An Orthodox Approach to Youth Ministry
Earlier this summer, I was asked to speak to a group of youth workers in our diocese. It’s been years since I have done any full-time paid youth work. I turned 40 this year, and past the point where my kids think I am cool, so speaking about youth ministry is not a topic I am tagged with very often. Yet, my wife and I direct our Church School program, and as my own boys enter the teen years, I have been especially burdened about the necessity for such a ministry in our churches at large.
About a year ago, a fellow Sounding writer, Christina Pessemier, wrote several posts on the topic including an excellent call for churches to take this ministry seriously if they are to reach their communities with the Gospel. Let me expand on her post with thoughts that have been brewing for years, arising from spending my teen years in the modern mega-church Evangelical youth group, college with a degree in youth ministry, several years in multiple churches doing youth work, and finally becoming Orthodox in my late 20s.
No matter what resources or size a parish may have, this ministry is necessary. It is necessary because this is the future of our faith. These are the future leaders, bishops, priests, monastics, missionaries, parish council presidents, Church School teachers, parents, and communicants.
A parish, no matter how vibrant, how rich, how big, is only one generation away from extinction. I hope this scares you, because it frightens me. Are we doing enough to raise up leaders and equip our young to live holy lives in an unholy world?
So how did we get here?
Did St. Paul and St. Ignatius organize youth groups among their newborn communities? How about Chrysostom? Did he build a youth center next to the Patriarchal church in Constantinople? What about St. John of Kronstadt, or St. Herman of Alaska, or even St. Raphael of Brooklyn? No doubt they all cared for the young, but probably none envisioned our predicament today.
In previous centuries, there was no such idea as adolescence. You were a child or an adult. One day you were a child, and at some point, the world saw you as an adult, and on that day you entered the fellowship of other adults as an apprentice or laborer so you could begin contributing to adult society.
Teenagers as a separate group and culture were virtually unknown until the Baby Boom of the 1950s. Because of their numbers, the scattering of families, and the new post-War wealth, marketers began to target this segment of the population, thus creating a new demographic. It has only grown since that time, with adolescent culture almost dominating all of popular culture.
Churches across America responded in kind, and rightly so, as they saw non-traditional forces beginning to shape the lives of their young. But they joined in this segmentation by isolating these teenagers from the rest of their parishes and eventually trying to compete with everything that pop culture created.
We all created pockets of isolation in our community, by pulling kids away from their families and adults to focus on them. They spend most of their days at school with children their own age, rarely interacting with adults, and we wonder why teenagers seem crazy. They normalize their own thoughts and behavior with each other, because no other models exist except themselves. We aggravate their segregation from adult society at church by doing the same thing.
We help them become great Christian teens, but they struggle becoming Christian adults. Then we look for the youngest, craziest acting adult to be their leader. I know because I did it once. Rather than being a responsible adult leader, I often modeled how to be a big Christian kid.
We are fortunate in Orthodoxy that we believe in communion, and it is that communal approach to our relationship with God and each other that can inform our approach to youth ministry.
Up to this point, you may expect a complete reversal and rejection of the modern approach based on my comments. But to be fair, I can’t imagine being Orthodox and still on the path of the cross, had it not been for the Evangelical youth ministry I attended as a teen. It did fill me with the desire for truth and righteousness. It gave me rudimentary disciplines such as consistent prayer times and Bible reading.
But what made my experience different than that of peers who left the faith in college or later adulthood?
My parents and adult mentors.
While I may differ in theology today from my parents, I lived in a home that prayed with parents who were committed to their faith. It was a rare occasion that my parents would let us miss church, and we were there at least 3-4 times a week. I saw them read their Bible at home. They were committed to the ministry of the church as well, volunteering in various roles, and continue to do so today.
As I entered my teenage years, several Christian adults took an interest in me, and took upon themselves to disciple me, offer me religious books, discuss them, and pray with me regularly.
I saw firsthand what it meant to live as an adult Christian, and this tempered some of the silliness of youth ministry.
It is from that experience and the sacramental, communal nature of Orthodoxy that I offer this proposal for youth ministry.
First, we can’t ignore the realities of our culture and the competition of non-Orthodox youth groups. We need to plan activities for our teens where they can interact and meet others who are struggling to be Orthodox in a teenage world. We need to do so with excellence and regularity, with fun so they know each other beyond the point of acquaintance to the level of communion.
Second, we must stop thinking about youth ministry in a narrow sense focused solely on the teens. We should expand our thinking and ministry to the entire family. Working with parents and equipping them to be spiritual Orthodox examples. Giving them tools to deal with the difficulties of teenage struggles. Providing prayer support and communion with each other.
Third, we must focus on integration. Establish prayer groups within the parish to pray by name for the kids of the church. Our parish does this weekly where the priest leads a service praying with parents, grandparents, and parishioners over the names of every child in our parish, encouraging this communal prayer to follow everyone home in their own personal rule.
We must develop opportunities for teens to meet and be connected to as many adults in the parish as possible. This is a perfect opportunity for those among us who are retired to take a teen or two under their wing so they see what a Christian adult looks like. Church ministry such as food pantries, mission trips, choir, etc. should encourage teens to participate. During these times of ministry, the adults must be committed to interacting and making connections with the youth that participate.
Orthodox youth ministry is critical to the future of our parishes, but it should be one of integration, focusing on families and a multi-generational approach.