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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 CD’s 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 child’s 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 it—let 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 God’s 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 Dobson’s 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 youth—e.g., sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, or listening to blasphemous or satanic pop music—there 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 and active.

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 Orthodox Studies.