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: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I said. “Um…okay.” James said, with a blank stare. I had to tell him that he could walk back to his seat now.
Do you have a James in your youth group? Grew up in a housing project; painfully introverted; shows up every single week without fail; no parental support; comes to every single retreat. James listened far more than he talked. He was friends with all the girls, but mostly a loner when it came to the boys who were his peers. He was taller than average, and got into fist fights at school if he heard about a boy taking advantage of one of his (girl) friends.
I asked James once about why he always came to church. He gave me two reasons:
-His uncle (legal guardian) made him.
-We talk about stuff that matters.
The Authentic Message
He’s right. The church traffics in things that matter: life, death, resurrection, joy.
As the culture spins its wheels in an attempt to connect “authentically” with Gen Z (or Generation We…or whatever we decide to call 12–20 year olds at the moment), the church is sitting with a story that starts with dust, and ends with resurrection. We’ve got the market share on authenticity. The dust—the dust keeps us honest.
And it’s good news for us if the generation we’re 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 (or filled up with them). 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 moved towards us—in ashes, in our baptisms, in the uncle who made us go to church.
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.
Abigail Visco Rusert is the Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry. Abigail has had the opportunity to work with youth on three continents and in six churches. Ordained in the PC (USA), she served most recently as the Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Abigail is a graduate of Valparaiso University (music/theology) and Princeton Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Thomas, live in Doylestown, Pennsylvania with their daughters, Dorothy and Solveig.