We Need Christ-Centered Youth Programs

We Need Christ-Centered Youth Programs

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Welcome to The Daily Prayer Team messages, each day includes a passage of scripture, a reflection and a prayer. Sponsored by Saint John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

Spoiler alert:  This message be controversial and may irritate some readers today.  If you are irritated after reading it, please respect that this is my opinion.  The opinions expressed on the prayer team are my opinions, they don’t represent anyone else’s.  I have heard it say that if everyone agrees with everything you say, you are probably not saying much that is worth hearing.  Anything thought provoking that is shared with provoke positive and negative thoughts.  Anyway a preface to our discussion today. . .

I like Greek music.  I often play it in my car.  At our annual Greek Festival, I get up on stage and play drums with the band several times.  I know enough about Greek music that I can sit in and play with the band.  And when there’s an opportunity to Greek dance, I’ll get up and do that too.  I am proud of my Greek heritage.

When I was a child, our youth program at church consisted of Greek dancing and basketball.  From age seven or eight, we were encouraged to play on the church basketball team, which played with on Saturdays (so that being out all day Saturday, kids needed time to do their homework on Sunday and didn’t go to church), or we played on Sundays after church at 1:00 p.m. (which meant that most kids didn’t go to church because they’d be late for basketball).  The “thinking” of the adults back then was that if we get the kids around other Greek kids, they’ll stay close to the church.  Sounds logical, right?  It’s no wonder that most of my peers are no longer affiliated with the Orthodox Church, because there wasn’t an emphasis on actually getting us INTO the church, or knowing anything about Christ.

Towards the end of my childhood, Greek dancing was added to the sports regimen.  So, when it was off-season for basketball, kids were encouraged to go to Greek dance practice.  Again, the “thinking” was that if the kids get on church grounds, and maybe if we even say the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of dance practice, it will keep the kids in the church.  And again, it didn’t.

Now, almost two generations later, with two generations largely lost from the church, we’ve decided not to ditch dancing and sports, but instead, to make Sunday school mandatory if you want to dance, or at least try to, and add religious workshops to dance festivals which by and large are not attended. And still we struggle to keep our kids interested in the faith.

A friend who is a priest at one of these dance-crazed parishes said that in their annual budget, the church budgets $50,000 on Greek dance costumes and teachers.  And gives $0 to charity.   Something doesn’t seem right there.  As we’ve discussed, the early church spread the word of God and fed the hungry.  There is nothing in the Bible about athletics or culture in the early church.

And what about the kids who don’t play basketball, or who have two left feet?  Is there a place for them?  The kids who come to Sunday school or serve in the altar or join the choice might be made to feel awkward if they aren’t all into the other things, they might be seen as “too religious.”

GOYA (Greek Orthodox Youth of America, the youth program for teenagers) struggles in most parishes.  That might be because it is run like a corporation, with officers being elected (and the ensuing politics and popularity contest which follows), and the kids running the “meetings” with Robert’s Rules of Order.  Parents then get involved to help their kids get elected, and then sit quietly by as the teenagers struggle to organize events, and at the end of the day, nothing much is happening in many GOYA chapters.

The solution here:  Make youth ministry Christ-centered. Put Christ at the center.

Of course, the argument again this is: If we don’t make it fun they won’t come.  Kind of like when I was in Sunday school, the teachers use to tell us that if we misbehaved, we’d have to go to church.  Because back then, Sunday was held during the Liturgy, because somehow, Sunday school and the Divine Liturgy found themselves in competition, rather than doing Sunday school before or after the Divine Liturgy as is more the norm now.

Forgive me if this reflection sounds cynical.  But it’s true.  Basketball and Greek dancing are not going to get anyone into heaven.  They are not going to keep our young people in church when they leave high school.  And the statistics are that 60% of our teens leave the church in college and don’t ever return.  And that’s because when they are too old for GOYA basketball and competitive dancing, they’ve got nothing to return to.  That’s why we’ve got to rethink how we do youth ministry, and make it Christ-centered, rather than basketball and dancing-centered.  We’ve also got to get politics out of our GOYA meetings, and make those about Christ as well.

In the parishes that I have served, I have put an emphasis on GOYA.  Our monthly meetings are like mini-retreats. We don’t have GOYA officers, and that was a battle at first in all of the parishes I have served.  The teens do not run the meetings.  And the “business” part of each meeting lasts five minutes or less.  The meetings include dinner and social time.  They include a short business meeting led by either me or an advisor.  They include team-building, or icebreakers, which get kids moving, talking and laughing.  And this ultimately leads to a discussion, where they are now ready to learn about the Lord, and open up to one another.

There is a “non-compete” policy on GOYA Sundays.  (Our GOYA meets on Sunday nights once a month from 5:00-7:30 p.m.)  There are no dance practices held on GOYA Sundays, so that there is not a choice between GOYA and basketball, or GOYA and dance.  Teens may miss GOYA because they have too much homework, but they aren’t missing because of another church activity.

In our parish, we put an emphasis on Christ-first when it comes to youth work.  And we are still struggling.  But we are succeeding a lot more than the church was succeeding with youth when I was a kid.  Our GOYAns actually know how to pray, many of them are singing in the adult choir, the older ones lead the spiritual discussions at the meetings.  (GOYA doesn’t do many fundraisers either—so our kids are leading discussions, not car washes).

We can’t compete with secular American when it comes to sports—everyone does it better than us.  So, we shouldn’t even try.  What the rest of secular America isn’t doing for the most part is instilling values, decency, fellowship and wholesomeness into our teens.

On lots of occasions, we play silly games, break a lot of water balloons and just plain laugh.  Teens don’t have to bring their “cool card” to GOYA.  They can come to have fun and learn.  We dance for the Festival and for fun, and if a teen has two left feet, he or she is encouraged to join.  The average attendance at our GOYA meetings varies between thirty and fifty. And growing.

We don’t do everything right—there is always room for improvement.  But we are heading in the right direction, in teaching our kids about Christ and in keeping them with the Church.  While we can’t control what they will do once they graduate high school, we have made sure that they will be exposed to who Christ is, how to pray, and a lot of wholesome fun and fellowship by the time they graduate.

There is nothing wrong with Greek dancing or basketball.  But they can’t be the focal point of the youth program.  That has to be Christ.  He can’t be A priority. He needs to be THE priority.

An interesting graphic I saw recently said “There is a 0.001 chance a child will grow up to be a professional athlete.  There is a 100% chance that they will stand in front of the Judgment seat of Christ.”  That’s why we’ve got to keep Christ at the center of our youth programs.  Because there is a 100% chance they will stand before Him and answer for what they believe and there is a 100% chance we will stand before Him and answer for how we taught them.

My mouth will tell of Thy righteous acts, of Thy deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge.  With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come, I praise Thy righteousness, thine alone.  O God, from my youth Thou has taught me, and I still proclaim Thy wondrous deeds.  So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim Thy might to all the generations to come.  Thy power and Thy righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens.  Thou hast done great things, O God, who is like Thee?  Thou who has made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depth of the earth Thou wilt bring me up again.  Thou wilt increase my honor and comfort me again.  I will also praise Thee with the harp for Thy faithfulness, O my god; I will sing praises to Thee with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel.  My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to Thee; my soul also, which Thou hast rescued.  And my tongue will talk of Thy righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disgraced who sought to do me hurt.  Psalm 71: 15-24

Keep Christ at the center of youth work!

The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0