SAN FRANCISCO: May 11, 2006
Lecture by Protopriest Gabriel Makarov,
Rector of St Nicholas Cathedral in Brisbaine, Australia
Youth Problems and the Means to their Resolution
Your Eminence, Your Graces, Reverend Fathers, fellow Delegates!
"If good teachings are imprinted in a soul which has not yet strengthened,
then no one can erase them once it has hardened,
in a similar fashion to a seal, when it is applied into wax."
St. John Chrysostom. Concerning vanity and how parents should raise their children.
I have chosen to begin my paper with this quote from the pen of one of the greatest and wisest teachers of the early Church because of the very succinct truth that it proclaims, a truth that so often resonates in the concerns of every pastor or youth worker whenever they are confronted, and sometimes overwhelmed, by the issues of youth problems. By this I mean - how often do we find ourselves saying something along the lines of: “if only the time and effort had been made to instill the correct notions into this young person's soul when it was still in its formative years!”
It is my belief that the problems and challenges faced by the youth of our Church today are of such a menacing nature and their impact on the spiritual life of our youth so harmful, that the need to find ways of addressing and resolving them must be treated as critical! I believe that for many of our youth, the contemporary challenges to their spirituality are so overwhelming that we, as pastors of the church, must work in unison to respond in a timely and vital way to their needs.
There may always be exceptions, but as a rule, an adult does not suddenly become a competent and productive member of the Church but rather, in the natural order of things, is nurtured by the Church through family and parish community from early childhood through juvenile years. The individual's resulting competency and productivity in Church life is then the spiritual fruit of many years of concerted labor involving many different facets of family, parish and community life.
In my personal experience of growing up in a fairly strong Russian Orthodox community in Australia, followed by 22 years of service as a parish priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) I have observed the sorrowful trend of the gradual but relentless falling away from church life of significant numbers of the youth. At first, these were close friends and peers, later, parishioners and children of parishioners, of my own and other parishes throughout the diocese. Innumerable discussions over many years with fellow clergy, dismayed pedagogues, and despairing parents and grandparents has painted in my mind an undeniable picture that somewhere in the nurturing stages of family and parish community there is being fought a losing battle and years of labor on the part of many are resulting in only a meager harvest of spiritual fruit.
The reason for this of course is multifaceted. But, certainly an important contributing factor to youth problems is the fact that our Orthodox young people today, perhaps more than at any other time in modern history, live in an extremely pluralistic society where religious beliefs of all faiths and understandings are sprinkled everywhere – at school, at work, at recreation. When all of this is promoted in today's atmosphere of political correctness where mutual tolerance and acceptance of all things must be exercised, the challenge to an Orthodox young person can be very daunting. Often, the sincere desire to appear not to discriminate against others' beliefs and customs, however un-Orthodox, is confused with a failure to exercise discernment. And so, a process of erosion and desensitization of inner convictions begins to take hold.
A further factor, of no less importance, is that our youth are faced with the task of preserving their Orthodox roots in an environment, culture and society that for the most part is not only unsympathetic, but often hostile to their spiritual aims. This is certainly a kind of spiritual warfare and the outcome of doing battle in such an environment without strong support of numbers can often lead to feelings of spiritual fatigue, discouragement and despondency. Those who face up to this challenge understand full well the age-old Russian saying: “A loner on the battlefield, is not a warrior!”
Another factor, which is sometimes greatly underestimated, is the considerable and frightening influence of peer pressure on youth. On any youth, peer pressure is very strong for a certain crucial time, usually between the ages of 12 to 20 or so. In order to be accepted or to belong, many young people are drawn into harmful attitudes and actions that really they don't even want and later regret. So the kinds of groups that are formed at these times are important. It is an unfortunate fact that our church communities often fail to provide supportive peer groups to counteract peer pressure from more unsavory groups.
There is also a factor, which needs to be acknowledged because of its profound impact on those of our youth who descend from traditional Russian Orthodox families, that is - assimilation. With each generation of life in Australia, America, Canada, or other country of settlement, as the case may be, there is a loss or dilution of cultural and religious heritage. The test for this is quite simple – each generation unhesitatingly states that theirs was more Russian and more Orthodox than the one succeeding it. It seems superfluous to say that assimilation is a normal and inevitable process, but the real challenge to our youth lies in the fact that healthy assimilation need not necessarily be to the detriment of cultural and religious heritage. That is to say, all that a host country has to offer can be judiciously embraced without giving up the rich traditions and treasures of one's own historical past.
One final factor of great concern is the fact that in today's very secular and anti-religious society there are forces and processes, which actively seek to ensnare our younger and weaker members. The alarming proliferation of drug, alcohol and other substance abuse, the rejection of wholesome family values, the promotion of immoral entertainment and lifestyle, the blasphemous irreverence towards all that is holy and sacred—all of these have now become the lethal tools of the secular world in the deadly competition for our children's loyalties.
Many of our youth struggle against the influence of these and other negative factors, and sadly, depending on personal conviction and circumstance, not all are victorious, and many fall by the wayside, and some are irretrievably lost. The final outcome is that reality which parents, clergy and other church youth workers sadly observe in many of our parishes today. The following statements would be familiar to most of us and typify the main areas of concern:
Our churches are often lacking in youth.
Youth often exhibit apathy towards their Orthodoxy and do not feel stimulated by it.
For many, church services are seen as boring, unfulfilling and of little relevance to their lives.
Youth seeking fulfillment in alternate areas often succumb to alcohol and other substance abuse.
There is an alarming frequency of mixed marriages, that is, where one of the partners is not Orthodox, where unity in Orthodox faith is not even deemed necessary.
Orthodox marriage and subsequently, baptism, are similarly neglected.
Positions of leadership in the parish, such as on parish councils and parish sisterhoods, when vacated, fail to be adequately filled by competent, aspiring members of the next generation. The same can be said of many church choirs.
Youth who have distanced themselves from church and community can become easy prey for cults and sects.
In a word, young people are less motivated to struggle, deny themselves and offer themselves up for a higher cause. On a broader level, of course, this also has an impact on the ability of young people to answer the call to serve the Church as monastics and clerics.
And so, at this very special and hope-filled time in our Church's existence, when attention is being turned to the possibility of bridging the sorrowful divide between our Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and the Church in Russia, surely the next most pertinent area of concern, requiring our undivided attention, should be the welfare and future of our youth.
In preparing this paper and being mindful of the time allocated to me, I reasoned that the most profitable approach in addressing the topic would not be one where all of the focus would be placed on a long list of problems identified with the youth of today, followed by an equally long list of suggested solutions. The reasons for this are plain – firstly, the nature of youth problems is always subject to change and will change even within the space of one short generation. Secondly, at what point could one consider that a comprehensive list of problems had been established and finally, what would be the criteria for deciding the appropriate number and most adequate solutions to each problem, taking into consideration the age and different countries of residency of our Church's young people.
So, rather, the greater focus should be placed on identifying and promoting mechanisms within our parishes and dioceses by means of which the issues affecting youth may be identified and confronted. Ideally, such mechanisms should contend with issues at a grass roots level, before they grow to be problematic. Even better, if the mechanisms could anticipate issues before they even occur and promote preventative measures.
To illustrate this more effectively, I offer the following analogy. Let us say that a team of health professionals must decide how to treat a person whose health is in very poor and dangerous condition due to unhealthy lifestyle, bad eating habits and lack of exercise.
One option would be to treat the person's breathing problems, poor heart function, high cholesterol and failing energy, but this would confine treatment only to the symptoms of the greater problem. It would not address the root cause of the bad health. A second option would be to encourage the person to lose some weight through dieting in order to alleviate some of the problems. It would be hoped that after losing weight, the person would not succumb to previous bad habits and start the process over again. Once again, this does not address the root cause, but treats a symptom in the hope that it will not re-occur. The third and best option, of course, would be to first establish a program of correct and healthy eating habits, then instill an understanding of the importance of appropriate exercise and lifestyle. This would allow for existing health problems to be rectified and at the same time, would act as a preventative measure against future problems.
If we are to work at resolving the problems of our youth, then a similar approach is needed, one that rectifies and offers preventative measures.
In many of our parishes around the world, it is a heartening fact that there are some very fine priests, deacons and assistant clergy who resolutely dedicate much of their time to the affairs of youth, and in many cases, with very encouraging results. I think all would agree, however, that this is surely not the norm for all of our parishes. There are undoubtedly many factors involved here, but the following few come to mind immediately: the age of the priest, the scope of his personal experience, his ability to communicate in the language of the youth, his work commitments, and so forth. In fact, herein may lay a very important factor when it is considered how best to deal with youth issues. By this I mean that it can be said generally of our parishes that the success of youth work depends largely on the individual capabilities of the priest and his helpers and the resources available to them. In other words, the future spiritual prosperity of youth in a particular parish is often subject to a system of “available opportunity," or put more crudely, a system of “chance."
Such a system can have devastating consequences on youth who find themselves short-changed in this respect. Young people are zealous by their very nature and many want to aspire to high ideals. If their zeal is correctly directed, then they are capable of acts of great self-sacrifice and self-discipline, but only if the means is found by which they may be inspired and their dedication engaged. Indicatively, in a survey of over 120 young people, recently conducted for the purposes of this report—although 73% claimed that their Orthodoxy was important and relevant to them, only 13% considered themselves to be an integral part of their Russian Orthodox community. And in response to questions relating to young people's social and educational needs and their opportunity for advancement in the community, the majority of responses indicated that such needs were not being met.
Surely, the spiritual upbringing of our Orthodox youth, who are also our future as an Orthodox community, merits more than this! Our Church has parishes and missions on every continent and in over 30 countries. We number 14 dioceses and worldwide, have over 400 parishes with greater than 500 parish priests. To this number could be added a myriad of assistant clergy and laypeople. This means, that in terms of resources and collective experience in working with youth, worldwide we possess a veritable treasure.
I believe, that to utilize this treasure and make it accessible to all our young people, wherever they may find themselves in our vast Diaspora, we need to have a collaborated and committed ROCOR YOUTH MINISTRY. For such a Ministry to be effective, it would need to have a fresh and genuine insight into the needs and problems facing our youth. It would necessarily demand real vision and energy to face up to the challenges posed by these problems. It should aim to work at a grassroots level, anticipating youth problems and engaging in preventative measures. To do this effectively it would need to develop a unifying youth rationale for abandoning the destructive values that are prevalent in today's society. Such a Ministry would need to function as a 3-tiered structure, at Parish, Diocesan and Synodal levels.
The idea of a dedicated Youth Ministry is certainly not new or unusual and there is opportunity for us to learn from what others have achieved. In today's Russia there can be seen a vast amount of work and energy dedicated to the churching of youngsters and older youth, through church youth organizations, youth camps, print media and now, even radio and television. The Greek Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church are also very prominent in their youth activities, with particular emphasis on Sunday School curriculum and religious study aids. In the West, Catholic and Protestant churches have for decades promoted specialized areas of youth work. In any major city, one need only visit a Christian bookstore and inspect the youth section to gain an insight into how much resource and attention is dedicated to youth issues through study, counselling and activity programs. In citing these examples, it should be noted certainly, that not all organizations which promote youth ministries approach issues in the same way, and certainly not all that we observe in youth work is necessarily worthy of emulation. But, when exercising discernment we may still follow actively the advice of St Ephraim the Syrian, to be as bees collecting pollen – approaching and carefully examining each flower and collecting only that which is beneficial and leaving behind that which is harmful.
As noted earlier, in many of our parishes around the world, the Church is blessed with some very fine and dedicated youth workers. Also, in many parishes, there already exist excellent and successful youth programs. But, the very fact that this is not widespread and certainly is not the norm for all of our parishes is an indication that a collaborated official youth ministry is needed. Indeed, what better way to allow other parishes to benefit from the vast experience and efforts of successful youth programs!
Obviously, it is not enough to simply propose the idea of establishing an official ROCOR Youth Ministry. Much work and coordinated effort would be needed to bring such an idea to fruition. A practical approach would need to be formulated and resources made available. In the following few paragraphs I have outlined one proposal for setting up such a mechanism, which I consider is practical and achievable in the lives of our dioceses worldwide. As a model of reference I will use our Australian and New Zealand Diocese and I believe that this model would apply to other dioceses with perhaps some minor differences.
First, a brief background. Under the leadership of our Archbishop, we convene a Diocesan Assembly every 3 years. The assembly is comprised of clergy and lay-delegates representing all the parishes, as well as all church and affiliated organizations in the diocese. This means that affiliated bodies as diverse as the diocesan sisterhood, school board, Vitiaz association, scouts, sports association, benevolent groups and so forth, may all be represented. An important function of the assembly is the election of the Diocesan Council, made up of 5 clergy and 5 laypeople. Over the subsequent 3-year period, at approximately 3-monthly intervals, the Diocesan Council is called on to meet with the Archbishop and discuss matters of practically every nature, spiritual, administrative, financial, legal and so forth. The Council acts as an advisory body to the ruling archbishop and, as can be seen from the above, has the scope to deal with many pertinent diocesan issues.
A very practical way of setting up a youth ministry at this level would be to include in the Diocesan Council, members who have youth issues as their specific agenda or portfolio and hence, form a Youth Council within the structure of the Diocesan Council. For example, one priest and 2 youth representatives -- a young man and a young lady -- as his co-workers. They could be elected in addition to the 10 other Diocesan Council members, or they could be part of the 10. More important, is the fact that they would be fully-fledged members of the Diocesan Council and would attend all meetings with the Archbishop. Moreover, at each meeting, the Youth Council would be required to report on “pertinent youth issues” and present a summary of recent activity. Since the members of this Youth Council would be elected by all of the delegates at the Diocesan Assembly, it follows that they would be people who would be regarded as being knowledgeable and competent in youth issues.
Included in the work of the Youth Council would be the task of contacting and meeting with youth in all other parishes or cities and forming local sub-committees. Thus, through the network of local task forces in each parish, the Diocesan Youth Council would have a means of direct interaction with all of the youth in the diocese. I think that every parish priest and youth worker would appreciate the great value of having such a youth network and the potential assistance this could provide the Diocese in its youth mission.
Up to this point, I have described Youth Ministry only within the confines of each of our dioceses, but the following, I think, is quite crucial to the concept of a true ROCOR Youth Ministry. If, in our Synod there was formed a Youth Council, that council would then logically become the umbrella body of the whole ROCOR Youth Ministry. From this would follow, that under the guidance and direction of the Metropolitan and the Council of Bishops, the Synodal Youth Council would oversee, advise, promote and coordinate the work of all Diocesan Youth Councils of our Diaspora, and this would complete the 3-tiered structure of the ROCOR Youth Ministry – beginning at the Synod and progressing down through each diocese to its parishes.
It should be noted here that our Synod currently has an organization within its ranks called the “Russian Orthodox Youth Committee," which was formed over 35 years ago with the sanction of Metropolitan Philaret, of blessed memory, by the late Protodeacon Nikita Chakirov. Today, this committee, of which our own Archbishop Hilarion is currently Patron, is known most notably for its publishing work. Perhaps, the Synod could reassess the charter of this committee and widen the scope of its work to become the administrative centre of the ROCOR Youth Ministry.
In terms of its specific activities, what are some of the ways in which a ROCOR Youth Ministry could achieve its aims and objectives?
It seems rational that a two-pronged approach would be required – one, occupied with youth publications and aimed at educating and informing - the second, occupied with events-management and aimed at promoting youth interaction through social and educational events. The following lists suggest just some of the activities which could be embraced.
The Youth Publication prong coul
Print bilingual booklets to assist those hindered by language barriers in following church services, especially for understanding the individual sacraments such as marriage, baptism, unction, etc.
Compile spiritual advice booklets for young people facing significant mileposts in their lives, such as career choice, dating, marriage, starting a family.
Publish booklets with an aim to introduce youth to the writings of the Holy Fathers and gain an appreciation of their relevance.
Create a standard ROCOR bilingual religious instruction course with graded material ranging from Kindergarten through grade 10, specifically designed for use in parish schools abroad. We should be mindful of the fact that wherever our young people find themselves today, they are constantly bombarded with modern high-tech media, so quality and readability, including colorful illustrations and stimulating presentation should be given special consideration with respect to all youth publications.
Similarly, liaise with diocesan school boards to create a 10-year Russian curriculum designed for schools of the Russian Diaspora.
Create a course for adult Bible classes with student material and teachers notes.
Create and host a Youth Ministry internet site in a similar vein to the official ROCOR site, but specifically targeted at our youth with age-relevant content. As well, research and promote useful internet sites with safe Orthodox content.
An especially important and useful project would be to create a ROCOR Youth magazine and encourage our youth worldwide to write about their experiences and have their articles published. The magazine could also have a forum section, and also an advice column for young people who may want to bring forward a problem without necessarily being identifiable to their peers. It could include poetry, stories and drawings as well (all good ways of expressing their feelings and thoughts). Utilizing the Internet, there could be editions in each diocese and prizes could be awarded for the best articles. Young people could be encouraged to be on the editorial boards.
