SAN FRANCISCO: May 11, 2006

Reader George Skok

The Church, Youth and Its Needs

Dear Archpastors, pastors and delegates!

It is a great honor to have been invited to present a talk at this Council, a pivotal moment in the history of the Russian Church Abroad. I have been asked to speak about the concerns and needs of the youth as seen from the point of view of a youth worker. When initially asked to do so, I wondered if I could do the subject justice. After all, I am not a cleric and have no direct experience in actual pastoral work.

At the same time, there has not been a time in my life when I have not been closely involved with the church and youth and, despite the passing of the years, and despite my own transition from youth to middle age, I continue to be involved with youth. In fact, I am probably working with church youth more now than ever as a choir director, camp administrator, and generally in organizing youth activities. Because of my different roles I have had the opportunity to visit many of our parishes and be involved in many youth and church activities in general, especially in Canada and the United States, so my knowledge and observations are first-hand.

To work with young people is a great and humbling task. If fact, to stand in front of youth and try to teach them something is, for me, often much more nerve-wracking and thrilling than working with adults. They are fresh, eager to learn, not yet jaded by life, and still have the potential to learn new ideas and change their minds about positions they already hold. I am reminded of a line from the film, “Paper Chase.” A preofessor at a law school, when he greets his new students on the first day of classes, tells them, “every year I get older, and you stay the same age.” And therein lies the challenge: to attract young people to the church at a time in their lives when they are open to it, when their faith is still pure, to keep doing this all the time as these people go from childhood to young adulthood, and to work with successive generations of youth.

Let me illustrate this concept with a real example. Among my other church responsibilities I teach church singing at the Saturday Russian School of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Toronto. It is a large school with around 200 students. In the course of the year I am sent close to 50 students from the middle grades and given a goal of preparing them to sing the Liturgy on Saturdays during Lent. I am not trying to fashion a children's choir here, but trying to expose them to the form and beauty of the Liturgy. Many of these children are not from church-going families and they are often not very comfortable in church. They need to learn every aspect of the service: how to stand, why they shouldn't talk, when to respond. Getting them to sing simple renditions of the hymns is quite possibly the easiest part of this work.

Yet, despite starting from virtually no knowledge of the service, by the time Great Lent arrives and they are called upon to sing the Liturgies, they reach the point where, with minimal assistance, they can sing the service quite beautifully in their own right. What a joy it is to work with these children, aged 11 or 12, and watch as they go from protesting having to stand to the point where they want to sing every service. They have been given an assignment, have learned it, and have taken ownership. It has taken time, effort, caring and constant cajoling and convincing. This is the essence of all work with youth. And, when the next school year begins, with many new faces, the effort starts anew!

The old emigration

I wish I could say without reservation that this is a beautiful picture and a confirmation of a bright future, but I cannot be completely at ease here. In this group of 50 students, not one is a child of the post-WWII emigration let alone a descendant of the earlier emigrations, that is, the emigrations that founded ROCOR and established most of the churches we have today. All these children were either born in Russia or in Canada after their parents arrived as part of the recent wave of newcomers from Russia. And, while I am glad that I am able to work with them, we must ask, where have all the children of old emigres gone? It is easy to overlook this problem, especially in bigger cities where there are large communities of recent emigres and where, as a result, churches are full. It must be understood that in studying this problem, my objectives are not to purposelessly criticize what has been taking place, or to show a preference for the youth of the previous emigrations, but to find ways, based on the lessons learned, to deal with the current situation.

The bulk of our churches opened after WWII as a result of the influx of post-war displaced persons arriving in Western Europe, North and South America and Australia. As a priority, churches were established wherever people settled. Often there would be Russian schools and community organizations. In larger centres in Canada, for example, the community would blossom, yet in smaller cities where there were only a few Russians it proved a very difficult task to preserve the churches, especially since the children were educated in English and assimilated into the local culture.

While church involvement for the parents was natural, young people faced many challenges. To begin with, there are many parishes that have only a small number of youth and are geographically isolated from other parishes. Here, youth do not have opportunities to gather in a context larger than their own parish and often feel isolated. This is compounded by the fact that the Church Abroad has historically distanced itself from churches of other Orthodox jurisdictions. In such situations there have been few opportunities to meet other young Orthodox people locally. In addition, unlike people who lived in major centres with larger parishes, there has been little in the way of organization and motivation of youth, or even knowledge about the existence of youth conferences, meetings, or pilgrimages to Jordanville and the Holy Land. While today, with the internet bridging the distance, it is easier to become aware of such events, the damage has been done. In my own country, Canada, the children of post-war immigrants – my generation and a little younger – have either fallen away from an active church life or left the church completely, and at an alarming rate. In parishes in smaller cities there is often not even one young man or woman left from the children of my contemporaries, and in larger cities those who are still around are usually only minimally involved.

