The Challenges of Orthodox Youth Ministry
by Protopresbyter David Cownie
One of the most pressing questions posed by Orthodox pastors and parents in these times
is, "How can we motivate our young people to embrace Orthodoxy and carry it into
their adult lives."
The question is a valid one, but I fear that those who pose it are often not being
honest with themselves. Children rarely go off in odd directions without taking some clues
from those around them, especially their parents. Children follow and learn from our
example, whether that example happens to be good or bad. We form them into what they
become by how we live our lives. Sometimes they rebel against what they have learned, but
even that rebellion is shaped by the very attitudes against which they choose to rebel.
What are our responsibilities as parents or even as adults in the parish community?
What kind of witness are we giving to our children? Do we model the behavior which we wish
them to emulate? Do we spend enough time talking and interacting with them to have any
influence in their lives? Or do we allow the screenwriters in Hollywood and the nihilistic
punks who make and sell CDs to dictate the world-view our children accept. How much
time is spent watching television or listening to pop music as opposed to the time spent
in conversation or reading spiritually profitable material? Michael Medved recently
revealed the sad statistic that "by the age of six, for instance, the average
American child has spent more hours watching the tube than he will spend talking to his
father in his lifetime."
One major problem with our children is that we have abandoned them. Anybody who leaves
their child (or even sits with their child) in front of the television more than an hour a
day is frankly neglecting their childs welfare, both spiritually and emotionally.
People do not interact with one another in any meaningful way as long as the television is
on. They effectively become strangers who happen to share the same roof. Many families do
not even share one meal together which would give them the opportunity to talk with their
children and exchange information in a meaningful way. Often, meals are eaten off of TV
trays as they all watch inane programs. The sad fact is that most parents are so addicted
to the tube, they find it difficult to wean themselves from itlet alone
"deprive" their child of it. What makes this worse is the nihilistic propaganda
which is preached from the cathode ray pulpits. Children (and adults) learn, among other
things, that abortion is necessary, assisted suicide is necessary, the planet is
overheating, homosexuality is normal, happily married couples are abnormal, fornication is
good, the Nazis were bad, Stalin was good (our ally), Truth is relative, God is a joke,
and angels are silly. There are so few "quality" shows on as to make the whole
business of watching network and cable programming a losing proposition all around.
So what is the alternative to this chaos? The answer is both deceptively simple and
extremely difficult. If we truly wish to see our children grow up to be pious and
responsible Orthodox Christians, then we must show them what that means. The only way we
can do that is to become pious, responsible Orthodox Christians ourselves. A blueprint has
been given by the Church Fathers as to how we should live our lives. This blueprint is
called Holy Tradition. There is a whole pattern of life which was developed by Orthodox
Christians over the past two thousand years. Only in this century, more specifically the
second half of this century, has that way of life been challenged and overthrown with
disastrous results. In Russia and Eastern Europe, this way of life was destroyed by force.
In the West, Orthodox Christians simply abandoned Tradition because it got in the way. But
this pattern of life still works, if only people will seek to make use of it.
What does Tradition do for us? Tradition gives us a reference point. We are asked to
mold our lives to Gods Law rather than seek to make up a law of our own. We are
asked to submit our wills to God and thereby eliminate self-will and rebellion from our
lives. By showing us how to fast, Tradition teaches us how control our passions and delay
gratification. By directing us to pray, Tradition leads us to develop a rule of prayer in
the home and faithful attendance of services at the parish church. By showing us how to
confess our sins and reverently prepare for the Mysteries, Tradition lifts us out of
ourselves and leads us to seek spiritual transformation to what God intended us to be.
Tradition teaches us how to eat, how to dress, how to pray, how to operate in the
world without becoming a part of the world. These are the disciplines and practices
which can help our children to withstand the assault of the world and the corrosive
effects of pop culture.
But Tradition can only work when it is faithfully lived each and every day. To simply
pay lip service to these practices will only turn our children further from the Truth.
They will revile us as hypocrites and despair that there exists any real alternative to
drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll. When parents do not seek to teach their children to pray or
fast or prepare for the Mysteries and yet insist on bringing them to church services, this
merely teaches the children contempt for the Church and a lack of respect for her parents.
Parents often fall to "protecting" their children from the Church, which
ultimately teaches them that the Church is a phony exercise you put on for awhile on
Sunday morning and then promptly forget.
Unfortunately, much of what passes for "Youth Ministry" in the Protestant
churches is basically ineffective. About eight or ten years ago, I remember listening to
Dr. James Dobsons program, "Focus on the Family", in which he mentioned
some interesting statistics. They showed that in all of the categories of behavior
considered destructive for youthe.g., sexual activity, sexually transmitted
diseases, drug abuse, or listening to blasphemous or satanic pop musicthere was no
statistical difference between the "Christian" kids and the general population.
With only a few exceptions, the vast majority of Evangelical youth programs are not
teaching them how to be "peculiar people" in the sense that St. Peter calls all
of us to be "...a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation..." (I
Peter 2:9). Instead, these poor youth are often encouraged to consider themselves superior
to others in that they are "saved " and the rest of us are not. This only
inflates their egos and sets them up for delusion and pride.
Orthodox Holy Tradition teaches us humility, obedience, repentance and love. Tradition
can only be passed on by example. "Youth Ministers" will not be able to
communicate much about Orthodox spirituality unless the kids are actually seeing this
happen in the home or at least in the homes of other church members. SOMEBODY actually has
to start living Tradition in order for it to be conveyed. It is no wonder that the Greek
word for Tradition, paradosis, means to pass along or hand down something that is living
It is not easy to live a Traditional life in America. But that is precisely why
Tradition works. The discipline and self-control which is instilled in those young people
who actually practice Tradition gives them a tremendous advantage over their classmates.
By humbly keeping the fasts, blessing their food, dressing modestly and appropriately to
their sex, saying their prayers, respecting their bodies, and confessing their sins, they
are challenged in a healthy way to become more than what the world says they are. They
understand they are created in the image of God and that their bodies are the temple of
the Holy Spirit. This elevates them in a spiritually profitable way and encourages them to
do all things for the glory of God. More importantly, it inspires them to look beyond the
nihilistic morass that is American society today into the heavenly realm and understand
that they can participate therein.
Before we began home-schooling her, our eldest daughter met a few other Orthodox
students in the middle school she attended. Without exception, when they found out she was
also Orthodox, they were all surprised to see that she fasted at school. Each one made it
clear that they were just marking time until they were eighteen and then they could stop
going to church. These young people were cheated and neglected by parents who either did
not know about Tradition or consciously chose to ignore it. These children never had the
opportunity to learn what Tradition was or what it could do for their lives. They never
had to struggle. They never had to go without or appear different. But they were also
deprived of the true joy of Pascha (because they never fasted) or the comfort of true
repentance (because they rarely, if ever confessed). Watered-down Orthodoxy is not
attractive to youth precisely because it is easy. All human beings understand that only
those things which require struggle and effort are worthwhile.
Youth want to be challenged, not coddled.
Father David and his wife, Presbytera Julianna, are the authors of an excellent little book entitled
A Guide to Orthodox Life. The entire book is available free to download on the
Orthopraxis Page. Otherwise, it can ordered from the
Center for Traditionalist