A couple months ago, I was privileged to address the Orange County chapter of St. Ignatius of Antioch at one of their dinners. The night was such a blessing for me, and I truly felt honored to be a guest speaker. Below is the transcript of the talk I gave. I ask, in advance, forgiveness for any grammatical, spelling, or other errors that it contains.
Your Eminence, Archbishop JOSEPH, Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Very Reverend and Reverend Deacons, Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I am deeply honored and very grateful to have the opportunity to stand before you tonight.
Since September of last year, I have had the privilege to serve the Southern California Deanery as the youth director. One of the main questions that I get asked when I tell people that this has been my work and ministry is simple enough: “So…what exactly do you do?” This is a good and fair question. It is also a question that I have asked myself on several occasions. What is it that I do?
The simple response to this question is that I do youth ministry. What this means, however, could take a book’s worth of time, and in fact, it has elicited many book-length responses by thoughtful Christians far more eloquent and intelligent than I. It is my hope that by the end of this talk, both you and I will have an answer that is satisfying, encouraging, and challenging both to you and to me.
As members of the Order of St. Ignatius of Antioch, you are well aware that your generous gifts and philanthropic efforts have funded and supported the development and implementation of youth ministry programs throughout the Archdiocese. Each year, your contributions send untold numbers of underfunded children and young adults to participate in these diverse and wonderful programs. On behalf of those who work for these programs and on behalf of those who participate in them, I say “Thank you.” Thank you for your continual efforts to build up the young people of our Church. Thank you for providing us adults with the opportunity to enter into the lives of these young people and to share these great adventures. It has been a privilege and a joy to be present in their lives, and it has largely been possible due to your generosity. So again. Thank you.
I’m not sure, however, whether these programs offer a view into their way of life, so I want to share with you a little bit about one of these programs for which I have a particular affinity: Camp St. Nicholas.
These young people, by your charitable and immensely appreciated efforts, come to Camp St. Nicholas for a week of intensive Christian community. Each morning, these young people wake up at 7AM to spend an hour in St. Paul’s chapel, where they participate in the worship and prayer of the Apostolic Catholic Church. After breakfast, they spend two hours receiving and engaging in a hands-on and carefully crafted Christian education curriculum. I have had the privilege and the joy of teaching many of your young people over the last 3 years. They spend every waking hour with counselors who are prayerfully considered and hired, based on a combination of personal stamina, piety, and commitment to the camp. With these counselors, young people talk, eat, play, and pray throughout the entire day.
Our camping program really is nothing spectacular as far as camping programs go, but year after year, young people from as far as Boston come to our camp both as campers and to serve as counselors. But why?
Is it because our camper vs. counselor basketball game is the most competitive? Is it because of all the things they could think of doing for the summer, listening to me teach Christian education classes is the most appealing? I doubt it.
They come to camp because there they experience true Christian community that is centered around the person of Jesus Christ as campers and counselors seek to enter into authentic, life-giving, and Godbearing relationships. This is why they come to camp.
It bears mentioning that some of these campers express no interest in Jesus, the Gospel, or the Church. The remarkable thing about this to me is that their parents do not always force them to come to camp. In fact, they are usually the ones who seem most excited to be there. They come to camp yearly and tell me things like, “Christian, I’m so glad to be here.” When I ask them why, the response is immediate and simple. “Because here I’m loved for who I am.”
The importance of authentic relationships for an experience of a God who knows and loves these young people is paramount, and its effect can be compared to pouring gasoline on a flickering flame. In some way, I think we all know precisely how such a “mountaintop experience” feels. When they come home, however, the flame quickly dies as the gasoline has stopped fueling them. They return to communities of people where they largely feel unknown in their very being, somehow convinced that they must keep their struggles, doubts, and fears to themselves. Given enough time, the loneliness of the isolation that this brings kills the flame until it is reignited by camp the next year.
While no parent, youth worker, pastor, or concerned adult likes to hear this or intends for this to be the case, it largely is, and we must admit it. All of This breaks my heart, as I know from firsthand experience the reality of such pain. But I also know firsthand that there is great hope, and it lies largely in the hands of the church’s adults.
When I was 16, I met a man who changed my life forever. His name was Mr. Lewis, and he was my English teacher during my junior year of high school. I met Mr Lewis at a time when the suffering in my life was nearly unbearable, and I was largely alone in my pain. As I suffocated under the weight of isolation, I all but completely lost my faith in Christ. Mr. Lewis, however, was not embarrassed, scandalized, or offended about my near loss of faith. He did not react when I told him that I didn’t believe God could possibly be good. He didn’t look at me with abject horror when I suggested that God might not even exist.
He did, however, simply sit with me in my crisis. He cared immensely, and he showed this to me by becoming interested in my life, learning about my suffering, and sharing his own faith journey with me. Never once did he try to push on me an agenda, an ideology, a theology, or anything else. He simply opened his humanity to me, and allowed me to open mine to him. Today, Mr. Lewis remains one of my most dearly trusted and loved friends, confidantes, and teachers. Our relationship changed my life.
Strangely, when I rethink the ten years that have passed since we first met, I remember very little of the specifics of our relationship, but allow me to share a story of something I do remember.
One day when school was over, he invited me to join him on a two-hour round trip journey to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena where he was a student at the time. He needed to return some library books and wanted me for company on his trip. Elated, I accepted.
Those hours are a blur. Nothing that he said is etched in my memory. Any Orthodox doctrine that he may have shared; any significant moment of teaching that he might have had is entirely lost on me. Of the hours we were together i remember not a single word. I simply remember that he approached me, indicating that I was someone who he, a grown man, desired to spend time with. I also remember that he made the sign of the cross as we drove past an Orthodox temple. In this way, he gave me a beautiful glimpse into his life as an Orthodox Christian. He showed me that Christ had so fully transformed his mind that upon passing an Orthodox Temple, he couldn’t help but enter willingly into the Mystery of the Cross. This was a far more powerful and enduring catechesis than any I received in my formal preparation for chrismation.
So the question remains: what do I do? Here is my response. I am here to empower, equip, and assist adults and teens in becoming and finding their Mr. Lewises. I see my primary task as facilitating the same kind of authentic, life-giving, and Godbearing relationships that spark the flames of these young people’s hearts at camp and that kept me sane over the last 10 years.
It is true that we have youth programs, Bible Bowls, oratorical contests, retreats, outreach projects, service learning and other means by which we intend to instruct young people in the Orthodox Faith. These programs are good, but we need to face the reality that our efforts are both entirely honorable and unfortunately insufficient as they tend not to emphasize or facilitate the ongoing and bidirectional ministry of such Godbearing relationships as I shared with Mr. Lewis.
Events, retreats, and programs are good, but sometimes I fear that we focus so heavily on manufacturing the next big event or program that will win over our young people that we forget that the God of all has come and still comes to us concretely in the person of Jesus Christ, and often we meet him in the mystery of another human being. We must remember that Jesus is not primarily a “what,” a “how,” or a program for Christians to implement, but he is a “who” to encounter. In fact, he is “the Who” from whom we all derive our own who-ness. As we continually draw close to one another, we meet in the other person a distinct “who,” and it is by entering into the mystery of relationship with another that we are drawn into the mystery of the primordial relationship between the eternal Who’s of the Triune Godhead.
The bad news of all this is that such a degree of Godbearing youth ministry that enters into the eternal relationship of the Godhead is entirely unquantifiable, humanly unattainable, unable to be programmed, and impossible to achieve alone. Hiring a charismatic youth director or coming up with the next sexual purity program is not going to save the souls of young people.
But the good news is this: everyone in this room has the capacity to become Mr. Lewis for a teenaged young adult who is suffering, lonely, confused, and ultimately thoroughly inexperienced. Each of us has everything that we need to enter into relationship and meet in a teenaged young adult someone who is completely other than ourselves, and what’s more, we, too, will be transformed by such encounters with young people.
Such ministry, however, demands that the entire church participate in the time-consuming, laborious, beautiful, and eternally rewarding tasks of sharing life and entering relationship. Unfortunately, it seems that our current model of youth ministry highlights only a couple ways of entering into the mystery of the Christian life. By and large, we emphasize ongoing education for young people. I think this happens because as we look at the increasing number of Church dropout that is experienced not only by Orthodox Christianity but by nearly all other faiths in America, we come to believe that if young Christians understood their faith, then they would never leave it. We emphasize Christian education, but in so doing, we negate the reality that many young Christians’ hearts are not grasped by catechism. In fact, several young people have confided in me that since they have not been interested in Sunday School, participating in the Bible Bowl or competing in the oratorical contest, they perceive that there isn’t a point of entry into to the Church for them. These young people are not disinterested in their faith, they simply don’t see where they, their gifts, and the desires of their hearts intersect with the Christian life and the mission of the Church.
So how do we change this?
My vision for youth ministry in Southern California involves mobilizing adults and teens to enter into relationships based around their particular and respective gifts as they pertain to the Orthodox Christian life. For some, education is effective. Learning about the history and doctrines Orthodox Christianity can capture their hearts. For others, however, Christian education is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. It simply doesn’t fit well enough.
Many of these young people are deeply moved by the service orientation of Christian living, but largely, entering into such work is treated as an exception to the normal life of the Church. Many have come to experience outreach and missions in terms of events and trips, but my thought is that we can work to make missional outreach a normative part of the expression of the life of the Church.
Currently, I am working to implement a strategy that unites missionally minded adults and teens in their efforts not only to serve the needy of their community, but to transform the very way that they approach all human persons as made in the image of God.
Other teens and adults are more gifted in their artistic expression; so why not create a forum for them to meet and collaborate in their art? Imagine a county-wide open mic night where an adult participant hears a young musician play the guitar, and he becomes so moved by this young person’s heart that he approaches him and suggests that together they write and perform a song at the next open mic night.
When our young people leave for college, they distance themselves from the ties that they have with their families and churches; this is a natural part of the developmental process as they struggle to find who they are as individuals apart from their families. What is not natural, however, is severing ties with family life and church life altogether. Traditionally, young adults who left home were put into apprenticeships with other families who would care for their needs and see to their education. Why not develop a nation-wide host-family program that would put our launched young people into relationships with families from the parishes near their colleges. This way, not only do these young people get connected to a church, but they also get put into relationships with adults that can care for them and help them navigate the stormy, confusing, and overwhelming waters of college life.
By uniting these young people and adults around normative experiences within the context of the life of the Church, we stand a chance of helping these young people find their particular place and ministry within the Body of Christ.
But again, such planning and implementation takes time, work, and commitment from the entire Church.
In St Mark’s Gospel we read:
“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” (Mark 9:35-37)
The tradition of the Church teaches us that this child was St. Ignatius himself. The God-bearer of Antioch. This hands-on encounter that this young boy had with Jesus was enough to transform his life forever. And we can embrace this Godbearing way of ministry, too.
If we are to take seriously Jesus’s words to his apostles, then we must not only instruct our young people in the way of the faith, but we must, like he himself, take them in our arms and welcome them fully in their unique, beautiful, flawed, idealistic, hormonal, hopeful, and broken humanity, for they are our gateway to salvation and Christ himself.
For this reason, I encourage, I challenge, and I implore each of you to take Christ’s words to heart and remember that young people are not a demographic that needs to be reached with the next big event or a powerfully connectable youth director, but rather, they are individuals and human persons who need to be seen, affirmed, loved, challenged, and known. This ministry is not youth ministry, but rather, it is the church’s ministry to youth. You can be a Mr. Lewis. But you must be prepared to listen, remembering that in the act of welcoming a young person, we welcome Christ himself, and it is he, not we, who is our Teacher.
Sending our young people to Camp St. Nicholas, involving them in ministries like FOCUS and YES are good and necessary starts to be sure, and these are investments that have good use and immense value for the Kingdom, and I thank you for continued support of these programs, but we all must shift our thinking from being about getting young people to our events or to our camps and to become concerned with bringing the camp life home to be the norm within our families, our parishes, and our deanery. We must not only ask ourselves “What can we do for these teens,” but “what can we do with them?”
As financial stewards, I would like to ask you to make an additional investment. Would you commit to spending half an hour with a young adult, perhaps over a cup of coffee, just ministering God’s love to them, honoring them by listening to them, and developing a relationship? Would you commit to taking the time to share life with a young person and become interested in who they are? Would you consider doing this regularly? If you would like to make that commitment, which might be even more costly in some sense than even writing a check for the ministry, would you pick up one of these envelopes on the way out? It contains a reminder of this commitment, this talk, and some practical help. Without Mr. Lewis, I would have fallen away from the Lord and his Church. But he was there to catch me, and you, too, can open your arms to catch these young people.
This takes time, and it takes knowing each teenager as an individual person with particular gifts, struggles, joys, suffering, and hopes, but in doing this hard work of reaching their minds and hearts, we will grow in faith and our young people will follow suit. We will take them in our arms and care for their souls; they will reach out and touch our hands and hearts. And somewhere in the mystery of this simple, intentional and very small ministry, we will be shocked to find ourselves not only touching the hearts and lives of young people, but we will find ourselves touching the eternal and life-giving hands of Christ himself.