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Youth Ministry: Connecting Learning with Living in the Kingdom

by V. Rev. Dr. Joseph F. Purpura, from the October 2016 issue of The Word:

In this article, we will look at what we are trying to accomplish in youth ministry, especially as we make the connection between what youth learn in the classroom and how they live out their lives as members of the kingdom of God here and now. We will look at youth ministry in terms of spiritual formation and the development of their identity as children of God. In doing so, we will reflect upon the holy scriptures and the divine services of the Church, examine the wisdom of the fathers, and, just as importantly, reach into layers of experience and practical expression to generate dialogue on what spiritual formation looks like in the classroom and beyond.

Today, the Church needs well-trained and well-equipped youth workers for the long term. Too often, we see youth ministry as a stepping stone to "real ministry," as a time of waiting for ordination or a secular job. We must be serious about raising and forming young people by training youth workers who commit their lives to youth ministry. America needs educators and youth workers who know the faith, who know Orthodox theology, who have diverse talents, who are of varying ages, and who are models of committed servants of Christ. In addition, it is with years of experience working with young people that we as clergy and youth workers can begin to understand fully the immense task before us. With many years of ministering to young people in Christ, and with them, clergy and youth workers develop the eyes, the ears, and the heart that are so essential to participating with God in youth formation.

Good youth work makes the connection between what the student learns in the classroom, and how he or she lives that out in daily life. We cannot dismiss what has already been taught by our Christian Education teachers and what happens in the classroom, but here we focus on helping the young person incorporate that information into their daily life in words and deeds. Our young people are inundated with information – some of it very good and some of it not beneficial for their formation and salvation. Every person with whom our young people come in contact – the bishop, the priest, the deacon, the youth worker, the church school teacher, the parent, the relative, the church member – has the task of helping youth form their identity.

The real question for the Church, parents, and those involved in youth ministry, is, Who is teaching and forming the identity of our young people? Who will have the hearts and minds of our youth – the world or the Church? Will they be children of this world or children of the Light?1 Will they be members of the Body of Christ2 living in this world, or merely members of this world lost to the Kingdom of God?3 The world is continuously teaching our children through the schools and through television, radio, movies, and social media. As the Body of Christ, we are called to pass the faith down to our peers and to the next generation. What are we as the Church doing to teach our youth better than the world? Some think that this is a lost cause, while others think that we can form young people with just forty-five minutes in the classroom each week. The reality is that the world is consuming our young people, while some sit back and debate if our Church school curriculum needs updating, whether we should use this social media or the like for our youth group, or if should we hire a youth director or get by on volunteers. While all of that is very much needed, we must do so much more. The Church should not be afraid, nor stand by idly with the advances in communications. The Apostles and the Fathers of the Church were well-trained and successful in communicating to the crowds and society of their time.4 As we served at the Holy Altar together, Father Alexander Schmemann would often say, "Maranatha – Lord Come."5 In many ways these words form my image of youth ministry, or of what stands at the heart of forming young people as children of God in His image and likeness.

Youth ministry is about developing in our youth the yearning for the very presence of the Lord – the yearning for the full establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now – the yearning for the end of the nonsense of this fallen world and the restoration of the Kingdom in all places. This does not mean avoiding the world, but fully engaging the world as a citizen of the Kingdom. It is the yearning for the fulfillment of the story of salvation and the end of our wandering in the desert of this world. It is not a hopelessness and a desire to end one's life, but a great desire really to live fully as human beings, with the understanding that all that happens now is more than just preparation for our place in the Kingdom and the story of salvation. In fact, it is an understanding that this life is our very working on our own salvation, finding our permanent place now in the story of salvation as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Without this "Maranatha," this desire for "Lord Come," there is no "Memory Eternal."6 We can say that youth ministry is about guiding and helping our youth so that their names may be written in the Book of Life.7 It is in this reality that Christians can bring hope and life to our American communities.

Youth ministry is where theology for young people begins to come alive. It is where the theory of the classroom is opened before their eyes and their hearts and they see God in each person and in each moment of their life. Youth ministry is about opening the hearts and minds of young people to constant prayer and a constant desire to belong – to belong as citizens of the Kingdom. Youth ministry is where partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ opens the noetic heart and mind to see that Christ Himself dwells within each of us. It opens the way for young people to understand "that I [God] desire mercy . . . and not burnt oerings."8 It opens the heart and mind to see that real love for one another and for God is far more powerful than all of the kingdoms of this world. That true riches lie in relationship with God and His people, and not in possessions which become obsolete in a short time, and rot and decay. It is understanding and living our Lord's words, "A new Commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34–35). To convey this message of hope and love and inspire youth with it, we need well-trained, educated, inspired workers who are actively working on their own salvation.

When I was a young, twenty-three-year-old priest, a ninety-six-year-old parishioner once told me that life begins at around age seventy, as it takes that long to gure out what is really important and what really matters in life. At the time, I wondered if this were correct. Now, over thirty-seven years later, I am convinced that this saintly woman was right. We need elders to be present in the lives of our youth, and we need youth workers of all ages in order to present to them people at various stages of their journey in life. Many elders have helped form young people and guide them to Christ. Their knowledge and experience also can help lead our efforts to mentor new youth workers. Our elders of the Church, who have really begun to live life in full contemplation of the Kingdom of God, are essential models to our youth and young adults. St. Basil speaks to us about forming young people and the importance of our extended families. He recognizes the time of childhood and youth as the time for change and learning, saying,

What clearer proof of our faith could there be than that we were brought up by our grandmother, a blessed woman, who came from among you? I have reference to the illustrious Macrina, by whom we were taught the words of the most blessed Gregory, which, having been preserved until her time by uninterrupted tradition, she also guarded, and she formed and molded me, still a child, to the doctrines of piety. But, after we received the power of understanding, and reason had been perfected in us through age, having traversed much of the earth and sea, whenever we found any who were walking according to the traditional rule of piety, we claimed them as our fathers and made them the guides of our soul on the journey to God.9

Just as in Saint Basil's time, our youth need to be placed in front of those that walk in piety and righteousness, so that they, too, will know what godly people look like and how they act, so that they may do the same.

In many ways American society has lost the role of the elder. The tradition of respect for our elders, of those who have lived life and have the wisdom of life experience, has been lost. It is as though their days of giving were over. (Our Lord warns the well-established against falling into this way of thinking in Luke 12:16–20.) The Church needs just the opposite. She needs the elder, (man or woman) who loves Christ, who loves His Church, who loves the people of the community, to continue working and standing as a witness to the presence of God in the community. This is something only the elder person can do, as he or she is now free in personhood and in understanding their ultimate journey, and has a fuller understanding of the need to "lay aside every care of life" that stands in their way to the Kingdom.10 Many of our young people have been separated from the elders. They miss out on this vital gift given by God for the formation of young people. Saint Theophan the Recluse writes,

But suppose someone has turned toward God, suppose he has come to love His law. Is the very going toward God, the very walking on the path of Christ's law, already necessary and will it be successful merely because we desire it to be? No. Besides the desire, one must also have the strength and knowledge to act; one must have active wisdom .... It is necessary for someone who already has the desire to walk on the indicated path to the Lord to be shown (by someone who has already journeyed that way) in addition all the deviations that are possible on this path, so that the traveler may be warned in advance about this, may see the dangers that are to be encountered, and may know how to avoid them.11

We need "cutting edge" methods of teaching, and at the same time to impart the wisdom of the elders of the Church. We need to do better than the world in this regard, because we have so much more to oer, and the stakes are a matter of spiritual life and death. The Good News of God is an exciting and relevant message and way of life that cries out to be shared and lived by all, precisely because it is life-giving and joyful. To some the Church appears to be a century or so behind the world in capturing the imagination and eyes and hearts of our young people. Yet the Good News of Christ is needed now more than at any other time in history. The message of Christ needs to be made alive today, as the Church has the most to offer young people, so that they may live and find great joy and purpose in life.

If we truly care about the salvation of our youth, and really seek to form them as children of God, as disciples and leaders of the Church, then we must take our task seriously, for there is no greater task for educators and parents. No greater reward awaits each of us in this world, than to know that we have passed the faith down to the next generation intact and even greater and more alive than what we received.

In 1999, I wrote the following in my doctoral project concerning youth:

Young people today are confronted with moral and ethical choices at a younger age than in past decades. They are tempted to partake of illicit drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. They are confronted with choices of whether or not to participate in pre-marital sexual relations – heterosexual or homosexual, whether or not to view pornography in secret or on their family television or over the Internet connection from their own bedroom, [and today I would add the iPad or personal phone].

More often than not, through these influences and choices, the youth are encouraged to reject and abandon their faith in God. These are among the many choices confronting young people today. Often they are encountering these issues as early as their pre-teen years. The many moral choices confronting pre-teens and teens leave these young people ill-prepared to make responsible and educated choices. Moreover, they are often confronted with these choices without the extended family nearby, and with parents who are absent or in some cases ill-equipped to understand the conflicting issues.

Ideally, children ought to be protected from such choices until they are old enough to deal with them maturely. The reality of our time, however, is that our society is so permeated with immoral and unethical behaviors that we, as the Church and as parents, must equip our children to respond in a meaningful and responsible way to all of these issues.12 In many ways, these challenges are forming the identity of our young people. Perhaps we need to be more mindful of the words of our Lord, that, "whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:5–7).

The biblical texts of Paul's letter to Timothy and of Jeremiah's first chapter remind us that young people can and do have a signicant impact in the life of the Church. These texts also stand as examples of what we must teach young people to do. St. Paul says,

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:11–16).

A similar reference is made of Jeremiah saying, "But the LORD said to me, 'Do not say, "I am only a youth"; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD'" (Jeremiah 1:7–8).

Youth ministry is helping young people understand where they fit into the story of salvation and just how important their part is in the story. It is helping young people know that they belong to the story of salvation and most importantly they are members of the Kingdom of God, members and partakers as children of the Light.13 They are seeking to be clothed with the garment of light given in the formation of Adam by God in paradise and tragically lost by Adam and Eve.14 Saint Gregory Palamas reminds us that what we lost in the garden is shown again in the Transguration of Christ on Mount Tabor and in Christ's Resurrection. The Resurrection is the promise for each of us who seeks and chooses truly to be a child of God, as a child of the Light.15 Therefore, our young people must know the story of salvation, both in and out of the classroom. They must come to know what was lost in paradise and what has been gained in the Resurrection. They need to know that they belong to that story. They must be equipped to participate in that story in a positive, life-giving, Christ-centered way, in everyday life, in each situation, and with each person they encounter.

To know the story of salvation means we must also be good theologians – as good theology leads to good youth ministry. Youth ministry without a solid foundation in right theology will set our youth adrift and ultimately lead to spiritual death. Youth ministry is about the eschaton – it is eschatological – it is about salvation. Orthodox youth ministry is not accidental. It is a deliberate effort to transform lives and save souls.

As a young youth worker over thirty-five years ago, I was told my job was "to keep the kids busy and out of trouble." I quickly came to understand that youth ministry was so much more. I came to know that youth ministry was about life and death. The late-night talks in the hotel lobby with groups of teens quickly led from small talk to the deep issues in life facing our young people. The questions our youth asked were often about physical life-and-death matters, but, more importantly, they were ultimately about spiritual life and death. I have often said that I fear not physical death – but I greatly fear spiritual death. Physical death comes with the hope of passage from this world to the Kingdom of Heaven, but spiritual death leads to darkness and oblivion.

From my early days at St. Vladimir's Seminary, I remember the gentle, insightful woman, Sophie Koulomzin, as she wrote her book Our Church and Our Children. Koulomzin reminds us that teaching youth is so much more than simply conveying information, or simply filling time with them. Koulomzin reminds us that, "As our children reach adolescence, they have to come to terms with the concept of the Church as the Body, the incarnation of God in our life: (They need to ask the questions) What is the Church? What is my place in it? What does it mean for us? What is its place in the world?"16 In short, youth work, teaching our children, is much more than keeping our youth busy and out of trouble: it is about helping young people form their identity.

In a document being prepared for the Antiochian Archdiocese on the Spiritual Formation of Youth, our committee struggled with the question, What does working with young people look like in terms of formation?

In general terms, our job as youth workers within the Orthodox Church is to foster spiritual formation, or growth in spiritual maturity, among our young people. In some circles, this process is referred to as "discipleship," which is an accurate and Biblical description of the process of spiritual growth. From our perspective as we consider both the wonderful potential that our young people have in Christ, and the spiritual dangers that confront them, we are interested in producing the next generation of disciples.... And of course, what we don't want to do is to create disciples of ourselves; rather, we want true disciples of Jesus Christ, or in other words, spiritually mature men and women.

This document later goes on to say, as part of the formation of our young people, that we are helping them form their identity:

A major part of having an identity is having a narrative. To a large degree, we think of who we are in terms of the narrative of our lives. Our lives are stories, and we are shaped by those stories, but we also try to shape the stories, and to a certain degree, we may succeed. We have a natural tendency to try to make sense of life by understanding it as a narrative. This is clearly something recognized by the Church; narrative characterizes the Holy Scriptures in general, and we might think in particular of the parables used by Christ. Narrative is present in every aspect of Church tradition, from Saints' lives and Church history to hymnography and iconography. Therefore, a major factor in helping teens to discover their identity in Christ, is helping them to see themselves as part of the Church's narrative, and to see Christ and His Body at work in their personal narratives.17

In forming the identity of our young people we would do well to remember the fruits of the Holy Spirit, "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control."18 Saint John Chrysostom similarly reflects on the spiritual person, as he speaks on inner beauty.

