My earlier post on campus ministry (here) brought some very good responses and questions both on this blog and on Facebook.
One of the questions I was asked is a question I frequently hear. How do we keep our children in the Church?
It does seem that by the last year or so of high school, if not before, Orthodox young people’s participation in the Church is noticeably waning. Because of this Orthodox Christian college students—like college students in other Christian traditions—largely check out of Church life.
Part of the problem is that, as one correspondent told me, we focus our attention on only one demographic, college students, rather than the broader and more inclusive category of young adults. I think this is correct. Our parishes (and the Orthodox Christian Fellowship) run youth groups that essentially focus on social events and service activities.
But the question we might want to ask is whether or not this is the best thing the Church has to offer young men and women. Do high school and college students really need the Church to help them have fun and care for others?
What we don’t do, but don’t really do, with young adults is the same thing we leave undone with the whole parish. Instead of providing social activities and service opportunities, the parish, the youth group and the OCF, need to focus on spiritual formation. We don’t do this with high school and young adults (whether they are college students or not) because we don’t do this with their parents (or for that matter seminarians and clergy).
Maybe that’s a bit too strong. But I think I am safe is saying that for the vast majority of Orthodox Christians—however old and whether they are laypeople or clergy—the questions of who I am personally in Jesus Christ and how has Jesus called me, concretely and personally, to live remain not only unanswered but unasked.
So the first thing we should do, and from what I’ve seen this isn’t happening in the OCF, is focus on the spiritual formation of young adults. And we should do this beginning in high school if not earlier. If we don’t help young people understand who they are in Jesus Christ and help them live out that identity they will drift away from the Church.
I’m confident in saying this because I focused a good bit of my dissertation research on the dynamics of young adult spritual formation. But maybe the best evidence that spiritual formation matters is the questions I am never asked. “Fr Gregory, how can I be sure my child will come home for Christmas, invite me to his wedding and involve me in the life of my future grandchildren?” Nobody ever asks me these questions. Or, if they do, it’s because there is something very, very wrong in their family.
Family life is naturally and spontaneously formative. Growing up, we learn who we are and how to live as a member of our specific and unique family. And this stays with us even if our family of origin is dysfunctional (and maybe especially so if our family is unhealthy). The family largely succeeds in doing what the parish and the larger Church generally fail at doing: Helping the child come to know who he or she is and to assume his or her own place in the family. Almost any family—Christian or not—is better at helping children grow in self-knowledge and fidelity to their vocation as a member of the family than almost any Orthodox parish or (for that matter) any other Christian community is at doing the same within the Church.
So, to answer the question, what must the Church do? We must look to the family. We do so not because the Church is a family, it isn’t and this is a very dangerous image to use, but because we see in the social institution of the family the potential for the good of the child and the Christian community of helping people come to know and express who they are in Jesus Christ.