Father Gabriel conducted an excellent, extensive survey of what draws the youth to church, but this survey was conducted primarily among young people who are involved in the church and even then, they admit that they have difficulty staying interested in its services and work. Not included in the survey are people who have drifted away. From my experience, both in my own age group and in succeeding generations, there are a number of causes:

they go away to University or take jobs in cities where there are no parishes of the church abroad, and because of our historic “apart-ness,” do not seek out other Orthodox communities

they enter mixed marriages and while they might return to the church to be married and to baptize their own children, they no longer feel part of the church; it has become their grandparents' church

those who lack a strong knowledge of the Russian language have been made to feel uncomfortable, especially in the face of the old guard who demanded that Russian be spoken exclusively

what makes them feel even less welcome is that here in North America, for example, especially in large cities, there are virtually no English parishes of ROCOR, and often in the Russian parishes there is often no English used at all, not even a Gospel or Epistle reading in English. With churches full of new arrivals, the case is made, “It is not necessary.”

These people start to move closer to the margins of the church and finally away.

The elite

Among those who remain are primarily those who speak Russian at least somewhat well, who were maybe able to read or sing early on, and were pressed into service at some time in their formation. Interestingly enough, this group is very connected, no matter where they live, meet at camps and conferences, and are known to our bishops and clergy. It is a blessing to have them in church, in the choir, participating in parish life. Their devotion is admirable and they have become, if you will, a kind of elite within the ranks of the church. At the same time, this has drawn the line between the church-goers and the fringe players even more visibly.

This group has for the most part had the good fortune to come from large parishes and communities such as in New York and San Francisco, or from vibrant parishes such as Lakewood and Nyack. Their parents were blessed to have had inspiring educators such as Fr. Valery Lukianov, the late Fr. Seraphim Slobodskoy, and here, St. John himself. They were surrounded by ardent Russian patriots for whom one of the driving causes was keeping up everything Russian – language, customs, and the church. They married in the church and tried to give their children what they had received. They were often able to home-school their children, in some places established full-time schools, and now the children are the spiritual elite, our vanguard and, we hope, future church leaders.

The Russians

To these groups of youth, already disparate despite both being descendants of the founders of our church, another factor has been added. There was a time when “we were the Russians.” No matter how badly we spoke it, we learned a few key expressions, we gathered in church, some of us went to Russian church schools and summer camps, we learned the history, the moving Russian campfire songs of another age. The youth loved being Russian and for those around us in the United Sates and Canada, we were the Russians. This sentiment was passed onto my generation's children as well.

We never suspected that, within our lifetimes, this would change. Once the Soviet structures fell, Russians began to arrive in unprecedented numbers, and thousands made their way to our parishes. In many parishes they have become the majority of regular worshippers. We cannot deny that we have been apprehensive about these newcomers. Very few of us had any significant experience meeting them let alone dealing with them in our churches. But take away the fact that they were from the hitherto closed Soviet Union, in many ways our reaction was similar to that of the earlier emigrations, long settled, in North America, for example, and who attended the Russian Metropolia when post-World War II immigrants began to arrive. This fear and even distrust was mutual. Our parents and then their children spoke better Russian, and in our own estimation we observed the church traditions more keenly, we fasted more correctly than did the previous group of Russians. But, as those of us who went through this period know, we remained Russian mostly because of the church that our parents would most often have to found and nurture. The newcomers now are generally products of an anti-religious society and church, for them, is something quite new.

I would venture to say, therefore, that the cultural gap between the new generation of emigrants and their children and ours is even larger. Not only have they arrived from a drastically different system, but the children and youth completely different cultural landmarks from us, including the music the young people have listened to, the books they read, the cartoons and films they have watched. As an example on a practical level, their repertoire of campfire songs is completely different from ours. To be honest, they know very little about us, are baffled in their dealings with us, and are puzzled by our version of the Russian language. Of course, their Russian is perfect. In our case, several generations down the road, from the average parishioner to even the top levels or our hierarchy there are few among us any longer who are truly fluent in spoken and written Russian. While there are exceptions – certain individuals who have made great efforts and maybe, as an example on a larger scale, our church-goers in Australia, who lived in a virtual Russian environment in the Far East long after the Revolution – this is the reality. To the new immigrants, we are not the Russians, they are. Gradually, this is becoming true in our own perception of our own selves as well, even in the church.

What motivates the youth and brings them together

Yet many of the Russian newcomers who are church-goers, including many young men and women, have found a home in the Church Abroad. Many, in fact, became Orthodox here and make up the core of dedicated youth in many parishes. The Church Abroad has long been a beacon for traditional Orthodoxy, as witnessed by the thousands of converts of non-Russian background who have joined Orthodoxy through us over the years, our many flourishing missions, some of which have grown into full-fledged missions, the successful non-Russian monastic communities such as in England and West Virginia.

The varying groups that make up our membership, and the groups I have mentioned are certainly not all of them, shows that we are clearly no longer a monolithic organization made up of people from the same stock. At the same time, people tend to stay with their own kind, so it is rare that all the groups get together. Since we are all united in this unique church I believe very strongly that we need to do everything possible to have our youth involved with the church and with each other by exposing them to all the positive elements that exist.

A turning point in my own life came when I was 20 years old and had the good fortune to be able to participate in the first All-Diaspora Youth Conference ever held in Montreal, called by Archbishop Vitaly. While I had been active in church since a very young age and had made frequent trips to some of the important parishes I have mentioned, and to monastic centres in Jordanville and Novo-Diveevo, nothing had quite prepared me for what was to happen at this event and how it would affect me for the rest of my life. There were close to three hundred young people at this week-long event. They had come to Canada from all over the world. Not everyone would attend all the church services, many young people were more interested in socializing and staying up late than attending all the lectures, but there was a vibrant kinship. Even then, however, one could tell who was at the fringes, and they were mostly young people whose Russian was lacking. Sadly, with each successive conference I attended until I came to the realization that I could no longer count myself among the youth, there were fewer and fewer faces, often the same ones, and not many new ones.

At the last All-Diaspora Youth Conference, held right here in San Francisco two years ago, there were fewer than 100 young people registered. To a degree this was because the conference was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the glorification of St. John of San Francisco and the intention was to attract, as much as possible, serious church-going youth, but in the end this wonderfully-staged event, which had so much potential to draw people to the church, ended up almost literally preaching to the choir. While the young people were beautiful to see and work with, I keep thinking how great an example they could have been in the face of other, less-church oriented youth – if only this latter group had been there, and had been able to interact with the clergy and youth assembled for the conference. The vitality of such meetings is surely contagious, yet one cannot get the bug without being exposed to it. Possibly there is a fear that the less exemplary youth will influence the children whom we have lovingly formed, but in such a closed environment I think it would be the other way around.

I wonder if this tendency is not happening with other functions as well. I can speak with first-hand knowledge about major meetings where youth is targeted, if not specifically the focus. In North America, we have the annual St. Herman's Youth Conference in December and the Russian Orthodox Musicians' Conference in October. These are excellent and well-organized events, yet the numbers of attendees are slowly but surely dwindling. Interestingly enough, the primary language of the services in both cases is Church Slavonic but, with the exception of a few guest speakers, the language of business at these meeting is English, and this is usually the language spoken in the corridors as well. These are accessible events, and surely a greater effort must be made in publicizing these meetings and assisting our youth in getting to them. They are, as I mentioned about the All-Diaspora youth conferences, inspiring in their vitality and valuable in exposing people to the beauty of the church and its worship. They will also give chance for youth of all stripes to interact, to feel the fullness and breadth of the church.

Another wonderful vehicle for this is youth camps. I am one of the directors at a relatively new Russian Orthodox camp in Canada. Formed in the year 2000, we had originally imagined our children would come from the old emigrant stock. To our surprise, the first year of operation we had 11 children, and they were exclusively Russian-born. Last year we had 56, of whom over 40 were originally from Russia. The result is that we now are friends with these children, their parents entrust them to a group of Canadian-born directors and senior counsellors, and our Canadian-born kids have made what appear to be lifelong friendships with people they or their parents might not have trusted a few years ago. These Russian children learn to sing Borodino, and we learn the latest Russian expressions as well as improve our spoken Russian dramatically! Most important, we teach newcomer children about church and services, and some of them have been drawn by this to a more active church life, even to baptism. Finally, for older youth who have fallen away, this gives them a non-threatening and enjoyable way to come back at least in some measure to the church. Many of our volunteers who help maintain the property, run the camp, and helped build our chapel in 2005 were those who had at one time left the church, but now work with us, attend services, and receive communion.

Any opportunity to bring people of different groups together must not be missed. In this respect, I would like to relate a comment made by Evgeny Kustovsky, an important Moscow church musician and pedagogue – he runs a music school and its site kliros.org – who was a guest conductor at the music conference in Chicago in 2002. He wrote to his site's forum with his observations on the music conference:

“Brothers, it's really great here. The atmosphere is the same as at our summer music conferences, and happy and busy. Basically, they are the same as we are, just a little farther away. The same problems, the same tones, the only difference is nine hours.”

What prevents youth from actively participating in parish life

The generation I spoke about earlier that became displaced from Russia after the second war is the generation which slaved to collect money to build and buy our churches, to lovingly adorn them, and has been singing, cooking, and attending services in them for fifty years. As they age and their numbers grow smaller, they worry about the future of what they have built. They have not, however, looked kindly at the thought of someone younger taking over. This generation considered as youth everyone who came after them, and has often not groomed anyone to succeed them. This may not always apply at new parishes or mission parishes started from scratch, but I know many young people who have run into this seeming barrier of stern, older faces and have left discouraged.

Now, with funerals every day, the founders are realizing that there must be a handover of church affairs, of their Orthodox faith – but to whom? In a discussion with the journal “Orthodox Moscow,” Fr. Maksim Kozlov, the well-known rector of St. Tatiana's Church at the Moscow State University and an experienced youth worker, observes the following:

“Contemporary youth are freer in judgment, freer of stereotypes, they are more open. But, on the other hand, I observe in many, unfortunately, the absence of the habit of responsibility. It is not hard to find many young people who are ready to do things on the fly: to help, to carry, to clean up, to be involved in the repair of a church, to sing on the kliros – but how hard it is to find someone who will decide to be ‘extreme,' who will decide to be responsible for something.”

So work is being passed on now in haste, and a huge problem is the lack of qualified candidates for jobs that require skill and training – choir directors, youth workers, and church school teachers who are truly involved with the church and, of course, clerics. The numbers of young men who attend our seminary in Jordanville is down, and especially low is the number of seminarians born abroad. Clergy without a seminary education are being ordained, and while this is normal and fills a huge need, we are often getting priests who mean well but lack vital training. This problem is compounded by the very lamentable development that people today, especially young people, have very little inherent respect for clergy. Adults, let alone children, often do not even know how to receive a blessing from a priest or bishop.

There is also, among young people, a widespread cynicism and distrust with regards to hierarchy – young people are certainly aware of the schisms in the church, the resulting endless court cases, and the money and effort being poured into them. They are witnessing even today the difficulties which threaten the stability of the Orthodox Church in America.

They also are concerned about the effort spent on reconciliation talks with the Moscow Patriarchate. This process has been going on for close to six years now and with so much energy, though understandably, being spent on the question of the future of our church, that there is a perception among young people that there has not been much effort spent on them. While there are exceptions at the parish level, we must consider that there have been few new publications, organs, organizations – let alone websites - aimed at youth. Think of the days when there were many new books, journals – many of which, regretfully, lasted only a short time, such as Trezvon, the Orthodox Family, etc. While active youth seek to fill the gap by forming their own chat groups and web pages, these involve relatively few people and often lead to serious errors and deviation from the church's teachings.

Neither can we ignore that our church has experienced a shortage of candidates for the hierarchy. The Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville has yielded, at the expense of the monastic brotherhood, many of its monks to this calling, but there are dioceses such as in South America, Canada and France where there have not been either fully active or permanent bishops for many years. Is it any surprise, then, that it is in these places where the greatest discontent has arisen among the laity and priesthood regarding the direction of our church?

Getting the youth more involved

The composition and attitude of our youth has clearly changed drastically. They are educated, albeit with a secular education, they live in what is essentially an anti-Christian society, and their opinions are likely to be shaped by popular media. In these dire circumstances, rather than leave them to a self-directed Orthodoxy, the clergy and teachers of the church must find a way to listen to youth on their own terms.

