How -- and why -- one church organized its first 'corporate fast'

Earlier this year, Alfred Street Baptist Church encouraged people to participate in a churchwide fast called "Seek 2019." Image courtesy of Alfred Street Baptist Church

More than 4,000 members of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, committed to a new spiritual discipline earlier this year.

Their three-week fast grew out of a calling discerned by the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley. At a staff retreat last fall, he proposed a churchwide time of fasting and prayer that would show members “the power of the Spirit to control the flesh.”

Howard-John WesleyCorporate fasting was not a tradition at Alfred Street, but Wesley wanted to introduce his congregation to the ancient discipline. Members would be invited to give the money they saved through fasting to a special outreach offering.

The staff searched the calendar for a three-week period that would not conflict with holidays or some other food-related event. They picked January, a relatively slow time in the life of Alfred Street -- though life never truly slows at the church, where more than 70 full-time staff members serve some 8,000 congregants engaged in 75 ministries. In the church office, color-coded desk calendars try to bring order to the chaos of a busy, busy church.

The fast was not originally tied to Black History Month or the church’s annual HBCU festival in early February, though the timing proved serendipitous. Most of the money contributed at the end of the fast went to help college students at nearby Howard University pay off their debts.

But the reason for the fast wasn’t just to raise money. The new assistant minister who organized it, the Rev. Marc Lavarin, said that even before the post-fast offering, the senior pastor had been thinking that the church might hold a fast every year. The spiritual results alone would justify a new tradition.

“In retrospect, it was perfect -- leading up to the HBCU fair. It just makes so much sense now. But that’s not how it started,” Lavarin said with a deep-throated laugh. “It was a God-orchestrated thing.”

In an hourlong large group Bible study on Dec. 18, Wesley told members about the biblical and traditional foundations of fasting as a spiritual discipline. He discussed scriptures -- 1 Kings, Matthew 6, Acts 14. He quoted John Wesley, Richard Foster and A.W. Tozer. He discussed fasting practices in other world religions, such as daily fasting in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Wesley framed a fast as a weapon in the battle between Spirit and flesh. He urged participants not just to give something up but to replace the forgone habit with something spiritual. They should “subdue the flesh,” yes, but at the same time “strengthen the Spirit.” Together, the practices might help them discern God’s will.

“It’s not just about giving up something in the flesh,” Wesley said. “It’s also about doing the things in lieu of that that help my spirit get stronger, that draw me closer to the Lord, that put me on my knees, that throw me in my Bible, that make me practice what allows me to grow stronger in my walk.”

Lavarin said it was a new experience for many in the church.

“We encourage it for individuals, but we had never done a collective fast before. … We get a lot of people in here. You almost assume, ‘Oh, I guess everybody fasts. We’re all Christians in here.’ But no, we don’t.”

Indeed, of the more than 4,000 people who made a commitment, about 1,400 said they were fasting for the first time. The church laid out options for fasters, with several levels of difficulty in three categories: physical, social/technological and financial.

Hundreds tried the “Daniel fast,” an essentially vegan “diet from God” based on the Old Testament prophet. More than 2,000 participants abstained from sweets, caffeine and alcohol. A similar number gave up social media. Others refrained from frivolous spending, such as daily purchases from a coffee shop.

Da’Shaun Joseph, a 33-year-old who joined the church on Easter 2016, was among the first-time fasters.

“I’ll be honest -- I didn’t understand fully how it worked,” she said. “Is a company getting together and doing a fast? Like, why is it a ‘corporate’ fast?”

Joseph heard more about the fast through the church’s email blasts and posts on social media. She decided to give up alcohol, fried foods, social media and unnecessary spending. That led her to reduce time out with friends, which was a rewarding fast in its own way. She resisted the temptation of post-holiday discount offers that flooded her email inbox. She felt sustained by the daily videos and devotionals that Alfred Street shared in its app.

The church issued optional challenges for the final three days of the fast; Joseph gave up unnecessary noise and communication, turning off her TV and radio while keeping phone calls and text messages to a minimum. She suddenly lost her voice, as if God was confirming her choice.

“We don’t notice how noisy the world is until we shut it off,” she said. “We can’t hear God, because there’s just so much other stuff screaming at us. Sometimes we have to unplug just so we can hear.”

As a bubbly extrovert, Joseph found a lesson in her brief vow of silence: “In the past, I talked to God so much, but when did I ever shut up so he could talk back?”

That aligned with what Wesley, who sits on Duke Divinity School’s board of visitors, had hoped for his congregation.

“If prayer is talking to God,” he had said at that Bible study back in December, “then fasting is listening for the answer.”

Months later, reflecting on the three-week challenge, Joseph was thankful to have gained a new arrow in her spiritual quiver.

“I learned what I could live without,” she said in April. “I learned how to quiet the world, and I’m using it throughout my life. Right now, I’m doing another social media fast. … This isn’t just a one-and-done. Whenever you feel yourself pulling away, you’ve got the tools.”