Ministries for Youth and Choirs
By Michael Soroka
A Lay Worker’s Experiences
Since graduating from St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1974. I have served the Orthodox Church, on a parish level, as a full-time choir director, and youth coordinator. While primarily working with choirs and young Orthodox Christians these past ten years, I have also attempted to assist in other related areas of church life—church school, adult education, diocesan lectures, choir directing workshops, Bible studies, and charitable endeavors.
I am constantly discovering how much more there is to be one for the strengthening of the spiritual lives of our youth and choirs in America. While claiming no “professional expertise” regarding these two essential Orthodox ministries, I can nevertheless share observations and ideas with those who are involved in the ongoing life of the Church in a similar manner, whether on a parish, diocesan, or national level.
Youth Ministry and the Church
Christian ministries spiritually grow if, and only if, they are rooted in the educational, liturgical, and eucharistic experience of the Church. Likewise, specific ministries cannot exist in isolation from other Orthodox ministries; they must work together! When applied to our youth, these fundamental principles are magnified. A parish youth program simply cannot become an end to itself, evolving into just another glorified club—socially, culturally, athletically, and perhaps even ethnically popular, financially stable, yet, in essence, spiritually harmful to the Christian community!
As a rule, children, teenagers, and young adults do not desire to be involved in an exclusive social group, organization or club set apart from all other interest groups and from all other Orthodox Christians within their eucharistic community. We tend to forget that we must serve only One Master here on earth, Christ Himself. Indeed, all so-called “parish interest groups” must be mutually interested in serving only Him and His Church. Truly, it is this service which unites us all. However possible, children want to share in this service. Wherever possible, they want to share responsibilities with adults, while attempting to carry out the Church’s mission here in America. Whenever possible, they want to learn, they want to serve, they want to sing, they want to help, and they want to pray—along with other Orthodox Christians of all ages.
Christian education is the key. In the home and in the church, it has always been the key. Priests, parents, parishioners, lay assistants, church school teachers, choir directors, youth coordinators, church school directors, and students—in fact, the entire parish community—must take this shared on-going “ministry to learn” very seriously. Vibrant and innovative church schools are only a beginning. The parish, itself, must never stop learning. Adults, as well as young people, must be given - more opportunities to learn about their Orthodox Church.
More and more parishes are establishing Adult Education groups, serious Bible Study sessions and Adult Church School classes on a weekly basis. The printing of informative weekly bulletins and monthly “theological newsletters;” the establishment of parish bookstores and libraries; the participation within parochial and diocesan Lenten retreats, youth retreats, departmental workshops, film and slide presentations, pilgrimages and diocesan assemblies; and the creation of youth rap sessions and annual vacation Church Schools can Improve the educational atmosphere of an Orthodox Christian community. If this religious education, in turn, is centered around sincere liturgical and eucharistic unity, our parish ministries can be established on firm ground. Then, slowly but surely, church growth through God’s blessings and under the pastoral guidance of our parish priests will inevitably occur.
Unique Ministries for Young People
Children (from infancy to twelve years of age;) teenagers (from thirteen to seventeen;) college students (from eighteen to twenty-one;) young adults (from twenty-two to perhaps thirty or thirty-five years of age;) and adults—all are members of the united “Body of Christ” (the Church) on earth. Nevertheless, we all possess different talents, concerns, interests, and desires: for there are unique members within that same “Body.” A parish youth program and youth coordinator must keep this truth in mind, while attempting to maintain the proper balance between educational, spiritual, and charitable concerns on the one hand, and social, cultural, and athletic activities on the other. “Controlled” social activities can promote Christian fellowship. Young people enjoy meeting other young people. Athletic programs (basketball, volleyball, and softball teams;) social events (dances, summer camps, swimming parties, canoe trips, ski trips, picnics, and amusement park trips for the teenagers and young adults as well as Easter egg hunts, movies, and Halloween parties for the younger children;) cultural activities (arts and crafts, yolkas, caroling, and folk dancing)—all help to create an atmosphere, which will attract today’s youth.
On a more serious level, young people may periodically visit hospitals for children and give puppet-shows, sing carols to “shut-ins.” They can participate in annual “Youth Days” (by processing with icons, ringing the bells, serving as altar boys, serving as ushers, taking collections, lighting candles, singing and reading in church;) and attend as many liturgical services as possible throughout the year. In addition, they may, as a “Youth Group,” remember their mothers and fathers by giving them Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gifts (i.e. carnations or crosses.) They may enjoy discussing various topics at monthly rap sessions with their priest, youth coordinator, or assigned teacher. They may want to attend or sponsor parish or diocesan retreats. They may assist at parish fund raisers, assist at parish-sponsored “Blood Banks,” attend an all-night vigil (“guarding the tomb”) on Holy Friday evening or Holy Saturday. They may sponsor “walk-a-thons,” “dance-a-thons,” or “skate-a-thons” for local charities. All these activities are ways in which our young people may witness to their churches and communities.
Organizing Young People
Most young people tend to shy away from overly structured organizations. They become turned-off by clubs which are too financially inspired, or have too many officers, or are strait-jacketed by too many out-dated by-laws. Yet, our young people want to be heard and they want to make their own decisions. Periodically, youth meetings can be scheduled to discuss upcoming activities and fund raisers. Within this somewhat informal structure, officers really are not needed—as long as a youth coordinator or leader guides participants in the right direction. He or she must not dictate group policy, but let young people “speak up” and participate in the decisions of their youth group. Most youth groups really want to be self- sufficient; most encouraged young people will work at their fund-raisers.
With their own finances to work with, they will be able to sponsor activities (“without always asking the church committee”) and they will be able to offer their assistance to their own parishes, to their own missions, to their own charities, to their own seminaries, to their own dioceses, and to their own American Church. Their available funds may be minimal in comparison to various other treasuries which surround them. But their donations to charitable concerns are seldom nominal. Physical service to their parishes can be promoted by organizing clean-up days at the church: washing and painting walls, cleaning candle stands and polishing liturgical articles, raking leaves, maintaining the grounds, or mowing lawns, etc.
All these areas of concern—service, education, witness, activities, administration, and charity—can mutually inspire the creation of a well-balanced Youth Ministry on a parish level.
The Ministry of Music
In a parish of any size, there are children. These children love to sing at home or at their schools. They sing while listening to their radios, T.V.‘s, or records. Children just love to sing! In fact, many children actually learn to “sing” before they can talk. Indeed, this “ministry of music” is a wonderful gift of love from God to all of us yes, even to those who sing out of tune. I have enjoyed throughout these past ten years working with readers of all ages, junior choirs, youth choirs, and senior choirs. I have also discovered that congregational singing can be a positive addition to a parish’s ministry of music. Hopefully, more Orthodox parishes will begin to offer opportunities to singers and parishioners of all ages in encouraging their God-given musical acts of stewardship through song.
Young children, as well as teenagers and adults, can be taught to read (chant) in church. Perhaps they can start with the “Lord,! Call” verses and prayers, “Vouchsafe, 0 Lord,” or “Holy God” at Vespers. Eventually, they may learn to read (chant) the Hours before Divine Liturgies or Epistle Readings throughout the liturgical year. Children (as young as six or seven years of age,) in particular, love to read in church—especially if other young children read also. If the parish promotes an atmosphere of patient encouragement and loving understanding, choir directors will have an easier time training others to read. The more qualified readers—the better!
A Junior Choir (composed of children anywhere from the ages of three or four to twelve) may initially begin to practice once or twice a month, while learning to sing together as a group (in one or two parts.) At first, a choir director may sing along with his or her enthusiastic “beginners” certain popular school songs, rounds, or carols that they may already know. A piano may be used as an aid—in order to encourage all to participate. Eventually, the group can learn Orthodox hymns at practice: “Our Father,” “It Is Truly Meet,” “0 Heavenly King,” and “Praise Ye the Name of the Lord.” Hopefully, the children may be secure enough to sing certain hymns in church. That’s great! Indeed, it’s a good beginning. But if they are not ready, let’s not push them to a point of embarrassment. Their time will come. A foundation can be established only through patience and love on the part of parents, priests, and choir directors. Attendance may be disappointing at times. But a spirit of encouraging perseverance must prevail. Quality not quantity, must be stressed. If one parishioner now begins to chant in church, in addition to the choir director, it’s a start. Conversions don’t happen overnight. I have discovered that once an atmosphere of support is secure, little by little more young children desire to sing and read in their church.
A Youth Choir (consisting of teenagers and young adults anywhere from the ages of twelve to thirty or older depending upon the combined “voicing” of available singers) can offer an important light and lively, prayer-like musical spirit to our Divine Services. These voices, despite their apparent chronological age differences, can harmonize rather well together—usually in three or four parts, thus enabling them to sing complex hymns. The older singers offer security and experience, while the younger singers offer enthusiasm and a “lightness” often not heard in a cappella singing. Obviously, not every parish can organize a youth choir—there may be a shortage of willing young singers. However, if possible, such a choir can sing Divine Liturgy responses, for example, once a month, as well as the many other services throughout the year.
Senior choirs have always diligently “offered praises unto the Lord.” Many faithful and experienced singers have served as stewards of liturgical music in our parishes, while leading our congregations in prayerful-song. Weekly rehearsals are essential to promote and sustain vocal discipline and spiritual understanding. Vocal training sessions help while caroling and concerts can be both beneficial and fun for all. The responses to weekly Matins and Vespers services, as well as to Divine Liturgies (perhaps once a month) can be sung by entire congregations. This communal style of liturgical singing—if kept simple—promotes more participation from the congregation.
Let’s be honest! In some parishes, we are faced with sad facts: we must work with small church schools, small choirs, few children, teenagers, young adults, parishioners, and resources. Unfortunately, lay ministries are not even known of, in certain parishes, let alone understood and supported. In some areas, community outreach programs (i.e. blood banks, hospital visitations and services, ministries to the elderly, the dying and the homeless, etc.) are non-existent. In many parishes, Christian education is encouraged by all in theory, but in practice by just a few. At times, attendance is discouragingly low at services, rehearsals, activities, and retreats.
On the other hand, in other parishes, there is great reason to rejoice; church growth has manifested itself throughout America in many forms. Our hopes are rising. Our missions are growing. Our ranks are enlarging. There are many qualified and devoted priests, servants, and parishioners everywhere. Both priests and lay assistants alike are setting the encouraging tone today, despite past failures and disappointments. There are many who are “fighting the good fight” for the benefit of all.
A Call to Minister
No one ministry used in one parish, at one time, and with one established set of programmed procedures can be productively and favorably applied everywhere. There are no ready-made magical ministerial formulas which can destroy all spiritual and educational indifference. Indeed, beneficial programs in one parish may actually prove harmful in others. Nevertheless, we must not sit idly by within our inactive parishes, passively accepting our limitations as a fact of life, while forever “crying poverty.” Perhaps it is time for more Orthodox parishes to invest in their futures. Our parish priests need assistance—they cannot accomplish everything alone. They need lay assistance. Hopefully, more and more lay assistants will be allowed to offer that needed help in the future. If only they would be given that chance!