Let us turn I say to the soul. Look upon that beauty, or rather listen to it: for thou cannot see it since it is invisible – Listen to that beauty. What then is beauty of soul? Temperance, mildness, almsgiving, love, brotherly kindness, tender affection, obedience to God, the fulfillment of the law, righteousness, contrition of heart. ese things are the beauty of the soul. These things then are not the results of nature, but of moral disposition. And he who does not possess these things is able to receive them, and he who has them, if he becomes careless, loses them.

For as in the case of the body I was saying that she who is ungraceful cannot become graceful; so in the case of the soul I say the contrary that the graceless soul can become full of grace.... You cannot alter grace of body, for it is the result not of moral disposition, but of nature. But grace of soul is supplied out of our own moral choice.19

Formation of our youth, as Saint John Chrysostom observes, is about choosing to be formed as a beautiful person from within. The gifts of the Spirit are essential in forming the identity of children of God. Our task is no less than to help form children who are beautiful in their identity and personhood before God and His people.

Ultimately, the Church in America needs to gather her bishops, priests, and lay leaders on the archdiocesan and diocesan levels, and the parents, educators, youth workers, and young people, to dive into the depths of Orthodoxy and articulate anew an eective, Orthodox approach to youth formation, one that will address the unique needs and circumstances of Orthodoxy in America. This would be one based on the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, the Divine Services, and the Holy Fathers and Mothers throughout history as well as this present day. This discussion should generate educated youth workers and produce concrete material for forming, deeply and broadly, the identity of our young people as children of the Light working out their salvation here and now. If we do this, and if we are successful, then we will raise up strong and fervent disciples and leaders for the Holy Orthodox Church and for this great nation. Filling the Church with children of the Light, who sing in their hearts and minds, "Lord, Come," will show the Church as She really is – the Body of Christ – and a great beacon of light and hope to this very troubled world.

V. Rev. Dr. Joseph F. Purpura
A paper delivered at Fordham University, April 16, 2016, in a symposium entitled, "Youth Religious Education: Wisdom from Christian Tradition for the Contemporary Society"

1. Ephesians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:5–1.1

2. Colossians 1:18.

3. Matthew 6:10, 19:24.

4. Acts 2:41.

5. Cf. 1 Corinthians 16:22. Father Alexander Schmemann was Dean of Saint Vladimir's Seminary during my five-and-a-half years at the school, September 1973 – December 1978.

6. "Memory Eternal" is a short hymn said and sung at the Orthodox Christian funeral and memorial services for the dead. Asking God to remember the person who has died, is asking God to keep the person alive in His mind and hence alive in reality. If we are remembered by the Lord, we are alive with Him in the Kingdom, just as Christ promised the thief on the cross. "Then he (the thief on the cross next to Christ) said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42).

7. Psalm 69:28, Revelation 3:5, Revelation 21:27, Luke 10:20.

8. Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13.

9. St. Basil, "Letter CCIV," Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol. VIII (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 245.

10. From the priestly prayers as the priest prepares for the Great Entrance with the discos and chalice, in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

11. Theophan the Recluse, Raising Them Right: A Saint's Advice on Raising Children (Mount Herman, California: Conciliar Press, 1989), pp. 7–8.

12. Joseph F. Purpura, "Moral and Ethical Issues: Confronting Orthodox Christian Teens Across North America" (D.Min. doctoral project, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1999, p. 1. 13. Ephesians 5:8, John 8:12, Matthew 5:14, John 3:19–21, 1 Thessalonians 5:5–11.

14. Genesis 3:8–24. The nakedness of Adam is that he lost the clothing of Light given when God breathed life into him. After disobeying God and losing the clothing of Light, God then clothed Adam and Eve with skin (Orthodox Study Bible).

15. Gregory Palamas, "Homily Thirty-Five Delivered on the Feast of the Transguration," in St. Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, ed. and trans. Christopher Veniamin (Dalton, PA: Mount Tabor Publishing, 2014), pp. 275-276; Matthew 17:1–2; 28:1–7.

16. Sophie Koulomzin, Our Church and Our Children (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1975), p. 102.

17. "Working Document of Spiritual Formation," Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese Department of Youth Ministry, Daniel Bethancourt, 2016.

18. Galatians 5:22.

19. John Chrysostom, "Homily II: Eutropius having been found outside the Church had been taken captive," Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol. IV (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 264.