Everyone wants to see youth involved in the Church and there are many reasons for this. Clergy see them as a sign of parish vitality and growth. The elderly see them as a guarantee for the Church’s future. Parents hope and pray that their children will find an example in the Church by which to live their life. Youth look for peers who share their faith to affirm that they really do belong in the Church. But how does a parish actually get them involved? The real questions are: What characteristics do parishes need to be places where youth do come and participate in the life of the Church?
What makes a ‘youth friendly’ parish?
Youth, as adolescents, by virtue of their stage in life, are in the process of evaluating everything in their lives and choosing what they will accept and what they will reject.
Often they are making choices without being fully informed. As they begin to determine the role the Church will play in their lives, they probably are not aware of everything the Church teaches. They may or may not be aware of having a direct and genuine encounter with the Living God. Another problem that arises is that often we, as sinful adults, have incorrectly taught them, through our example, about what the Church teaches. Children and youth learn most effectively by example and from experience.
How often, in our daily and weekly actions, do we teach them that Church teachings can be disregarded at a whim, or that the Church is a place where people fight and gossip? For these reasons the youth-friendly parish wants above all “to be identified by young people as a community of care and concern,” a place where young people can see and experience the Love of Christ living and acting in its members.
Educators and psychologists agree that adolescents require four basic needs:
• the need to find a place in a valued group that provides a sense of belonging.
• the need to identify tasks that are generally recognized in the group as having adaptive value and that thereby earn respect when skill is acquired for coping with tasks.
• the need to feel a sense of worth as a person.
• the need for reliable and predictable relationships with other people, especially a few relatively close relationships–or at least one.
Youth spend most of their adolescence searching for a place that can fulfill these needs. Unhealthy subcultures such as gangs and cults attract so many teens precisely because they provide these four elements to adolescents. But why should young people have to go to such destructive extremes to fulfill their basic needs? Our Church provides the perfect place for all these things: the parish community. What better place to find a sense of belonging, build reliable and predictable relationships, and develop a sense of worth as a person, than in a community whose vision is to actualize the Kingdom of God in this fallen world? It is a place, a community, with people of many ages, talents, and backgrounds. It is a place where all these people have no other purpose than to proclaim the Gospel of Christ by living as a group who support, challenge, and work for each other. Based upon this, the youth-friendly parish continually evaluates how it can best address these needs. It continually asks itself:
• Do we see our parish as an essential place for people, including teenagers, to spend their time, where they are provided with a genuine sense of belonging, where they are needed, where they receive what they need; or is it just somewhere you have to go on Sunday?
• Does our parish give teenagers opportunities to learn and do important and valued tasks within its life (reading, serving, directing the choir, singing, leadership, making prosphora, etc.), or does it really just want them standing quietly in the back at worship services?
• Does our parish continually affirm to teens that they are special and essential persons within the community, or does it feel that they are a problem that must be dealt with (i.e., too much youthful energy, apathy, etc.)?
• Do people within the parish try to develop reliable relationships with youth where Christ is the center point, or are the youth avoided and sent away whenever possible?
• Does the parish provide the necessary opportunities for teens to meet and develop these types of relationships with each other, or is everyone just too busy with other things to exert the effort and time?
These questions require the interest of more than one or two people. To put it bluntly, if most of the people in a parish are not concerned with learning even the names of young people, the parish will not be a place where youth will want to spend their time. Attracting youth to the Church and encouraging them to be active in her life is a task which involves the entire community.
There are four things a parish must be ready to do if it wants to become more “youth-friendly.”
Pray with and for them. Take time to pray with them about an issue that is important to them. Pray for them that God will help them with their problems. As part of your daily prayer life, simply pray for them to know God acting in their lives. It is even helpful to let them know you are praying for them (without bragging). When you let them know that you care enough to pray for them, you show youth that they are valued by the community and by people in the community. It also indirectly teaches them about the power and purpose of prayer, and how to pray. Just be consistent, and respectful of their privacy. One way to do this is by placing a “prayer list” somewhere in the church or church hall where everyone in the parish can write down the names of persons they want to be prayed for and why. These people can be included in the services’ litanies and in people’s private rule of prayer.
Spend time with them. It sounds like an obvious suggestion, but we need to remember that young people spend most of their time with peers and very little time with adults who want to be part of their lives. This lack of significant adult relationships is a major reason why teens and young adults go to peers for help in dealing with difficult problems rather than adults, who may have more wisdom, knowledge, and experience in dealing with the problem. As Christian adults, it is our calling to develop significant and dependable relationships with young people. Our attempts to build relationships just need to be genuine and not condescending or sporadic.
Learn about their world. If you are going to spend time with kids and hope to influence their lives, you must be sure to respect them enough to know about the world in which they spend their time. Find out what they listen to, watch, and read. Be sure to ask them about it. The way you perceive something and the way they perceive it can be very different. It is important to respect that. The key is to “learn it, don’t live it.” If you are an adult you need to be an adult and not try to live like a teen. Everyone, including youth, feel the falseness of an adult behaving as if he or she were 15. Next, as St. Basil instructed the educators of his time, search for what is good and true in youth culture. The lyrics of much of today’s music talk about principles found in the Gospel.
On the other hand it is necessary to weed out and talk to young people about what is not of God in much of today’s pop culture. Studies have shown that each year television programs bombard viewers, explicitly or implicitly, with over 14,000 acts of sexual intercourse, and that 94% of these acts are between people who are not married. Adults need to reaffirm to teens (they already know that the Church says “NO” to sex before marriage) that this is not “normal” or healthy (physically, emotionally, or spiritually). They must also be ready to explain why.
Really listen to them. Jesus spent significant amounts of time simply listening to people before He ever said a word. (Take time to read the biblical accounts of Jesus’ encounter with the apostles on the road to Emmaus, and with the Samaritan woman at the well.) How often do adults ask teens for ideas on certain subjects with no intention of taking anything they say seriously? How often do we tell teens that we want them to talk to us about their problems only to listen halfheartedly and quickly hand out trite one or two-sentence quick answers based upon “when I was a teenager?” A teen’s greatest desire above all is to be heard.
But what are some things a parish can do to make itself more “youth-friendly?” Here are four concrete steps. You will notice that they all require the commitment and involvement of the entire parish.
• First, provide the setting in which youth will share and discuss their needs and fears. This requires a group of committed people (clergy, lay adults, and youth) who already possess a genuine experience of God’s presence in their own lives and in the lives of others, and who want to share that experience with youth. Make it a parish project to recruit and train these people. For assistance you can contact the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries.
• Second, provide activities where these youth ministers can spend time with youth, either through retreats, camps, weekly sessions, service projects, or other activities. These activities should include opportunities for Fellowship, Education, Worship, and Service, (the F.E.W.S.).
• Third, ensure that youth are not only ministered to, but also expect, encourage and allow youth to minister to others as a living expression of their faith and belief in Jesus Christ. Find ways they can help others, draft a schedule and make it a regular part of young people’s parish life.
• Fourth, form a local parish or regional youth group and/or club which meets on a weekly or monthly basis to plan and accomplish the first three steps. Many parishesare forming “YO” (Young Orthodox) groups to accomplish this.
At a time when many denominations are launching huge campaigns, and are planning elaborate programs and events for their young people, we must remember that activities are worthless if youth are not “at home” in a regular parish community. Your parish may not have elaborate and expensive programs, but it can still be “youth-friendly” if your parishioners are committed to building personal Christ-centered relationships among their community’s children, youth, and adults. The type of parish that youth are attracted to is one where they are respected, valued, challenged, and most of all loved unconditionally.