Youth Ministry: A Foundation

By Fr. Gregory Havrilak

At the 6th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America interested Orthodox young people, pastors and lay leaders assembled to hear presentations and discussions concerning the important area of youth work in the Church. In order to facilitate a medium of understanding concerning youth work today, as this work is perceived and implemented by the Church, it is imperative that we come to grips with the contemporary term used to describe this area of recent development and interest. Youth work today within the Christian community is generally labeled “Youth Ministry,” a modern term that has enjoyed a universal acceptance among all branches and denominations of Christendom.

Within an Orthodox perspective of religious education, youth ministry roust clearly be understood apart from its contemporary interpretation of simply being a young people’s organization, group, club or movement. Youth ministry is, in fact, much more. This special ministry to Orthodox youth must be a comprehensive effort on the part of the Church to serve the broad range of the needs of our young people It is a determination on the part of the Church, the diocese and parish community to be identified by young people as a community of care and concern. As Michael Warren says, “Youth ministry is a program to serve the total person and not just the doctrinal understanding of the adolescent.” In time, this ministry will hopefully promote a deeper and more active commitment on the part of our young people, as these commitments will no longer be viewed as demands imposed by some far-away group or impersonal organization. Rather, these commitments will emerge from the inner life ‘of the local community, where they can grow and be strengthened.

Relationship between them.

Most people would agree that spirituality is our faith expressed in lifestyle. This means that our whole life is enfleshed in all that we are and do. Our love for God, our faith in Christ, our fellowship with Him and the members of His Church, permeate and shape our entire life. Our spirituality then is revealed in our prayer life, our participation in the liturgy and how we minister to others. In addition, however, our spirituality has a great deal to do with how we respond to our next door neighbors, to our friends and even enemies. The point we are trying to make is this: the quality of our spirituality, i.e. how our faith is expressed in our life, is the central focus of our life as Orthodox Christians. All other concerns flow from how well we are able to reflect that presence in our life.

All of this is certainly true for youth ministry, too, or ministry to the sick or aged, or ministry to adults, and even choir workshops and teachertraining conferences. Ministry - in this sense - is that dimension of our spirituality, one essential aspect of it, that deals with our being for others. It is the actualization of our fellowship with Christ. This is why youth ministry as any Christian work - cannot be separated or conceived apart from the essential leitourgia of the Church. In other words, our ministry to youth and our spiritual life must be seen in the same light. We believe that youth ministry and spirituality are integrally related because they are both based upon faith. As St. Paul says, faith is that gift from God, that enables us to achieve the very aim of our Christian life: union with God. Our spiritual life encompasses the totality of everything we do in the name of Christ, in all dimensions of our life. Ministry, then, is that particular dimension of our faith responce; or, as Timothy Fallon describes it, it is that dimension of our spiritual life that has to do with how we give ourselves for others. Youth ministry, therefore, is a vital part of spirituality. The two cannot be separated.

Having established that youth ministry and spirituality are integrally related, we must now face the truth and acknowledge that this integrity has been inoperative in most parishes of our Church. And because we have neglected this integrity, we have to emphasize “doing” rather than “being” in both our spiritual life and ministry. Again, it is our fellowship with Christ that makes our response, our youth work, imperative. A good example of this problem is the typical parish meeting. Unfortunately, the affairs of the parish outside of the liturgy are usually divorced from what was preached and celebrated at the eucharistic assembly. There seems to be an invisible barrier between what occurs “upstairs” and what actually happens “downstairs.”

Two different approaches.

As stated earlier, because our youth work in the past did not recognize the integration of spirituality and ministry, youth ministry (and other areas of church work) often developed on a functional model of “doing.” This funct
ional approach leads to the obvious: creating offices, staff persons who are pressured to do something that shows results . teach classes, give workshops, begin programs - and so on. Although the transition is probably involuntary, nevertheless, youth ministry is unfortunately relegated toa religious “job,” something that has to be done in order to keep our young people interested iii the Church. When youth work becomes colored by a project-oriented mentality such as this, spirituality itself often becomes just one more “thing’ to get done, one more goal to achieve. In this functional view, spirituality no longer remains the central focus for youth work, as Fallon states. Instead, it is pushed aside to become nothing more than the annual bus trip to the amusement park or occasional youth retreat.

If we view our approach to youth ministry in terms of the spiritual life, it is the nature of our faith which becomes the norm for developing the shape of youth work in the Church. In other words, "doing” becomes less central.

Youth ministry becomes a priority when the Church loses its ability to help our youth to grow in the faith. Parents today are greatly concerned about a
faith crisis. They worry about their children leaving the church someday.
Today’s parents are also concerned about their children passing on the faith to their offspring, so as to ensure the propagation of their church. All of this is quite normal and expected. The difficulty arises, however, when parents are more concerned about parish propagation, i.e. to guarantee that someone from their family, who, no doubt, is a “founder” of the parish, will be around twenty years to carry on their traditions. Here we touch the very core of the problem today. One of the major reasons why the adult community is having problems passing its faith on to youth is because we adults, or most of us anyway, are not in touch with our own spirituality. Our young people can sense this. More than anything else, kids are turned off when they witness hypocrisy.

It is the feeling of this department that youth ministry can help us address this priority in several ways First, we can address it by helping our youth become more aware of their own spirituality; and, most importantly, by helping them develop the ability to articulate their faith. Second, by using youth ministry as a teaching avenue, we can minister to the adult community, also - and particularly to significant adults working with youth, by helping them develop the ability to share their faith with young people. Finally, youth ministry can minister to the whole Church, in that it provides a context for dialogue between youth and adults.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries