Saturday, February 23, 2013




     "By the time we are six, our future may already be set," reads the first line of a recent study carried ouit by McMaster University's Oxford Centre for Child Studies.
     This study is but one of many which have reached similar conclusions. Educators and psychologists were somewhat late in discovering what the Church had always known. It is in their earliest years that a persons basic character, core beliefs and dispositions are formed. This fact was emphasized recently by the completion of an intense study of early childhood development, followed through until the children in the study were in secondary school. This study ended with the United Way Charities of Canada creating a special programme to help with the development of children by age six. It is called the Success by Six programme. The conclusions of these and many other such studies reinforces the understanding that the first six years of a child's life are critical in the development of their character and personality, and that little will be changed in these areas after their sixth or seventh year.
     We cannot view the teaching of young children as only talking, telling stories or verbally conveying ideas. Teaching has another dimension which is less tangible. Character formation, which is also an aspect of teaching, depends as much on what we do as what we say.
     We know that the primary and most critical years of character formation are from birth to age six or seven. This is part of the premise upon which the Orthodox Church bases the baptism of infants. We do not want our children to pass through those most critical formational years without the grace given to them in holy baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism and the frequent Communion of infants and children is only part of the picture, however. Infants and young children are learners by nature, and learning is easier and more rapid in this age range that at any other time. It is of the greatest importance, therefore, for us to focus on our position as role models for children. Children learn by observing, and they miss very little, even when the appear not to be paying attention.
    It is easy to repeat facts and information to students. But what they see in the person who is teaching them is often much more important than what that person is telling them. What children see in you, in your lifestyle and personality, will often determine whether they will accept what you are telling them. If you talk to them about Christian living, but they see you living or behaving in an un-Christian manner, why should they take you seriously? If you teach them of love, kindness, forgiveness, etc., and later they hear you gossiping, slandering or fighting with someone, they really have no reason to take you or what you are teaching them seriously.
    You, as their teacher, must also be their example — what psychologists call a "role model." We could also call this position a "character model." The terms "role model," or "character-model" are very meaningful, especially for parents, priests and church school teachers. You are not just setting an example for your children, you should also be one of the models from which they form their attitudes or on which they pattern their lives. Your children will end up imitating your religious attitudes and, more significantly, they will take what you teach them only as seriously as you do, and they will tend to apply what you teach them in the same way they see you apply it to your life.
    Using someone else as a model for our lives is not always a conscious process. It is more often subconscious and its mechanism is based on the way we feel in the presence of a person, what we sense as their attitude toward us, how we perceive the quality of their lives in relation to the content of their words. Ultimately, the model or example set by our lives has a greater effect in forming the lives of young people than what facts, ideas or concepts we teach them verbally in the form of lessons or instructions
    Whatever attitudes, concepts and ideals we either encourage or discourage in our children by word and example are going to be either reinforced or undermined by social and peer groups. The strength with which we implant and ingrain standards and moral ideals will greatly affect the power social groups have over this process. What we instill in them by the age of six (the year they begin to attend public school) can be a very powerful influence. The way children are treated in our churches also has a strong influence on them in either a positive or a negative way. If children learn from infancy that they have value in the church community, value in God's household, then this will reinforce the spiritual and moral concepts that they learn when we teach them about the faith. We do not often think about it, but the fact that infants and children receive Holy Communion by name, hearing their own name said as they are given Communion, helps to make them feel a part of the community, and feel that they have value in the community.
     Repeated professional experiments and studies have shown that behaviour can be altered or new forms of behaviour acquired by observing people whom one admires, loves, fears, dislikes or distrusts. Such behaviour pattern changes can be affirmative (by imitating the example) or rejective (by deciding not to imitate the example) or reactive (by forming behaviour patterns or traits in reaction to observed or experienced behaviour). Any of these character and personality moulding developments can be positive or negative. As a parent, priest or church school teacher you may smoke cigarettes in front of children and they may take that as an affirmation that it is all right and healthy to smoke. Others may see you and, having accepted that smoking is an unhealthy and bad habit, reject you as a life example. They may even reject what you are teaching them.
     The most positive influence that parents, teachers and priests can have on the lives of children, as life examples or character models, is to strive to live what they teach; make Christ the life example and role model for your own life. Teach with love, kindness, compassion and joy. Your failings and shortcomings will matter little to the children if they see these qualities. They will realize that you are doing your best to live your teachings.
    There are many scientific or technical terms for these causes and effects of life example and character models, but I am certain that you all understand what has been said without them.
    One of the most important things for anyone who is raising or teaching children is to realize that the strength of what you teach and how well it will penetrate your children will depend to a great deal on what kind of life example or character model you are to them. You should consciously work on this and try to develop and strengthen your "exampleship" or "role modelship". Remember that as a parent, teacher or priest, you are steward of the children's souls and your conscious development and improvement of your own spiritual life and your efforts to make yourself a better life example and role model, is part of that stewardship.


Children learn the basic functions of life, as well as speech and expression, primarily from parents. This process gives us a good example of what it means to be a "life example" or "role and character model". The vocabulary that small children develop directly reflects their environment and says a great deal about the parents, regular babysitters and others to whom the child is regularly exposed.
Some infants, as soon as they can walk and speak will kiss an ikon or cross or at least show recognition of them as soon as they see them. Others will have curses and swear words among their earliest vocabulary. The effects of life examples and character models are profound in such cases. It is easy to understand how deeply parents influence the character development of a child, and how certain behaviour patterns are picked up from regular visitors to the home, particularly those with whom a child feels comfortable. The degree to which a church school teacher can be a character model might not be so readily evident. To what degree can a church school teacher act as a counter-balance to undesirable peer pressure?
We know from numerous professional studies that young people are far more apt to succumb to "anti-social" peer pressures if they have a real or imagined reason to doubt the affection, wisdom, reasonableness or justice of parents and other adult character models. Very often young people become disillusioned because they tend to think of parents and sometimes church school teachers (less often secondary school teachers) as "completed packages", that is, they often see parents as living more perfect, more "in control" and more totally developed lives than they really are or could. As the child gets older, he or she begins to see weakness and flaws in the parent or respected church school teacher.
If these weaknesses and flaws are not balanced, the young person might loose faith in the adult character models, and seek the security of conforming to group peer pressures.
The problem here is often that the adults involved think of themselves as being more complete, more "put together" wise and "in control" than they really are. In fact, no truly wise adult thinks of himself or herself as being fully developed or complete. We must be constantly developing ourselves, growing spiritually, mentally and emotionally, we must be constantly learning, increasing, gaining new experience and greater understanding. Particularly as church school teachers, we must be learning even as we teach. We should be honest and open about this fact also.
A church school teacher can have a profound effect on young people. This effect can be positive if the teacher is loving, caring and open. It can be equally negative if the teacher is narrow, highly opinionated, grouchy and over zealous about discipline.
The most profound area in which a church school teacher has influence on the student is this: the student will tend to identify the Church, God and Orthodoxy with you — as well as with the priest. We cannot over emphasize the influence you, as a church school teacher can have in forming the values and character of your children — even the ones you may think you are missing.
You have either chosen or agreed to become a church school teacher, and therefore, have accepted a great responsibility before God, which you must be ever conscious of. You are helping to mould and shape young minds, emotions, hearts and souls and what you are and how you conduct your life is a very important part of that. You are a "life example" and a "character model" and as such, you will really have to give an account to God on judgment day. We read in the Holy Gospel, "The pupil is not above his teacher, but anyone who is perfectly instructed will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40).
The pupil will be like his teacher: that is you — your pupils are going to leave your class with something of you in their spiritual makeup and characters. That is both frightening and rewarding. Above all, it is a challenge to you to strive for constant self-improvement, character development and growth.
What guide do we have to help us become the kind of people we should be in order to help form the spiritual/moral lives of Orthodox Christian young people? The guidelines come from our "principle source", from the Holy Bible.
Apostle Paul was the father of many church congregations and, after Christ Himself, the first great church school teacher. He clearly understood the words of Christ, that "everyone who is perfectly instructed will be as his teacher", when he told the Corinthians, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ (1Cor.11:1).
Did Paul consider himself to be perfect, so that his children should imitate him? Do we have to wait till we are perfect before we can teach and expect our children to imitate our life example? No, of course not, because Apostle Paul says of himself, "Not that I have already achieved all, or am perfect, but I follow diligently so that I may take hold of that for which Jesus Christ took hold of me. Brethren, I do not consider myself to have achieved it, but this one thing I do: forgetting those things which are behind and reaching out for those things which are ahead, I press forward toward the goal, for the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ...Brethren, be imitators of me, and take note of others who teach, so that you have us as an example (Phillipians 3:13-17).
We, imitating the Great Apostle, who was the best imitator of Christ, should bear in mind and always keep this before us: our church school children are going to be imitators of us, therefore who we imitate is of the greatest importance. None of us is so unwise as to consider ourselves perfect, so, like Saint Paul, we must be constantly striving to grow, develop and improve ourselves — right up to the last moment of our lives.
Apostle Paul does not ask us, his children, to learn only from what he said and wrote, but from how he lived his life, for he says, "Do those things which you have learned, received and heard, and seen in me..." (Phillipians 4:9).
And this he says to all of us who are teachers in the Church: "We have not behaved ourselves in an unseemly manner among you...but have made ourselves an example for you to follow" (2 Thessalonians 3:9).
When Saint Paul said that he was striving to attain the life Christ called him to, he tells us that he had not yet grown and acquired all the things he was teaching us about, but that even as he was teaching about them, he was struggling to grow and to develop into them. The same must apply to us. We must always be striving to grow into the things we are teaching our children — we are children even while we are teachers.
Actually the Holy Bible gives us a fairly complete definition of what we should be, what we should strive to become, as church school teachers and moulders of young people's characters and spirits. Let us take a brief survey of what Holy Scripture tells us we ought to work to become like.
When Apostle Paul said, "I have made myself an example for you to follow," he is telling us that being a worthy teacher and character model is not just a single act, but an ongoing process of steady personal development and growth in our life with Christ and His Holy Church.

1 Thessalonians 2:7,8:
"But we were gentle among you, like a nursemaid cherishes her children. We were so affectionate toward you that we were willing to impart not only the Gospel to you, but even our own souls".

2 Thessalonians 3:7:
"As for yourselves, understand how you should follow our example: for we have not behaved ourselves disorderly in your presence".
1 Timothy 1:5:
"The fulfilment of the commandments is love which comes from a pure heart, and a good conscience and unfeigned faith".

2 Timothy 2:15:
"Study in order to become approved unto God, a worker who does not have to be ashamed".

2 Timothy 2:16:
"Avoid profane and vain babblings: for they will grow into more ungodliness".

2 Timothy 2:22:
"Follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace with those who call on the Lord from pure hearts".

2 Timothy 2:23:
"Avoid foolish and ignorant conversations, knowing that they create strife".

2 Timothy 2:24, 25:
"A servant of the Lord must not be involved in strife; but be gentle to all people, willing to teach and; and patient, instructing with meekness...".

Titus 2:2:
"Be sober, serious minded, temperate, firm in faith, love and patience".

Titus 2:6-7:
"Prove yourself to be a model of good works, uncorrupted, serious and sincere in doctrines".

Titus 2:12-13:
"Renouncing worldly passions, we should live soberly, righteously and piously in this present world; looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearance of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ".
With faith, prayer, fasting, sincerity of heart and God's help, each of us can fulfil this and become, in the words of Apostle Paul, "Co-workers with God" in the process of salvation for ourselves and our children.

by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo


Educators and psychologists have begun to discover what the Church has known for centuries: it is in their early years that children learn the most. Basic personality traits and habits are set before they go to kindergarten. It is in the preschool years that the foundations are laid for much of a child's future life. One prominent authority on early childhood education has said that the most important teaching is done before a child reaches age three.
What is taught during these formative years is attitudes, both emotional and intellectual. How a child will react and learn in later years is determined in large measure by what he learns as a small child. Basic concepts like love, forgiveness, trust, security, honesty, are all rooted in the experiences and learning of early childhood.
No one is more important to children in these first years of life than their families. The family's attitudes and values will lay the foundations for the young child's future. As Orthodox Christians we have a unique set of values and attitudes to impart to our little ones. The most crucial and important of these is love. It is our responsibility to show that our love as parents is like the love of God. In the eyes of small children, parents are like God. They see their parents as the source of security and protection in a mysterious world. They learn that they have value when they are loved by their parents.
The first quality of our love as parents and families has to be consistency. It has to be dependable. Children need to be able to count on the approval and support of their families. Touching, hugging, constant reassurances — these are the simple little things that tell children that they are loved and secure. These are the parental gifts which far exceed material security in importance to a young child. Compliments, "good works" and physical expressions of love begin to teach a child how it is that God loves him. Parents must be dependable, just as God is.
Second, an Orthodox home needs to exhibit the presence of God. Having ikons, religious articles, books, crosses and saying family prayers at meals and bedtime are all reminders that God is part of our family life. Praying for each family member by name and saying the Church's own prayers of praise (such as the Lord's Prayer, the Trisagion prayers, etc) with our children is one of the best things we can do for them. Even very young children can memorize prayers and learn to make the sign of the cross. Church attendance is another vital sign of our commitment to Christ and His Orthodox Church: it tells the child what we think is really important.
Third, we need to show our little ones that God is a Father. There is no better way of doing this than to have the head of the house exercise his proper priestly authority in leading prayers and attending church with the family. As the one whom God has put in charge of our families, human fathers are living "stand-ins" for God Himself. It is an awesome responsibility to represent God in a child's life. Our parish priests know what this feels like: the fathers of our families need to learn how to fulfil this role, in cooperation with the mothers of our families.
What we are talking about here is good beginnings: "Train a child in the way he should go, and he will not depart from it," the Scripture tells us (Proverbs 22:6). Children who come from strong Orthodox families where they are loved and shown what God really is like, will bring something precious to the church-school and the parish. And what they bring will also be the foundation of tomorrow's church.


Parents and teachers of children aged three to five have a unique opportunity. The learning capacity of these preschool age children is remarkable. With their young minds uncluttered by useless — or wrong — ideas, they offer an ideal opportunity to Orthodox Christian parents and teachers. It is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.
As any preschooler's parents already know, children of this age are inquisitive, always asking questions and wanting to know "Why?" As Orthodox Christians, we have a wealth of things to teach them. Since their way of seeing the world is very physical, we can teach them about the Church through the senses: sight, sound, touch and even taste. Our Orthodox Faith is rooted in a worship which appeals to the senses. Candles, incense, bells, vestments and a host of other things waiting to be seen, heard, touched: the taste of the Holy Communion, which is exactly what the Bible means when it says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8), and the taste of the antidoron is a favourite of most children. We actually have many things we can help our preschoolers experience and learn about.
The Montessori Method of teaching young children has a great deal to recommend it to Orthodox parents and teachers (and parents are teachers). Maria Montessori had discovered that young children love to find out about things by touching and handling them, by feeling their textures and shapes. A grain of incense, a piece of "holy bread" (antidoron), a part of the priest's vestments — all have a fascination for preschool children. To be sure, there are some things that only the clergy can touch, but they can show them to the children and miniatures can be made in classes or at home. What is on the Preparation Table (Proskomedia)? What is on the Holy Table? How exciting it is when children realize what these things are for, what they mean, and how they are used in the services. It helps them feel that it is their church.
We sometimes make the mistake of assuming that Orthodox services are intended only for adults. Actually, our services are perfect for children — if they have an idea of what is happening to them. They also need to participate in the services. Simple prayers, the Sign of the Cross, the right times to bow, the proper way to receive Holy Communion — all these have to be taught. Even the poorest church school can have crayons and paper. Copying pictures of the holy things, memorizing prayers, hymns and physical gestures of devotion, and learning their significance is crucial if our children are to learn to love the services of the Orthodox Church.
Children love to do projects in church school; to make things to take home or to display in the church hall or entrance. Pictures of the church building, the cross, the ikonostas, holy objects — all can be drawn and displayed. Prosphora replicas pressed from play-dough with a prosphora seal can be a whole lesson and a fine display. Cut-outs of the articles on the Holy Table can be coloured and pasted on construction paper as children learn about our Orthodox worship.
How wonderful it is when the church school teachers share their plans and projects with the children's parents! A monthly note sent home can build bridges of support, especially with parents of younger children. Suggestions of how parents can help, of activities that they can easily do at home, and just the courtesy of letting them know what is going on in church school, can build better attendance and learning.
We need to ask parents to contribute: time, interest, home activities or perhaps just bits and pieces of things that can be useful in class projects. Good preschool teachers are always looking for articles that they can use in craft projects in church school. Ask the parents to collect or save various items for you; it will get them involved in their children's religious education. Encourage parents to send treats for their child's church school class on her or his nameday. This not only involves the parents in the class, but also helps reinforce the importance of the nameday for the children (avoid birthdays, this detracts from the importance of the nameday or slava, which is the spiritual birthday).
These precious preschool years are too important to waste — and teachers working together with parents can make them count in their children's spiritual development.


