I am not a fan of cheesy church signs, but I did laugh out loud when I drove past a tiny Lutheran church one Ash Wednesday and the sign read, “Get Your Ash in Here.” I have my doubts about that sign’s ability to get people in the door, but I appreciate the pun.
The first time I marked a teenager’s head with ashes, I got a confused look and an awkward response. I said the thing all pastors are supposed to say on this day (“You are dust, and to dust you shall return”), and in return, I received a blank stare from James as he mumbled, “um…okay?” I had to tell him that he could walk back to his seat now.
Do you have a James in your church? My James grew up in a housing project, is painfully introverted, shows up every single week without fail, has no parental support, and comes to every single retreat. James listened far more than he talked. He was friends with all the girls but was mostly a loner when it came to the boys who were his peers. He was taller than average, and he got into fist fights at school if he heard about a boy taking advantage of one of his (girl) friends.
I asked James once why he always came to church. He gave me two reasons: (1) his uncle makes him and (2) because we talk about stuff that matters.
He’s right. The Church operates around things that matter—life, death, resurrection, joy. And that should feel very “on-brand” for the way Gen Z lives in the world.
As the culture spins its wheels in its attempt to connect authentically with young people (whether it’s Gen Z or Millennials…we’ll always be trying to get those Millennials in the door), we are sitting with a story that starts with us staring our humanity—dust and all—squarely in the face. Our story welcomes things like confession, forgiveness, death, and transformation to the table. Our story of covenant community is the most authentic story there is. Perhaps the innovation our ministry programming needs is one that points us back to the center of our scriptures and to the dirty, dusty human efforts we discover there that are claimed for God’s good work.
It is good news for us if the generation we are called to serve is a generation hungry for authenticity. What is more authentic than the project of patterning our lives after the One who laid down his life for his friends? What is more authentic than a God who walks with us in the wilderness and moves us from death to life, from dust to joy?
You may be running out of kids like James who get their ash inside of your church walls. But is your wider community filled with kids like him? However quirky you’re trying to make your church signs—however hard you’re spinning your wheels to gain traction with this generation—remember that you do not need to compete in the cultural arena of authenticity. The most authentic story of all time has always belonged to us. And it starts with a God who first moves toward us—in ashes, in baptisms, in all the times and places we’ve talked with teenagers about things that matter.
As we enter the Lenten season, may you embrace authenticity and tell a story worth telling. James, and others like him, are counting on it.
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Abigail is the Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, and an ordained PC (USA) pastor of the Philadelphia Presbytery. She has had the opportunity to work with youth on three continents and in six churches, and served most recently as the Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Abigail is a graduate of Valparaiso University (B.A. in Music and Theology) and Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div). She and her husband Thomas live in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where Thomas serves as a co-pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Abigail and Thomas have two daughters, Dorothy and Solveig.