How I (Almost) Failed at Youth Ministry

This year, I was asked to run the GOYA and JOY programs at my home parish, along with two of my friends as co-advisors. I wholeheartedly agreed to do so with a grand idea in my head of taking the summer camp model of ministry that I love so much and carrying that throughout the school year through this ministry.

 

Warning: That isn’t exactly what happened. This is not a story in which I bring everyone to Christ and am the perfect youth ministry worker. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It’s a story where I learn my shortcomings. On the bright side, I did learn very important lessons.

 

The first is: Plan ahead, but expect the unexpected.

 

I had no idea what would come at my first few meetings which made it difficult to create lesson and activity plans. I had no idea how many people would come or what they did or did not know about Orthodoxy. I thought, at the very least, I had a general idea of where I wanted the meetings to go. But I found that I should have been more open to the meetings not going my way.

 

For example, I had a plan to try to make a genuine connection with everyone there, but I slowly discovered that JOY and GOYA meetings are not like summer camp cabins, where these interactions are much easier because you spend almost every waking moment together for a week. These meetings are two hours or so a week, and with attendance at about 40 kids, connection like that is virtually impossible. So I had to amend my plan.

 

Second: Ask for help when help is needed.

 

As advisors, we were not only running all the youth programs, but we also had to build them up from virtual non-existence. I was extremely fortunate to get amazing co-workers in Christ to advise the group with me. But sometimes, we needed extra help, and we should have asked for it.

 

There is certainly humility necessary to ask for donations, or for a parent or a speaker to join a meeting. And I’m not saying that we would immediately get what we asked for, but putting our needs out there probably would have helped. Parishioners are not all-knowing, and neither are clergymen. How could I have expected them to know what I was struggling with if I never told them? At the very least, maybe they have had the same struggles and can lend you an ear and helpful suggestions.

 

Lastly: Appreciate the little things.

 

Did I introduce every one of these kids to Christ? Did I show them what an Orthodox Christian should act like through my actions, always? I think the answer to these questions, in any ministry setting, will always be no. It’s never going to be that magical. And, even though you know that that’s unrealistic, because as Christians we know we are imperfect, it’s something that we should strive for.

 

But, did these groups create friendships within a church setting? Yes. I don’t think that I’ve taken the time to properly appreciate the blessing that every individual there has prayed and laughed and perhaps even cried together (the JOY kids have cried plenty for sure). While I was trying my best to be the best example of an Orthodox Christian that I could be, I saw glimpses into lives and actions that quite unexpectedly inspired me.

 

If there's anything that I learned this year, it's that you need to keep trudging on despite sometimes feeling tired, or sick, and especially when you feel as though you haven't made progress that day. I mostly learned these lessons through my co-advisors, who were nothing short of unbelievable and helped push me through many lulls and ultimately closer to Christ.

 

The truest model of youth ministry isn’t something that can be taught. It’s about being an example of Christ’s light and love, which is something that I am still learning and will continue to learn. There is no surefire method that will bring people to Christ, but having the right mindset is supremely helpful.


If you’ve experienced challenges while doing youth ministry, please share them (in the comments section below, or on Facebook, but also with other youth workers that you encounter). How did you approach and solve those issues? How did everything turn out?

 

Image credits:

Depositphotos

______________

Maria is the Administrative Coordinator of Y2AM. She is a New York native who isn't completely sold on the city's charm, yet has never left. A proud graduate of Fordham University and occasional runner, she is happiest whenever chocolate, a sale, or a good Gilmore Girls reference is involved. 

______________

Addiction, Sin, & Bad Habits: What We Can All Learn From the 12 Steps

Nobody wants to talk about addiction. It’s a painful subject. We always seem to be able to acknowledge addiction or sin in someone else, but never in ourselves. So we assume addiction will never affect us personally. And whether or not that is true, we can at the very least admit to ourselves that we have our fair share of bad habits and sins that we struggle with.

What I’d like us to do here, for the next few weeks, is to reflect on what everyone can learn from the experience of recovering addicts.

This week, we will look at the first three steps shared by all twelve step recovery programs. 

1. I’m powerless

The first step, contrary to all the satire, is not “to admit that you have a problem”. Everyone with an addiction or who struggles with a particular passion or sin understands that they have a problem. But knowledge never solved it. The key is to realize that we are powerless over that problem and that we cannot solve the problem on our own. So the first step is: “We admitted we were powerless over ____ – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Whatever my struggle, I must admit that the passion is greater than my ability to conquer it. I’m powerless over it. My life is unmanageable; it cannot be managed by me alone.  Try as I might, I cannot fix myself. In fact, I have to give up trying to fight it. You see, if I’m fighting it directly, I subconsciously believe that I have the power to control my passion.

So the first step is to give up. It might even sound a bit defeatist to say, “don’t fight,” but the key is to stop playing God. This opens up the door to the next step.

2. I came to believe

Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Those of us who believe in God might want to skip over this step. But how much do we truly believe in Him if we never let God be the Lord and Master of our lives? I have to give up control so that God can get to work. After we give up trying to fix ourselves by admitting we’re powerless, we have to come to Christ. We have to come to – to wake up – to the reality of our present situation. We have to come to believe that He alone can heal us.

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Only when I stop, stand before the Lord, and trust in Him can I have the gift of faith. Now we have a decision to make.

3. I made a decision

Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Each day, we are called to be coworkers with God, to work in synergy with Him. The Christian walk is about lifting your foot in faith, trusting Him to bring it down onto solid ground. So in step three, we just have to make a decision. Making this decision helps us put that belief into action by giving our will and our life over to God.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Step three makes the words of Christ our constant petition: “Not my will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). This step reminds us to commit ourselves to Christ and to offer up our will to Him every day, throughout the day. During the Liturgy, the priest calls us to commit ourselves to Christ several times as if to remind us that once isn’t enough. We’re constantly trying to take our will back, to live our lives according to our own will. But now, in step three, we make a decision to trust in Christ and His will.

*****

The steps that follow all stand upon the foundation of these first three steps. The goal of the steps, as with the Christian life, is the transformation and healing of a person, rather than just the elimination of a bad habit. You don’t need to be an addict to benefit from the wisdom of the twelve steps, because they are ultimately a reminder of what the Church is calling all of us to do on a daily basis.

What are you powerless over in your life? Have you come to believe that Jesus Christ can restore you? How have you turned your will and your life over to Christ?

 

Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit:

First three steps

Pushing a rock 

Hands tied 

Arms open to sky 

______________

Taylor Swift, Ryan Adams, and the Cross of Christ - Pop Culture Espresso Shots

I know every word to Taylor Swift’s album 1989. It’s sad, but true. My one-year-old daughter hates being in her car seat (a veritable prison for an adept crawler), but for some reason unbeknownst and begrudged by everyone else in our family, 1989 soothes her. Needless to say: we’ve heard a lot of Taylor Swift’s chipper music.

That’s why when I first saw that Ryan Adams had covered 1989, I laughed at the clear irony. Anyone who has heard Adams can understand that his melancholic music hardly shares anything in common with Swift’s upbeat tunes. But when I listened, I realized that underneath her cheery veneer is buried a deeply hurt girl whose life is replete with longing and broken relationships. Adams’ take on 1989 revealed Swift’s music for what it is.

As (bad) luck would have it, when I was writing this, I stumbled across Jamie Smith’s interpretation of this reality here. I will leave the liturgical reflections to him, but my experience with Adams and Swift left me realizing that while I was listening to her, I hadn’t really heard her.

Even though Taylor Swift has been pumping through my car’s speakers for the last 7 months, and while I could sing along with every song, I got lost in the major keys and general feel of her music. So I missed her. I missed the sadness, the heartbreak, the loneliness.

