These days, you don’t have to darken the door of a church to experience Ash Wednesday.
Following a strategy that’s gathering momentum, United Methodist pastors and lay folk will bring the ashes to the people—to hurried commuters in train stations in Texas, to pedestrians on busy street corners in New York and Chicago, to patrons of a diner in Pennsylvania and to motorists who drive through parking lots in Ohio and Virginia.
When Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13, they’ll be taking a centuries-old tradition—the imposition of ashes—out of their sanctuaries and into their communities.
“I think it’s a great thing . . . to be taking the church to the people, just like John Wesley,” said the Rev. Michelle Reed, pastor of Kearney Faith United Methodist in Kearney, Neb.
For the first time, Ms. Reed will offer ashes outside of her church’s sanctuary, at a coffeehouse near the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“Ash Wednesday services tend to draw the same crowd every year,” she said. “I want to reach some new people.”
A growing movement
By offering “ashes-to-go,” Ms. Reed’s church joins a small but growing multi-denominational movement that began in 2007.
In 2012, some 85 churches of various denominations in 22 states reported participating, according to the Rev. Emily Mellott, an Episcopal pastor who runs an ecumenical website called ashestogo.org. She thinks many more churches have likely adopted the practice.
Last year, at Mount Healthy United Methodist Church in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, anyone wishing to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday could simply pull into the parking lot.
The “drive-through ashes” brought in 120 people—significantly more than the 20 who turned up in the sanctuary that evening—and lured camera crews from all four local TV stations. Press outlets as far away as London picked up the story.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Patricia Anderson Cook, says the event marked a turning point for her congregation, spurring a more outward focus. Several who came for drive-through ashes were ill or disabled; most had never received ashes. Mount Healthy plans to offer ashes-to-go again this year.
While un-churched people may feel hesitant about entering a church, Dr. Cook said, anyone who has ever ordered up a burger to go understands how to enter a parking lot and accept ashes “from the safety of their cars.”
This will be the third year in a row for members of the Urban Village Church in Chicago to offer ashes-to-go. Church members will turn up at 15-20 different locations around Chicago: at El stops, in front of TV station studios and at Daley Plaza and other key downtown crossroads. (Because the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament, lay people can join in distribution.)
The Rev. Christian Coon, Urban Village’s co-pastor, says that ashes-to-go helps spread the church’s name and serves as great evangelism training for members. After a morning buttonholing strangers on a street corner, Mr. Coon says, “asking a friend to church doesn’t seem so daunting. It gives people the courage to step out of their comfort zones.”
For the Rev. Larry Buxton, senior pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Va., taking ashes-to-go to a nearby Virginia Rail Express station was an eye-opener last year. Many commuters brusquely refused the offer.
“It reminded me of how marginal Christianity has become in many people’s lives, and of the courage it takes for anyone to approach strangers with anything in the name of Christ,” he said.
Burke UMC will offer ashes again this year during the morning rush hour, both at the transit station and in a drive-through in the church’s parking lot.
That morning timeframe leverages the reach of ashes-to-go, proponents say. Most United Methodist churches typically offer Ash Wednesday services in the evening, and that “means that we place a witness on people’s heads and then send them home to go wash them off before bed,” writes the Rev. Emily Case, in a Ministry Matters blog post entitled “Taking Ash Wednesday Public.”
By offering ashes in the morning—which Ms. Case did last year at a Starbucks near her church, Kennesaw UMC in Kennesaw, Ga.—recipients headed out to jobs or their daily routines sporting visible reminders of Lent’s arrival, she said.
Like most of those interviewed, Dr. Buxton can’t point to any members that joined the church as a direct result of the Ash Wednesday outreach. But he noted that attendance at Burke UMC did increase last year at the church, after a decades-long decline.
“There’s no single act we can point to—we give glory to God—but practicing being less insular must surely play a part,” he said.
Members of First UMC in Irving, Texas, did make some lasting connections last year with the first ashes-to-go effort, at a nearby transit station. Church members passed out coffee, water and donuts to commuters and bus drivers, while offering ashes to anyone who wished to receive them.
One man refused, walked out to his car, then came back and asked for the ashes. He told church members he’d grown up in a Methodist church in Africa, and seeing their offer, was reminded of a promise he’d made to his grandmother: to one day find a church in his new home in the U.S. The man later became a regular attendee.
“He’s a symbol for us,” said the Rev. Russell Floyd, FUMC Irving’s pastor. “He just needed somebody to offer that invitation.”
The church plans to offer ashes-to-go again this year.
“It matters in people’s lives,” said Mr. Floyd. “It makes a difference. God shows up there.”
Many of the UM ashes-to-go events are taking place near large Catholic populations, which may not be a coincidence, given Ash Wednesday’s importance and familiarity in Catholicism. At the train station, Dr. Buxton noted that some commuters refused his offer of ashes by saying, “Sounds good, but I’m not Catholic.” (His reply: “Neither am I!”) And many who did accept were indeed Catholic—and appreciated the convenience.
“Some told me, ‘I wasn’t sure when I could get to Mass today,’” he recalled.
Some pastors encountered skepticism among church members, who worried that imposing ashes outside of the church was too irreverent. Without the context of a worship service or liturgy, some wondered if those receiving the ashes might not understand their significance.
But pastors who did adopt “ashes-to-go” says those concerns were trumped by the desire to reach others.
“I’m a traditional worship person,” said the Rev. Frank Drenner, pastor of Oak Lawn UMC in Dallas. “But we’re called to the mission field.” His church will deploy folks to four locations—three transit stations and a coffeehouse—to offer ashes this Ash Wednesday.
“To be able to communicate our need for confession, repentance and God’s forgiveness—that speaks to people whether they’re Christian or not,” he said. “Everyone has that need. If we get hung up only on what’s meaningful to church people, we can lose the mission of the church.”
Dr. Cook agrees. “For me, the issue is, ‘If God initiates the grace, who is to say where the means of grace is practiced?’” she said. “John the Baptist stood in a river, Wesley in homes and in streets.”
The Rev. Mark Stamm, professor of Christian worship at Perkins School of Theology, doesn’t have an issue with taking ashes to the street, noting that outdoor processionals with crosses are a time-honored tradition of Good Friday. But he does urge clergy to be ready to use the occasion for conversation about what the ritual means. (Many churches do offer some materials—bookmarks or small cards explaining the meaning of the ritual—along with the ashes.)
“Any time we take the gospel to the street and try to engage people in a public way, we need to be ready to talk with folks about what it means to us to be a disciple of Christ, and what it might mean to them,” Dr. Stamm said.