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THE CHURCH AT RISK: MEETING THE CHALLENGING NEEDS OF TEENAGERS TODAY

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A Report to His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos
by the Teenage Taskforce on Religious Education
June 25, 1988

Introduction

The Teenage Taskforce on Religious Education*, appointed by His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos in December 1987 to address the question, "How can the Church today best meet the needs of her teenagers?" submits the following report with a sense of critical urgency. The taskforce worked under the auspices of the Archdiocesan Religious Education Department and in collaboration with the Archdiocesan Youth Department. In order to gather information pertaining to teen programs, main concerns of teens, leadership, funding, perceived effectiveness of youth ministry, and parish needs for the fostering of youth programs, an extensive questionnaire was drafted and mailed out to priests, Church School supervisors and teachers, as well as youth advisors of all parishes. Because of the constraints of time it was not possible to survey teenagers, an essential part of future study. About one third of the U.S. parishes responded and a few of the Canadian parishes. From the shared experiences of the task force members who have been working with young people for many years, as well as the results of the questionnaire, a consensus of opinion emerged that many teenagers are alienated from the Church as reflected in teen Church attendance, limited parish programs, and a large percentage of unchurched teenagers who are potentially a lost generation. The Church's future therefore demands that teen needs and concerns require immediate serious study and systematic action through ongoing structures and processes which must themselves be evaluated on a regular basis and be held accountable as to effectiveness.

1) The Church should be urgently concerned about teenagers.

1.1 The primary responsibility for the upbringing of young people rests with the parents. But the Church, too, has always had an important helping role in the spiritual, personal, and social growth of youth. This role is all the more urgent, albeit all the more difficult, in our own age because of the nature of secular and pluralistic society. Deep social trends such as the radical questioning of traditional values, the weakening of family, substance abuse, the influence of television and of popular music, and other, have created a social environment in which the growth and development of young people as Orthodox Christians has become a tremendous challenge to themselves, as well as to their parents, priests, teachers and advisors.

1.2 Greek Orthodox families, especially those closely linked to the Church and ethnic heritage, have reason to be thankful for a past encouraging record of family cohesion, educational achievement, and professional success. For example, the questionnaire indicated that college education and academic success ranked much higher than divorce and substance abuse as perceived issues of "great concern" to Greek Orthodox teenagers (see Graph A). However, along with well-meaning efforts to preserve the "good image" of the Greek Orthodox family, one must not neglect some troubling signs concerning families and teenagers. About three quarters of the respondents to the questionnaire also indicated that alcohol, drugs, and child-parent relations are appreciably problematic for Greek Orthodox teenagers. There are some alarming signs that unhelpful social trends in the areas of family life, substance abuse, as well as sexuality are impacting on Greek Orthodox teenagers as much as on any teenagers.

1.3 In a pluralistic society public schools cannot effectively address questions of moral and spiritual values. Thus the Church must heighten its own sense of responsibility in this area as the only institution of which the primary mission is the moral and spiritual growth of its adherents and of society in general. With regard to young people, statistics have shown that those who grow up within the Church and have found the Church meaningful in their lives, are most likely to maintain their links with the Church at a later age, even though they may for a time and for various reasons drift away during the college and early marriage years.

2) The Church has a unique message to offer to teenagers.

2.1 The essential message of the Church is unchanging and is none other than the good news of the living Christ -- His person, teaching, redeeming work, and gift of new life in the Spirit. The mystery of Christ as a living presence, "who is the same yesterday and today and for ever" (Heb. 13:8), is the essence of Orthodox life, worship, sacraments, spirituality, and teaching as proclaimed and expounded by the Apostles and the Church Fathers. By communion with the risen Christ, Orthodox Christians have throughout the centuries experienced God's love and grace as sinners, inner freedom and strength to live creative lives despite adversities, and a sense of clear identity and secure human relationships as members of the Church.

2.2 But how can the Church's message and all the enduring values of the Orthodox tradition be transmitted in a captivating way to teenagers so as to make a real difference in their lives? How can the voice of the Church be truly heard by teenagers inundated as they are with competing messages and obligations related to schools, extra-curricular activities, jobs, peers, television, popular music and other interests? How can the Church effectively reach out not only to the churched but also to the unchurched teenagers?

2.3 One obvious answer is that the Church's Christ-centered message must meet teenagers where they are, that is, it must be directly connected to their own daily concerns about identity and friendships, dreams and fears, ideals and temptations, joys and problems, successes and failures. St. Irenaeus taught that "the glory of God is a human being fully alive," a truth that can be most appreciated by teenagers. The Orthodox Christian message which has to do with life--the fullness of true life in Christ as God's gift--must be related to teen concerns about who they are, their future, inter-personal relations with peers and adults, sexuality, social problems, as well as about profound human values which make life worth living. The teenagers need not only be informed but also challenged by the Church's vision that God's gift of life is to be generously shared in love and service to others.

2.4 A second less obvious but equally important answer is that the Church, especially as represented by its ordained and lay leaders and teachers, must maintain a high spiritual credibility in the eyes of teenagers. To be captivating, the truth of the Church's message cannot be separated from its messengers. The Church's message must be proclaimed by messengers of high moral character and of deep conviction about the things they proclaim. In practical terms this means the building up of trust on the basis of personal honesty and institutional integrity harmonious with the nature and mission of the Church.

2.5 A third important answer is that the Church, while clearly and firmly holding to its spiritual ideals and truth standards, must at the same time show Christ-like love, forgiveness, understanding, and openness toward teenagers. For example, the Church's flexibility can be shown not by merely handing down "official teaching", but by willing to discuss vital issues in the context of the dignity of personal freedom and accountability. Teenagers may disagree or even rebel against Church teaching, but they grow in respect and trust for the Church when the Church shows love and understanding towards them while maintaining its spiritual standards.

3) The Church can help teenagers grow with a sense of belonging and identity.

3.1 Teenagers have a distinct need to develop personal bonds and to belong to a group. The questionnaire indicated that, among the issues of concern to teenagers, the highest rating was given to friendships and peer pressure (see Graph A). The sense of acceptance and belonging is a critical factor in the identity, behavior, and growth of youth.

3.2 The primary source of acceptance and belonging is the home. The Church needs to address concerns and strengthen its pastoral care pertaining to marriage, family life, and parenting. Parents are the first crucial others with whom children build up bonds of trust and loyalty. The family provides the secure ground for venturing to build up relationships in the neighborhood, school, and other wider areas of society. The influence of the home is virtually incalculable in the formation of the identity and the expressions of conduct of teenagers. To be sure, during the teenage years, young people also need to establish relationships beyond the home and such groups may exercise greater influence on them, especially if the family environment is not strong.

3.3 Next to the home, the Church as a community always has a tremendous potential for providing a sense of acceptance and belonging to teenagers. One way is through the fostering of effective peer groups of various kinds under the auspices and spiritual guidance of the Church in order to satisfy their need for friendships and social interaction. To belong to a Church group signals important implications for the identity and developmental direction of a teenager. An effective Church group can often influence a teenager in instances and areas where parental advice or intervention might only bring resistance and reaction.

3.4 A second way is when the entire local parish as a community of faith and love seeks genuinely to express its spiritual nature. The spiritual identity and quality of life of the local parish, and beyond it of the Archdiocese as well, are significant factors in giving to teenagers a sense of acceptance and belonging to a group worthy of their commitment and loyalty. Christian faith and values cannot be forced on anyone, nor be transmitted by mere teaching, but will be embraced and be part of a teenager's identity when they are heard, seen, and felt in the concrete life of the Church. In this context, too, teenagers can more fully understand and experience what it means to find acceptance by and to belong to God.

3.5 A third way is when the local parish emphasizes service to others and fosters service projects. A parish should welcome not only the presence but also the contributions of teenagers. Young people have a profound sense of idealism and are ready not merely to be served but also to serve. Both at home and at Church they need to be stimulated and challenged to learn to be givers as well as takers. Their identity and development can be immensely enriched when their aptitudes and talents find expression through concrete service programs both inside and outside the parish.

4) Many persons can provide leadership in the guidance and growth of teenagers.

4.1 Effective leadership and ongoing structures of leadership are indispensable to carrying out the vision and goals of the Church's ministry to teenagers. However, leadership must be viewed in a broader and dynamic context. For example, the questionnaire showed that the most critical factor in the success of parish youth programs was overcoming parental apathy and generating parental interest and cooperation (see Graph B). It is recognized that parents themselves need the Church's help pertaining to their own relationships as well as to their relationships with teenagers. Nevertheless parental interest and initiative are very important in youth ministry. "Leadership" by parents can be expressed in terms of their own regular and meaningful participation in parish life, their encouragement of teenagers to do the same, and their wise initiatives toward teenagers to bring this about (for example by providing transportation to youth activities). Parents and other adults can also help the fostering of youth programs in many ways through small support groups.

4.2 The leadership role of the parish priest also ranked high in the questionnaire as a factor in successful youth ministry (see Graph B). A common view is that a vital youth program is usually linked with the personal skills and interests of the parish priest. This is largely true. Yet the nature of the priest's leadership role must not be so comprehensively defined as to include full responsibility for everything in youth programs and activities, organization, communication, transportation, teaching, and inspiration. The weight of the priest's leadership falls on the example of his own personal faith and witness, his genuine interest and cooperation, teaching and guidance, creative proposals, assistance in the recruitment of suitable teachers and advisors, and ongoing overall supervision.

4.3 Along with the leadership of the priest the questionnaire indicated that lay adult supervisors, leaders, and advisors play an important role in youth programs (see Graph B). These local youth workers are overwhelmingly volunteers, generally recruited with some difficulty, and mostly "trained" through consultation with the priest (see Graphs C and D). Many attend periodic seminars or special sessions on youth ministry. More adequately trained individuals or salaried specialists engaged part-time or full-time in youth ministry are a rarity. Because of the tremendous lay potential in the Church, much more needs to be done and can be done in the area of adult lay leadership in youth ministry. The urgency of the task requires much greater emphasis on recruitment of gifted volunteers, extensive and consistent training, and the engagement of salaried professionals alongside and under the supervision of the priest.

4.4 Beyond the local parish, the Archdiocese provides ongoing leadership through the Departments of Religious Education and Youth Ministry. Many Dioceses also have youth offices staffed with specialists. The work of these professionals is highly commendable and much appreciated by the parishes. The perceived need is to increase significantly the professional personnel at both the diocesan and archdiocesan offices toward greater effectiveness in terms of the production of educational material, systematic training of volunteers at local levels, and assistance in the development and implementation of youth programs. The need for continuous mutual cooperation among archdiocesan and diocesan departments, as well as coordination of efforts and strategies, is a high priority.

4.5 Special attention must also be given to the development of leadership from within the ranks of teenagers themselves. A young person with leadership abilities can be crucial to the success of youth programs. Gifted teenagers need to be identified and cultivated through special diocesan and archdiocesan training programs. Such individuals can be valuable assets in both as teenagers and as future adult leaders in youth ministry.

5) The Church's ministry to teenagers can be carried out effectively.

5.1 The overall effectiveness of the Church's ministry to teenagers involves a complex, dynamic process dependent on many factors. Several areas of concern may be distinguished. One area is the whole spiritual tone of the Church and the heightening of the Church's consciousness to the urgency and importance of the task. The episcopal and priestly leadership of the Church is in the best position to overcome human inertia through inspired messages and unceasing instruction to the adult membership. The adult faithful, especially parents, need to become actively interested in and supportive of a comprehensive teen ministry. Only widespread education and interest across the Archdiocese can bring about a serious commitment of the Church's human and material resources to meet this great challenge. The ordained leaders of the Church must themselves become genuinely involved in youth ministry and actively encourage the cultivation of the gifts of the laity in this area.

5.2 A second area of concern is the significant further development of the archdiocesan and diocesan professional personnel and administrative structures devoted to Christian education and youth ministry, and working on the basis of a systematic process and well-defined stages and goals. Such development entails not merely expansion but also ongoing evaluation of competence of persons and efficiency of structures (through such means as the establishment of advisory boards) pertaining to youth ministry. The strength and effectiveness of Church professionals in terms of personal gifts and professional training will ultimately determine the degree of impact of youth ministry on the whole Church. Inspired professionals are the main source for virtually all aspects of a purposeful, systematic youth ministry including, philosophy, strategy, research and development of appropriate educational material, training of volunteers, coordination of efforts, implementation of archdiocesan and diocesan programs, and assistance in the implementation of parish programs.

5.3 A third area is the local parish's sensitivity to the Church's mission to teenagers. The parish priest and local lay leaders must be profoundly committed to Christian education and youth ministry. With the help of archdiocesan and diocesan specialists, they must generate parish interest in and support for vital local, diocesan, and archdiocesan youth programs. They must also be prime movers in the carrying out of already formulated archdiocesan or diocesan programs and in the development of creative local programs designed to attract the maximum involvement and participation of parish youth.

5.4 A fourth area is the involvement of teenagers themselves. By “involvement” is meant not only participation in prepared programs but also participation in the development and carrying out of those programs. Nothing less than the full engagement of teenagers in the whole process of Christian education and youth ministry will insure their genuine interest, serious involvement, and consequent benefit. Because teenagers have valuable contributions to make, youth programs should be characterized by a strong component of service in organized ways within the Church as well as the larger society.

5.5 A final area of special concern is the establishment of a well-defined process of evaluation and accountability at the parish, diocesan, and archdiocesan levels. Too often youth programs do not go as far as they could because they are not carefully formulated, or fully carried out, or properly followed up. Appropriate standards of evaluation will help correct deficiencies in such programs and improve their effectiveness. Clear lines of communication and accountability will encourage fuller implementation of youth programs toward achieving their maximum benefit. Thus a process of evaluation and accountability (for example, through written reports) is crucial to effective youth ministry and must involve the local youth leader(s), parish priest, diocesan and archdiocesan specialists, each bishop, as well as the archbishop.

6) Recommendations

6.1 Focus on the priority of youth ministry through the development and implementation of a two-year program, coordinated by the Religious Education Department and in cooperation with the Department of Youth Ministry, with specific pilot programs in local parishes, supported by appropriate budgetary allocations, and followed up by thorough evaluation.

6.2 Develop and expand qualified Church personnel engaged in youth ministry at all levels. The Archdiocesan staff responsible for religious education and youth ministry should be increased. The positions of Diocesan Religious Education Directors and Diocesan Youth Directors should be filled and strengthened as a matter of urgency. Part-time or, wherever possible, full-time parish religious educators and youth directors should be engaged in order to give systematic attention to youth guidance and growth. The development of professional staff must be connected to the appropriate archdiocesan departments and to Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology which should serve as the highest center for research, publications, and training pertaining to Christian education and youth ministry.

6.3 Establish a network of Greek Orthodox professionals working in relevant fields outside the Church and draw on their expertise at the national and local levels especially on specific issues such as college admissions, substance abuse, sexuality, and career planning.

6.4 Establish ongoing training centers and training programs throughout the Archdiocese. Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology should offer appropriate courses and programs on youth for the future priests, for presently active priests as continuing education on youth, and for lay persons desiring to develop careers in youth ministry. The Archdiocesan Departments of Religious Education and Youth Ministry, in collaboration with Hellenic College and Holy Cross specialists, should create and implement training seminars for Diocesan Religious Education Directors and Diocesan Youth Directors. Church professionals engaged in youth ministry should develop and implement training modules for local volunteer youth leaders.

6.5 Develop new bold programs in Christian education and youth ministry based, on the one hand, on the archdiocesan philosophy of Christian education and youth ministry (latreia/worship, koinonia/community, matheteia/discipleship, martyria/witness, and diakonia/service) and, on the other hand, on the reality of youth needs and problems according to specific issues and data in contemporary society. Such programs must directly involve young people themselves to an extent including youth representation at parish councils and other diocesan and archdiocesan bodies. These programs should also contain major emphases on service within and without the Church.

6.6 Establish a process of evaluation and lines of accountability involving all personnel and programs at the national and local levels through such means as meetings, reports, and seminars. The creation of permanent youth advisory boards or committees at the parish, diocesan, and archdiocesan levels would significantly help the ordained leaders and the lay professional staff of the Church in formulating and implementing this crucial process of evaluation and accountability.

7) Conclusion

7.1 The Church as a community of faith, witness, and service has responsibilities toward people of all ages and of all walks of life. But the teenage members of the Church, facing a changing and troubled period in their human development in which their identity and values are formed, need both special attention by the Church as well as special challenges from the Church.

7.2 It is unfortunately true that Greek Orthodox youth have not been spared the litany of problems facing young people in America today. The Church could and should be an important source of support, guidance, inspiration, and meaningful challenge for the young people in our communities in these changing times. However, there is evidence of an erosion of confidence and a general lack of both understanding and commitment to the Church among young people. Hence, the next generation is in danger of being isolated, if not alienated, from the values, influence, and support of the Church, and the future of the Church is at risk.

7.3 In other words, it seems that a growing proportion of Greek Orthodox youth have been slipping beyond the reach of the Church; and the Church can face its future with optimism only if the next generation is re-engaged in meaningful ways with the teachings, values, and practices of the Church. Only then will they be able to commit themselves to preserving and transmitting its traditions to future generations.

7.4 The future of the Church and the contributions of its members to society can be as bright and distinguished as those of its past, but only if leadership from both clergy and lay members of the Archdiocese, the Dioceses, and the parishes commit themselves to addressing the problems identified in a sustained and long term fashion. Denial or neglect of these issues, on the other hand, raises serious doubts about the future vitality and survival of the Church in America.

7.5 The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, as a dynamic community with considerable human and financial resources, can effectively carry out a critically needed ministry to teenagers. A community focus on teenage ministry with a sense of urgency and permanent commitment, supported by appropriate structures and programs, and above all supervised and guided by inspired and trained leaders and personnel, will not only bring about essential benefits in the lives of teenagers but will also beckon the Church to a more secure future in the fulfillment of its mission.

 

 

REPORT FROM THE
ARCHDIOCESE TEENAGE TASKFORCE ON RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
Members of the Archdiocese Teenage Taskforce on Religious Education

Chairman
Dr. Charles Mitsakos, Superintendent
Winchester Public Schools
Winchesterm, MA

Dr. Peter Capernaros, Superintendent
Canton Public Schools
Canton, MA

Dr. John Chirban, Director of Counseling
Hellenic College/Holy Cross
Brookline, MA

Mr. Michael Contompasis, Headmaster
Boston Latin School
Roxbury, MA

Fr. Angelo Gavalas, Director
Archdiocese Department of Youth Ministry
Astoria, NY

Dr. Matina Horner, President
Radcliffe College
Cambridge, MA

Fr. Paul Palesty
St. Nicholas Church
Lexington, MA

Fr. Kyriakos Saravelas
Dormition of the Virgin Mary Church
Somerville, MA

Mr. Peter Stamas, Headmaster
Lowell High School
Lowell, MA

Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos, Theological Consultant
Archdiocese Department of Religious Education
Brookline, MA

Mr. Ernest Villas, Director
Department of Religious Education
Brookline, MA