Losing our Religion: “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church

Young People in the Orthodox Church Youthby Seraphim Danckaert -
A person is most likely to retain Christian faith throughout adult life if he or she had three (3) meaningful and healthy relationships in their early to mid teenage years: one with faithful Christian parents, one with a faithful Christian mentor outside of the family, and one with God Himself.

Seraphim Danckaert at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy critically evaluated a recent article that claims that “90% of Americans with Greek roots are no longer in communion with the Orthodox Church.” The excerpts below are from Seraphim’s insightful analysis on why the youth leave the Orthodox Church and what must be done to retain them.

The article assumes (but does not show) that the reason for this mass apostasy is two-fold: (1) the inevitable rise of interfaith marriages in America’s multicultural, religiously pluralistic, and secular society; and (2) the Greek Orthodox Church’s failure to respond to the “critical and immediate need for a broad religious outreach; to make room for interfaith families,” and thereby follow St. Paul’s example in extending “Christianity’s outreach to all nations.”

Jesus did not tell the apostles to extend Christianity’s outreach to all the nations, but to make disciples of all nations.

1. Jesus did not tell the apostles to extend Christianity’s outreach to all the nations, but to make disciples of all nations. The distinction is critical. The Church attracts and “retains” people only when she disciples them.

The early Church did not focus on “retaining” her own. On the contrary, she sacrificed her own, serving all people in the name of Christ, especially widows, orphans, and the sick and impoverished. Without a similar public witness to Christ expressed through substantial acts of sacrificial mercy, the Church is not being faithful to her own divine identity and calling—and, as long as such is the case, she will struggle to grow in and through the Holy Spirit, ultimately failing miserably to retain even her own.

Contributing Factors to Youth Retaining Their Religious Tradition
Data collected and interpreted by sociologists of religion in a major project called the National Study of Youth and Religion show that there are three (3) main factors that contribute to a young person retaining their religious tradition into adulthood:

1. The young person’s parents practiced the faith in the home and in daily life, not just in public or churchly settings.
2. The young person had at least one significant adult mentor or friend, other than parents, who practiced the faith seriously.
3. The young person had at least one significant spiritual experience before the age of 17.[4]

a person is most likely to retain Christian faith throughout adult life if he or she had three meaningful and healthy relationships in their early to mid teenage years: one with faithful Christian parents, one with a faithful Christian mentor outside of the family, and one with God Himself.

One could therefore say that a person is most likely to retain Christian faith throughout adult life if he or she had three meaningful and healthy relationships in their early to mid teenage years: one with faithful Christian parents, one with a faithful Christian mentor outside of the family, and one with God Himself.

If a young person experiences all three relationships in their childhood and especially in their early teenage years, they are far less likely to drift away from their family’s faith tradition as they transition into “emerging adulthood” and beyond. In addition, while all three relationships are important, what the young person observes in the actions and daily life of his or her parents is the most decisive element by far.

The practical conclusion is rather straightforward: For most people, and when viewed as a sociological trend, unless there is a specific adult in a teenager’s life who shows the teenager by example and in the context of a meaningful, long-term relationship how an adult incorporates Christian faith into daily life, no program, camp, mission trip, youth group, worship style, musical trend, Sunday school, church reform, updated pastoral style, modernization, or even catechetical class will make a statistically significant difference. Further, to retain their faith into adulthood young people need to experience God’s grace for themselves, preferably before the latter part of high school.

most American teenagers and emerging adults, including Christians of all traditions, believe in and practice “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” not Christianity.

Danger of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
The result is that most American teenagers and emerging adults, including Christians of all traditions, believe in and practice “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” not Christianity.[5] Considering this reality, it is hardly surprising that, over time, many emerging adults drift away from their family’s Christian roots, choosing to marry outside their church or even Christian faith itself. Yet their doing so is not actually a departure from or a change in their religious convictions: it is merely an alignment of certain external practices (e.g., what they do on Sundays or Easter) with the actual religious beliefs they have held since their teenage years.[6]

As shocking as such a conclusion may seem, here is the most important point: Teenagers and emerging adults believe in and practice “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” not because their parents and their local church have failed to teach them otherwise, but precisely because that is what their parents and their local church are actually teaching them. As the motto of this website puts it, doctrine matters—and not just the doctrine in a church’s creed, liturgy, bookstore, or pamphlet stand. The actual doctrine of family and local church, as taught to most young people in word and especially deed, ends up driving the next generation from the Church, not because the Church is out of touch with the broader society but because the local church never actually taught and lived by the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the first place.

the Gospel of Jesus Christ is neither taught nor followed by the vast majority of Christian parents in America.

Teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ
The fundamental problem is far scarier and far harder to “fix”: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is neither taught nor followed by the vast majority of Christian parents in America. Period. The data are unavoidable. Now, the question arises: Is this fact the parents’ “fault”? On a certain level, yes; but, at the same time, they themselves were neither taught nor discipled. It therefore falls to the whole Church herself, as the Body of Christ—clergy and laity—to correct this reality through prayer, example, and instruction.

Excerpts from: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy