"Celebration Sunday" in Athens, Indiana is a special time. It is an opportunity to hear story after story and see men, women, and children transformed by the gospel of the Lord Jesus. It is a Sunday service dedicated entirely to celebrating what God has done in their lives and in the life of the church. I sat down with Aaron Lentz, Lead Pastor of Athens Church, to ask him about their celebration services and how it is that they've become such an integral part of their rhythm as a church.
Casey Smith: Athens Church holds a “Celebration Sunday.” What is that? And how does it work for you in your context?
Aaron Lentz: Yeah, so "Celebration Sunday" is really a service, it's kind of a special service that happens twice a year, once in Spring and once in the Fall. It's an opportunity for the whole church to gather together in the sanctuary. We don't have kids ministry that week. We bring everyone into the sanctuary, have all the families in there, and we simply celebrate and consider what the Lord has done in our church. From child dedications to membership vows, to baptisms, we just celebrate together. You're not going to hear the typical kind of 40-minute message that day, but you're going to hear and see the fruit of God's word displayed in our church through those celebration acts of baptism or membership vows or child dedication.
CS: Why did you guys settle into a Spring/Fall rhythm?
AL: It was really just a logistical reason borne from the fact that we're kind of a smaller church right now. We always want to celebrate baptisms, so we always want to make sure we have a baptism class leading up to the celebration service. So doing this twice in a year helps us on-ramp and point people to baptism, informing them and helping them walk in obedience.
CS: The reason I ask this question is because many may find themselves in a traditional church setting, where there might be one “celebration-type service” every 150 years. And yet here in Columbus, Indiana there’s this young church plant celebrating twice a year, just seems like an intriguing and formative practice to implement early on.
AL: No doubt. We try to celebrate as many ways as possible. This celebration service is one of those ways; but we've had church cookouts, family picnics after the celebration service, where we gather together in a park. We just look for any way possible to see God's hand on our church and celebrate the fact that he's working in us and through us. That’s why we do it twice a year, because those are the kinds of rhythms that happen in the Spring and Fall, but we'd love to really learn how to foster more opportunities for us to celebrate monthly, and then of course weekly and daily. In a lot of ways we're just trying things. We know we want the culture of our church to be celebratory, to celebrate the Lord and really enjoy the Lord and not look onto the next week or the next month or the next year, but really consider where the Lord is taking us and appreciate what the Lord has done in us.
It's so good for my heart, just to be reminded that the Lord is working, that he is moving, that he is building his church. But, man, it does something in our people's hearts when they're reminded that they're a part of something bigger than themselves and that God is working in them, that God is working through the people sitting next to them. There's just something that it does to our culture that simply doesn't happen in our typical Sunday morning service. You get to hear story after story, person's name after person's name, get up and testify to what God's doing in their lives, and I think that's just so relatable. I think that's so attractive and it sets a reminder to our church that if God can work in that person's life, then he can work in mine. That's what I love about it. The message preaches itself that Sunday.
CS: Even as you're describing it I'm getting excited thinking about what a Celebration Sunday might look like in my own context. Given that there are going to be lots of people that read this that don't have a church rhythm like this, what would you say to a church planter who might be saying, "How should we begin something similar?" The theme may be celebration, but how do you incorporate different members' gifts? You talked about testimonies. But how do you use your physical space? Are there any liturgical details involved that folks should consider?
AL: Let me just say that it is a lot crazier than your typical Sunday in regards to planning because it's outside your norm or regular liturgy. There's a lot more people involved. We probably had over 50 people on stage during our most recent celebration service, so it does take a lot more logistics and a lot more communication, but to zoom out for a second, I think you start by just considering the evidences of God's grace in your church, and then you ask people to consider the evidences of God's grace in their lives. Then you just begin to gather stories, the evidences of his grace, and then you begin to ask the question, how could this be shared? How could this be shared with the body in a way that would edify and encourage, in a way that would remind them of how good the Lord really is? We want to bring hope to any kind of situation that someone might be going through, so we try to share those things.
We’re a young church, so we said, "Hey, we want to celebrate child dedication." There's a lot of new families, babies are being born all the time and so we want to celebrate that. We don't want to miss that. We don't want it to be your typical, perfunctory child dedication service. When those children are coming up, we're not just going to say, "Oh great, there's new babies!" We're begging the Lord to save these kids one day. The parents are there committing, publicly, before the congregation that they're going to disciple their children through the word of God. They're going to point them to Jesus. They're going to model what a follower of Christ looks like. And so we want to celebrate that commitment. It's a big proclamation kind of act that they're doing.
The same is true with membership vows. Those are people who've been through the membership process, been to the class, who've had the member interview and have been affirmed as a committed member. Now they're coming before the congregation to publicly declare that they are a part of this body and they're going to walk towards Jesus with others who are walking towards Jesus, submitting themselves underneath the word of God here at Athens Church. You think about how great a wedding is, and what that means, that you're publicly declaring before everyone there attending that these two belong to one another. Well, that's exactly kind of what we're doing with child dedication and membership vows and baptisms.
This is the beautiful picture we’re trying to communicate with these celebration services. Every Sunday we're going to hear the word of God. We're going to see the goodness of God. We're going to consider his glory, his beauty. But then we’ve got these specific celebration services that are saying, “Look at the results of all that’s gone on before now! Look at the evidence of God’s goodness and beauty.”
CS: Do you think there is an aversion to expressing joy together in our culture? It seems weird to phrase it that way, but this “celebration rhythm” isn't present in a lot of people’s lives. Given who we are as God’s redeemed people, celebrating like this as a church shouldn’t seem foreign, but I have a feeling it does for a lot of us. How have you seen the celebration services work their way into the fabric of how Athens Church does life throughout the week?
AL: Yeah, that's a great question. One of the first things that comes to my mind is this: I think it removes doubts in people's mind. Our default mode is to doubt, to question. Is God really good? Can I trust him? Those kind of questions we’ve been asking since the Garden are the same kind of questions we deal with today. But then when we consider God’s grace, when we consider the evidences of his grace, where we consider his faithfulness, I think it encourages us. I think it reminds us to trust him, to run to his word, to come to him in prayer, to take every request we have before him. I think it shows us that God is so much bigger and so much closer than what we so often think, or perhaps have realized before.
I need that in my own life, because it's so easy to get discouraged and wonder, "Man, okay so what? People are coming to this church, showing up and all, but is God really doing anything? Are these people hearing what I have to say each week when I open up the word of God? Is anything going on in their hearts?” But in these celebration services we really get to see evidence of what's going on in people's hearts. I hear people within our church, just so encouraged and so thankful for what God is doing in other people's lives. It actually helps them connect with each other more, personally, more intimately, relationally, knowing where God has brought them from and where God has them now, because what you find out is so many people share similar stories or come from broken families or have the same doubts concerning religion or whatever it might be. There's just so much authenticity. It is refreshing.
CS: I love this. It reminds me of Paul's letter to the church in Philippi. He's pounding it into them, "Joy, joy, joy in the Lord!" And he gets to the end and says, "Rejoice in the Lord always. And again, I say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all.” Then he says, "The Lord is near." Combining celebration with this concept of gospel joy together is a reminder that the Lord is near. It’s no accident that right prior to when he says all this, he's giving them a case study of Euodia and Syntyche, who are church members at odds with one another. I think that goes hand in hand with what you're saying. When we celebrate together, those who were at odds with each other, or have a natural, sinful inclination to be at odds with one another, when we rejoice together, when we come together to celebrate, our gentleness finds an expression and we're reminded that the Lord is near. Celebrating this that draws a church together in a way that only the gospel can do.
AL: That's right. It is so helpful to be reminded that the Lord is near. That alone is a reason for celebration and to rejoice in the Lord always!