Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a season when Christians prepare for Easter by fasting, practicing moderation, focusing on spiritual disciplines, and engaging in the act of repentance. Add in another church service while rubbing a big cross onto their forehead, sounds perfect for students right?
All kidding aside, the message and practices of Ash Wednesday might seem like a record scratch for some teenagers. You can see it in their faces: “So eventually we're all going to die, and I can't eat chocolate for how long?!”
The natural impulse is to make the message of Ash Wednesday easier. To minimize the implications of what it means to "repent and believe the gospel."
But how do we introduce Ash Wednesday (and Lent) to teenagers who already know that Easter is coming? How do we encourage spiritual disciplines? How do we make the message of Ash Wednesday vital and important in the lives of our teenagers?
Encourage students to notice how the church changes
One way to introduce Ash Wednesday to students is to ask them what changes they notice in the sanctuary and the rest of the church. Are we singing different music? Have the liturgical colors changed? What about the lectionary readings? The content of the sermons?
Some students will be attuned to the rhythms of the church calendar. For others, it will either be completely new or will answer a question they've been afraid to ask. As we enter into a time of reflection, transformation, and change, so does the church.
Encourage students to embrace spiritual practices
Most students will have at least an awareness of Ash Wednesday. They'll know about the imposition of ashes. Many will have regular spiritual practices too. Ash Wednesday serves as an opportunity to encourage students to commit to some sort of spiritual practice, familiar or not.
Traditionally, the spiritual practices of Lent include acts such as alms-giving, fasting, abstinence from certain activities, and prayer. However, this isn't an exhaustive list.
Challenge students to consider a spiritual practice that will help them embrace Ash Wednesday in a way that's meaningful to them. If that means limiting video games to two hours a day, great! It's important for students to own their spiritual practices – and it's important for adults to support those decisions.
(Of course, no spiritual practice should harm students physically, emotionally, or theologically. Engaging in spiritual practices are meant to connect us to the sacrifice and withdrawal of Jesus – not to put us in jeopardy.)
Encourage students to take it seriously
This could be the mantra of all youth ministry, right? Of course, you want students to take their spiritual life seriously, but sometimes it can feel like walking uphill in six feet of snow. Without shoes.
There's a tricky balance here. On the one hand, we want students to choose a spiritual practice that speaks to them. On the other, having a student suggest that they'll "drink more soda" as a part of their spiritual practice is... a stretch.
Encouraging students doesn't mean you can't also challenge them. A good way to do this is to ask the simple question: "Why?" Why are they choosing to take on this particular activity? What does their life look like if they abstain from that activity?
This engagement, as always, is the work of youth ministry. On Ash Wednesday (and during Lent), youth workers have the opportunity to check in with students about their spiritual practices, affirm good work, and remind them that we are not after perfection, but devotion.
As we journey into Lent, join Sparkhouse on Facebook for Monday devotions and scripture to help you (and your youth) engage in Lent.