I was taken by the recent related statement on this by Synod of the State Church of Greece, which describes a highly prioritized direction which must be taken by the Church - a new evangelization of the Greek society. It reads,

“This is essential because at the present time the faith is understood by many as a cultural tradition rather than a part of a person's life experience. Serious attention must be given to the formation of educated pastors since under present conditions the expectations from pastors have risen considerably. They must be knowledgeable not only in theology but in other categories of knowledge. There is a further emphasis on the importance of pastoral concern with young people. Spiritual nurture must begin from childhood and continue through the years of growth through the student years in institutions of higher education. Young people are especially in need of pastoral support, thus the Church's presence in the institutions of higher education is essential. Laity with higher theological education should be recruited for work in catechization and special groups of instructors should be formed to work with children.

In addition to the above the life of the parish must be organized anew in order that it would acquire the marks of a Eucharistic community.”

Besides the matter of training pastors and laity, another issue comes out of the statement by the Greek Church: it may also be the time for our church to formally discuss the issue of language. Speaking Russian with a degree of fluency, while once seen as a badge of honor and a cultural tradition, is simply not a possibility for many children and most grandchildren of older immigrants, let alone the bulk of converts, yet is a major factor in their exclusion from a full church life in many parishes. While, as a result of the opening of the Russian border, there has been significant growth and an increase of Russian speakers in the church, the tendency towards Russification of parishes will undoubtedly have a negative effect of those either struggling with Russian or not knowing it at all. We know the history of the previous emigrations in this respect and there is no reason to believe that the newcomers will be any more successful in preserving Russian. For example, the children I have referred to in my church school choir and camp, who arrived here five years ago without a word of English, now use it as their lingua franca. The recent upswing in Russian speakers, the pattern seems to indicate, will be a short-term gain as the next generation of children switches over to the majority language of the country and integrates seamlessly into the mass of non-church people.

This does not mean eliminating Church Slavonic, but using every tool available to us to spread our faith. Parish priests should have clear direction on how and when to implement the local language in services and catechism. It is not something to fear, but something that was foreseen since our church was established. Here is an interesting recommendation:

“To successfully fulfill our mission abroad, in the matter of shining the light of Orthodoxy in the spiritual view of the heterodox or non-Christian population abroad, a particular preparation of candidates is needed for the roles of pastors and clergy of our Russian churches abroad, through travel assignments to theological faculties and missionary institutes by Russian theologians to learn the language, customs and religious beliefs of the land.” (From the First All-Diaspora Council held in 1921 in Sremsky Karlovci, Yugoslavia, The report of the Missionary Department, measure #16).

Eighty-five years later, this task has yet to be completed, although we have made many inroads. ROCOR itself has produced many Liturgical publications in English, with translations made by our own people – I have in mind the work of Fr. Lawrence Campbell in Jordanville, Br. Isaac Lambertson in New York, and others who have published the Horologion, Menaion, Oktoechos, and many other services. There are music seminars in English which give an opportunity learn how to conduct as well as put together services. While it may be argued that these resources are intended for mission parishes, they are certainly needed – or eventually will be – in what are now predominantly Russian parishes as well. Unless there is a ceaseless stream of newcomers from Russia, we have to face the situation ahead in a loving way and as true missionaries.

Finally, I would like to go back to my earlier comments about the different groups that make up our church and its periphery. In the interview with Fr. Maksim Kozlov quoted above, he spoke as well about different types of youth:

“Worldly youth are a continent, while church youth are, to be honest, a little island. But some inhabitants of the continent sometimes end up in the church. This does not happen according to a pattern, there are many individual stories. The Lord leads them in. But this doesn't mean that we should do nothing. In addition to prayer we must put order into church life. Much has been said about this, but the problem remains. A young man who by chance goes into a church must feel that people are happy to have him there, that he is of interest not only as a subject of economic contribution or as a person who should leave because they are washing the floor. (Talking about youth,“Orthodox Moscow”)

There are so many negative, anti-ecclesiastical forces in the world today that we cannot, in my opinion, let any of these young people, once we have even some kind of contact with them, slip through our hands. We can no longer afford to separate the young people into the elite, the fringe, the fallen away, the non-Russians. To borrow Fr. Maksim's expression, we must make every effort to move young people from the continent onto the little island so that they become church youth. Thank you.


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