Modern Methods of Youth Service
Lecture by Protopriest Andrei Sommer at the International Conference
“Voice of Apostle Andrew the First-Called in Today’s World”
November 18-19, 2017
I greet you all with words from the akathist to Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called: "Thou labored in good feats in Patras, preaching till death by supporting miracles, thou Apostle of Christ."St Andrew did not open a simple path for our challenge today: missionary work and youth ministry. With every generation, it is important to widen the effort to draw the attention of young people and at the same time ourselves be “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).
The science of sociology calls today’s youth “Generation Z,” that is, adhering to no denomination, living in a post-Christian era. We see this in America, where 23% consider themselves “former Christians,” and in Great Britain, were 66% of the population consider themselves unattached to any official church, canonical or not.
Who are these members of Generation Z? These are kids born from 1995-2010, that is, those under 25 years of age. They don’t remember a time without personal computers, without the internet. They were born with cell phones, and emails are a formal means of communication, though they prefer instant messaging. They don’t know of a world without instant and convenient access to the web. They go to sleep holding their cell phones and turn them on as soon as they waken. The main form of socializing is through social media: Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. They have a strongly-developed sense of entrepreneurship and independence. They want to change the world, help people, and don’t accept boundaries and limitations. They have a desire to help the poor and needy and to volunteer their time.
Most members of Generation Z believe in the existence of God as before, but being the first post-Christian generation, they don’t believe in the necessity of participating in official divine services in church. They consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. They have no desire to rail against the Church, but they have no idea of the good that Church can bring, moreover of the benefit of the Mysteries the Church offers. These young people fall into the “churchless” category who at best will go to Church only on Pascha. At the same time, we need to ensure that we don’t lose the “churched” youth reared in our parish schools, who graduate with a spiritual compass but not yet prepared for the temptations of this world who are in need of our attention.
We need to present the teachings of the Church in a language they understand, we need to reveal the dogmas of the Church clearly. Generation Z lives in a world of visual information. The knowledge they need in their lives is obtained from YouTube, Netflix and Hulu. They express words and emotions with images, symbols and “smilies” called emojis. We need to learn the means of communication that youth employs and which they are comfortable with.
In the early 1970’s, the Russian Church Abroad began to transform their youth meetings into larger events—gatherings which drew young people from various dioceses, nations and continents. At the first All-Diaspora Conference in 1972 in Montreal, youth from 9 nations, 200 in all, gathered. All the participants were given free hotel accommodations.
The conference featured topics such as “What is the Purpose of Life?” “Christ and the Church,” “The Essence of Orthodoxy,” “Orthodoxy and Russia,” “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” “The Russian Church Abroad,” “Orthodoxy in Russian Literature,” “Religious Motifs in Russian Art” and “The Educational Value of Russian Music and Song.”
But the time has passed when young people can spend entire days sitting in on lectures. One of the newer approaches in youth ministry was developed at the 12thAll-Diaspora Orthodox Youth Conference held in Paris in 2011. It was titled “New Forms of Youth Service to the Holy Church and Preserving the Purity of Orthodoxy.” Participating were 150 young delegates from the diaspora plus kids from 16 dioceses in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Sponsorship in the organization of the event, including the pilgrimage and cultural programs, was provided by St Andrew the First-Called Foundation.
Workshops were employed for the first time. The youth would listen to lectures and then immediately turn to practical work with a specific goal. It is important to take advantage of their energy towards doing good.
The goal of this event was to cultivate their interest in missionary work and to help young people understand the important role of preaching in spiritual life and the life of the Church. This project intends to develop in theory and demonstrate how exploiting the talents and capabilities of youth can draw attention to church values.
The youth were divided into 11 groups of 10. Their first goal was to find a common language and resolve the challenges set before them. Each group had to develop a mission project which could serve as a model on the parish and diocesan levels. Their projects were then submitted to a committee comprised of clerics and laypersons, who then directed or sponsored the plans.