There’s something about hearing Ryan Adams sing “Shake It Off” that makes it finally appear in all its lyrical potency. As he sings, “I’m dancing on my own, I’ll make the moves up as I go, and that’s what they don’t know...that’s what they don’t know…” one can finally see that Swift’s resolve to shake off the haters is more of a pep talk than an embodied reality.

Surely we all know how it is to work up the courage to bounce back after disgrace. It takes lots of self-talk, lots of vulnerability in the face of others who are waiting for another failure. This led me to wonder: if I were Taylor Swift’s friend, would I have caught on to the truth stirring in her heart, striving to rise again? Or would I have bought the lie that she already believed that “it’s gonna be alright?”

Indeed, this causes me to wonder how often my own friends use smiles to stifle the screams welling up inside. While I may hear them saying that everything is okay, am I really listening to hear the deeper truth of their hearts? Perhaps I want their responses to be more in line with Taylor’s 1989 than Adams’.

In the Church, perhaps we run into the same problem. Perhaps we actually even prefer the Taylor Swift version of people’s lives. And perhaps we like this version because it doesn’t demand all that much from us. Listening to Swift, we might think that her pain is a cleaned up product that we can dance to, but Adams demands that we sink into the pit, that we hear the sorrow for what it is. Perhaps we don’t actually want to hear people share the Adams version of their lives.

What would it be like if the people in our communities felt that they could tell the truth of their lives? What would our parishes be like if we actually all heard each other? What if the Church was more like a community of people who could open the sadness? The hurt? The longing?

If we truly believe in a God who draws near to us in the Cross, then we need not be afraid of the darkness that bites at the heels of us all. We can, instead, enter it fearlessly, knowing that it is through the Cross that joy enters the world, bringing Resurrection to all.

So the next time we are tempted to overlook someone's pain by taking "I'm fine" at face value, let’s lower the volume on the Taylor Swift we hear, and try to tune into their inner Ryan Adams. We may be delightfully surprised to find that as we share in one another's loneliness, we suddenly have company inside the pit. As darkness flees from the light, so, too, does loneliness flee from connection with others.

Then, and only then, can we fully appreciate the transformation of the musical tenor of Adams into the upbeat rhythm of Swift, a rhythm we can all dance to, for it is the rhythm of the broken heart that we all share.

 

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo Credits:

Sad Girl: Depositphotos

Sad Guy: Depositphotos

______________

For more:

Check out Ryan Adams' cover of T-Swfit's "Blank Space":

Check out Ryan Adams' cover of T-Swizzle's "Shake It Off":

Decisions Aren't Always Yours to Make

The first time I realized that decisions are not wholly my own was when I was choosing which college I wanted to attend. The whole time you’re in high school, you’re told this narrative: “If you work hard enough, you can go to the college that you want.” To put it bluntly, that’s not always true.

 

When I was a senior, I applied to 13 schools (indecisive much?), and I got into ten, and I had to knock out about half of them based on the cost. I had never thought about money. But a lot of my choice had to be based on it.

 

I remember being extremely frustrated, and I got even more frustrated when my parents started pushing me to go to Fordham because it was close to home. After thinking that I was becoming an adult and that I’d finally get to make my own decisions, I found that immediately to be untrue. I felt as if I had lost all autonomy.

 

I’m going to break the good news to you now: I made it. Not only did I make it, but I LOVED my time at Fordham (and I NEVER stop talking about it). Read: Fordham was by no means my first choice college. And I only loved it because first, I acknowledging God’s place in the whole process. Then, I changed my attitude.

 

Similar things have happened since then, where decisions have happened to me more than I have consciously made them. I think that the older you get, the more you are affected when decisions are made for you, and especially when they are not in your favor (ah, young adulthood…). Frankly, I don’t like to be told what I can and cannot have, or do.

 

But what can we do once a decision has been made for us? Not much.

 

Except live in it and make it work. Not every decision that has affected me has been my first choice. And after copious amounts of moping, I’ve come to realize that many more won’t be in the future.

 

When you’re a child, your parents make every decision for you. They tell you not to touch the stove when it’s on, so you don’t. Why not? Because you don’t want to burn yourself. Your parents know what’s best for you. You trust them, even though you’re seriously too young to realize that that’s what’s happening.

 

Just like you have to trust God in times when decisions aren’t necessarily your own. Be humble and trust Him enough to accept that what is happening to you is what is best for you.

 

The only person that you can lean on during these times is God. He’s the only one that we can really always trust to guide us away from the stoves of young adulthood. Maybe you didn’t get that job, maybe that friend wanted to end your friendship, and you’re frustrated because you doubt that someone else could make the right decision for you.

 

That’s precisely the moment when the only thing that you can do is humble yourself. Accept the decision that has been made for you. Accept God’s part in it. Truly live in it. Look for the Lord no matter where you are or what happens to you. Because I promise, He’s there.

 

Sometimes, doing this can make us content. But other times, it can change our perspective entirely, or even make us happier. Most of all, it’s a sign of maturity that we trust God no matter what rather than assuming that because we didn’t get what we wanted we’ve been abandoned. You can’t spend your whole life thinking about that college you didn’t go to, that opportunity that you didn’t get to experience, or that person who didn’t choose you. You can’t spend your whole life thinking about that stove you didn’t touch; that will burn way more than touching it ever would have.

 

What you can do is accept that this is the path that God has put you on, and that this will help you grow into the adult that you’re becoming. Note that your autonomy isn’t being taken away from you. Instead, the decision (wink wink) to react to it in a certain way is being given to you. That's where the attitude change comes--when you realize that the real decision is not choosing what will happen next in life but deciding to put your trust in God and treat every moment as a gift from Him.    

 

Image credits:

Depositphotos

______________

Maria is the Administrative Coordinator of Y2AM. She is a New York native who isn't completely sold on the city's charm, yet has never left. A proud graduate of Fordham University and occasional runner, she is happiest whenever chocolate, a sale, or a good Gilmore Girls reference is involved. 

______________

 

Beauty, Harmony, and How Fleet Foxes Guides the Heart: Pop Culture Espresso Shots

It has been five years since Robin Pecknold and the multi-instrumental, harmonious dudes of Fleet Foxes have released an album. Sure, they broke up when the drummer and Pecknold’s sister, the group’s manager, didn’t work out, but still: I’m starting to get mad.

I’ve listened to the Foxes’ albums, both their 2008 self-titled release and Helplessness Blues, more times than I care to count. Needless to say, I sincerely love this modern, nu-folksy spirit baby of “The Beach Boys” and “Crosby, Stills, and Nash.”

But I do not love them for their lyrics. I do not love them because they convey a super great message with what they sing.

As Christians, I find that we are often tempted to approach art of any kind (but especially music), looking for a “message,” a worldview preached by lyrics. If this worldview is something that can be supported by Christianity, then we approve. If not, we largely reject it (or at least feel very guilty while we enjoy it).

While this isn’t necessarily a bad practice, it is an incomplete one, as it disrespects the integrity of the art as a hybrid of both content and form. Moreover, I think it also disrespects the integrity of the human being, implying that we are largely moved and formed by “messages,” things that we need to think about or believe.

But the human person is not simply a “thinking creature.” We are creatures who are made in the image of a God who is Love (1 John 4:8). As such, we are primarily loving creatures.[1] But as embodied, loving creatures, we do not simply engage the world unilaterally. Our hearts, our love is shaped by our interactions with the world, directing us to love particular visions of “the good life.”  Thus more than music directs our “worldview,” it directs our love.

Before I move on, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that lyrics don’t matter. What I’m saying, rather, is that perhaps there is more to music’s power on the human spirit than just lyrics. Perhaps, rather, the form of the music itself has a – well – formative power over us.

