Young Adult Spiritual Formation and the Family

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.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • Riley Floyd

    What remains an issue in many parishes, is that young on, we teach the children that coming to Church is for fun and for socializing and for playing games rather than teaching them awe and respect.  We allow them to bring books not related to Church, and play with toys during Divine Liturgy. The sense and purpose of Church is never, at any point instilled. Thus, once they get older and it ceases to be “fun” or they age out of youth group or stop playing with toys… they check out altogether.

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    • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

      Riley,

      I agree with your point about the need to foster in children (and adults!) a sense of respect and awe. While this is related to the point I’m making in my post, it is however a slight different one.

      Spiritual formation builds on awe but its goal is to help people (1) know themselves in the light of the Gospel and (2) live a life consonant with who they are in Christ. Unfortunately we too often settle for a purely or largely external spiritual life. We may cross ourselves at the right time during the service. know how to make the responses and what is in the catechism.

      But all this I can do and it not make any difference in my life.

      Make sense?

      In Christ,

      +FrG

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  • Michael Bauman

    When it comes to Chrisitan education and indeed education in general, not just spiritual formation, is all to often thought of as the realm of the ‘professional’.  We hand ourselves and our children over to these ‘professionals’ and expect magic.  In my experience the family in the Church is not supported much at all when it comes to the spiritual formation of the children and the parents together (in marriage). 

    My first wife (memory eternal) and I homeschooled our son.  At the time it was quite a novelty in my parish (filled with a lot of professionals and educators).  When it became common knowledge what we were doing and I shared some ideas with my bishop on the family/parish synergy for education (spiritual and otherwise)–I got a call from the national director of education at my home on a Saturday morning.  His purpose was to let me know that I had no right to educate anyone even my own son(since I was not a credentialed teacher), and that I should stop immediately and allow the competent people assume the responsibility.  Anything else was akin to child abuse. 

    Well, I didn’t stop, but I stopped trying to do anything with the parish. Twenty years later it has progressed quite a bit as my parish is starting a school of its own based on a classical style curriculum. Unfortunately, little is still done to empower the parents to really help their children and the children are not really part of the handing on of the faith.

    My son is following the results of one of the things we discovered together in our homeschooling which, with God’s blessings I expect to bare a great deal of fruit but can’t share right now because it is fragile and in its infancy. It is not something intimately connected to the daily life of our parish however at least at this point, but he is proceeding with dedication, prayer and as much patience as he can muster.     

     

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    • Fr Jim Rosselli

      Dear in Christ, Michael–

      Your National director of Education was out of line.

      You are an Orthodox Christian husband and father. You are the priest of your house. God has given you, in consultation with your wife, who is your worthy helper (help-meet) and the prophet of your house, the responsibility for the formation of your family. He has not given your diocesan Director of Education that responsibility, and He has certainly not given him permission to mislead, insult or attempt to intimidate you in connection with your carrying out your Godly responsibilities.

      If this person gives you any more trouble, I would suggest you write a strong protest to your bishop If he
      attempts to harass you, I would suggest getting in touch with the Home School Legal Defense Association.

      What we need is for more parents to pull their children out of the immoral, militantly anti-Christian cesspool our public “education” system has become, and take the responsibility, as you did, for their education and formation.

      God bless you!

      May you and your family have a holy and blessed Pascha–

      Fr. James +

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      • Michael Bauman

        Fr. James, thank you, but this was a long time ago and the said director has reposed as has the mother of my son. A great many changes have occurred at the archdiocesan level with one bishop recently coming out in favor of homeschooling as an antidote to the godlessness of so much public schooling. I just happened to be about 20 years ahead.

        When I politely told the man, memory eternal, that I would not do as he thought best, but as I thought best the conversation ended and I was troubled no more. His ideas where not accepted in the archdiocese despite his position. They died with him. He was a dedicated man who was doing what he thought best, he had no personal animosity to me or my family at all. It was unsettling and did cause us to step back from any involvement with the parish efforts and remnants of that moment are there for me yet to forgive, unfortunately.

        My son completed his education, is 27 and is still a faithful member of our parish family and a pretty good evangelizer and apologist for the faith who has faced a lot worse things than the verbal assault of a good, but misguided man, not the least of which was the loss of his mother at a young age.
        By the grace of God, I have a new wife who has also become a new mother for my son in areas that he missed. We are all growing in the faith and in love of God and each other.

        By your prayers Father..

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