Editor’s Note: Please see the author’s comment in the Comment Section at the end of the article.
Source: The National Herald
Last year I attended a clergy gathering where we had several “workshops” discussing the importance of Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) ministry to college students, and what I call “The 60%.” This term derives from a recent study revealing that 60% of college students never return to church after college…
So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy? This is a difficult question to answer, but I have come up with several hypotheses. Some will apply specifically to our Orthodox Church, others will apply to Christian churches in general.
Here are my hypotheses.
Hypothesis 1: Linguistic and cultural ghettos that masquerade as “Churches” are contributing to “the 60%.” Orthodoxy has been in America for over 200 years. Yet too often our parishes live with the notion that the Church’s primary function is to be an ethnic preservation society. Far too many people go to church not to encounter Christ, the Son of the living God, but to talk in or listen to foreign languages and eat ethnic foods. Why do we attempt to raise our children spiritually in an atmosphere of dead liturgical languages and the equally dead cultures from which they came? Gee, Toto, we’re not in Byzantium (or Tsarist Russia) anymore! Nonetheless, we continue to offer incense to the idol of “spiritual language” while not gaining a substantive understanding from what we hear. Sure, sending our children to Arabic/Greek/Russian school might make grandma happy, but they will still be unable to understand the liturgical languages they hear in Church.
Hypothesis 2: Enmity in our churches is contributing to “the 60%.” Enmity is a word that means “positive, active, and mutual hatred or ill will.” Churches are full of it! – including the Orthodox. It would be great if we hated evil, sin, and the devil; instead we hate each other. Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as he has loved us. Too often, we fail.
When we fail we are hypocrites. How can Johnny learn about Christian love when mom has not spoken to “that person” in the parish for fifteen years?
Add to this parish splits, gossip, back-biting, the way personality-disordered parishioners treat the priest, vituperative general assembly meetings, etc., is it any wonder that our youth flee once they are free?
Hypothesis 3: Lack of stewardship is contributing to “the 60%.” We don’t regard the Church as the pearl of great price or a treasure buried in a field. Instead we treat the Church like a street beggar. In many of our parishes, clergy and stewardship committees hold out their hands hoping (and begging) that parish families will pay their “minimum dues.” Why must I hear of parishes with hundreds of families that by midyear do not have enough money to pay the electric bill or the priest’s salary? Why must I hear about priests and their families that are expected to live in substandard housing, send their children to substandard schools, drive junk cars, and depend on food stamps? This is scandalous! Even worse, this is oftentimes expected by parishioners who are quite generous to themselves. Why do churches depend on endless fundraisers and festivals for income? The answer to these questions is simple: too many parishioners do not value the Church.
We must pass on to our children, by our example, the principle that the Church is worth the stewardship of our time and talents above all else.
Hypothesis 4: Failed models of Christian education are contributing to “the 60%.”
With all due respect to those that have worked so hard in Christian education, it is time we admit that our Protestant-derived models of Christian education have failed. Like us, the Catholics and Protestants also have their own 60%.
Christian youth come out of years of Sunday school and still don’t know the basics of their own faith. I know of students educated in Catholic schools that think the Holy Trinity is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I know Orthodox Christians who think that the Holy Trinity is God, Jesus, and Mary. An organic living knowledge and internalization of the Orthodox Christian faith cannot happen in 45 minutes on a Sunday by cutting and coloring paper doll clergy and iconostases. There was no Sunday School in the early Church and yet families – parents and children – were martyred together bearing witness to the Christian faith (read the life of the early second-century martyrs Sophia and her three children…if you dare). Perhaps a radical re-thinking and new approach to
Hypothesis 5: The lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is contributing to “the 60%.” The Church is like a fig tree with lots of leaves. The leaves are things we get passionate and obsessive about – icons, facial hair (on men), chanting, vestments, ethnic nationalism, calendars, choirs, rants about ecumenists and liberal deconstructionists, spirituality, pseudo-spirituality, and all the rest of the fodder that one can find on “Orthodox” blog sites. However, if the tree doesn’t bear fruit, then it is doomed to whither.
I am going to be bold and identify the “first fruits” of the Church as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Some people might think that sounds a bit “Protestant,” but in fact it is entirely Orthodox. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is so deep, intimate, and personal, that He feeds us with this very own Body and Blood in the Eucharist (beginning for many of us when we are babies). That “first fruit,” that intense personal relationship with Christ, should then yield the fruits of repentance and spiritual growth in the lives of every Orthodox Christian. If we are unable to bear these “first fruits,” our youth and our Churches will wither.
Fr. Steven C. Salaris, MDiv, PhD, is Protopresbyter of All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Maryland Heights, MO.
Originally published on March 7, 2013.
Where Have Our Orthodox Youth Gone? - Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT