Kamal Hourani is a first year student in the Religious Studies Program at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is also a participant of our Digital Disciples Program.
During Speaking to Secular America Conference, hosted by the Missions Institute at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Fr. Theodore Dorrance spoke about how our parishes can reach out to the nonreligious in our communities. Fr. Theodore is the pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Beaverton, Oregon. You can read about a summary of his presentation here.
Father offered three pieces of advice on how we can improve our evangelism. The first point he made was that our own people have to be turned on to God, meaning that the baptized in each parish have to be transformed into authentic, faithful Christians before we can be able to convert other people. To this end, Fr. Theodore mentioned that parents especially must be educated and pious in order to be true “youth directors” for the children of the church. As someone involved in my youth organization at a diocesan and national level, this struck me.
Youth ministry is stressed in almost every parish, diocese, archdiocese in the world’s Christian sects, yet statistics have shown time and time again that teenagers are leaving their churches in increasingly larger droves.
Perhaps one reason for this exodus is that these individuals never established a strong foundation of faith from their childhood. Maybe they didn’t go to liturgy most Sundays. Maybe sports practices took priority over services or church events. Maybe their Sunday school classes weren’t effective in engaging them. In a person’s teenage years, the smallest trial, doubt, or temptation can knock them off course if they never had a strong grasp on their faith. It is so easy for someone to leave the church because not only is it commonplace now but accepted and exalted by secular society. No one reaches out to people who have wandered away to try and draw them back into the fold.
This being said, a youth ministry, no matter how strong, may not be able to keep teenagers in the church. The spiritual advice one may receive at a retreat cannot make up for years of deficient religious education. The few services one may attend at youth group events cannot plant a habit of attendance after years of sporadic liturgical participation, and the fun of social events will not outweigh the commitment to sports teams.
I have never met a youth director who has said that they run their youth group without a plentitude of problems. Ministering to teenagers is not easy because a youth director is expected to atone for all of the shortcomings a child has suffered from in their entire religious life.
Youth groups will not save souls unless parents and the family unit become the first “youth group” for a child. A parent has to be equipped, prepared, and willing to catechize their offspring at any moment in the day because a half hour in Sunday school is not nearly enough time to expose anyone to the beautiful depths of the faith. A parent has to have the piety and discipline to take their children to church every Sunday, so that the children will inherit a habit of participation in the liturgy. A parent has to be a role model in strength and faith to inspire their children to hold on to their faith in the face of adversity.
If a child is given a strong foundation in the church, not only will they be far less likely to leave the church, they will be more likely to become committed to a youth group. Then, we would no longer have as many problems in our churches’ youth groups because the youth group would cease to be a bandaid. It could actually become a garden where teenagers can nurture the seed of faith they received from their parents in order to become unfading roses in Christ’s field.
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