When our children first go to school, both their parents and the Orthodox Church face a serious challenge. Whatever their other failings, our public school systems have spent a great deal of time training teachers and developing curriculum. Compared to the many hours each week that our children spend in their public school classes, the Church has them for barely an hour a week. Our challenge is to teach in such a way that our children will realize that Orthodoxy is important.
In most places, Orthodox people have to face the fact that the public schools are not and cannot be "Christian." The kinds of moral and intellectual attitudes that our children are taught in their schools may be the very opposite of Orthodox values. At best, they will make our children question their parents and church school teachers about the church's teachings. The only way we can respond to this challenge is to see that our parents and teachers understand their Orthodox Faith. Adult classes in Scripture and Orthodox life, church school seminars, making available reading materials on Orthodoxy — these are ways to arm ourselves and help our children grow in their religious faith.
Our message is that the Orthodox Church has something precious to give to the Western world. Our Orthodoxy does not need to be a defensive faith. Instead, it is a glorious and holy gift. The world needs Orthodoxy in these days; the only way it will find it is by meeting devoted and informed Orthodox Christians. The world's need for Orthodoxy is our real challenge. Raising our children in the Orthodox Faith is the best way to respond to it.
In the early school years, our Orthodox Faith needs to be presented as a joyous faith. This includes our teaching about fasting. The holy scripture says, "Let the four fast periods of the year be joy and gladness and cheerful:therefore, love peace and truth" (Zach.8:19). Although it is absolutely necessary for our spiritual lives, fasting should not be presented solely as something we have to do, but as something we get to do. Church school and learning about the Church should be fun. We need to plan our lessons around creative activities that are entertaining and teach through games and happy events. We need to give recognition to our children for their willingness to learn and their accomplishments in the church school. We should celebrate being Orthodox Christians. How lucky we are! God has called us into this beautiful and rich faith so that He could give us His love in a special way. Our children can celebrate by learning our hymns, making art projects and craft items, having parties on feast days, and by being recognized in the parish as important people in the life of the Church. Without our children, the parish has no future. Our adult members should encourage our children — especially at the young and eager ages — and let them know that they are important.
Our Lord Jesus Christ promised that He would be with His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. We know from Church history that Jesus did not make this promise to any local congregation; too many have ceased to exist! Each adult Orthodox Christian needs to realize how important our parish children are to the continued existence and growth of what they have given so much to build. We need to see that our teachers and church schools have the books and other things they need to do their jobs. This is our responsibility to the future of Orthodoxy.
These first school years of our children give us the chance to make a positive impression on them. They see, hear and remember far more than we can imagine. By making the church school an important and recognized part of our parish life, we are saying to our children that they are important to the Church. And, we need to mean it. The church school has to be a primary activity of the parish or in time the parish will wither away and disappear. Jesus wants us all to come to Him as children in our faith, but one can safely say that He has a special place in His heart for the little ones.


