Lent ideas for your youth ministry

Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Feb 24, 2017

Photo by Priscilla

This year in our youth ministry, we’ve been inviting students to notice more. Notice the ant crawling through the grass. Notice the way we spend our time when it’s up to us. Notice the kid who ends up as the punch line of everyone’s jokes.

Above it all, we’re inviting them to notice God—the way God is actively at work in and around us each day, the way God speaks through Scripture and through our community, the whispers in the silence, and the shouts from the dramatic sunset. It turns out that paying attention can make all the difference.

In the midst of all that noticing, we’re inviting them into practices of faith. These practices, or disciplines, shape us largely because they open up space in our lives to notice—and make meaning of—God with us. The more we practice, the more we form patterns and rhythms in our lives that in turn allow the Holy Spirit to do the work of transformation. So when we pray, we become more aware of God and what God is doing. When we forgive someone, we notice that God is at work forgiving us too.

Over the past decade of studying what helps young people develop faith that lasts at the Fuller Youth Institute, we’ve learned that regular faith practices are indeed important. Yet often teenagers aren’t sure how to nurture their own spiritual growth. FYI’s research has indicated that only about half of graduating youth group seniors pray once a day or read the Bible once a week. Beyond prayer and engaging Scripture, teenagers also don’t seem to have experience with a host of other faith practices that could make a difference in their day-to-day lives.

The key is helping teenagers notice. Submerged in a world of distraction, there are more reasons than ever that young people find it difficult to practice disciplines that might have been important to our own growth. We might end up frustrated, cynical, or find ourselves resorting to shame-based tactics that end up leading young people to seek God’s—and our—approval through their practices. That kind of motivation misses the point altogether.

Utilize Lent as a way to notice God in community

This week marks the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday. You may or may not be used to practicing Lent as a congregation or a youth ministry, but this rich church tradition gives us some incredible leveraging points for deeper discipleship.

And it’s about so much more than giving up chocolate.

Because Lent is a set 40-day period in the church calendar leading up to Easter and is practiced across various traditions, you might want to harness Lent as an opportunity to engage students in new practices. 

Fasting is traditionally associated with Lent, but we may need to reframe fasting. I like to think of it as a practice of both “subtracting” and “adding.” In other words, fasting isn’t just about subtracting for the sake of subtraction. We subtract something so that we—or perhaps God—can add something new. What happens in the void left by whatever we choose to “give up” or abstain from? If we give up an hour of video games, what do we do with those extra 60 minutes? If we give up lattes, what do we do with that money?

Maybe it’s adding silence and stillness to a life full of noise and movement. 

Maybe we add prayer when we’re usually silent toward God. 

Maybe God adds passion for serving the poor where we’re usually pretty self-absorbed. 

Subtract and add. Notice more.

Utilize Lent to introduce new prayer practices

As youth ministry leaders, we all want to encourage students to pray. But when it comes to actually teaching them to pray, we might find it hard to guide young people in practices that aren’t awkward at first or don’t involve a lot of talking (usually by the extroverts).

When we were developing the Faith in an Anxious World high school curriculum, we talked with mental health experts about some of the best practices to teach teenagers how to manage their stress and anxiety. Aaron Rosales, the psychologist who most helped us shape the content, emphasized that ministry leaders need to think not only about response and prevention, but also about the promotion of positive mental health habits.

Mental health experts like Aaron recommend regular reflection—like practices of mindfulness—as a productive way for most people to manage normal levels of anxiety and promote mental health. That’s why Faith in an Anxious World offers you pointers to teach young people an ancient prayer practice. The Daily Replay is based on the Ignatian Prayer of Examen and adapted for teenagers today. The Examen is a helpful tool from our faith tradition that roots mindfulness in prayer.

Our 3-minute Daily Replay video walks young people through 5 simple reflection steps. Share it with young people in your ministry as you teach them this practical way to pray.

Find more instructions for leading the Daily Replay prayer with groups of students here.

Resources for inviting teenagers into practices of Lent

Following our Sticky Faith research, we took a year to explore the disciplines that best connect teenagers with God and nurture lasting faith, in particular those that help integrate faith practices with all of life. Out of that exploration we created a spiritual practice resource as an entry point for youth workers to invite students to create new, or deeper, faith rhythms. We call it Sticky Faith Every Day, and it’s available as a free download from our website. It’s an 8-week curriculum, but can be adapted however you’d like to fit your ministry. Several of the themes correspond well to themes of Lent, including a week focused toward the death of Jesus and a week focused on his resurrection.

We have also pulled out a brief “Introduction to Lent” download you can use in your ministry whether or not you’re utilizing the rest of the curriculum. It’s designed as a take-home resource you can share with students to explain Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the idea of fasting as adding and subtracting.

Whatever else you do—or don’t do—this season, invite students to see it all as an opportunity to notice God more.

Sticky Faith Every Day

Want the Sticky Faith Every Day 8-Week Curriculum for FREE?

After submitting the form, you will be redirected to a page where you can download your free resource.


Additional resources for Lent

Communal ashes: Finding God in our lament this Lenten season

Lent's invitation to parents

I doubt it: Making space for hard questions

Teaching young people a daily way to pray

Holy Week reflections on loss

*Post updated February 2022.

Amazon Affiliate links are included in this blog post. FYI earns from qualifying orders placed through links in this post.

Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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