This is precisely why I love “Fleet Foxes,” because their music directs my love, creating a longing for a particular vision of life through the very form of the music.

1.     Beauty Matters

One of the most notable qualities of any song by the “Foxes” is simply how lovely it sounds. “Lorelai” on Helplessness Blues is a perfect example of this.

Most music on the radio is written in the same time signature, encouraging us to clap on the second and fourth beats of the song. “Lorelai,” however, is written in the same time signature as a waltz. Its very rhythm almost conjures images of people in beautiful clothing, dancing elegantly through a ballroom. This visual is embedded within the song, not something that is sung about; it is not a message. It is a musical imaginary, something that the song rests on.

Beyond this, the instrumentation itself is layered, and if one listens closely, one can hear a flute playing softly throughout. It is staggeringly beautiful and somewhat heartbreaking, evoking almost a visceral reaction and a deep longing. It is a beauty that is not lectured about. A beauty not taught about. It is a beauty that is experienced.

Since all beauty is God’s beauty, and God alone is the Beautiful One, our hearts are trained to long for beauty, to seek the Beautiful One, whether we realize it or not. While there is a danger of seeing beauty as an end in itself (an issue I won’t address here), when we continually experience that which is truly beautiful, our hearts are pointed in the right direction, toward beauty and Beauty Himself.

2.     Singing Together

One of the most notable qualities of almost any Fleet Foxes song is their use of harmony.

Anyone who has sung in a choir knows that harmony rests on sharing the song’s key and the song’s tempo. Harmony simply wouldn’t work if each voice sang its own song. Rather, harmonies rest on the song’s melody, and this means that each singer must listen to the others. The result is beautiful: multiple voices working together, each with its own contribution.

As human beings, we are made for harmony. We are made to join in the one song of praise to our Lord. We are made to work together to care for God’s world, to bring it to it to Him in daily offering.

It is a reality of the Kingdom of God, wherein there are people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9,10)

 

Harmony is an image of mutual submission, with each voice needing the other, listening to each other without overpowering any other. Fleet Foxes gives us an image, an embodied expression of the harmonious unity of God’s Kingdom.

 

3.     Listening Again

 

The Fleet Foxes are ultimately so great because listening to them over and over again is deeply rewarding. The beauty, the harmonious vision of human flourishing – these are things we would do well to repeatedly receive as people designed for love.

There is a reason that the Church offers us the same Liturgy every week: repetition is important. It is through repetition that the Word is written on our hearts and lodged in our thoughts, shaping our internal rhythms and ways-of-being in the world according to Christ’s own Life.

All beauty and harmony are God’s. Beauty and harmony thus work on us and direct our hearts toward the source of all beauty and harmony: God Himself. We may not even realize this is happening, but it is.

Blessed Augustine once wrote, “You formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.” Everything we listen to is directing our hearts toward something, some particular vision of human flourishing.

That’s why I’m grateful for bands like Fleet Foxes, directing my heart through beauty and harmony toward life everlasting.

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has an MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.


PHOTO CREDITS: Depositphotos

Fleet Foxes: Rasmin via Compfight cc 

[1] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), p. 7.
Maria Pappas
Posts: 3
Stars: 0
Date: 5/27/16
Sam Williams
Posts: 25
Stars: 0
Date: 5/25/16
Christian Gonzalez
Posts: 50
Stars: 8
Date: 5/24/16
Melissa Tsongranis
Posts: 1
Stars: 0
Date: 5/15/16
Stavroula Savelidis
Posts: 1
Stars: 0
Date: 5/13/16
Steven Christoforou
Posts: 22
Stars: 0
Date: 4/25/16
Fr. Nathanael Symeonides
Posts: 14
Stars: 1
Date: 4/15/16
Jamil Samara
Posts: 12
Stars: 0
Date: 3/23/16
Dr. Tony Vrame
Posts: 20
Stars: 1
Date: 3/19/16
Nicholas Anton
Posts: 1
Stars: 0
Date: 3/3/16