When we want our children to learn and to be educated, we send them to school and to tutors. When we want them to be healed, we send for the doctor. When we want them to learn about their faith, we take them to Sunday School. It makes sense right? We leave it to "the experts”.
Youth ministry, then, becomes something that some educated elite provide to our youth. It’s not our area of expertise; that’s why we have priests, youth directors, Sunday School teachers, etc. The problem with this vision of youth ministry is that it assumes Christian faith is simply another aspect of our lives like school and physical health rather than the very foundation of who we are. It assumes that being a Christian means learning information rather than encountering a person, Jesus Christ.
It also assumes that parents don’t have a role in facilitating this encounter with Christ other than taking their children to church.
But the Orthodox home is itself meant to be a little church. With this in mind, what then is the role of a parent in youth ministry? What are young parents to do that want to instill a love for Christ and an Orthodox mindset in their children?
Like language acquisition, our Orthodox Christian faith is something which comes to us by watching, listening, and doing. When we are little, learning language happens naturally as we are in environments with others speaking and interacting around us. So as children are around parents who put their faith to action, they learn by watching and listening to them, and then by following their lead.
And if those in their home are not putting their faith to action, children learn inaction as well.
The Christian witness cannot come just once a week during Liturgy and Sunday school. Faith takes root in the minds and hearts of children over time as they are regularly engaging in the action of their faith.
Prayer is a non-negotiable aspect of the Christian faith. A Christian that doesn’t pray is like a motivational speaker that doesn’t speak. We learn to pray by praying, and the Orthodox Church has a wealth of prayers for us to connect us not only to Christ but also to the generations of people who have prayed these same words.
If we want children to learn to pray, then parents must be modelling a prayerful life. What do meals look like in your home? Do you pray before eating to thank God for all that He has given you? If we pray before eating, it first teaches children that prayer is important, and second it teaches them that our blessings come not from our own labor but from God’s grace.
Do you have icons in your home? Are they for decoration or are they a part of your family’s prayer life? It is the Orthodox practice to have a prayer corner or a section in your home where you have some icons: of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the patron saints of your family. We might include some candles, a censer for incense, a prayer book so that we can say our prayers together.
Having prayer be a visible component of your life together as a family will teach your children that prayer is a natural and vital part of their life.
It can be tough admitting that we don’t know Jesus Christ well enough to introduce Him to our children. But humility is good for us, and it can even help motivate us to learn together with our children. "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3-4). When your children see you getting excited about Christ, they too will be encouraged to encounter Him along with you.
There are great resources both in print and online to learn with your children: from Y2AM, to Ancient Faith Radio, to children’s books. If you are reading your Bible, your children will want to learn with you. You can even read the stories of the saints that we remember each day and the scripture readings of the day on the Daily Readings app on your phone.
But the best place to meet Christ and to live out the Orthodox faith with your children is in the Divine Liturgy. So here’s a tough question: when do you arrive to church? Is it when liturgy begins or do you arrive late? If we arrive late to church but are always on time to school and work, what does this teach our children about the importance of the Liturgy? Remember, children learn by watching us.
Many young parents are worried to bring small children to church because they don’t want to be a distraction to other parishioners. Orthodox churches are filled with icons, candles, incense, beautiful vestments…it’s a sensory experience both for adults and children. Having a fussy baby is an opportunity to walk them around the back of the church to venerate the icons, to investigate the church with your child. The more a child is accustomed to being in church, from an early age, the more they will see it as home and will desire to be there.
If your child has questions during Liturgy, let them ask you quietly. If you don’t know the answer, reassure your child that you will go together to ask the priest after the service. As children, we are naturally inquisitive; quenching this inquisitive spirit by hushing them can do a lot of damage to a child. Encourage questions and don’t be afraid to say, “I’m not sure, but let’s go find out!”
Taking children to school doesn’t remove the duty of parents to help with homework and studying. Going to the doctor regularly doesn’t mean a parent has no role in keeping their children healthy. Similarly, having a priest or youth director or Sunday school teacher doesn’t preclude a parent from helping their child stay connected to Christ throughout the week.
Raising children in the Orthodox faith is a community effort, but it begins in the home. It begins as children listen and watch you practice your faith, and then they put this same faith into action in their lives. They learn to pray as their parents make daily prayer important in the home. They cultivate a love for Jesus Christ by meeting Him in His Church, in the scriptures, and in the richness of the Orthodox tradition with their parents.
How do you practice your faith throughout the week? Would someone know you were an Orthodox Christian if they came to your home? How are you seeking Christ today?
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Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 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: depositphotos