Why We Observe Ash Wednesday

A few weeks ago I was asked to participate in an interview about Independent Christian Churches who observe Ash Wednesday and Lent. The facilitator, Laura Hicks Hardy of Emmanuel Christian Seminary (Johnson City, TN), asked some great questions of each of us, portions of which were quoted in her subsequent article here. I have posted the full, unedited conversation below.

How long has your church been holding Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent? 

Since 2012, I think. This will be our tenth year coming up.

Why did you decide to do this? 

We decided the year before that we would follow the church calendar and its seasons, and also hold services to mark these special days. We took our cue from other liturgical churches on these services, and did what we could to honor the traditions within our own parish community. 

What is the value of observing this season for your congregation? 

Well, this is a hard question! Each year seems to have its own set of cultural and spiritual variables, all of which can inform and give shape to Lent. As a general rule, Lent is in place to help the church remember its own humanness, and its reluctant grounding in its own brokenness. We are not as untouchable by suffering and death as we often imagine ourselves to be, but we are, instead, participants in this deadly mystery we call life. As Jim Morrison of The Doors sang, “No one here gets out alive.” When we brush the ashes across the heads of our people, they hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a somber beginning. This is the meaning behind the forty-days that mark the season. In the Biblical story, that number is often found in stories of hard experiences and difficult transitions. In these forty-day trials, we are able to be honest with ourselves, about ourselves. At least that’s the hope. The point here is to remain grounded in our own humanness and all the conditions therein, and Lent is a tool for doing so. 

Lent is also a time for the church to consider quite deeply the possibilities Christ brings to us, and how “other” and alternative these possibilities are. The season invites us to re-engage with God’s grace and forgiveness as we follow Jesus to his death, burial, and resurrection. One outcome would be that we might rediscover God’s love and mercy over us as we struggle along the Lenten road, with all its fasts and services and other things that are (really) in place as tripwires in the season, there to remind us that we often fail and fall. Because Lent is often built around these rituals of fasting from things (or adding to, as some traditions go), I would say that Lent has become for us a season to remember that our human efforts at righteousness are not really successful. We have a saying around here that goes: “No one wins Lent. Losing is perhaps the point.” 

Lent’s value tends to take on different meanings in connection to the very real-world experiences that are happening in the lives of our people. During the deepest days of COVID – which began during Lent 2020 – the leap from the joys of Epiphany to the sufferings of Lent was not hard. So I would say that Lent comes with a built-in malleability, able to speak and give shape to whatever the cultural state is at that time.  

What was the process of incorporating this into your congregation life like? 

This is actually a funny thing for us. When we moved to the church calendar, we never told our people. We just did it. As a staff, we had been struggling through ministry paradigm meetings for years, wondering whether the sermon series model was best for congregational formation, etc. Along the way we each picked up the habit of reading and praying the Daily Office, but just on our own. We all had the Book of Common Prayer hidden away somewhere. We were studying and processing. When we finally decided to place our church into the currents of the calendar and its seasons, only our staff and elders knew. We wanted a year to test it out and see how things went, and also to see if anyone even noticed. But when it came to things like Ash Wednesday services, we had to show our cards a little during that first year. I’m sure I said something like, “We’re going to join other traditions this year and hold an Ash Wednesday service to help us kick off Lent.” So, to answer your question, we kind of slipped it in on people. (I don’t recommend this method anymore, by the way!)

How do you structure your Ash Wednesday services, and where do you find your resources for Lent? 

We follow the order of service in the Book Of Common Prayer.

Can you briefly walk me through what each Sunday in Lent looks like for your church (how you build on themes from Ash Wednesday and previous weeks, how you prepare for Easter)?

Yes, for sure! For starters, the weekly themes are inspired primarily by the Gospel readings for each Sunday. In our planning process, that’s where we always begin; we always look at those and listen to what the texts are saying, and we allow those stories to shape our services and sermons. We also use the weekly Collects to help us along in our thematic planning – these prayers are great summaries of what each Sunday is focused on, and so we use those quite a bit when we’re piecing together our services. 

Here are the themes we’ve found for this coming Lent: 

Ash Wednesday We are human, with all its limitations and struggles. 

First Sunday of Lent – This first Sunday is tied to Ash Wednesday’s focus, that we are often surprised at how human we truly are, especially when we are up against “temptations” that can draw us too far inward. The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent is always the wilderness story with Jesus, and how he succeeds where the rest of us experience failure. (We also get to see that Jesus participated in the human story, and this is a nice theme, too.) 

Second Sunday of Lent – In this week’s reading (Luke 13:31-35) we find Jesus lamenting a world that exists on its own and without the knowledge of God and his ways in the world. This one is a hard week to preach, as the tendency would be to pile on more law than grace, so we have to be careful in how this one comes across. 

Third Sunday of Lent – This one (Luke 13:1-9) has an Advent feel with its themes of staying awake and remaining conscious of your life in a world that is often marred in tragedy and suffering. Like in Advent, repentance makes an appearance here, and that’s worth talking about. (The Collect for this week is my favorite in the season: “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil though which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”) 

Fourth Sunday of Lent – The fourth week is always a reprieve from all the darkness, and we get a glimpse of the grace of God over us. The story for this Sunday is the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), marked with the theme of “coming home.” 

Fifth Sunday of Lent – The Lectionary shifts from Luke to John on this Sunday, taking us into the house of Mary and Martha where Jesus is anointed – and then rebuked – before his death. The story is cryptic, with Jesus saying, “but you do not always have me.” Even though we know where Lent is headed, we are now getting a clearer view of that image. 

Palm Sunday: The Sixth Sunday of Lent – Triumphal Entry is this week’s focus, and truly the beginning of Holy Week, the season within the season.

What have you found to be some of the most interesting or surprising things that have come out of this practice? 

How much pastoral counseling you end up doing during Lent! The season opens itself to such discussions of struggle, fear, shame, and so on, and so we tend to prepare for that as we enter the season. I would also say that Easter Sunday (and its full season) is appreciated more due to the groundwork of Lent. This seems small, but years ago we adopted the tradition of never singing a worship song during Lent that has the word hallelujah in it, saving that for the opening song on Easter morning. Pretty powerful, if you’re paying attention. 

Lastly, can you share a few words on the value of following the church calendar for your congregation? What are some of the other liturgical seasons you observe, and how have they enriched your congregational life, worship, and practice?

It has allowed us to extend our Christian life to other types of churches, and to develop a liturgical fluency with our neighbors in other traditions. I know that the Stone-Campbell movement has many facets and layers, but I have found that in adopting these more traditional church practices we have actually widened our reach and relationships with churches unlike us. It has also given a better and more healthy shape to our spiritual formation process. This is actually one of the primary reasons we went to the church calendar: we needed and desired a better system and structure for congregational formation. And with the three-year cycle of the Lectionary, it never gets old! 

We observe all the seasons on the church calendar, along with the following special days and services: Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, All Saints Day, and Christmas Eve (Nativity Of Our Lord).

Top 5 Mistakes I Made In Youth Ministry

For 13 years I worked as a youth pastor in the local church. That’s 13 graduations. It was more than enough time to have learned all sorts of things about youth ministry, and about myself. When I look back on those years, my memories are mostly positive. But there are also memories of things I wish I had done differently, memories around mistakes I made. Here are my top five:

One: Confusing Involvement With Faith Trajectory

I think we all make this mistake, the tricky allure of attendance patterns among students. In its most simplest form, it goes like this: if a student is really involved in my programming, they will continue to be involved in the life of the church and faith following graduation. This is, of course, not always true. Attendance patterns have more to do with parental involvement than anything else. Yes, there are the outliers who drive themselves to youth group every week without any support from their parents, but this is not the norm. Show me a youth group of 50 kids and I’ll show you the parents who encourage their involvement. There are also parents who force their kids to attend, and these students are even less likely to stick around once they are on their own. Just because a student is there every time the doors are open doesn’t always mean that church is in their future. I saw the opposite happen quite often, where kids who were almost never around went on to really develop their faith and involvement in a church well after graduation.

Application: Try your best not to read the attendance trends as indicators of faith maturity. They really aren’t. And I recognize that in many churches this can be a hard stance to take, as leadership may want to see a better sense of consistency among students within the youth group. But it’s really out of your hands. It’s more important to allow students to come and go as they please, and to maintain a culture of acceptance in which there is never a tone of insider versus outsider based on attendance. Every student, regardless of involvement, needs a chair at the table. I wish I had practiced this more.

Two: Misreading Growth As A Sign Of Health

Somewhat related to the first, this second mistake involves the misread of growth as an indicator of health. It’s not uncommon for pastors of all types to make the connection between church health and numerical growth. The belief that God is “working” because there is numerical momentum is not always the case, and youth pastors should be cautious to frequently draw that conclusion. In most youth groups there are stretches of growth and decline, and both are not indicators of either God’s presence or absence. But again, I recognize that this perspective can stand at odds with a leadership that not only desires growth, but one that connects it to overall health. But it’s important to understand this dynamic of ministry and to seek out a wiser perspective. I remember Doug Fields (Saddleback Church Youth Pastor) addressing this very issue, saying, “You don’t talk about your family in this way. ‘How’s your family?’ ‘Oh they’re good, there are 6 of us.'” I’ll never forget that story. It saved me from this never-ending pursuit of something larger and greater, but I didn’t realize it until I was almost done with my career in youth ministry.

Application: The health of a youth group is measured by more metrics than just growth, so it’s crucial to know what those are. I would also recommend seeing growth as an unexpected grace instead of the result of your levels of leadership and spirituality. So much of this is not in your hands. And keep your eyes on percentages as well. Youth group numbers tends to fall within a percentage of the overall the church family (it was around 10% when I was in the role). The pursuit of numbers can also edge out your touch with students who already are within your care, many of whom need attention and help and love. And if you’re focused too much on the next level of growth, people start to get lost.

Three: Neglecting To Build More Space For Doubt

This one was surprising to me as I am someone who approaches faith from the place of doubt. I come at the Bible with questions. I’ve been this way for most of my faith experience. And yet, when I look back on my leadership as a youth pastor, I did not build enough space for the doubts that many students carried into the building. I didn’t shut doubts down, necessarily, I just rarely gave them the attention and the grace they needed. One of the pitfalls I’ve seen is when youth pastors take questions of doubt in a youth group setting and then set out to answer them. It’s not that trying to answer any and all doubts is bad, it’s not; the greater danger is in how many of us were afraid to say, “I don’t really know” to some of the questions. Apologetics as a practice can be somewhat creepy because it gives the impression of a faith without cracks, which isn’t possible. We struggle to be honest with students regarding our own doubts (or simply things that we just don’t know) and we end up accidentally constructing a culture of certainty. And in a culture of certainty, the questions will soon disappear because they learn they are not always welcome.

Application: Learn to leave room for questions. I would recommend learning how to leave lessons open-ended. Allow students to leave with more confusion than certainty, giving them the freedom to wrestle with these things on their own. This seems obvious, but I also recommend learning to hear their questions and doubts with grace. Also, be willing to say, “I don’t really know, and to be honest with you, the long history of Christian tradition has struggled with this question, too.” Perhaps host regular forums for questions and discussion. And in those settings, resist the need to always provide a precise answer, especially when none exists. And remember this: the resurrection announcement from the women disciples to the men was not received with faith, but with doubt; it was confusion that caused the men to run to the tomb, not certainty. Let the kids run.

Four: Trying To Build A Church Within A Church

This one is so easy to do because the youth group does function like a small congregation. There are classes, small groups, worship settings, retreats, and so on. Structurally, it can live as a church within a church. But it is crucial for the youth pastor to be hyper-aware of the implications of such a model. The obvious risks are separation and otherness. If the youth pastor is unaware, the group will drift into its own world and cease to be connected to the larger body in any meaningful way. I ended up in this place many times. When I pastored a larger youth group, it was easy for me to build a mini-church of my own: we had a student band, lots of small groups, our own missions programs, worship settings where I “preached”, and so on. Many times I failed to remember the importance of generational fusion as an ecclesial value. While I saw (and still see) the benefits of students having their own settings to work out their faith, I missed some opportunities to integrate students into the larger church.

Application: Find ways to get students involved beyond youth group. Trim back some of your programming in order to make room for more integration. When you think of serving environments for your students, include the overall church in those plans. Work it out so that students can be greeters, band members, nursery and kids workers. Can the sound guy train a tech-inclined student to run the board? Of course they can! All of this requires intention. Sit down with your team and ask the question: “How do we keep from becoming isolated from the rest of the church?”

Five: Taking Graduation Too Seriously

A mistake all youth pastors make is believing that they must lead students through a checklist of spiritual milestones before graduation. They are convinced that a student’s future in faith is dependent upon a set of spiritual objectives and goals that exist within a ministry system. I found myself making this mistake often. My programming reflected it. We tried to build certain tracks that students would take over the course of their time with us, ensuring that by graduation they would be “ready” for life beyond youth group. What I learned, however, was much different. There really isn’t any way of knowing what a student’s faith looks like after graduation, and worrying about how a ministry system takes students to that point may not be as important as we think. We all know that faith takes many turns in a person’s lifetime, and faith is rarely a straight line for anyone. Discipleship moves forward, backwards, and sideways. Some students walk away from it altogether. Putting all of our programming hopes on where a student might be come graduation is a weight we don’t need to carry.

Application: Hang a picture of yourself in your office from when you were 18 years old. Remember how in-process you were then, and how much you still had to learn. Chart all the changes in your faith since high school. Remember your own evolutions along the way. Remind your volunteer teams of their own faith process and how no one is ever really finished with this. It takes a lifetime to be a disciple. Stay away from language about college being a testing ground and how your students could lose their faith if they don’t get serious about it while they’re still in high school. While it is true that many students experience this shift in college, it isn’t our job to scare them with such a prospect. And more importantly, who are we to say that such a time isn’t beneficial to a faith in the long run? If there is anything you want your students to remember upon leaving high school, it is this: they are loved, they are never discounted, and there is always room at Jesus’ table.

What are some of yours?