Prayer and Falling in Love with Jesus
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.
Not Just Kids, But Families Too
We ‘ve seen that teenagers, and indeed child much younger, will use the tools they’re given to understand themselves and their situation (here).
On a positive note, this means that what we take as rebellion or resistance isn’t necessarily a rejection of the Gospel. It is rather the young person’s attempt to understand, to make their own, the tradition they’ve been given.
This, however, assumes that they have been given the faith.
As we also saw, for most young people—even those raised in a religious family—they spend the majority of their time in an environment that is theologically neutral (at best). While sometimes they may encounter overt hostility to the Gospel, it is usually just the absence of a religious context that causes them to drift away from the faith (here).
In other words, it isn’t (for example) learning about evolution that causes young people to leave but learning about evolution in a context where adults never discuss Creation.
All this suggests that youth ministry needs to have a broader focus than simply someone in the parish working with young people. One of the great advantages churches have is that they are one of the few social institutions that aren’t rigidly segregated by age. This gives young people the opportunity to meet and interact with a wide range of people from different backgrounds and of different ages. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance in young people’s lives of adults who are mature, committed, thoughtful Orthodox Christians. The whole parish has a role to play in the spiritual formation of young people as they make the journey to an adult faith.
The other social institution, and our immediate concern in this post, that isn’t segregated by age is the family. What can the family teach us about forming young people so they grow to be emotionally mature, spiritually committed, Orthodox Christian adults?
As a college chaplain, parents often ask me how they can keep their children in the Church. This is a good and important question. The questions that really interests me though are the ones parents never ask.
“Father, how do I keep my children as part of my family? How do I get them to come home for Christmas? How do make sure, when the time comes, they’ll invite me to their wedding? And someday in the future, how will I be part of my grandchildren’s lives?”
Nobody ever asks me these questions. Why? Because they don’t need to ask them.
Except in the most unhappy and pathological of families (and even then, sometimes!), children want a lifelong relationship with their parents and siblings. These relationships might not be easy or everything they want the, to be but the relationships exist.
And again, except for the most broken of families, people work at creating and fostering those relationships over the whole life cycle and even after death. Rarely do we “excommunicate” our family or sever our relationship with parents or siblings.
In other words, what the Church is struggling to do, even broken, unhappy families manage on a regular basis.
The article I’ve asked you to read this week (Family Traditions Help Kids Make Sense of Life) makes suggests about what families can do to build strong ties among themselves. What ideas does it give you either for working with families or for helping youth ministry become a concern for the whole parish?
Helping Kids Find Their Way in Faith
A colleague and I would set up a table in the student union of the university where we were chaplains and offer to answer religious questions for a dime (the money would go to charity). Often before we could answer the student’s question we asked if he or she was raised in a religious tradition. We did this because we wanted to know the student’s theological starting point. Or more accurately, what in their tradition the student likely misunderstood that lead to their question.
Often the way in which the questions were asked was pointed and even disrespectful. It was a challenge for me to learn that the students’ tone wasn’t the result of malice. Rather it was an awkward attempt to ask a question that outstripped their abilities to formulate. I had to learn, in other words, to hear the concern underneath the tone.
The work of the development psychologist Sharon Parks (see below) has been extraordinarily valuable in helping me coming to an appreciative understanding of how a young person learns to make sense of his or her situation using the tools we provide them (we’ll look more at these tools next week). Parks’s work also has help me understand that what often seems like rebellion or a rejection of the faith, is actually a young person awkward attempt to use the physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual tools they’ve been given as they struggle to understand themselves and the world around them.
In other words, I’ve had to come to appreciate the struggle young people have with “adulating.” This understanding is important. Without it, I can’t respond with compassion to what are frequently annoying and irritating questions and comments.
(So there’s no mistake, I am unashamed to confess, that after 25+ years of working with middle school, high school and college students, sometimes young people can still get on my nerves!)
Parks has also help me remember me that I’m still learning. Each young person I met represents a new challenge, a new invitation from Christ to understand someone’s situation and to learn more fully what it means to respond with His compassion.
I travel a fair amount for work. This means I’m frequently arriving in a new city with no idea where I am. Thank God, for my GPS! Without it, I’d always be lost!
Being in a place we’ve never been before can be confusing and even frightening. And being in a new place requires that we make an effort to get our bearings.
This isn’t only true geographically. It’s also true for young people as they grow physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially, and spiritually.
Working with young people means working with individuals who are often more or less lost. They’re lost because they are in a place they’ve never been before. And they do what all of us do in similar situations. They look around, they explore, they try to find the boundaries of the situation so they can find their way.
To do all this, they use the tools they’ve been given by their family, the Church and society. Some of these tools are better than others at helping young people find their way in life. But however good the tools are, especially early on, the young person just doesn’t know how to use them!
It’s our calling to help them.
Living In A Secular Culture
We live in a secular culture. As Fr Alexander Schmemann describes it our culture isn’t “necessarily anti-religious.” In fact, American culture is “both deeply religious and deeply secularistic.” But instead of being the over-arching framework that also permeates the whole of life (what the sociologist Peter Berger called a “sacred canopy), religion is seen as merely a part of life.
We are often quite sincere in our affirmation, Schmemann says, of “the need for religion” and we even “give it a place of honor and cover it with many privileges.” But while we look to religion (including the Gospel) to “supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort, we often fail to expect the Gospel to “transform life” to transform us and those we love.
As a practical matter, this means that as an Orthodox Christian I can believe “in God and in the immortality of the soul” even pray daily “and find great help in prayer.” But when I go to work (or in the case of Orthodox young people, school), everything that I do, is done without any reference or discussion of “the fundamental religious realities of Creation, Fall and Redemption” (you can read the whole essay here).
And not only are we all generally accepting of this state of affairs, many of us even advocate for it because we live in a “pluralistic” society.
For our young people, school, extra-curricular activities, social media, and the entertainment they seek out, almost the whole of how they spend their day, happens without reference to the Gospel. This leads to the situation in which they don’t so much reject Christ and the Gospel as they simply drift away.
Spiritually, it’s like what happens when children are raised only playing video games and never going outside to play. To a large degree, we are seeing the fruit of young people being raised to be spiritual couch potatoes. Or what the fathers call the sin of sloth (acedia)
In Liturgy and Life: Christian Development through Liturgical Experience, Schmemann touches on a theme we have seen before. Orthodox Christians, like our Roman Catholics (here), Evangelical Christians and Mainline Protestants brothers and sisters, are struggling with forming young people as disciples of Christ. We know that telling young people about God isn’t enough. They too need to meet, know and love God.
What we are talking about is broader and deeper than religious education; we’re concerned with the spiritual formation of young people.
This is a task that belongs to the whole Church. This is why we need to look not only at young people but also ourselves. Why? Because “We cannot teach what we do not practice ourselves” (Life and Liturgy, p. 14).
Even when they rebel (and this is next week’s topic), young people do so using the emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual toolkit adults gave them. This raises three fundamental questions for us as youth ministers.
- How are we failing to provide young people with the tools they need to discern and live out their vocations? In other words, how are we failing to help them rebel against the world by following Christ?
- How are we succeeding? What are we doing well to help young people to live out who they are in Christ? Or, how are we helping them rebel against the world by following Christ?
- Mindful of our weakness, how can we build on our strengths to help young people live life as disciples of Jesus Christ within the context of the Orthodox Church and their daily lives?
Seeing the Whole Picture
Asking the right questions helps young people become disciples of Jesus Christ. Discipleship is the first step in our life as Orthodox Christians.
The pastoral challenge working with youth is this. Like their parents, like most of us, young people have grown up in a culture of moral relativism. This is one of the central points Dean makes in Almost Christian.
Moral relativism isn’t just a matter of saying there are no moral absolutes. In American culture, it’s about accepting some moral values and ignoring others.
What does this look like in practice?
Haidt argues that “liberals” (his word) have a morality based on care and fairness. I shouldn’t hurt others and I should treat everybody the same.
The problem is that liberals hold to care and fairness at the expense of other moral values. These neglected values are loyalty, authority, holiness and liberty.
Care and fairness are also important to “conservatives” (again, his word). But they think the other moral values are also important for how human beings should live.
What does this mean for us?
Well, it means we’re called by God to work with young people who have a very limited moral sense. So if I say that pre-martial sex is a sin, young people will think (and sometimes say) I’m not loving (not caring). Or I’ll hear that I’m not a good Christian because I’m “judging people.” Say not everyone goes to heaven and I’ll hear that’s “not fair!”
You get the idea.
Young people react this way because they don’t see the whole moral picture. They only have a small window on human life (care and fairness).
This also means they have only a partial sense of what it means to be a Christian. As Dean points out this means “Be Nice!” and “Don’t judge others!”
But the Gospel is more than this. Being an Orthodox Christian is, or should be, life transforming. If we don’t present it this way, we make the Church boring! For many young people being a Christian doesn’t mean being transformed, or really much at all beyond being nice.
But there are lots of nice people in the world who aren’t Christian. If being nice or being a good person is the goal, how is Christianity different from other religions? Or from being an atheist?
Young people inherit their views about from their parents and other adults. Many, possibly even most, adult Orthodox Christians have the same narrow view of the Christian life that we’ve sketched out here.
What does this mean for?
Well, we’ve got to work with young people and parents!
Make no mistake, working with both is challenging! It requires a great deal of creativity, patience, and prayer. But this is the ministry to which God has called us! So yes, we have a big challenge in front of us but God’s grace is always available to us.
The article we’ll look at this week (3 Common Traits of Youth Who Don’t Leave the Church) outlines the characteristics of kids who stay in the church as adults. It was written by, and for, Evangelical Christians. So, we might want to ask, as Orthodox Christians what changes (if any) do we need to make? Or maybe, how would you put the article into practice with your youth group? (Look at the comments at the end of the article. These can help you see what does, and doesn’t, work for the article’s Evangelical readers.)
I’ve also uploaded a pdf of the article for those who want to print it off: 3 Common Traits of Youth Who Don’t Leave the Church.
What is Youth Ministry?
Youth ministry is concerned with helping young men and women commitment themselves to Jesus Christ as His disciples and witnesses. To do this we need to first make sure they know Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Young people, like everyone else, must know that out of His great love for us, God became Man, dwelt among us, suffered, died and rose for us and for our salvation.
So first, it is important that those of us who minister to young people—whether as parents, clergy or youth ministers—are ourselves disciples of Christ. I can’t minster to young people unless I have committed my life to Jesus Christ and shape my life around His Person and teaching. Forming people as disciples and witness of Christ this is the reason behind the ascetical and liturgical life of the Church. So, we’ll begin with looking briefly at the role of prayer and asceticism in the life of the Orthodox Christian.
St Anthony the Great says that if we want to know God, we must first know ourselves. Self-knowledge is the foundation of our relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As spiritual mentors for young people, we need to help them grow in self-knowledge, self-acceptance and self-expression. This work is a ministry of the Church and must be guided by Holy Tradition. We take the Tradition as our guide because we want to help young people know, accept and express themselves in Christ so that they can live for Christ as His disciples and witnesses.
Finding the Right Questions
Though from different perspectives, both Fr Alexander Schmemann in Liturgy and Life: Development through Liturgical Experience and Kendra Creasy Dean in Almost Christian: What the faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church make the case that we need to provide young people with solid theological content. While there are other reasons we’ll consider latter, one reasons Orthodox young people they fall away from Christ and the Church after they graduate high school and move out into the world, is because they only have a vague understanding of what the Church teaches and so what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.
Developmentally, however, simply telling young people what the Church teaches isn’t likely to help them connect with Christ and the Church. Helping young people remain Orthodox as adults requires that we help them understand themselves and their lives in light of the Gospel. In other words, a central concern of youth ministry is helping young people form a personal identity and a living sense of their own personal vocation as Orthodox Christians.
This is a big job and one will come back to throughout the semester. For now, though, I’d like to suggest a starting point. We need to help young people learn to ask the right questions. Why is this important? Because if I ask the wrong question, say how much is 2+2? even if I get the right answer (4) it won’t help me grow in my relationship with Christ and the Church.
With that said, here’s your first reading assignment: “Living the Questions.” Feel free to ask your own questions and discuss the article here. (You can also email me privately, but I think engaging each other in this forum will help everyone reflect on the topic.)