Supporting youth in their Lenten practices

The pancakes have been gobbled up and the ashes have been marked on our heads. Now what? Welcome to Lent.

Our youth love church traditions and celebrations. Pancakes and ashes, they love and understand. But 40 days of Lent – giving stuff up – is a lot less tangible for many of our kids. 

Often what we do is ask our kids to sacrifice an item, or some time, or to take on something: trying something new or helping other. It is a great way for them to learn about and spiritual disciplines: prayer, meditation, etc. But how can we support them in this?

A few years ago, about halfway through Lent, I checked in with the youth to see how their Lenten practices were going. For many it was hit or miss. Some had stopped after the first week. All were feeling guilty that they did not keep their Lenten practice.  We talked about it and they came up with a few suggestions that might help them next year.

Here are a few of the ideas they came up with:

  • Be realistic. Don’t commit to Lenten vows or practices that were unrealistic in their lives. One way to do this would be to make it more like Advent with the focus on one day a week as a reminder for the coming week. Another is to
  • Be specific. Not just “I’m going to pray every day” but “I’m going to pray for 5 minutes in the morning on my way to school by thinking about the people in the houses I pass.” Plan in advance what the Lenten practice would look like.  
  • Partner up with one or two other friends to practice their vows together.
  • Share with a partner what their next week would look like as they added to or changed their Lenten spiritual discipline.
  • Find ways to communicate with the group. Share a short video or Facebook Live with the group each week about how it is going for them that week. Not just the Lenten part but all the good and bad. Or the leader could send out a weekly group text to them. Then all could make a comment or ask a question.
  • Create a group Lenten practice. Then each youth would sign up for a few days out of the 40 days to take on the Lenten practice (the leader reminding them of course).
  • Make it a contest (though I told them it was not a fundraiser to see who sells the most). 

I saw a theme with their ideas: community. For most of their lives, youth have others around them as they do anything: parents, friends, teachers, and clergy. A few youth shared that "Forty days of Lent seems like homework: one more item to do on my never-ending list of to-dos." Homework is also something you get sent off to do by yourself. So no wonder a Lenten discipline can feel like homework if you’re sent off to do it by yourself. When ideas are shared, the mutual support and doing it together makes it fun and real to them. 

Last year, the youth decided to try the group Lenten practice. They chose to say hi to someone new who was part of their school.  This may seem like a simple practice that many of adults do each day but for teens this is a huge deal. Each youth took responsibility for a few of the days. Many were nervous about meeting new people and having to talk to them.

I sent out a weekly text at their request. They shared experiences and responded to the text with ideas on how to be successful. At our in-person meeting just before Holy Week, many were excited and laughing about all the people they talked to. Notice: talked to not just said Hi too! "When I said hi to someone I did not know, some kids just looked at me like ‘why are you talking to me?’ But many more said hi back and then it just seemed ok to ask a question and start a real conversation."  The youth shared that their conversation or saying hi in the hall was not a one-time thing. The person they said hi to first would then be the one to say hi first the second time they saw each other. At church one day, two of our kids went up during coffee hour and introduced themselves to a member of the parish too.  A few of the youth who said they were to shy or scared told them they would not do it all. I was ok with their honesty. I also know that all the shy kids did try it at least once. We were all so proud of them too.

The youth were finding their voice and using it.  They helped others find their voice. They reached out and built community. As they learned and practiced, Lent was not about giving up candy or ice cream (which almost impossible for teens), but a positive practice of trying something new and keeping it going throughout Lent. They were so proud that they had not given up, that they were sharing the love of God without having to talk about God.

I would love to have you share some of your traditions or ideas about Lent.