Psychology and the other social sciences can be a great help for those who serve young people. For example, while we might think that parents don’t have much influence in their children’s decision to remain active in the Church, all the available evidence suggests otherwise. As they grow older, children model their religious life, as they do the other areas of their lives, based on their parents’ example.
Another misconception that psychological research has helped us clear away is the idea that teenagers aren’t interested in religion and even rebel against it. In fact, most teenagers (even those who don’t participate in organized religion) have a positive view of religion. Far from rejecting religion in general (or Christianity), they see it as a good thing even if it isn’t exactly their thing.
Helpful though the research is, we need to be careful that we don’t reduce youth ministry and the spiritual formation of young people to merely a psychological process. As a social scientist, I know about kids in general but as a priest (or youth minister) my vocation is to get to know this unique kid. And while there are many, non-religious benefits to active participation in church (what psychologists call prosocial behaviors or outcomes), the purpose of youth ministry is to introduce young people to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in that relationship within the context of the Orthodox Church.
St Seraphim of Sarov says that Prayer, fasting, vigil and every Christian work, however good it is in itself, does not constitute the goal of our Christian life, but serves as a means for its attainment. The real goal of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The real threat to the spiritual health of young people (and to the family, the parish, the diocese, and the Church) comes when we confuse the means of the Christian life with the goal of the Christian life. When this happens we end up telling kids to pursue conformity, not holiness. We end up, however unintentionally, telling kids being an Orthodox Christian is about fitting in and getting along rather than communion with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we confuse means and ends, we end up fostering pride and vainglory, not humility and charity.
So how to avoid this?
Well, it begins by remembering what I said a moment ago. Our task is to introduce young people to Jesus Christ. Or maybe better, God has called us to help young people fall in love with Christ.
So where to begin? With teaching young people to pray (here).
We have as Orthodox Christians a rich tradition of personal and liturgical prayer. Often though that tradition is unknown to the majority of adults and so most young people. For most of us (including young people), “prayer” only means attending Liturgy on Sunday. And even then, only about 30% of us are in Liturgy on a weekly basis.
As for personal prayer, I think most of us think personal prayer means reading out of a prayer book. While there’s nothing wrong with using prayer books, they formal prayers they contain are meant to teach us how to pray. For a Christian to only use a prayer book to pray to God is like a husband who only quotes poetry to his wife instead of actually talking to her about what’s on his heart and mind.
In the next few conversations, we’ll talk about how to teach and inspire young people to pray personally and liturgically so that, they too, can fall in love with Jesus Christ.