A recent article in the New York Times describes an emerging social phenomenon that scholars are now calling “emerging adulthood.” Occurring between the ages of 18 and 30, this is a time of life when marriage and parenthood are often delayed, formal schooling is prolonged, job switching is frequent and parental support is extended. In general, emerging adults in today’s society demonstrate generally weaker links with most social institutions, including the Church.
Of course, such a tendency has always existed. Many of us have no doubt seen our young people drift away from Orthodoxy, and from Christian faith entirely when they reach the age of majority, only to return when they marry and have children. The recent sociological findings, however, show that the period of time before marriage and parenthood has now grown to as much as fifteen years, making the chances of a young person’s return to their nurtured faith less and less likely.
Now more than ever we are faced with the urgent necessity of rooting our young people in their Orthodox Christian faith long before they set out on the secular path of “self-discovery,” which too often means little more than self-destruction. No more can we simply shrug our shoulders and wait for them to request a marriage service or a baptism for their children; given our current social climate, such requests may never come. If we are going to have a church that does not merely survive and endure on the fading strength of an older generation, but rather one that thrives and grows, we must strive to give our youth the tools by which they can make the transition into mature physical, emotional and spiritual adulthood.
Experience has shown us how to do this: by building programs specifically for youth in our church communities. We must carefully, deliberately and prayerfully plan times of worship, fellowship and good works when our young people can gather as a youth community, when they can interact, form bonds of friendship, acquire memories, be instructed and so prepare for their long and arduous journey into the spiritual and cultural wasteland that awaits them.
How do we go about building a youth program in our communities? The remainder of this article, aimed at the leaders in our Orthodox communities, provides four concrete steps that will help us make a start towards securing the future Christian faith of our “emerging adults.”
Step 1. Call for Leaders
Do not assume that because no one came forward before, that no one will do so now. Call for volunteers to lead a youth group. Even if your church has no more than two or three young people, actively search for a leader. If volunteers are not forthcoming, seek out and encourage people whom you believe will make good youth leaders. The qualities of a good leader are a love for young people, enthusiasm and energy. To this end, the ideal youth leaders are young married couples who do not yet have children. If such couples cannot to be found, seek two people, a man and woman of good standing in the community. If you can find only one person, then try to find someone of the opposite sex to assist him or her. Either way, it is important to have members of both sexes in positions of leadership, as healthy spiritual role models for both boys and girls. Finally, it is important that volunteers to lead a youth group understand that they are committing to plan and attend all youth events. No one can substitute for the youth leaders on a regular basis. A rotation of leaders aimed at easing the time commitment involved simply does not work. Youth leaders must be consistently committed, present and visible to both the youth and their parents. Without this first crucial step of visible consistent leadership, a youth program cannot succeed no matter how many youth the community may have, or how well-intentioned their parents may be.
Step 2. Assemble the Youth
Once a leader has been found and appointed with the blessing of the priest, it is time to assemble the youth. At the beginning of the school year, call a meeting in an informal setting (preferably in someone’s home). The priest should be present at this meeting to extend the blessing of the Church to the new group. Begin with prayer and then an “ice-breaker” activity so that everyone can get to know one another (suggestions for ice-breakers are available on the internet), followed by some snacks and fellowship time. Call the group to order and announce your intention to determine two things: a) What activities they would like to do and b) How often they would like to meet. Allow the discussion to proceed freely, taking notes as it goes. Listen respectfully to all suggestions, no matter how impractical or flippant. As discussion continues, guide the choice of activities in such a way as to have a balance between purely social events (going bowling, for example) and charitable activities (such as volunteering at a soup kitchen). Whatever the schedule you collectively decide on, be sure that the youth are able to sustain the commitment for the entire duration of the school year (summers will be different). In determining the real level of commitment, you will also need to consult parents; after all, they do all the scheduling and driving for their children! Having established a schedule in principle, conclude the meeting by making concrete plans for the next event, including date and time. Before dispersing with a prayer, collect contact information from the youth so that a list can be compiled and communication maintained.
Step 3. Implement a Regular Youth Teaching
In addition to social and charitable events, a regular spiritual teaching for the youth is essential to any youth program. Again, schedules may vary according to the situation, but whatever the schedule, consistency is the key. The youth leader may lead the teachings, or someone else may be appointed with the blessing of the priest. In terms of content or format, many options are available. Formal curricula are available from the Orthodox Christian Education Commission (www.orthodoxed.org). Other possibilities include Bible studies, an invited speaker, topic discussions, Q&A times, or social events combined with discussions (such as seeing a movie and discussing the issues raised). Whatever decisions you make concerning the teachings, it is important to remember that the youth will appreciate the witness of the teacher far more than the actual content of the teaching. Many of us remember significant teachers in our lives, but who remembers the details of their subject matter? So it is with our youth. The most valuable education takes place when young people interact regularly with a dedicated Christian who cares for them and strives to answer their questions seriously and honestly. Rich, Orthodox content is important, but personable teachers and witnesses to the faith are more important than the mere imparting of correct information.
Step 4. Explore Pan-Orthodox Connections
Supposing your community really doesn’t have anyone under the age of 50, or all your young people are under the age of 5? Should you neglect the building of a youth program? By no means! Waiting for young people to appear before building a youth program is like waiting for a house to be constructed before laying its foundation. Even if you have no one in your parish between the ages of 12 and 18, youth leaders can still be appointed to get involved with other Orthodox churches where young people are present. In this regard, contact other canonical Orthodox churches and find out who is involved with their youth. Coordinate a meeting with those persons and work together in a spirit of consensus to plan regular youth events between churches, even if young people in your church do not participate. When (not if) youth come to your parish, they will at least find one person who knows a forum where Orthodox young people gather on a regular basis, even it is outside of this particular parish.
In short, every Orthodox community can and should make a start at building a program for its young people. As stewards of God’s creation, our responsibility is nowhere greater than towards those whom we have raised in the faith. There can truly be no greater witness to the power of the Gospel than when those, who have arrive at the brink of young adulthood under our care, remain rooted in Christ, passionate in their love for Him and His Church. They have seen and know our weaknesses and sins up close and personal. If, even in spite of our failings towards them and others, they continue to proclaim what we have taught them, holding it fast to the shedding of their blood, what more can we hope for in this life? What else can we hope for, except that our youth would fulfill St. Paul’s injunction to Timothy: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity… Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress… for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim. 4:12-16)