My friend Seraphim Danckaert published an article today on the O&H site that I think every Christian (Orthodox or not) should read: Losing our Religion: On “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church. Why? Almost every kind of church throughout America is losing kids. So read it first before reading the rest of this.
First, some bad news: If you’re counting on your church having awesome programs for your kids to make them be and keep them being good Christians, you’re going to be let down. There is only so much they can do, and expecting that they will do all the heavy lifting in your child’s spiritual life is extremely unrealistic. On a personal note, I’ve spoken with many 20- and 30-somethings who were very active in youth groups, Bible studies, outreach projects, etc., who all checked out of church after they left home. Their problem wasn’t that they weren’t active in public religiosity. It goes deeper, to the day to day stuff. Follow the path home. That’s where they learned to be adults. If the faith isn’t visible at home, which should be regarded as a “little church,” then it’s not going to be visible when your children start their own homes. You cannot outsource the spiritual side of parenting. And simply taking them to Sunday School (even consistently, which itself doesn’t seem to happen often any more) isn’t enough, either.
Okay, some good news: This piece is good news for all those parents who are striving to make their faith real in the home. Mothers especially are the heroes here, but fathers are critical, as well. Pray together with your kids, and not just over meals. Pray before they go to bed and at other times. Read the Bible to them. Read saints’ lives to them. Talk with them about what you read. Let your kids hear you talk about your faith, your hopes, your trust in God, your wish that you could spend more time in church, more time in prayer. Let them see you reading the Bible and other spiritual books. When you’re alone in your study and praying and your toddler sneaks in to play with forbidden things, pick him up and keep praying. All that agonizing you’re going through to make faith alive in your home is not in vain.
Another obvious conclusion is that you shouldn’t choose godparents for your kids based purely on familial or friend relationships. Your child needs to have an adult spiritual mentor who will model adult faith. Your pastor probably cannot be that person, not just because he cannot be an at-home part of your child’s life with great frequency but also because his status as a clergyman puts him outside the “role model” world for most kids. Most kids don’t imagine themselves as clergy, but they are more likely to imagine themselves to be like an aunt or uncle or close family friend. Imagination is critical in terms of spiritual possibility. If a child knows what it looks like to be a serious Christian adult, he’s more likely to be able to do it.
Regarding Seraphim’s third point, that a child needs not only authentic home spiritual life and a non-parent spiritual mentor, but that he also needs to have a spiritual experience of some kind before he hits his late teens, well, that can be a bit harder. You can’t make a kid experience the grace of God. But one thing we can count on is that there will be crises. And the direction we go when we experience a crisis will very much determine whether we experience grace. Do we model for our kids that we take such things to our pastors and into the sacrament of confession, that our first remedy is prayer and fasting? Or do we look for other solutions? (This is not to say that sometimes medical help may not be validly required, but it shouldn’t be sought out to the exclusion of spiritual guidance.) Someone who is raised going to confession regularly (not just once a year!) will likely think of his confessor as a go-to resource for dealing with a crisis. And while there’s no guarantee, he’s more likely to experience God’s grace there than if he turns to some other remedy.
I write all this in the context of working on the youth ministry in my own parish. It seems to me that it should probably mostly be geared to teaching how to make all these things a part of daily life, not just making time to get together and be spiritual and/or religious for a while and then go home. I also write this in the context of learning how to be a better father to three little Christians. I’m no expert. But I’m working on it. And I’m glad my wife is working hard on raising our children as Christians, too.