Ash Wednesday with Middle Schoolers

Our family of five have been meeting as our own little church for the last few months, mainly so our kids could start learning how to use their voices in church.  There hasn’t been a lot of space for youth and teens to bring their gifts and talents to a more traditional church context, and we wanted them to start learning how to do that now so that we’d all be better prepared for when other people who have been left out of church start showing up.  

Last night we celebrated Ash Wednesday with two other families with whom we’ve been in a small group with for the last four years.  It was the first time that we, as a family of five, have celebrated a church service with other people, and it was the first time that we celebrated a church service in our friend’s home.  

Look, I’ve had teenagers for several years now, and I’ve been a chaplain at Saint Paul’s Academy for a few years as well, and one thing that we can all count on is this:  When there is a tiny shift in the regular routine, most youth and teens will reflexively take it as an opportunity to reevaluate all the rules.  

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I was surprised by the behavior by our youth last night, and I don’t know why I forgot such an obvious thing.  We were in a new space, and we were celebrating church with new people, and the ashes were a new thing, and so the youth reflexively acted as youth naturally act.  While I still enjoyed the service last night, so much of my energy went to helping redirect youth behavior that was distracting, off-topic, and self-absorbed.  All the fidgeting, flopping, stretching, nose-blowing, talking, and no-you’re-not-free-to-do-what-you-want sort of things that are, well, normal for these folks.  

****SIDE NOTE***

I’m at my desk in Saint Paul’s Academy as I write this email.  Just fifteen seconds ago, a middle schooler walked by my office, bumped into the wall, and fell on the ground.  All by accident.  I’m telling you, the body control is a real thing for these youth.


And as I reflect on why I was surprised by this, something I come to realize is that I’ve never planned an Ash Wednesday service before, even though I’ve thought about it for years.  As I planned the service, it was easy for me to slip into what I wanted to do, what I thought was important, and not pay attention to the actual people who were coming and who they are and what is going on in their lives.  Despite all the experience I’ve got leading worship services with youth at Saint Paul’s, when I entered into planning a service for the first time, it was easy to slip into the training I received and the church culture I come from, which is often inhospitable to youth.  

Because you know what?  As an adult, I find worship services without youth voices to be easier to attend.  Like, I get it.  But that’s not the hospitality that Christ offers us, and it’s not the hospitality I want to offer the youth.  

Again, it was a great service, and I very much enjoyed being with my friends and celebrating Ash Wednesday together, and I love worshipping with the youth, even when it’s hard.