Top 5 Reasons Ashes2Go is a Really Bad Idea

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Ashes2Go is an initiative begun a few years ago, largely among Episcopal churches, though some Lutheran, Presbyterians, United Methodists and others whose denominations observe Ash Wednesday have joined the bandwagon as well.

The idea is to station pastors (usually) at strategic outdoor places with a supply of ashes to offer to passersby who may not, for whatever reason, get to an Ash Wednesday service that day. Usually there is some brief interaction of confession, prayer, and then imposition of ashes and perhaps a word of pardon. Exactly what happens can vary widely.

I don't typically use this forum to argue against a practice, but I'm making an exception in this case. My title is not intended as clickbait. I believe those who engage in this practice and promote it mean well. I do not in any way wish to impugn their motives, sincerity, or the quality of their Christian or pastoral commitment.

At the same time, I genuinely see Ashes2Go (or whatever it might be called where you are) as a really bad idea.

Here are my top 5 reasons for concluding that.

  1. It focuses on the wrong thing.
    Ash Wednesday, despite its name, isn't about ashes, though the rite of the gathered community that day most often includes them. It's about gathering as a community of the baptized and seekers to acknowledge our mortality and seek God's mercy, pardon and cleansing power for our sin.
  2. It replaces one part for the whole.
    The imposition of the ashes in the service of Ash Wednesday is only one part of the whole of the service of the gathered community, which is a complete service of Word and Table. We enter, we hear the Word of God proclaimed, we are invited to take on the whole of the disciplines of Lent as a community and as individual members of it, we receive ashes as a sign of our mortality and penitence, we hear the word of pardon, we offer one another the peace of Christ, we celebrate at the Lord's table, and we are sent forth to live what we have pledged and prayed.
  3. Administering the ashes on the street may feel "meaningful," but it is not what the church seeks to do on Ash Wednesday.
    People who receive ashes "randomly" through Ashes2Go, as well as those who impose the ashes, may find these actions personally "meaningful" in some way. But feeling something to be meaningful is not the same thing as participating in what the church seeks to do on Ash Wednesday. We gather together to start our Lenten journey together. From the earliest days, as the introduction to Ash Wednesday reminds, that journey is one in which the baptized accompany those preparing for baptism and those who had become estranged from the way of Christ and from the Christian community in the final days of their preparation to receive baptism (at Easter) or be restored to full fellowship in the life of the Christian community through reconciliation (typically at Maundy Thursday).
  4. It means well, but performs poorly.
    Appeals for doing Ashes2Go typically involve calling the church to offer itself in ministry "outside its walls." That's a fine and admirable thing. Surely, we should be in ministry outside the walls of our worship spaces. The problem is the notion that offering ashes to random passersby who may or may not be part of a gathered community that day is a concrete and unambiguous way of sharing grace with all.Ashes2Go may indeed get a few people "outside the walls" (mostly pastors). But that second part-- that the typical passerby would read the offering of ashes as a sign of grace, much less something they'd want-- may be more than a bit of a stretch these days. And worse, by offering ashes and "on the spot" individualized acts of pardon, we might (if unintentionally) be sending and reinforcing a message that says you don't really need to be part of a gathered community to receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday. You can get them when and where it's convenient for you, and you don't need to be part of a gathered community ritual to do it. After all, religious goods and services should be available when, where and as we wish to consume them, right?Is that a message we want to send, really?
  5. Any of these, and any number of others you might think of, are MUCH better ideas for outdoor outreach on Ash Wednesday.
    If we really want to embody ministry "outside the walls" and do so in ways many of us can participate in (not just pastors), here are a nearly a half dozen ideas that, to me, at least, send that signal in an unambiguous, compassionate, and maybe even fun way:
    1. Set up prayer stations on sidewalks or by train stations or bus stops. All it takes is a sign that says, "Want prayer?" and someone, lay or clergy, posted there to pray with folks who do. Well, and some training for those doing the praying so they can offer this ministry well.
    2. Consider adding two more words to your sign-- "Seek healing?"-- and bring some olive oil along for anointing those who seek prayer for healing for themselves or others." If your congregation already has a healing prayer team, send them out to these stations after they've attended your Ash Wednesday service!
    3. Go to strategic places where folks are liable to be thirsty and give away bottles of water, or cups of fresh squeezed orange juice, or coffee, or iced or hot tea (not food-- it's a fast day, right?)
    4. Sing, play, or gather a group to sing or play or a troupe to put on a brief performance, put out a hat, and then share any proceeds you might collect equally with all street performers in a one block radius. If there aren't street performers around, donate all proceeds to a reliable charity operating in the local area-- NOT your church-- and announce or put on your sign where the funds will go. Oh-- and record this and put it up on YouTube-- NOT to toot your own horn, but to inspire others to consider ways they can offer a few moments of joy and hope to others around them.
    5. Hand out children's books and Lenten devotional booklets that include your church's contact information
    6. any combination or all of the above

What other good Ash Wednesday outreach ideas might you add?

(HT Drew McIntyre)