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Postmodern Young People and the Liturgy

By V. Rev. Fr. David J. Randolph

From the Word magazine, January, 2012

The term postmodern culture is used in many different ways, and cannot be grasped except in contrast to its predecessor, modernism, to which it is in reaction. Modernism displayed a high level of confidence in the abilities of humanity. Rooted in the Enlightenment, modernists attempted to rid themselves of the mystery of religion and things spiritual so as to focus purely on the empirical facts of science. Some believed that humanity could build a perfect society founded on human principles and structures. The movement was idealistic, and its breakdown was painful to the generation that experienced it.

This reaction took different forms. For many people of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, pop culture became a kind of rebellious religiosity. Many were from broken families, and they concluded that all commitments are fragile. Some also experimented with different “spiritualities,” having a distinct distaste for “institutional religion.” Theirs was a time of political turmoil, growing up amid the anxiety of the cold war, and through the period of Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the war in Iraq. The results for many were confusion, depression, and loneliness.

Postmodernism is the cultural reaction to the perceived failures of modernism. Youth ministers today face five challenges related to the postmodern stance.

First, postmodern young people give primacy to personal experience.

Logic and arguments do not work with youth now, as they did in the earlier period. If we wish to reach them, we must provide meaningful, engaging experience of Christ. This suggests a need for meaningful relations and personal contact with the Christian tradition. Liturgy can provide a balance that meets both the need for personal encounter and challenges youth to move into the fullness of community life.

Second, this generation prefers authenticity to relevance. The term postmodern culture is used in many different ways, and cannot be grasped except in contrast to its predecessor, modernism, to which it is in reaction. Modernism displayed a high level of confidence in the abilities of humanity. Postmoderns are hungry for authenticity, for personal and meaningful connections with sources of deep and substantial wisdom. Our Eucharistic liturgy holds primacy of place in our lives as Orthodox; it is the source and summit of our faith, and as such provides the heart of our theology and spiritual knowledge. There is no more authentic mode of existence, or deeper source of meaning in the universe, than the life-giving, formative encounter with the Trinity in the Eucharist. It can hold primacy of place in the lives of postmodern young people as well.

Third, postmodern young people put great trust in people’s authentic stories, though not in claims of overarching narratives.

Therefore, they will hear and believe personal witness rather than assertions of an objective and exclusive Truth. Although this distrust often leads to a relativistic agnosticism, it is in fact another point of contact for liturgy and Christian education. For example, the story of salvation history, proclaimed as God’s own Word to us, speaks of God’s action in different peoples and cultures throughout history. Our liturgical catechesis, homilies, and other forms of evangelization can speak to the heart of this generation by subtly weaving young people’s life stories into the story of God’s love for us. Liturgies of the Word, both inside and outside of Divine Liturgy, could emphasize this connection.

Fourth, as opposed to the modern scientific and objective outlook, postmodern young people display a surprising openness to personal, spiritual, and mystical experiences. 

This can take the form of interest in the sacraments, devotions, and other ascetical practices as new ways to pray (provided they’re not gimmicky or transparently trying to be relevant), and in authentic, heartfelt communal worship. Unfortunately, young people often seek to fulfill their desire for such experiences in risky behavior or in non-Christian religious traditions.

They also seek such experiences in Protestant mega-churches that cater to individual experiences of God.

Finally, because of their distrust in truth-claims and their tendencies to relativism, this generation hungers for clarity and solid answers to life’s problems.

Our heritage has much to offer: liturgy is indeed the ultimate in spiritual and mystical experiences, the mystery in which we commune with the Holy One. With our long history and rich, deep traditions, we can offer that kind of solidity. The presence of the Church throughout two millennia can speak volumes to this generation, provided that the tradition is presented as active and alive. Youth ministry and Christian education can provide stability through a liturgical catechesis that cultivates a liturgical spirituality or sacramental view of life, helping young people find the presence of God in all of creation.

An apologist like C.S. Lewis could easily have persuaded a young person from the modern period, like myself, to live the Christian life, through sound logic and argumentation. In this view of things, faith was something to which one could be led by reason, and, once persuaded, there was no longer reason to argue. It was true or false: you simply gave assent with your mind, and you followed through with the rest of life.

In contrast, the postmodern young person needs to experience God before he or she will believe that God is real. You can argue and reason all you like, but the response will be the same: “That might work for you, but not for me.” Instead, what works with this generation are encounters with Christ.

The postmodern young person’s desire for authenticity, mystical experience, meaning, and a sense of awe all suggest his or her predisposition to ritual in general. Orthodox educators can use Scripture and the teaching and practices of the Church in creative ways that do not violate the spirit of the Tradition to help connect a young person’s experiences of Christ to becoming part of the Body of Christ in daily life. The late Father Alexander Schmemann said, “It is in the liturgy that the sources of faith – the Bible and tradition – become a living reality” (“Theology and Liturgical Tradition,” in Massey Shepherd, ed., Worship in Scripture and Tradition, p. 166). In fact, liturgy enacts revelation in such a way that those who “do” liturgy also “do” theology (Christology, pneumatology, theological anthropology, and ecclesiology). Liturgy is where the Tradition of the church is enacted and lived. So if today’s young people are looking for meaning, liturgy is indeed the place to find it – where we live the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Young people need to understand that conversion is a lifelong process, and liturgy facilitates that conversion. We need to help them grasp this liturgical asceticism, or metanoia (conversion), that is, the process by which a baptized person, through regular participation in liturgy, receives the necessary formation to order one’s life habitually such that one comes to know and experience God in one’s life. It is the discipline required for our theosis (deification). Baptized persons experience the Paschal Mystery and are transformed and strengthened by it to love their neighbor as themselves. As part of the Body of Christ, they enter into the divine mutual participation, and reflect the image and likeness of the Trinity. In sum, liturgical asceticism is the Christian life, lived through, in, and with Christ and his Body, the Church.

Young people may grasp the beauty of vespers, orthros, the hours of prayer and divine liturgy, and discover a hunger to participate in them. We want to do what we can to give them a positive understanding of the meaning of these services. From an Orthodox perspective, liturgy, like the Church itself, is an icon of Christ (who, in turn, is the icon of the Father).

Young people must grasp that liturgy slowly transforms us. Through the Eucharist, we come not simply to the knowledge of God, but to the living God. We are empowered to live as disciples in the world. We are perfected over time by the work of grace through contact with the Trinity in liturgy, and in this way we are able to live as Christian disciples. Young people need to learn to live the liturgy in their daily lives in practical ways, dealing with moral and other issues common to their age group.

We no longer live in a “churched” culture. In contrast to the church culture of the 50s, say, the values of the church are not those of society. Far too many people do not seek out the Church on their own initiative. Moreover, the Church, the sacraments, its teachings and practices, life as a koinonia, a communion of love – these things are not understood generally; our society as a whole has no knowledge of life in and as the Church. We live in a society that focuses on one’s individual life, independent of others. This is true not only of adolescents, but also their parents.

The “mega-church” is one response from Protestant Christians to our unchurched society. We should note that most attendees at these mega- churches (eighty-two percent) come at the invitation of a friend, family member, or co-worker. While we might fault these mega-churches for a number of things, they are clearly addressing the felt needs of the post-modern generation: Sixty-two percent of attendees said that they experienced much spiritual growth. This should be a wake-up call for us as Orthodox educators.

To meet post-modern young people where they are, as educators we need to present the Church as a living organism that offers Truth without compromise and sacraments in which they may meet God. Most of all, young people need to grasp the beauty, the richness, the majesty and the practical reality of the Divine Liturgy in their lives.

(This article was adapted from a presentation at the Education Forum at the Antiochian Village.)

V. Rev. Fr. David J. Randolph

Pastor, Christ the Savior Antiochian Orthodox Church

Anderson, South Carolina