The public school system is a formidable competitor for the Church. It offers a wide variety of activities, its teachers are trained and educated in their specialties, and children spend many hours in its programs. Indeed, teachers may see more of some children than their parents do! It is during these years of public education that our Orthodox children are secularized and drawn away from the Faith. Too many parents simply turn over all educational responsibility for their offspring to the schools and later are horrified at the result. In many parts of Canada there is a renewed controversy over sex education in the schools, generated by the AIDS epidemic crisis. What the controversy brings home to the Church is that the school has taken over even the most basic physical and moral education of our children. Neither parents nor the Church are doing their jobs as educators of our young. The schools are operating in a void of ignorance and misinformation caused by parental neglect. And when the schools teach sexuality and morality, Christianity can not be a consideration for them; they can give consideration only to broad concepts of public hygiene and epidemic control..
Church School efforts are often perceived by children as boring and amateurish. They sometimes think of the church school as something parents send children to because they don't want to take the responsibility of learning and teaching themselves. There is no better teacher than a parent. Parents are teachers whether they want to be or not: their children see their behaviour and values and imitate or reject them. Unless parents are part of the Church's teaching plan, the plan will fail. The Church and parents need to become allies to save their children. Church school planning needs to include parents and families in its activities. A Church community that supports its religious education of the young is one that will grow. If Church committees are looking for no-cost, little-effort ways to teach children, they will probably fail.
To rate our parish and its church school activities, we might ask ourselves some basic questions to see how serious we are about getting the job of teaching our children done effectively:

1. What does the parish spend on the education of its children?
2. What recognition are children given in church?
3. What does the parish know about its church school? Does it help with the church school? What do you know about your church school's program?
4. Does the parish have a playground? Playground equipment?
5. What does the church school do for fun? Does it take field trips or go camping? Are parents involved?
6. Does the church school keep the parents advised about what it is teaching? Are parents encouraged to talk with their children about their physical and spiritual development?
7. If you were a child, would you want to be in your parish church school?

We are not professional educators in most church schools, but we are Orthodox Christian believers who want to serve God through His children. What we lack, God can teach us. We live in an era when religious, Orthodox religious literature, is abundant (although some of it is highly questionable). Every month brings new books. Does your parish have a library for its members? Or does it have a small selection of books and literature for sale? It should.
In our competition for the hearts and minds of its school age children, the Church has some very real advantages, for all that we have said about its failures. As the Body of Christ, we can offer:

1. Participation in a spiritual world: children of primary school age are naturally drawn to that which is holy and mystical. This is the age to form the spiritual habits of frequent Confession and Holy Communion so that they become a part of their life.
2. Christian love and understanding: adults should avoid playing the part of judges with children. We can persuade by loving example and a forgiving spirit. Playing the role of policeman in our children's moral and spiritual development is not the way to help them understand that God loves them and so do we.
3. A sense of belonging: we need to impart the realization that we are all the Children of God. Some of us are just older and more experienced. In God's family, the Church, we are all learners and valuable members. We are always at home in our Father's house.

Above all else, the Church needs to impart to its children two vital pieces of knowledge:

1. That they are important, that God loves them and created them, and that they have real worth.
2. That nowhere are they so important or loved as in the Church. Our adult attitudes toward the Church and our love for the things of God can be communicated only if they are real. Our parish must be a loving, interactive community if it is to be successful with its children.
Children of primary school age have to be included in parish activities and their programs given time and financial support by the church community. What we do speaks much louder than what we say. No amount of talk will persuade the young that we care about them: they deal in the concrete and the tangible. Our rhetoric is judged by our actions.
Responsibility is also something our children need to learn in the home and the church school. And responsibility comes only when you are given something to be responsible for. Whatever duties or tasks we give children need to be important ones — for the whole Church or for themselves. Whether it be serving, singing, helping out with adult projects, learning the Faith, or practising the life of prayer, there should be emphasis on responsibility and accountability — to the Church, to ourselves, to our families, to God. The message given should be that we need their love and support just as they need ours. Only then will the children be able to glimpse the reality of their importance in the Church and before God.
The battle for the souls of children is fought before they go to the upper grades. If we lose them in the early years of primary school, there will be no use fighting to win them back in their teenage years. It is in these primary years that we must realize that mere "cultural Orthodoxy" is practically meaninless in our society; nor is "head knowledge" of the faith sufficient. We need at this time to begin to form in our children Orthodoxy of the heart. During these formative years we can build for children a special "homeland in the heart," so that if they drift away during their teenage years, they will be able to return to that "Orthodox homeland in the heart" when the need or desire calls them to it.

A Time of Transition

As our children move from the primary to secondary school years, they pass through a crucial period variously called junior secondary or middle school years. Usually eleven to fourteen years old during this time of transition, the Church's children are most often lost at these ages. The devout and enthusiastic church school boys and girls of earlier years begin to lose interest and, perhaps just after this middle school period, drift or drop out of Church life. If there are church school classes for these ages, they usually shrink in attendance and mark the end of our formal catechetical effort for our children.
One of the reasons for this religious drop-out phenomena is the rapid increase in the competition for children's interest and time during this period of development. At school there are sports and extra-curricular activities: in the community there are many clubs and special interest groups seeking to recruit young members. Church life is eclipsed by a myriad of attractive opportunities to have new experiences and do new things.
Another reason for children being lost to the Church at this time of development is the rapid physical and mental changes that usually take place at the middle school years. Physical and emotional changes occur rapidly. Often the Church is seen by the youth of these beginning teenage years as unsympathetic and unresponsive to their needs. They either feel that the Church is for "little kids" or an adult order that they want to avoid. In either case, it is not for them.
At worst, the Church loses children almost entirely by the time they reach their secondary school years. At best, there is usually an estrangement of sorts that retards spiritual participation and growth during these middle school years. Youth attend services unwillingly or not at all. They may drift off, never to return, or come back during college years or young adulthood
This picture is not very comforting, but in order to respond to a problem one must first face it. We need to assess what we can do to keep our Orthodox Faith a living experience for children in this difficult time of transition from childhood to maturity. What can be built on? What is that special void that the Church can fill? How can we help families to remain one in their faith and Orthodox life?
The middle school years are a time for honesty and openness. Parents and clergy cannot hide from the physical changes and sexual development of the Church's children. If our children don't get answers to their questions in the Church, they will get them somewhere else. The Church needs to equip its parents — by reading materials, classes led by informed Orthodox medical and psychological resource people, and by communicating with its young people. We need to spend less time on rarefied ecclesiastical subjects and more on the real needs and questions of our developing young adolescents. We can draw on the successful efforts of some of the other educational institutions as we begin to move in this direction.
The Church needs to support the role of parents in the family. Parents are, and will always be, the best teachers of their own children, but they need the training and tools to do the job. The crisis of our adolescents in their Church life may be a sign pointing to a revival of catechises in our parishes. Not just children need Christian education: parents and other adults need it, too. The sad and abysmal ignorance of our adult Orthodox laypeople is already legend in many places. Perhaps we are coming to a time when each parish needs a catechist — a man or woman who gives full or part-time effort to the teaching and counselling of the whole Orthodox family — parents as well as children. The priest might be this person: he might also not be. The task needs the dedication of time and the gift of a special talent. New Orthodox communities should seriously consider the importance of teaching at a simpler and perhaps more immediately achievable level, the middle school years are often a time when youth need to be encouraged and made to feel they are making a worthwhile contribution. They should be given new responsibilities — in teaching younger children, in assisting in Services, in being a needed segment of parish life. Priests, parish councils, church school leaders — all need to focus on making opportunities for Church young people to begin to enter into "adult" tasks in our parish life. We need to share our whole range of Church life with our young people.
As we devise and delegate responsibilities to our young adolescents, we need to stress how they are examples and role models for the younger children — how they are looked up to and imitated by the little ones. In a very real sense, they do matter. How they act and how they lead can have a profound effect on their younger brothers and sisters — in the family and in the parish.
None of these things can happen overnight or in an instant, but they are priorities and directions we need to identify and pursue. If we don't, we will have to pay a fearful price — the loss of our children at a time when they need the love of Jesus Christ and His Church, to grow and develop into mature and healthy Orthodox Christians.


This last period of youthful transition is perhaps the most critical, for it is at this age that our Church has been losing its children at a frightening rate. Peer pressures, the "foreignness" of many of our parishes, a lack of a sense of the importance of belonging — all have contributed to this exodus from the Orthodox Church. There are some common causes of all teenage disillusionment with religion. The pervasive Western secularism and materialism, rejection of the "adult" world and of customs, and an almost generic rebelliousness have all contributed to the secondary school and college age children' antipathy for their spiritual heritages.
It must be said that a great deal of the problem of the teenage years takes root in those earlier years of "boring religious education" and the neglect of parents in building useful, meaningful spiritual foundations. The lack of commitment in our parishes to teaching the faith (and paying the cost in time and money) has born bitter fruit. If our children see that they are not important in their parish life, they can hardly be expected to see why they should continue in the Church. A stubborn, often selfish, pre-occupation with foreigh liturgical languages is a flashing neon sign that says "The younger generation is not important to us." A great deal of the problems we have with our adolescent youngsters can be traced back to a lack of basic Orthodox education when they were young. The absence of family prayer, a lack of grounding in the teachings of the Church, and an attitude of "optionalism" toward the things of God are roots of the "youth problem." Families and parishes abandoned our youth long before the youth abandoned them.
Orthodox parents and educators might profit by looking at two crucial areas addressed by other successful programmes for teenagers:

1. Peer Relationships: Sometimes scorned as "too social", many religious bodies have found youth groups to be a useful vehicle for keeping young people identified with their religious heritage. Such groups are usually most successful when they have advisors who relate well to the adolescent age group and when the group is active in the church program. Often middle (junior secondary) school youth groups are even more successful, bridging the gap in public school and community activities for that age group. In any case, young people have found a church identity and fellowship through both junior and senior secondary school groups. There is no reason why such groups couldn't be spiritually active — in retreats, workshops, and discussion groups. Again, adult guidance and counselling is essential to the spiritual content of such groups.

2. Adult roles in the Church: Those parishes that have made a real effort to involve their young people in parish activities and responsible roles in parish life have experienced a new resurgence in teenage interest and participation. Certainly our Orthodox Church has a wealth of opportunities for its young people to serve the Church. Not just as altar servers, choir members, or helpers — but also as Council members, teachers, and youth leaders of the younger children in the parish. Recognizing that there are some limitations and the need for adult support and counsel, there are still many ways that Orthodox youth can enter into important service to the Church.
There is no point in dwelling on our failures: what we must do is take a new look at the activities and the leadership that young people can bring to our parishes. Their enthusiasm and attitudes can be a breath of fresh air in our church life. Orthodoxy is a living experience and Her people are in transition: our secondary school-age young people will be its leaders in the future. Less ethnic, more a part of their countries and communities, more open to change and progress, they must feel that they are a real part of the Church and its work. Instead of losing a generation, the Church might win one!
What the Church — and you and I — must do is begin to see our young people as a valuable resource and as the leaders of tomorrow. Just as all parents want their children to be better than they are, so Orthodox adults should see this as the calling of our young people. We need to share responsibilities and spiritual life with them and treat them as co-workers in the Church. If we do this sincerely, we will see a generation for the future, not another lost generation. It is too late for the old "adult superiority" games: it is time to share our burdens with our young people and work together with them for the future of the Orthodox Church. The best may be yet to come!

1 comment:

Flynn Nellis said...

State’s rights is right…I cannot argue that, but what I do argue is that it is a “private” school…is the school funded by the state, I dunno, in that case, they would have the law behind them…but you are right about what is right, and I am a true believer in state’s rights, even if it is californica…