Church in Evanston, Illinois. This article first appeared in Circuit Rider.