Sometimes I fear that the Church has gotten very good at freaking out about (and totally misunderstanding) cultural shifts. We oversimplify complex problems and, like an Orthodox Buzzfeed, reduce our challenges to the one reason young people aren’t attending Church.
Well, it’s because of the temptation of our time.
Well, it’s because they don’t have a voice in our communities.
Well, it’s because they don’t understand what the Liturgy is actually about.
By blaming our troubles on an easy-to-state problem, we allay our anxiety and tell ourselves that we know what needs to be fixed. So we go about wracking our brains, thinking of new ways to solve the over-simplified sound bite and bring young people back to Church (while also increasing overall tithing to fund our parish’s awesome new children’s ministry).
Frankly, I’m tired of alarmist responses to the absence of young people from the Church. I’m even more tired of looking to one or two ministries to cauterize the gaping hole in the Body of Christ as She continues to bleed her young.
The problem of losing young people from the Church is not a problem with young people. Instead, it’s a symptom of a larger systemic problem, or rather, larger systemic problems.
I have been reminded this week that problems are rarely as simple as we would like them to be, as evidenced by the fact that even Jesus Christ encountered someone who was beset by any number of troubling spirits.
In the Gospel reading on Sunday, we see Christ encounter a demonically possessed man. He is possessed by not one demon, not two demons, but by the super-unspecific “many.” So “many,” in fact, that the man tells Christ, “It’s easier if you just call me Legion.”
The Scriptures this week show us that problems are very often “many.” This lesson is essential to those of us (myself included) who may be tempted to isolate “one bad spirit” within the current landscape of the life of the Church.
One such reductionist story is based in the belief that young adults just need somewhere to hang out with other Orthodox young people. We tend to think that if we could just somehow convince young people that Orthodoxy is super cool, by carefully putting together the right mix of fun activities and programs, then maybe our Church would “have a future.”
Indeed, we look at the Church and worry about whether or not it even has a future because we don’t see very many young people in the pews.
I get it; I really do.
But we need to take a step back and reassess.
There isn’t just one problem to fix, and we delude ourselves if we think there is.
We are, sadly, a religious community possessed by any number of spirits that led us away from Christ: the spirit of secularism, the spirit of fear, and the spirit of immaturity.
We are, sadly, plagued by legion.
While the Church is truly the Mystical Body of Christ and Her liturgical and theological expressions do not in any way reflect a secularist mindset, our modern ideas of what it means to be the church are possessed by a spirit of secularism.
Our idea of church is more organizational than mystical.
In other words, we often conflate faithfulness with participation. While participation is a prerequisite for faith, we cannot believe that they necessarily accompany one another.
Our minds are far too occupied with imminent (“this worldly”) expressions of faith. We spend more time talking about “going to church” or “learning about the church” rather than experiencing an active and living Faith in a Person and cultivating an inclination toward His eternal, transcendent Kingdom. Nor do we invite young people into this living Faith and relationship, in both of which Christ is Center.
Instead, we confuse our ideas of faithful participation with religious socialization. But they aren’t the same.
This conflation of faith with participation has led directly to our being possessed by a spirit of fear. Because we have come to presume that faith equals loyalty or participation, we are afraid about what happens when our young people go away to college and begin to participate in and support groups that are more successful at garnering their loyalty than the Church.
Our response to this has been to launch college ministries and young adult programs that seek to “be relevant” to young adults. But the problem is that they are largely reactionary, attempting to use the very population they have lost to win over other members of that same population. Instead of forming people in Christ, we’re devising tricks to raise attendance.
We are possessed by this spirit of immaturity. We are preoccupied with being youthful. We assume that a Church with a youthful spirit is a thriving Church, so we struggle to sell ourselves as hip and not out of touch. Christ, however, has made it clear to us that it is not the youthful spirit that guides the Church, but rather it is the Holy Spirit.
We have spent so much time worrying about how we can bring back the young people we have lost, worrying about how we can have a more youthful spirit and cultural relevance, yet we have neglected the Holy Spirit of God and the culture of His Kingdom.
Truly. We are a people possessed.
And no amount of programming, no amount of strategic planning, no amount of relevant young adult or youth group speakers is going to change this. No amount of awesome educational resources will cure us of our spiritual confusion.
Only Christ can cast out these spirits.
We must turn to Christ and repent of our preoccupation with earthly metrics of success and visions for ministry. We must not view young people as the future of the Church that we perpetually stand in danger of losing. We must instead remember that the Church already has a Future that is sealed in Christ.
The Church’s Future is the Kingdom of God, and we must incline ourselves toward it, seeking to manifest Christ’s reality in our midst. There is no single or simple problem to be solved. In the face of this legion of struggles, we must lean into Christ’s Kingdom, directing ourselves, one another, and all our lives unto Christ, trusting that as we seek Christ and His Kingdom, everything will be added to us, even young people (Matt. 6:33).
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.
For more on declining Church membership and responding well, check out this episode of Be the Bee:
For more on leaning into Christ, check out this episode of Be the Bee:
For more on a real relationship with God, check out this episode of Y2AM's newest YouTube series, The Trench: