Needless to say, I didn’t get much out of that Lent, spiritually speaking, and, from conversations I’ve had with peers and the youth I serve, the Lenten experience I’ve described is a common one among young Christians. For many youth, Lent is just a time to make a token sacrifice because everyone else is doing it. For others, it is an opportunity to showcase their piety or to try out a new lifestyle (e.g. giving up meat to see if becoming a vegetarian would be feasible). So the question becomes: how can we help our youth experience a full and meaningful Lent?
1. Fasting is silent and unobtrusive.
In Matthew, Jesus teaches us not to be obvious in our fasting (6:16-18). I realize that this may be asking a lot of our youth, especially in today’s culture where posting the minutiae of everyday life online is the norm, but we still need to cultivate and encourage adherence to Christ’s guidelines on fasting. Why? Because when we make a great noise about our sacrifice, we draw attention from its rightful recipient, God, to ourselves, and our fast becomes all about making sure people notice how stoic and pious we’re being, instead of allowing us to draw near to God. I believe the best ways to encourage our youth to fast quietly are by practicing it ourselves and by not asking them, or any Christian, what they’re “giving up for Lent.” It’s honestly not my business whether someone is fasting for Lent – that is between him/her and God. If people choose to share their fast with me for accountability reasons or simply because they feel like it, that’s fine, but this cultural practice of asking everyone and their dog what they’re giving up for Lent pressures people into shallow fasts undertaken for the wrong reasons.
2. Lent is not just about what we sacrifice.
Fasting creates space in our lives, so what we choose to fill that space with is just as important as the fast itself. If I decide to give up video games for Lent and then end up replacing them with movies, TV, or exercise, then what is the point of fasting from them in the first place? I believe the Lenten practice of self-denial is meant to enable us to recreate time for God through prayer and meditation on His Word. So, when discussing Lent with our youth, let’s challenge them to engage in daily Lenten devotions; even if it’s just ten minutes a day, that’s ten minutes they’re taking away from another activity and giving to God, which is sacrifice enough. We need to stress to them that Lent doesn’t demand grand gestures like fasting from all electronic activity, all recreational reading, or all sweets (unless one truly feels called to it) – a small, simple, and sincere fast is enough as long as we use it to make space for God.
I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to helping young Christians experience a meaningful Lent; these thoughts have come from my own yearly struggles to observe Lent meaningfully. In the end, it both discourages and comforts me to remember that a “successful” Lent depends on each individual’s heart, so we can only drag the youth we serve so far and the rest is up to them.