There is a striking absence of thirty-year-olds in our Church. The latest research reports that a staggering 60% of teens will leave our Church in their adolescence and by their twenties will no longer identify as Orthodox Christians. I have met many of our young people who fit into this age category and no longer attend Church services or actively practice their Faith. Some I met at a Greek Food Festival, others at Monday Night Basketball or a Young Adults ministry event like ice-skating or a dinner gathering. Speaking in an atmosphere of openness and love, never condemning – but seeking to truly understand them I have been able to ask, “Why don’t you come to Church on Sunday morning?”  The answers vary. Some sense being judged by an older generation for piercings or how they dress, some experience comments when they do go about their infrequent attendance, some simply have no knowledge of who Jesus Christ really is, and some even admit plain laziness. Faith or belief in God is not necessarily absent, but they do have serious questions: “How does faith square with science and evolution? What about the homosexual and transgender community? Why is sex before marriage wrong? Aren’t there errors in the Bible? Is smoking marijuana or getting drunk really a sin? The people in Church are hypocrites, one way in Church and then outside they just gossip or criticize so why go there?”

Subconsciously acknowledging the growing absence of this demographic from our Church, we know that we have a serious problem and need to fix it: so we bring on a youth director/pastoral assistant or ask the Bishop to send us a second Priest. The main job description is - “The Youth” - while they are surely learning the ins and outs of parish ministry as well. Without trying to shirk any responsibility as a second-priest myself, and entirely dedicated to connecting our children, teens, and young adults to the living Christ, I must say this is an inadequate solution. The problem is simple mathematics: Youth Workers get to spend a few hours a month with the youth in their parish. On the other hand, kids spend 8-16 hours a day in schools, on the internet/inhabiting social media websites, around friends, and in a culture/society, that is very secular and increasingly hostile to traditional Christian morality, practice, and belief. 

A different solution is for every mother and father to know that their primary responsibility concerning their children is not to make sure their child makes it into a prestigious college and goes on to perform well in a lucrative career. We parents must ensure that from their earliest days, our children are placed on a path and way of life we ourselves have embraced. We can forget that Christianity is not just belief system we subscribe to or a box we check to make sure we go to heaven. Orthodoxy is fundamentally a way of life, practicing actions of love and virtue that form a character and transformed personality: we actually become Holy like Christ. Just coming to Church on Sundays or having been baptized into the true Faith cannot be something we tack on to a secular way of life. If parents have not taken the time to know why they are Orthodox Christians and how to live as Orthodox Christians, we can be sure the children will not easily find the path to salvation simply by going to monthly ministry events at Church.

The percentage of 20 and 30 year-olds leaving our Church drops dramatically to just 10% and lower in families where both parents actively practice Christianity (praying with their children, fasting as a family, attending the Divine Liturgy together weekly and on weekdays and major feasts, reading the lives of the Saints and the Gospel, and speaking openly and frequently about difficult moral issues facing their kids every day i.e. abortion, pornography, drugs, etc.). We can still have a youth pastor and parent volunteers running ministries to increase and build upon our family’s already existing identity as Orthodox Christians: but this should not substitute for our own example as the primary teachers for our kids about how important God, the Church, Faith, prayer, confession, and reading the Scriptures is. If we neither pray, nor fast, go to Church infrequently nor read spiritual books – how could we expect our children to become serious, faithful Orthodox Christians?  

It is not the Church’s job alone to raise the youth to be Christians, for our sanctification begins in the sacred spaces of our homes. Some ways to keep our kids connected could be: to spend less time with our televisions and phones and replace that time with reading the lives of the saints to our kids; praying as a family with incense and candles in front of our icons daily; or, while driving around (to work, to school, or anywhere) listening to Orthodox homilies, Byzantine Chant or the Holy Scriptures. I pray for a grace-filled New Year of 2019 and hope all of our youth-workers and second-priests will continue working together with our parents and youth for a deeper relationship with Christ and His Church.