Unless You Be Like Children

Magic Answers.
It seems to you that some of the young people in your parish are becoming disinterested in the Church; you see them going off to college and very few returning to "active" participation in parish life. Perhaps you see this even in your own children. You've picked up this pamphlet possibly thinking, "Hmm, perhaps they've come up with some answers to this perennial dilemma!" Without wishing to disappoint you we must say at the outset: this is not another "How to..." book. This is, however, a little digest about some reflections concerning young people and work with them.

Our reflections are quite elementary and we've tried to avoid all those heavy professional words like "maturation", and "socialization", and "attitudinal re-orientation", so we think you'll follow along with us quite easily. We do take the liberty of making some self-evident remarks, because we have discovered that occasionally what is simple and readily available is overlooked in favor of the "latest technique", the magic formula generated by the specialists, not the least of whom are the specialists on youth. Indeed, some "specialists" have contributed significantly in this special area of the Church's life not because they have Ph D's in youth work but because they have acquired this specialization as a result of dedicated love for and attention to the diverse needs and rich gifts of the young. Mostly, they have approached the young not as another "problem" of the Church, requiring new programs, but as a treasure in which the Church can see herself growing -- always painfully (since the world lies in sin), but with rejoicing in the blessing received through her children (Matthew 18:3).

What is Youth Ministry?
All our remaining remarks are based on this key -- that of receiving. In speaking of ministry in general, we often think of a service (even sacrifice) done to someone, thus we think of young people ~as requiring things done for them, to stimulate them, to activate them. Rarely are we aware that simply being with someone can be sufficient. And not only sufficient, but more, a gift. A person visiting shut-ins will know, for example, that in setting out to offer company, he is himself blessed with encountering Christ in the person visited (should this not always be the case?). Work with the young, therefore (as with all), can be approached not only as responsibility and offering, but more importantly as privilege and receiving. You ask: is it to hear critical and disparaging remarks from a rebellious youth? Is it not a privilege to shoulder some of his burden, his disenchantment and anxiety, and maybe by just being there, help to relieve it (Gal.5:13,6:2; Rom.15:1)?

Of the many attempted definitions of youth ministry, few are satisfactory. By nature, such definitions tend to stereotype youth. Someone contemplating youth work in his parish traditionally wonders what to do with middle-class suburban adolescents, with both parents at home, married once, and of the same faith. Sometimes these young people seem bored or disinterested, so the obvious solution is to get them "activated". You see the picture: car washes, fund-raisers, youth choirs, etc. But the boredom remains! It should be clear by now that such activities do not in themselves provide the key to wholesome spiritual life. Furthermore, if the model-family were a statistically dominant reality in our society, we would not be frantically searching for solutions. The fact is that children do not all come from the peaceful cottage on Elm Street. There are mixed marriages, and mixed-up marriages; there are foster children and step-children; there are children in institutions and para-military compounds; there are children whose expressions and manners belie great personal or family tragedies; and most frequently and surprisingly today, children (of all ages) who are simply very much alone, unable to share their fears, joys, temptations, sorrows.

To begin recommendations and instruction with phrases like: "Parents ought to..." is to be blind to this whole complex reality. Yet, it is equally offensive to assume that there is always a direct relationship between successful programs and "successful Christians". The Church has begotten saints from the dregs of human disaster, and on the other hand forfeited to apostasy her children who had all the "breaks". A few years ago, a well-educated young engineer from a churchly family boasted of all the church activities he was involved in as a teen. Today his own children are aware of little that happens in the church between Christmas and Pascha, except when a youth activity is scheduled. "Very busy, Father, important swim meets!" "I'm a manager now, lot's of overtime". Sound familiar?

The family and the parish are only part of the environment of the young, but the task of Christian youth ministry is to ensure that these specific contexts be formative in positive ways. Young people are more responsive to people than ideas. "Thou shalt..." is meaningful only insofar as some actually "doest". This is as it should be, for the Church does not preach ideas but Christ (1 Cor. 1:23), and is therefore gathered around the person of Jesus Christ, who is the model for all of us to follow. The person who wishes to work with young people must be firm in his own convictions. The order and spiritual integrity of his own life will speak more clearly than any attempts to "be with it".
An effective way of establishing natural friendships with young people in the parish community is to involve them in routine activities both within and outside the parish, to allow them to participate in the daily reality, which is not programmed or contrived. An invitation to move a piece of furniture or paint a room is important precisely because it is an opportunity for mutual offering. We can offer to the young the meeting places, provide them with the circumstances to encounter and grow, without being anxious that we are not doing enough, forgetting something essential, or not having enough props. A woman recounts how, while visiting a monastery, she suddenly lost track of her children. The abbot gently consoled her saying, "Do not worry, let God play with them for a while!" Young people do not particularly want a "youth minister". They want a friend whom they can respect and who will be concerned for them and with them, but who will also give them the space to move freely and with impunity.

