I came across a study recently that said millennials practiced Lent at a higher rate than the two generations above them. In 2014 (the year of the study) 20% of millennials planned to fast during Lent, compared to 10% of boomers. Even more surprising, while 80% of boomers were aware of Lent, only 57% of millennials were, meaning that over a third of millennials who knew about Lent were practicing it.
While secularism and atheism are on the rise, especially in younger generations, researchers are finding that millennials who do practice faith tend to be more conservative and orthoprax in their religion. They want authenticity and apologetics and sacraments. They want something that permeates life beyond Sunday morning. When church is not a social obligation it becomes a personal conviction. When the world celebrates heterodoxy, orthodoxy is radical. But millennial orthodoxy does produce some odd challenges. Should confession apps be used in the confessional? Does the church have low-gluten wafers? Are ashtags appropriate?
Ashtags—when people post selfies on Ash Wednesday showing their ashes—have gotten some heat for defeating the point of Ash Wednesday, turning a day of penance into a widely-shared selfie. But aren’t the ashes themselves a contradiction of the day’s Gospel reading? We are implored to not display our practices in order to appear holy.
Yet, we are also called to share the faith. If done with right intent, ashtags can be tools of evangelism. “Look, young people go to church in the middle of the week. They practice a liturgical faith. They care.” If we wear our ashes out in the public throughout the day, getting the usual, “You’ve got some dirt there” comments, then sharing it on social media is a natural part of the routine for millennials. “Here’s my morning coffee. Here’s my doggo. Here’s my acknowledgement of human mortality and call to repentance.”