Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why Orthodox Young People Fall Away: A Prophetic Word from Fr. Steven Salaris

Concerning the 60%

Fr. Steven C. Salaris, MDiv, PhD
Fr. Steven C. Salaris, MDiv, PhD
Source: Orthodoxy Today
By Fr. Steven C. Salaris
Last year, I attended a clergy gathering where we had several “workshops” discussing the importance of Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), ministry to college students, and what I call “The 60%.” This term derives from a recent study revealing that 60% of college students never return to church after college. This sad data applies to Orthodox Christians, too. When discussing this with others, my scientific brain (I’m a former biology professor) wanted data to back up the claim. I wanted to identify the reasons why our youth leave. Bad idea! I felt like a McCain supporter at an Obama rally! No one wanted to discuss the issues. It was easier to lament about the symptoms than to address the cause(s) head on. There was also a lot of finger-pointing at those workshops; however, when you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you!
So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy? This is a difficult question to answer. It requires some serious scientific investigation. In the discussion that follows, I have implemented the scientific method of which I am so familiar. After spending time making observations and asking some tough questions, I have come up with several hypotheses. Some will apply specifically to our Orthodox Church, others will apply to Christian churches in general. Most of the hypotheses are corollaries to the warning God gave in Exodus, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (20:5b-6). (We would do well preaching about that verse more!). Another hypothesis is related to how we educate our youth. Here are my hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1: Linguistic and cultural ghettos that masquerade as “Churches” are contributing to “The 60%”

Orthodoxy has been in America for over 200 years. Yet too often our parishes live with the notion that the Church’s primary function is to be an ethnic preservation society. Far too many people go to church not to encounter Christ, the Son of the living God, but to talk in or listen to foreign languages and eat ethnic foods. Why do we attempt to spiritually raise our children in an atmosphere of dead liturgical languages and the equally dead cultures from which they came? Gee, Toto, we’re not in Byzantium (or Tsarist Russia) anymore!
Be honest, we worship in dead liturgical languages that laity, chanters, priests, and bishops do not understand. Our insistence on using these languages is like keeping a body alive on a ventilator long after brain death has occurred. Nonetheless, we continue to offer incense to the idol of “spiritual language” while not gaining a substantive understanding from what we hear. Sure, sending our children to Arabic/Greek/Russian school might make grandma happy, but they will still be unable to understand the liturgical languages they hear in Church.
Even when we do use English, many Orthodox Churches speak in what I call “liturgical ebonics” – an old variant of Shakespearian English that uses “Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine” pronouns and archaic verb tenses. Imagine the relief our youth feel attending a non-Orthodox church service that uses proper modern English. Dost thou not get it that this silly talk edifieth not our children! Sts. Cyril and Methodius understood using the language of the people! The evangelists to the Alaskan Native American people understood it. Why don’t we?

Hypothesis 2: Enmity in our churches is contributing to “The 60%”

“Enmity” is a word that means “positive, active, and mutual hatred or ill will.” Churches are full of it! – including the Orthodox. It would be great if we hated evil, sin, and the devil; instead we hate each other. Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as he has loved us. Too often we fail. When we fail we are hypocrites. How can Johnny learn about Christian love when mom has not spoken to “that person” in the parish for fifteen years? Yes, mom says, Jesus teaches that we have to love our neighbor as ourselves and that we must forgive seventy times seven, but how dare “that person” change grandmother’s baklava recipe at the Church festival! Years ago, I stood in a food line at a Greek festival and watched two men of that parish cursing and yelling at each other while nearly coming to fisticuffs. Great witness for the Gospel, huh? Add to this parish splits, gossip, back-biting, the way personality disordered parishioners treat the priest, vituperative general assembly meetings, etc., is it any wonder that our youth flee once they are free?

Hypothesis 3: Lack of stewardship is contributing to “The 60%”

We don’t regard the Church as the pearl of great price or a treasure buried in a field. Instead we treat the Church like a street beggar. In many of our parishes, clergy and stewardship committees hold out their hands hoping (and begging) that parish families will pay their “minimum dues.” Why must I hear of parishes with hundreds of families that by mid-year don’t have enough money to pay the electric bill or the priest’s salary? Why must I hear about priests and their families who are expected to live in substandard housing, send their children to substandard schools, drive junk cars, and depend on food stamps? This is scandalous! Even worse, this is oftentimes expected by parishioners who are quite generous to themselves. Why do churches depend on endless fundraisers and festivals for income? The answer to these questions is simple: Too many parishioners do not value the Church. Once the message that the Church is valueless is internalized by our youth (don’t be fooled, it is internalized), they will eventually turn their back on the Church. Our children will seek something of more enduring value as determined by family and society. Isn’t that frightening?! We must pass on to our children, by our example, the principle that the Church is worth the stewardship of our time and talents above all else.