A prerequisite of ministry is listening: the need to hear the questions before preparing the answers. And young people have very many questions. Since Christian ministry is concerned with the whole person it will provide avenues for all facets of his life to be admitted, discussed, and prayed about without humiliation or judgment. For a while, it was fashionable to deal openly with questions of sexuality, for example. However, people who listened closely enough soon discovered that sexuality is simply not the over-riding concern of the young.
Young people grope and search for what is stable and strong in a world where few things stand still long enough to be grasped. If they probe at authority, it is to check if it won't topple over. Usually they find hope in the example and conviction of people who are unafraid to open their lives to scrutiny. Certainly, this openness can also reveal a host of our own weaknesses, conflicts and uncertainties. But hopefully, our struggle with problems can attest to our own on-going growth in life and faith. What a relief for altar boys to discover that priests too can spill charcoal all over the carpet!

Who is Grown-up?
At a parish retreat for teens, a 16-year old girl asked the priest if the people she was staying with had any complaints adding, "We know that teens can sometimes be a nuisance, but we tried to help as best we could with their nice children." This well-intentioned girl was conditioned to be defensive and found herself compensating and nervous about something that was otherwise very normal and enjoyable for her.

At the same retreat, one of the adult hosts complained that her guests, two teenage girls, were giggling about a racy passage in a pocket book they had. The fact that these girls had come 80 miles to a religious retreat did little to temper their host's condemnation of their "perverse" behavior. As she seethed with indignation, it seemed irrelevant that her own two teenage daughters, who lived quite near the church, did not participate in the retreat.

The example begs various questions. Who received something worthwhile at this retreat? Who gave? Who could have gained and didn't? Are we drawn to judgment? Pity? Gospel passages come surging to mind, and we are left to ponder that it is indeed a "great mystery", this life of ours in God. The uncertainty, tensions, and mutual growth experienced in working with young people are well-illustrated by the following quote:

"Family life means being together and breaking away, it gives protection and teaches independence. Family life is constant friction, but friction within the framework of love, and this provokes growth. Members of the family may be sick, whether physically or morally, but this does not make them less a part of the family. In the family, we learn the meaning of being together and yet there is always an experience of individual loneliness, and the blending of the two means growth in maturity. (From "The Icon of Family Life", Sophie Koulomzin in St. Vladimir's Seminary Foundation Commemorative Book, Education Day 1980)

Mrs. Koulomzin uses the family to typify relationships among people in the Church in general. It is popular to depict the committed Christian as one who is regularly doing a variety of prescribed good works by which he can eventually think of himself as an "active" member. Such a limiting vision of Christian stewardship, in its constant goal-orientation, misses the valuable present moment of encounter with God. There are no citations given to the helpless woman or the confused young man who simply are in the presence of God in prayer and hope.

Career Ministry.
If campus ministry has always been considered important, it is because we know that the years spent in preparing for a career are not simply years sacrificed for future goals. The critical decisions of these years are often made in a climate of intense spiritual turmoil and growth. Many "active" leaders in church work today attest to the marked influence of Orthodox Christian Fellowships (OCF's), Retreats and Conferences on their own commitment in the Church. Due perhaps to an inadvertent parochialism, we have allowed these important spiritual bridges to collapse over the years. It is encouraging, though, that more laymen and clergy are reaching out to the schools and institutions by visiting, advertising, inviting, and assembling young people into fellowship with each other and Christ.

What Does it Take?
Does the specter of specialized "mini stories" make the un-specialized person reluctant to work with youth? After all, if you're not a "youth minister" what can you possibly do? Let us breathe easily. While these terms are new, and there is much to be learned, let us be mindful that as the Church in America we have learned a great deal through our very evident spiritual growth. It is true that there are no slick Madison Avenue programs proclaiming this growth. The proclamation is the people, the many committed Orthodox Christians who flourish, pray, minister, teach in our churches today, despite the absence of programs in their own youth, yet thanks to the presence then of other faithful Christians. It is through such people that Christ continues "to draw the world" into his Body, the Church.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries