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3 Critical Questions to Shape the Future of the Church

Note: On Sunday October 21, 2018, Steve delivered the following talk at the 104th anniversary banquet of Saint Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Merrillville, Indiana. Given its wider application for ministry work, we've decided to publish it here.

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Your graces, reverend fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ.

Christ is in our midst!

A Disappointing Experience...

I was in recently in Nashville attending a workshop. Hundreds of people had gathered to learn about how to clarify the message of their companies and share their valuable work with the world. Actually, most of the people in attendance weren’t with companies at all: they were with non-profits, most of which were faith-based. 

I was in a room full of Christians (people who were serving the sick and the afflicted, people who were serving young people and old people alike) and were exploring ways they could better share the story of what and (maybe more importantly why) they do exactly what they do. 

Which makes sense. Because, if they could do that, they could share their valuable services with more people, and attract more donors to help support the valuable work they were doing. I was in a room full of Christians who were clarifying their vocation so they could magnify that vocation and its positive impact in the world.

Now, I was the only Orthodox Christian in the room. Which usually isn’t surprising, based on how few of us there are in this country.

But, on this day, it was disappointing...

You see, at one point the workshop leader was going around the room, asking people to share a little about their work. He called on people who were helping to equip amputees with prosthetic limbs, people who were organizing trips to the Holy Land to help people better understand the Scripture, people who were caring for young men whose lives were in crisis: so much great work, and so much of it was done by Christians in the name of Christ.

The workshop leader was so pleased to have such amazing people in the room, doing such amazing things.

When he got to me, I explained a bit about where I was coming from. I told him that I lead youth and young adult ministries for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; that I develop resources and training materials for the ministry that happens in our roughly 550 parishes (not to mention other parishes, both in other jurisdictions and around the world, that use our work). 

But before I could get very far, when I said the words “Greek Orthodox,” the workshop leader smiled and joked:

“Greek Orthodox, huh? I love your food festival.”

Now, this man wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or dismissive. He was simply pointing out that, despite being pretty immersed in the world of Christian ministry, what he knew about the Orthodox Church wasn’t our theology or our philanthropic work or our ascetic practice. It was our ethnic food.

Like I said: that’s pretty disappointing.

But it’s a joy to be with you, here at St Savas Church in Merrillville, Indiana; celebrating the 104th anniversary of this community. A community that helped form and raise St Barnabas the New Confessor, an American-born saint of the Church.

Are We Meeting Our Goal?

And isn’t that exactly the point of any Orthodox Christian community: to introduce young people to Christ; to inspire them to live out their relationship with the Lord in His Church; to form them into faithful Christians, members of the very Body of Christ?

It should be evident that this is the goal of every Orthodox Christian community; both here in Merrillville, and across the United States, and around the world. 

But I don’t think we live up to this goal as well as we should. In fact, if we did live up to this goal, ethnic food wouldn’t be the world’s primary association with the Orthodox Church. It wouldn’t be the main thing they know about us.

I think it’s evident that many of our communities have struggled with this goal in recent decades. As a Church, we have struggled to introduce our young people to the living person of Jesus Christ. As a Church, we have struggled to capture the hearts and minds of young people. As a Church, we have struggled to communicate an inspiring vision of the reality of the Kingdom of God.

How Big is the Problem?

Of course, this is not a uniquely Orthodox problem. In 2011, the Barna Group (which is an evangelical Christian polling firm) published You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church...and Rethinking Faith. It’s an important book that explored some long-term trends in the lives of young American Christians and it gives us some very sobering data.

The authors of You Lost Me surveyed young adult Christians, between the ages of 18 and 29, and found that 59% of young Christians report that they’ve dropped out of attending Church after going regularly as teens.

Think about that: roughly 60% of Christians are falling away from the Church as they enter young adulthood despite being connected during their teenage years.

That’s both scary and unsustainable.

And, in some Christian traditions, the number who fall away is even higher. Though we lack hard data about the Orthodox Church, for example, in my own life as an Orthodox Christian about 90% of the kids I grew up with have fallen away from the Church.

What Can We Do?

We are here to celebrate a community that has existed for over a century; a community that has even helped in the spiritual formation of a saint of the Church.

Yet, as we look back, I think we also need to look ahead. 

We need to look ahead: both to the next century in the life of St Savas Church, and to the next century of the Church as a whole. We need to ask whether, when people gather to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of this community, we will be able to point to even more members of this Church family who are counted among the saints of the Church.

Because, once again, isn’t that the point?

Now, I am no saint. All I am is a young adult who has, against all odds, continually struggled to know Christ (and to know Him from within His Church). As I said earlier, at least in my particular corner of the Church, that makes me a rarity. I’m the 1 in 10 that’s still here (while 90% of the young people I grew up with have fallen away). 

I am no saint. But I am a Christian. And maybe there’s something about why I (and young adults like me) continue to identify as a Christian that can help shape the work of communities like this for the next century. 

So I’d like to share three potential markers in the life of a young Christian. Three things the young people in our care need to know; not simply in an abstract or intellectual sense; not simply with their minds but with their hearts

Three things the young people in our care must know in their hearts and carry with them at the very core of their being if they are going to take the steps needed to embark on the long and difficult and joyous road of holiness.

First: That God is Real

I’ll start with the most basic one: young people need to know that God is real.

As a young person growing up in the Church, I was active in a variety of ministries and programs. I was a part of youth group. I was a student in Sunday School. I played sports and attended retreats. 

And over the years, I learned plenty of things about God. But in retrospect, I didn’t know God Himself during those years.

I didn’t really believe that He is real.

It’s so interesting to reflect back on my years in youth group, bouncing from one activity to the next, from one diversion and distraction to the next, and never really developing spiritual roots that grounded me in an awareness of God’s presence and activity in my life. 

In high school, I even taught Sunday School. My parish programs ended after 8th grade, so I spent my high school years helping to teach the younger students. There I was, standing before the class every week, helping teach them the life of a saint or some event from Church history, while (in my heart) I gradually became more and more disconnected from God

By the time I was in college, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t believe in God in any strong sense. It was rather that I wasn’t terribly interested in Him because honestly, it didn’t seem like God really even mattered all that much. God was just an idea, an idea that wasn’t compelling enough to change the way I lived my life.

A Life-Changing Experience

All that changed in my junior year of college, when my dad passed away. My father was (and is) my hero: I’ll be fortunate to one day be half the man he is. To lose him (and to lose him so suddenly) forced me to confront some of the terrifying consequences of my indifference toward the divine

After all, if God isn’t real, then neither is the afterlife. And if there is no life after death, then I really and truly had lost my father; not just for a time, but forever. 

If there was no God, and therefore no afterlife, then my father no longer existed.

And that was just too hard for me to accept. So I did something I hadn’t done in many years: I prayed.

I prayed, with tears in my eyes. I prayed to a God that I wasn’t sure was there. I asked God to take care of my Father, to remember him, to keep him safe and well. And I did this, day after day, for weeks. With no expectation of answer, with no hope of comfort or closure.

And yet, after weeks of this, something surprising happened: God answered.

While I was calling out to someone I wasn’t sure was even there, He heard me.

"From His Temple He Heard My Voice..."

And I had the distinct sense that an arm stretched out and embraced me (not in a literal or physical way, but somehow). And I had the distinct sense that a voice spoke to me (again, not in a literal or physical way, a wordless voice); and that this voice told me something simple and joyful: “your dad is ok; I have him, don’t fear.”

This, of course, changed everything for me. I started my prayer calling out to a God I didn’t believe in.

And He heard me.

As the Psalmist writes, “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.”

And not only did He hear me, He thought it fit to answer me. He thought it fit to reassure me that He was there; that He was listening; and that He was acting for me and for my father.

Fifteen years later, that remains the most defining moment of my life. Fifteen years later, I’ve sacrificed much and endured much because “from his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.”

Consider This...

So my question to you is: how can we assure our young people that God is not just an idea, but that He is a real Person? A Person who hears them when they cry out to Him from the depths of their pain? 

This question takes on multiple dimensions. Is God just a bit of religious trivia, something we talk about or someone we encounter? Do we spend more time in the classroom or before the altar? Is prayer and worship at the center of our lives, or something that exists at the edges of our attention and effort?

Second: That Christ is Risen

Next, for the second marker in the life of a young Christian, I offer this: the knowledge that Christ is risen

This is a critical point. If Christ is not risen, then He is not Lord. And if He is not Lord, then we have no reason to follow Him.

This is so basic, in fact, that Saint Paul even discussed it in one of his letters. For example, he wrote the following to the Corinthians:

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”

There are two basic ways that we can address this question.

First, we can answer it historically. We can, in a backwards-looking sense, look back to the tomb in the year 33AD and say that, according to the books and the texts, it was empty. That, as a historical fact, two thousand years ago Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross and then rose from the dead 3 days later.

This is, of course, true.

But it is, on some level, academic. It is a proof, a bit of historical data to support an idea. And, if that’s our sole approach (even our primary approach) to Christ and His Resurrection, then I’d suggest we’re missing something about the Gospel.

And we’re doing a disservice to the young people in our care.

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

The Gospel message is clear: “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” God has, in the person of Jesus Christ, defeated death by death. And this is not a historical fact: it is a present, lived reality

Again, we need to push here, to make sure this isn’t just an abstract statement. The reality of the Gospel, the truth of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, is lived in the lives of His holy ones: His saints. 

This is, I would suggest, put best by St Athanasios the Great; who, in the 4th century, when he was just 19 years old and a deacon in Alexandria, drafted what has become a classic work of theology: On The Incarnation. In this work, he addresses the doubts that some people have about Jesus.

Is this man really the Messiah? Is this man really true God of true God?

St Athanasios doesn’t answer this question in the past tense. He doesn’t answer by looking back to the 1st century, by analyzing texts in a search for the historical Jesus. He answers by looking to his own century, to the brave witness of the men and women (and sometimes even children) who bravely faced martyrdom rather than deny our Lord and Savior. 

As St Athanasios so eloquently wrote:

“Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end.” (Saint Athanasios of Alexandria, On the Incarnation §29).

Consider This...

So my question to you is: how are we living out Christ’s victory over death? 

Again, this question takes on multiple dimensions. Of course, most of us (probably all of us, actually), are quite insulated from even the threat of martyrdom. But even though we may never have to stare into the mouth of a lion, we still confront death on a daily basis. 

Are we consumed with worry over finances? Are we willing to compromise good Christian ethics to get ahead, whether at work or at school? Do we give freely of the blessings that God has bestowed upon us (confident in His continuing grace), or do we hoard them (full of doubt and insecurity about what is to come)?

Third: One Christian is No Christian

Finally, the third marker in the life of a young Christian: the support of knowing that one Christian is no Christian.

In early 2018, Health insurer Cigna released the results of a nationwide survey of 20,000 adults. They found that 54% of people feel like no one actually knows them well. 56% of people said those who surround them “are not necessarily with them,” and abouty 40% said they “lack companionship,” their “relationships aren’t meaningful,” and that they feel “isolated from others.”

As several people have put it: it seems like loneliness is a real epidemic. 

Unfortunately, this loneliness also exists within the Church.

Listening to Young Adults

Last year, our Team at Y2AM started a new podcast called We are Orthodoxy. It’s an interview podcast where our Young Adult Ministries Coordinator, Christian Gonzalez, spends some time getting to know young adults and inviting them to share a sort of spiritual autobiography.

Every episode is framed by a single question: if you could express your relationship with the Orthodox Church as a Facebook status, what would it be?

We’ve spoken to all kinds of people from all across the country. We’ve spoken to young adults who have either left or drifted away from the Church, and we’ve spoken to seminarians and even clergy who find themselves firmly in the embrace of the Church. I’ve even sat for an interview and shared my own story.

There are a lot of common threads that we’ve seen across all these interviews. But one that I want to highlight today is loneliness. So many young adults struggle with disconnection, a sense that they are somehow divided from the Christian community around them. 

The Struggle of Loneliness

Sometimes this loneliness is the result of pain: an unkind word, a failure to listen, a breach of trust; in my own interview, I share some very difficult (and, frankly, alienating) experiences I’ve had with clergy. Sometimes this loneliness is the result of oversight: isolation at coffee hour, the lack of meaningful friendships, an overwhelming sense of not belonging. 

The early Christian Tertullian, in the 3rd century, wrote that “one Christian is no Christian.” On one level, this is a deeply theological statement. If a Christian is truly a member of the Body of Christ, then no Christian can fully be himself in isolation; any more than an organ or appendage can fully be itself in isolation, cut off from the rest of the Body. 

We have a word for such isolated members of the body: dead. Those parts are simply dead.

And this theological truth has very practical consequences, from the importance of our communal worship to the importance of fellowship. 

Consider This...

So my question to you is: how are we truly living as a Body, united in Christ? 

Again, this question takes on multiple dimensions. When new people find themselves in our community, do they feel welcome or excluded? Do people who are already in our community feel connected to everyone, or separated into cliques or sub-groups?

Do people find it easy to develop deep, meaningful, vulnerable friendships with others in the community? 

Looking Ahead...

So as you, the good people of St Savas Church prepare for the next 100 years in the life of your parish, I ask you to take these three questions seriously:

1. To explore how you can assure young people that God is real, and not just an idea.

2. To explore how you are actually living out Christ’s victory over death.

3. To explore how you are truly living as a Body, united in Christ. 

I regret that I do not know more about St Barnabas the New Confessor. What little I know of him suggests that he was a man who endured much in the name of the Lord. He bravely spoke out against the communist government of the day and its mistreatment of the Church. When he was arrested, he remained calm, and was often heard singing hymns from the midst of the most isolated wing of the prison. He was a source of comfort to those around him in life; and now, having given his life, he remains near us in prayer through the grace of God.

St Barnabas, like all saints, knows that God is real. His life was and is an ongoing testament to the truth of Christ’s victory over death. He was and is a source of grace and encouragement, both to those from here and those who have never before set foot in St Savas Church. 

A Prayer for Our Ministry

My prayer is that, in the century to come, many more young people will experience healthy, Christ-centered answers to the three questions we have discussed. And that more young people will walk the path that leads, not to estrangement from the Church, but directly to Christ and His Kingdom.

And may this be so, not only through my prayers (and your prayers), but also through the prayers of Christ’s most holy mother, his holy angels and all the bodiless powers, and of all his saints, but especially through the prayers of St. Savas and St. Barnabas the New Confessor, whose memory is a testament to the formative power of this parish; a parish that is well-pleasing to the Lord, to whom belongs all glory and honor in the Church, now, and forever, unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM.

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