• soup kitchen
• food bank
• an Orthodox internet café to offer Orthodox a discussion forum with literature, DVDs and other media
• an Orthodox website
• Orthodox a TV or radio program
• a computer program for Orthodox students
• an Orthodox cultural festival
• a museum or center (permanent or itinerant) of Orthodox history/culture
Power Point presentations:
- Interview with conference participants on their ideas of missionary work
- Composing missionary music or poetry for distribution on CD/DVDs
- A role-playing game or sketch demonstrating missionary work
Each group convened in the morning for three days, and on the 4th day, they used information technology to present their ideas. The Orthodox internet café idea proved most popular. An Orthodox internet café could provide a venue for youth to converse in a healthy environment but in an Orthodox spirit. Coffee and tea would be served along with Lenten foods; customers can use the library and computers with access to Orthodox websites. A priest could be invited for weekly talks or book reviews.
Orthodox youth conferences provide the opportunity to meet with other young people of the same world-view, but mostly to unite for joint prayer at divine services.
Preparing such a conference requires expertise, experience, work and patience. The success of a forum depends on the seriousness of the approach, the development of plans and efforts expended by the organizers. The initial step is to select a theme.
The theme sets the tone and direction of the event. It is important that the topic be simple and clear, and that it unites all the conference’s events. It should be important and reflect contemporary life, and the interests of the youth. A local committee determines the venue, take into consideration the needs of the delegates and outreach to them.
Without fundraising there can be no conference. One can set high goals, but even a small event requires resources. This aspect of the organization of an event takes a great deal of time. Young people should be enlisted in the organizational work, in part to give them an understanding of the complexity of hosting such an event; these often become the “personnel” of future organizing committees.
The logistics aspect includes the entire scope of the event. Questions relating to housing and meals for the delegates depend on the local situation. Housing should be close to a church, and the pilgrimage/cultural portions also depend on local opportunities that would spark the interest of the youth. Time also needs to be set aside for young people to socialize.
Gatherings of Orthodox youth from throughout the world can be considered a cornerstone of constructing a living church community. For the most magnificent of churches without years or decades of worshipers is an effort in vain.
Over 200 youth from 11 different nations participated in the 13th All-Diaspora Youth Conference held on June 27-July 4, 2014, in San Francisco, CA. New ideas and forms of work were expanded greatly at this event.
This event included lectures, discussions and workshops which developed social projects. Educational trips and excursions were organized, including a soup kitchen and a nursing home. The main conclusion that the conferees came to was that youth had to be united and mobilized as a part of the Body of Christ around charitable works.
The best program of the conference was the “Friends and Family” project, which seeks to improve contacts between volunteers and families that need help; home care for the sick, helping the aged perform daily tasks such as grocery shopping, home repair, tutoring; in general to strengthen the bonds between Orthodox Christians and society.
Among those we can help are:
- Single-parent families
- Families with many children
- Low-income families
Who can help?
- Energetic parish-level youth
- Talented youth of today
How can volunteers and those needing help be linked?
- A data base of volunteers and families
- Information from needy families
- Organizing and uniting volunteers
- Connecting volunteers with families
- Set up a dispatching system
- Monthly events to help unite volunteers:
- Joint dinners
- Collections for charitable organizations
- Spiritual discussions
A smart-phone app could bring this project into life. Many other organizations use this method. Volunteers could register and when they have some free time, find those in need, with time, need and place indicated. The app should provide a way of vetting volunteers and the needy. Of course, a sponsoring organization is need to financially support the development of the app and professional services needed.
Such 21st century methods will attract the younger generation and help them fulfill their desire to help others.
Each of us is different—pastor, teacher, youth—we all have our individual abilities and opportunities. Needed most of all is to stress the importance of salvation for our youth. Without this Divinely-inspired goal, even the best technology is for naught.
Our world today dictates a lifestyle of egotism, self-satisfaction and means of gratification which contradict selfless love for which we were created. Mass media dictates every aspect of what our lives “should” have, so we must surround ourselves with believers in order to preserve our Orthodox roots. Your friends show who you are, they say.
Another often-ignored factor is peer pressure among our youth. The teenage years are the critical, impressionable period during which our identities are formed. In order to gain acceptance of our peers, even if it cuts across our grain, we often do things that we later regret. What they need is positive influences during this period. Sadly, many of our parish communities do not maintain the social support the kids need to counter the potentially harmful influences. The success of youth ministry to a great degree depends on the personal abilities of the priest, his assistants and available resources. This responsibility actually lies on the parish youth themselves, to be able to attract their peers outside of the circle of their church by the example of active love. Meanwhile, attracting young people sometimes requires not burdensome obligations but the spirit of brotherly love.
The desire to help others is instilled by our Creator in each person. Through works of love we can draw others closer.