Hypothesis 4: Failed models of Christian education are contributing to “The 60%”

With all due respect to those that have worked so hard in Christian education, it is time we admit that our Protestant-derived models of Christian education have failed. Like us, the Catholics and Protestants also have their own 60%. If the current model for Christian education doesn’t work for them, it will not work for us. Christian youth come out of years of Sunday school and still don’t know the basics of their own faith. I know of students educated in Catholic schools that think the Holy Trinity is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I know Orthodox Christians who think that the Holy Trinity is God, Jesus, and Mary. An organic living knowledge and internalization of the Orthodox Christian faith cannot happen in 45 minutes on a Sunday by cutting and coloring paper doll clergy and iconostases. There was no Sunday School in the early Church and yet families – parents and children – were martyred together bearing witness to the Christian faith (read the life of the early second-century martyrs Sophia and her three children…if you dare). Perhaps a radical re-thinking and new approach to Christian education needs to be developed by those who specialize in the field.

Hypothesis 5: The lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is contributing to “The 60%”

The Church is like a fig tree with lots of leaves. The leaves are things we get passionate and obsessive about – icons, facial hair (on men), chanting, vestments, ethnic nationalism, calendars, choirs, rants about ecumenists and liberal deconstructionists, spirituality, pseudo-spirituality, and all the rest of the fodder that one can find on “Orthodox” blog sites. However, if the tree doesn’t bear fruit then it is doomed to whither. I am going to be bold and identify the “first fruits” of the Church as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Some people might think that sounds a bit “Protestant,” but in fact it is entirely Orthodox. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is so deep, intimate, and personal, that He feeds us with this very own Body and Blood in the Eucharist (beginning for many of us when we are babies). That “first fruit,” that intense personal relationship with Christ, should then yield the fruits of repentance and spiritual growth in the lives of every Orthodox Christian. If we are unable to bear these “first fruits,” our youth and our Churches will wither.
What is next? In the scientific method, after making observations, asking questions, and developing a hypothesis comes experimentation where the hypothesis is rigorously tested. In this short article, I have only gone as far as formulating some hypotheses concerning “the 60%.” To go any further will require specialists in the Church to do the experiments and analyze the data. When all this is done, the conclusions will either support or reject the hypotheses. If, however, the appropriate studies do support the hypotheses, how will the Church respond – with action or apathy? The Lord says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance starts with self-examination – I am calling for the Church to do just that here and now. If it is determined that something is wrong, then true repentance requires a change. If we respond with apathy, then the 60% phenomenon will continue and our sins will continue to be visited upon our children generation after generation until the Church is no more. If we respond with proper action and change based on love, prayer, grace, self-sacrifice, and joy, then Christ and His Church – the very kingdom of heaven – will be a seed planted in the good soil of our children’s hearts and souls that will grow and bear fruit one thousand-fold until “the 60%” is no more.
Fr. Steven C. Salaris, M.Div., Ph.D. is the pastor of All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Christian Mission in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
Originally posted on March 1, 2009.


Snow said...

Great article. For me, it's 1,4 and 5. I am a five year convert, but I've been struggling for half that time. Orthodoxy is almost TOO full. I feel like I completely lost sight of Jesus a long time ago for all the "extra" stuff.

I also struggle with my church being a Greek culture club. Over five years at that church and someone asked me if it was my first time there on Sunday, when I sat on the other side of the room than I usually do... I will always be an outsider there.

I am actually missing Protestant Sunday School classes. My kids are in their second year of Sunday School and their first ever Sunday School lesson was cutting out saints and gluing them in the appropriate places on the iconostasis.

They learn more about Jesus at their preschool in the Protestant church up the road than they do in Orthodox Sunday School, where they mostly learn the mechanics of Orthodoxy.

VGA said...

I am one of the 60% that you are talking about. More accurately, I’m sitting on the fence and don’t know if I’ll be able to continue with Orthodoxy or move onto something else. More than likely, my time with the Orthodox church has come to a close.

First, the ethnic club. I am of Greek descent (3rd or 4th generation depending on which grandparent you count from), but I am not Greek. I don’t speak Greek. I’ve never been to Greece. I can’t do traditional dances. No offense to the Greeks – but I’m not interested in these things. I’m an American. When I go to a church and everything is in Greek, I feel like a tourist, not a parishioner. I feel like I should be taking photos, not worshipping. When I go to the coffee hour and everyone is speaking Greek, I feel left out. I’m stuck just standing in the corner and eating doughnuts. I’m giving up 25% of my weekend for this?

Second, I don’t care how strapped for cash you are. Community comes first, not money. When I go to a church, I want to feel accepted as a member of the community. I want to know that I have friends there who are interested in me beyond the obligatory 5 minutes of small talk. Instead, within a month’s time I almost invariably get a sales pitch. Give us money for this or that. Sign up to help with the festival. I want to feel that I’m a member of the community _first_ and not just a pair of hands or an ATM. I want to help, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being used.

Third, there is nothing for young professionals. I look around the church and I see lots of kids, lots of old people, and a not insignificant number of young families. But what about those people who have graduated college but haven’t gotten married and started a family? They are few and far between. The church has GOYA for the young and Philoptocos for the old ladies. But there is nothing for my peer group.

Fourth, intolerance for inter-faith or inter-religious marriages. I understand the stated theological reasons for this, but in America where most of the population is anything other than Orthodox, this is a crushing restriction. The reality is that I will probably marry a non-Christian. If she is aligned with me on every value other than religion, then religion will get dropped. It’s not like there is much for me in the church anyway (see above). I would like my kids to be baptized Orthodox. I didn’t grow up in an Orthodox church. The nearest one was a 2 hour drive from where we lived. But later in life the church was there for me when I needed it. I would like the church to be there for my kids in the future when/if they ever need it. But I’m not even sure if the church would allow this.

I want to be a member of something. Preferably something more traditional as that fits my personality and values better. But as things stand now, I feel like I’m slowly being forced out.

Unknown said...

I appreciate your comments.

The realities are a little more complicated -

perhaps some research will be of assistance

Anonymous said...

I have found that it depends entirely on which Orthodox church. I am familiar with an Antiochian parish in a college town that has many devout members from the college. The church community itself is alive and full of vitality. Of course, all services are in English. It is a small community, about 50 people who show up regularly, which keeps it close and personal. The priest goes the extra mile, in the services and with the parishioners, teaching, praying for them, letting them know they are loved. After every liturgy, members gather around on the carpet and talk. People ask for prayers or blessings for this or that. Birthdays, anniversaries, name days, travel, sickness, buying or selling their homes, etc., becomes everyone’s business there. It is a public forum where people share what is going on and what their needs are.

Everyone helps with the work: the soup dinners, vespers six nights a week (sometimes just done by the college students if no one else can be there). It is a strong and vital community. In my mind, it is religion at it’s best.

Personally, I think that having some passionate college students in the parish is a great model for the children. They can look ahead to their college years with the knowledge that it’s “cool” to go to church, even during college. But keeping the college students involved takes a lot of the priest’s time, educating them, encouraging their reading, their involvement, personal counseling, etc. College is a time that kids are firming up their values for life, and they are passionate about whatever they get involved in. They are seeking healthy models. Those models must be joyful, caring, reaching out, supportive of their many struggles at that time of life.

I also know a larger church with ethnic roots, but also many members from outside that ethnic group. Because there are so many members now who are not from the original ethnic group, most services are done about 2/3 in English. It is also quite a vital community, although I think when churches get too big, it is more difficult to maintain that sense of tight community. IT’s just more difficult for the priest to have enough time to be more involved with everyone, and for everyone to know each other.

I don’t know what the magic ingredients are. But certainly English, relevant sermons, friendliness after liturgy, on-going education about why we do what we do, etc., are important. There is so much to learn in Orthodoxy, it can be overwhelming, or it can hold one’s interest forever….

Unknown said...

You may want to consider this study within the context of your research.

Anonymous said...

I too left orthodoxy because of a few reasons you pointed out. My parents divorced and I wanted so badly to run to the church for compassion. Instead all I was met with was pointing fingers and bad-mouthing. I would also know all the words during the service and knew exactly how long until the service was over. I, too, didn't understand what was being said. Another thing that irritated me was the church begging for money to change out things such as the wooden alter to a marble alter instead of being satisfied with a great wooden alter and helping people that truly needed help. The rules among rules make it impossible for you to live without guilt and the feeling of never measuring up. I know I'm not perfect, but I don't need it drilled in each and every Sunday.

Anonymous said...

I always hear the condemnations of the ethnic languages but they're beautiful. My Greek is pretty limited but I would rather hear and sing a hymn in English once, to understand it, and Greek every other time to appreciate the beauty and feel as though I'm offering up more suitable praise to God than the butchered, awkward English translations. And I had so many Greek friends growing up, when I was a kid and didn't fully understand my faith, and church was where I saw them. For years I came to see my friends that I would never have known otherwise, and over those years of being brought to church for fellowship I came to grow in my faith. Our churches should never be exclusive, but to strip away the cultural aspects would be to lose a beautifu,l enriching, and community-binding part of our lives.

Chris Nicholas said...

This article should be distributed to each of the Orthodox Hierarchy in North America perhaps formally to the Committees for Church and Society and for Pastoral Practices. All of the Hypothesis have validity but for me #1 stands out personally as a challenge and stumbling block (ironic since it was originally foolishness to the Greeks but in the 21st century has become stumbling block to them), but I think the real issue is ENTIRELY #5. Orthodox Christianity is the worship of God in Spirit and in Truth which is to worship God in Trinity; Father, Son (Truth) and Holy Spirit (Spirit). By example it is personal and relational evidenced perfectly in the Holy Trinity where love is relational between Persons. If we do not personally love God fully and wholly then nothing matters and nothing will ever work. We must love Christ first and foremost, and also love our neighbour (for as St. John says those who do not love their neighbour but say they love God are liars for if you do not love your neighbour who you can see, how can you love God who you do not see. If we were Christians (let alone true Orthodox Christians) our love would illumine and inform all of these other Hypotheses 1-5. As St Seraphim of Sarov so famously proclaimed that if one person acquires the Holy Spirit a thousand around him will be illumined. We must each become illumined so we can see clearly to take those specks out of our brethren’s eyes. May they not perish because of us sinners…

Unknown said...

I was baptised Orthodox, raised in Catholicism, became Agnostic and discovered Orthodoxy in my 20's. I actually enjoy the liturgical languages of Arabic, Greek, and Shakespearen English. Yet, I do know what you are saying. I learned Arabic in my 20's and have continued learning it since it has enhanced my knowledge and spirituality. Yet, I know this is not true for others. I have no explanation. I directed the Sunday School at my church for nearly a decade and I do not see the children adults as regular attendees. We see them return for marriages, their children's baptisms, deaths, etc. We need heavy dosage of stewardship and continually evangelism. Most importantly, prayers.

Unknown said...

The issues you brought up are very tru and need to be addressed. You might want to talk to your priest about these issues, and who knows something may happen and make going to church for you and someone else more worthwhile.

Diane Stanesic said...

I for one came back to the church after many years away. I see your point and agree the article hit the so called nail on the head. I love my faith and my parish, I do see the younger members not attending unless it is a holiday. What a shame as I come home every Sunday feeling the love God in me. I am blessed by the fellowship I encounter every Sunday I attend.

Eric's blog said...

This article should be read regularly at Episcopal Assembly meetings and in all jurisdictions as well as in all seminaries. Hurray for Frs. Steven and Philip! It is spot on! They get it!

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything but #1, I've always been a fan of the thees and thous, and I considered going to a more ethnic parish so I can learn the Liturgy in Greek (my Antiochian parish uses English almost exclusively). It's very easy to get a copy of the Liturgy in English, read through it at home, and then enjoy the service in any another language.

Fr. James Rosselli said...

Great article! I agree with everything said, but especially with the personal relationship with Jesus part. All the icons, incense, bells and whistles are there for one reason: to lead he soul into a personal encounter with God that will form the basis for a personal, intimate relationship with the Lord.
Without that, it's just a place to go on Sundays.

I think we also need to face the fact that the culture opposes us.
The culture is under the thumb of
a pseudo-religion that worships nature, self and sexual frenzy, and which is fueled by human sacrifice. Every official organ of
our culture, from the public schools and the state universities to the news and
entertainment media, systematically indoctrinate our young (and not-so-young) people
into this religion, and do all they can to pry them away from morality, the natural law and even objective reality as a concept.

Christians need to bne counter-cultural, to embrace our children and each other, and teach that how
we live, even how we vote. reflect
what we believe. There are Christian cultural values, and Christian responses to them. We
need to be aware of these.

Our job here is to redeem the surrounding culture, not to join it. We must bring ourselves, our children and each other to realize we are ambassadors from another Kingdom, and that we are
commanded to workl for the salvation of souls other than our