In a similar vein, a Youth leaflet published by the Synod, with suitable articles and regular column in which the Metropolitan and other Archpastors could write epistles to our youth. This would hold a tremendous appeal and convey a very powerful message of fellowship to the youth of our Diaspora.
The Youth Events prong could:
Coordinate annual Diocesan Youth Conferences, particularly in those dioceses where this is not yet established.
Organize mid-year youth seminars in different cities throughout the diocese to supplement the annual Diocesan Youth Conference.
Similarly, at regular intervals, arrange for suitable guest speakers to give youth lecture tours throughout the diocese.
Organize diocesan or parish sports and recreation events and social gatherings with the aim of fostering interaction and comradeship within the church youth community. Events of this nature are essential to the task of creating the kinds of peer groups which would support our youth and present a favorable alternative to peer pressure from more unsavory groups.
Sponsor young men to go to Seminary. When this is not possible, promote and sponsor Seminary courses by correspondence or distance learning for young males and females. Here again, the Internet, with its audio and visual capabilities could be very effectively utilized.
Organize church choristers' and readers' conferences, and sponsor visiting youth choirs.
Coordinate youth pilgrimages to The Holy Land and Russia with the inclusion of young people from all dioceses.
Coordinate and sponsor young men and women, who wish to work for the glory of God or to take on some other obedience at our monasteries in the Holy Land or in other places of hardship.
Youth camps provide an unequalled environment in which young people can interact and learn. In some of our dioceses, particularly in North America, there has been considerable success in such projects. Sponsorship to such camps or youth exchange programs could be coordinated between dioceses and even countries. It is worthy of note also, that presently, in many dioceses in Russia, very successful Orthodox youth camps are organized each summer. A youth exchange program with parishes in Russia could provide a wonderful opportunity for mutual cultural and spiritual learning.
These are only some suggestions. Without a doubt, if the vast experience of our youth workers were pooled together, there would be offered a great many more ideas. Also, I would anticipate that when pastors and youth workers hear of the activities listed above the comment will immediately resound – “but we already do that in our parish!” – and again, I would fall back on the argument that this certainly is not the normal situation for the majority of parishes. But, through a concerted and organized ROCOR Youth Ministry all of these tactics could be neatly tied in together and the benefits of such strategies could be offered to a significantly greater youth population.
At the Synod, the overseeing Youth Council could tie everything in together by convening All-Diaspora Conferences at which the Youth Councils of each Diocese could meet, say tri-annually, in different countries. This would mean that ROCOR Youth Australia would meet and interact directly with its parallel entities, ROCOR USA, Canada, Europe and so forth. Of all of the suggestions put forth thus far, this would be the most difficult to achieve. But, even this would be feasible through mutual hard work. Of a certainty, all would appreciate the tremendous profit and opportunities this would give to serious Youth Councils, being able to exchange and benefit from the experience and ideas of other dioceses.
The final subject that needs to be addressed is the subject of finances. It is all very well to speak about far-reaching and ambitious goals, but the achievability of the proposal detailed in this paper inevitably depends on financial viability. So, where would the finances come from to support the ROCOR Youth Ministry described above?
The simple answer would be to say that each committee at every level would need to come up with some very creative fundraising ideas. In fact, this would probably be necessary to some degree, in any event. But, this whole issue could be viewed from another perspective. Our youth are the future of our parishes and ultimately, the Church. Would it not be reasonable for our Church to look after its own, its future? Every Diocese receives an annual levy from the parishes under its administration. Could not a small portion of this sum, say 10-15%, be allocated to the Diocesan Youth Council for Youth Ministry activities? The Synodal Youth Council could be similarly funded by allocating a percentage of the Diocesan levies which are apportioned to the Synod. Even if all levies were slightly increased, or indeed a youth levy introduced directly, in order to make this workable, the result would be that everyone at every level—Parish, Diocese and Synod—would be making an investment into our Church's future. Consideration of this could yield a viable way forward.
In conclusion, I refer once again to the words of St John Chrysostom: “If good teachings are imprinted in a soul which has not yet strengthened, then no-one can erase them once it has hardened, in a similar fashion to a seal, when it is applied into wax.“
The forum of this All-Diaspora Sobor, provides us with a unique opportunity to unite in our efforts to solve the problems of our youth and, with God's help, work together to deliver to them “good teachings." Glory be to God for all things!