Discipled by Calendar

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 7.25.08 AM By Michelle Van Loon, who blogs at patheos.com/blogs/pilgrimsroadtrip and tweets at michellevanloon.com

Once upon a time – and for most of Judeo-Christian history following – there were no Sunday School classes or parachurch youth programs that focused on transmitting faith from one generation to the next. There was simply the kind of lifestyle God prescribed in Deuteronomy 6:4-9.

Certainly other forms of apprenticeship, and eventually, more formalized forms of theological education, emerged over time. But those were built on the Hebrew foundation of practicing faith with family, in community. From the time of the Exodus, an essential structure for community discipleship and identity was the cycle of feasts described in Leviticus 23. The Chosen People were discipled by God in time, living their sacred story celebrating God’s creation and redemption by participating in it each year – from generation to generation.

My own “lightly-religious” Jewish upbringing offered me a window on that festal calendar. I came to faith in Jesus during my teens, and That window left me wondering why the non-denominational congregations my husband, our children and I attended didn’t do much thinking at all about the way in which our church community moved through a year. The annual worship cycle in most of those congregations included various themed or expository sermon series punctuated with these special days:

  • Valentine’s Day – marriage sermon and/or couples banquet
  • Good Friday – somber, sad service or play
  • Easter – special service aimed at visitors, resurrection celebration
  • Mother’s and Father’s Day – heavy on sentiment, flowers for moms!
  • Church picnic – often held in conjunction with VBS
  • Veteran’s Day (optional) – time during the service to honor vets and active military
  • Thanksgiving – because giving thanks is biblical
  • Christmas – Bethlehem-themed reminder that Jesus is the reason for the season

Eventually, I served on a production team at one of the churches we attended, where it was emphasized to me that that the calendar driving all programming for our worship services was the American civic calendar, except for Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas.

As my husband and I are both Jewish believers, we continued to maintain a modest connection to the Hebrew festal calendar, as we hoped to form in our children a connection with their Jewish birthright. I learned during those years that while connection to a calendar can be an important learning tool for families, it carries a different weight in a family when an entire community is formed by its rhythms.

After a relocation a few years ago, we found our way to an Anglican church, which ignited the questions that had been bubbling just under the surface in me about what it meant to be formed spiritually in time, in community. The church calendar emphasizes the story and redemptive mission of Jesus. I appreciated being discipled in time, in the context of community.

I began wondering about how the Hebrew calendar Jesus knew became the church year calendar used by the church. After a trip to Israel, I began researching the topic on my own. A kind church history professor at Northern Seminary allowed me to root around in academic sources for a term paper. I emailed a few scholars I knew. I asked lots of questions because I valued both the Hebrew festal and the Christian calendars, and knew both calendars framed time in terms of God’s salvation story. These calendars do not exist so we can pencil in days of celebration and sorrow alongside our oh-so-important schedules. Instead, each calendar demands we prioritize our lives according to their rhythms, because their rhythms represent God’s saving work in our lives and in the world.

Eventually, all of my questions became a book: Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith, published by NavPress and releasing September 1. Scot McKnight was very kind to give it some lovely words of endorsement, for which I’m grateful. I’m praying it’ll spark new conversations about discipleship in time among individuals, families, small groups and churches.

God tells us in Deuteronomy 6:7 we are to repeat and keep on repeating to our children the commands he has given us. This repetition was meant to take place within the structure of a family’s daily life and inside the context of an entire community participating in a weekly and yearly rhythm of feasts, fasts and festivals.

A religious calendar certainly doesn’t impart instant faithfulness to adherents. A cursory glance backward through history reminds us that the Chosen People had a calendar given them by God and still drifted into idolatry. The church developed her own calendar and has her own messy, chaotic, divisive history. Evangelicals and some from Mainline traditions moved away from religious calendars for a variety of reasons, but the civic calendars (punctuated with a few special event days) cut off those congregations of the richness of community-based discipleship.

I’d love to hear from you. What sort of calendar does your church use? How has this calendar formed your congregation’s identity? In what ways does it compete with (or complement) popular culture’s feasts and festivals?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.