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Keeping the Faith: When Friends Leave the Church

So you’re a young Orthodox Christian, you attend liturgy regularly and consider yourself fairly active in the Church. But you look around during services and wonder where all the young people are. You don’t need to read the statistics to know that Millennials are leaving the churches they were raised in; that’s old news to you.  

But what do you do with this reality? How do you grapple with what feels like the awkward pink elephant in the room?

We all have friends who were active in GOYA (or SOYO or other teen Church groups) but who later stopped coming around. Or maybe we know friends from our college days, from Orthodox Christian Fellowship or a Greek Club, who might not even identify as Orthodox anymore. Or maybe we have friends who left Orthodoxy in favor of a Protestant congregation because they didn’t find what they were looking for in the Church.

This can leave us feeling frustrated, confused, or upset. When we have an interest or a passion in something, it can be mind-boggling when other people don’t share our perspective. If we feel connected to our Orthodox faith and couldn’t imagine being away from it, it can be confusing why someone would feel differently.

And, when interacting with older people in the Church, it can be uncomfortable to be put in a position to somehow represent all Orthodox young people and give an explanation for their departure or, even worse, be asked to provide the answer that will reverse the trend.

After all, holding onto our own faith can be hard enough; no matter how much we “get it” or are on fire for Christ today, any of us can easily become a statistic of declining faith tomorrow. That’s not an easy thing to accept.

If you know this feeling like I do, then reflect with me on some things we should keep in mind.

1. We all have freedom

Our faith is based on personal freedom. God gives us the ability to choose Him or to reject Him. He loves us completely either way, but He does not force His love on us, because forced love is not love at all. Most Orthodox Christians were baptized as small children, and didn’t initially choose to walk the Christian path. While Orthodox parents raise their children in the Church, each person still has to choose each day to live Orthodoxy and choose Christ.

We can’t passively be Orthodox; it requires an active choice each day.

Invariably, some people will use their freedom to choose not to follow this path with us. And we have to respect their choice, even if we cannot understand their decision. We need to love them all the same. We love them through continuing to make our relationships with them important to us. We should also pray for them (just as much as we pray for anyone else), for God to continue to work in their lives.

Recognizing the freedom of our friends means respecting them and loving them all the same. We cannot control what their choice might be, but we do have control of how we relate to them. Some people who have chosen to leave the Church can feel isolated or even rejected. This sort of social exclusion has no place in the Church. We each need to be Christ’s healing presence in the lives of all people.

2. Keep walking the path

If you’re living an Orthodox Christian life today, then keep walking the path. Keep moving forward, “onward and upward” (as C.S. Lewis allegorically describes the Christian life in The Chronicles of Narnia). We walk the Christian life through continuing to be actively engaged ourselves and to be aware and honest about the challenges we face in our walk.

In my moments of doubt or frustration, it’s helpful to recall the experience of the holy people of our Church. While I have experienced my fair share of challenges to my personal faith, I also have a collection of experiences and memories which strengthen me to stay on the path.

Specifically, I find comfort and solace in the writings of St Maria Skobtsova, St Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia, and Mother Gavrilia. When I’m feeling challenged, I’ll open a book on their lives or writings, and I get the strength I felt I was lacking. When my faith falters, I listen to the podcasts of Father Thomas Hopko. In his voice and teachings, I’m given courage to face the day and the conviction to choose to live Orthodoxy today.

The Orthodox Church directs us along the path towards Christ. Our path is the same one taken by the saints before us, and it stretches far out ahead of us. And, God willing, the people who forget Christ and the Church today will remember Him and return tomorrow. We do not know what God’s will might be for them, or what their decision will be towards the Church in the future. If and when people return, we should be on the path waiting to welcome them.

3. Don’t give into fear

In our society today, driven by “Breaking News” and Apocalyptic prophesies, it’s easy to get consumed by fear.  We hear news of terrorist attacks, bad politicians, and natural disasters. We worry about exams, papers, and job deadlines. So when bad news comes to us about the Church, that our friends are no longer involved or have left, it makes sense that it would come to us as a low blow. We might ask ourselves why we are still coming, why we haven’t left yet. There are so many fears that we can give into, but “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

The more we live the Orthodox life, the less fear can control us. It is in choosing for ourselves to walk the path of Christ, that we will come to embrace the love of Christ. The more we come to know Christ, the more we will come to know true love because God is love (1 John 4:8). This love for Christ, this love we can only get from Christ, gives us a peace that takes away the power that fear tries to exert over us.

The Church has always experienced difficulties, but the Church is still here. Jesus said that the “gates of hell will not overcome” the Church (Matthew 16:18). So yes, people leave the Church and people reject Christ. Will we let this turn us towards fear, or will we turn with more fervor towards Christ?

*****

Religion, and faith more generally, is no longer a thing we can take for granted. For most young adults, this has become our new normal. But just because it’s normal for society doesn’t make it easier to deal with when we encounter it within our churches. Instead of giving into fear, we need to turn to Christ who is the source of strength and continue on the path set before us. Our Christian life calls us to continue to pray for those inside and outside the Church and to respect the freedom of each person. Only when we respect the freedom of the other can we have freedom ourselves. After all, we too are free to choose Christ and His Church.

What are you doing to not become just another statistic? How can you better be Christ’s loving presence to those both inside and outside the Church?

 

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.

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