Conformity or a Personal Commitment?
Though for different reasons both the parish and the university often minimize religious faith. If the university tends to privatize religion—as I was told by one professor my religious convictions weren’t shared by the class and so I had to be keep to myself even while others were free to express viewpoints different and often hostile to my own—the parish typically emphasizes the outward aspects of the Gospel while neglecting life in Christ as an inward journey. As a result many young people come to the university, or the military or the workplace thinking their faith as one of mere outward conformity.
Conformity as a social norm values coercion not charity and intellectual dullness and spiritual aridity rather than freedom and creativity within the tradition. Further conformity fosters superficiality, coercion gives birth to fear, intellectual dullness rewards religious indifference and spiritual aridity if left untreated cause the soul to withdraw from Christ where ever the body might be on Sunday morning. And none of this is a predictor for spiritual success (i.e., holiness) in a university setting much less the rest of life. This is why yesterday why I say that while Sunday Liturgy is essential and a bible study, a social event or a service project might all be helpful, but none of these is enough. Something more is needed.
We must help high school students, young adults and everyone in the parish develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And if we don’t? To the degree that our parishes fail to even consider forming not just good people but saints we will continue to lose young adults to other Christian confessions, the world or just indifference. If mom and dad haven’t cultivated their own inner lives, they can’t bear witness to the life transforming power of the Gospel. If the priest hasn’t cultivate his own personal relationship with Jesus Christ he will be incapable of offering guidance on this to his congregation. Given this fact pattern we can be certainly that we will see young adults leave the Church in ever greater numbers as we offer teachings that are little more than appeals to power under the guise of the Gospel.
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that a faith shaped around external supports is developmentally appropriate for youngsters (say pre-school through junior high). From high school age on though it’s just not enough. High school students and young adults (whether they are in college or not) need not just the externals of the faith—the sacraments and an active parish life—but above all to develop their own, personal relationship and faith in Jesus Christ.
The Catholic author Sherry Weddell (Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus) could just as easily be writing about Orthodox Christians when she says that one of the “most surprising discoveries” is “how many Catholics don’t even know that this personal, interior journey exists” (emphasis in original). Likewise she’s right in observing that this is as true in the pulpit as it is in the pew and all to the great harm of the faithful and the spiritual health of the Church.
Widespread neglect of the interior journey of discipleship has unintentionally fostered an immense chasm between what the Church teaches is normal and what many Catholics [and Orthodox Christians!] in the pews have learned to regard as normal (p. 57, emphasis added).
Not just young adults, but for Orthodox Christians throughout the life cycle “the cultural pressure, both inside and outside the average American parish, is often against the overt expression of discipleship. The two overlapping cultural norms—one secular and one ecclesial—intimidate men and women who seek to live as Catholic [or Orthodox] disciples of Jesus Christ” (p. 59, emphasis in original).
This means that not only are young adults being inadequately prepared for the challenges they will face in college, the military, and the workplace, they are coming from parish communities where that inadequate preparation is the norm and even the standard to which, however unintentionally, both priest and laity aspire. Like their Catholic brothers and sisters, Orthodox young adults “absolutely need [the] strong interpersonal and communal support” that they aren’t getting in the university. Sadly because they also typically haven’t got, and aren’t getting, it in the parish they end up turning away from the Church in search of the support they need and have every right in Christ to expect.
So why do so many young people live the Church after high school? Well, frankly, because we didn’t give them what they need to stay: A personal relationship with Jesus Christ rooted in the sacraments, nourished by the Church’s liturgical and ascetical tradition and guided and formed by a parish community committed first and foremost to making sinners into saints. Will doing this keep young people in the Church? Not necessarily; it will however keep those who do this in the Church and foster in them the inner life that they need to become saints. And for our topic here, it will also make them credible witnesses for Christ to not only young adults but to the world.