The Church and Young People in Today’s Society
An Interview with Rev. Fr. Theodore Paraskevopoulos
By Evagelos Sotiropoulos
June 22, 2014
As the National Youth Director, what do you see as the biggest challenge in creating a sustainable bond between young people and the Church? How did your recent participation at the International Youth Forum in Constantinople influence your perspective?
At the International Youth Forum that recently took place in Constantinople, it was made clear to me while listening to the panel speakers from youth organizations across the globe that churches face very similar challenges regarding youth engagement. In my opinion, there are two main obstacles to creating a sustainable bond between young people and the Church, as you put it: first, a lack of religious education amongst all age groups within our church communities; and, second, a mistaken mindset amongst the older generation about who and what the youth are. How we view young people within the body of Christ — their role, their significance and their contributions, has to radically change. In essence we need a paradigm shift in thought and in action; we need to start viewing youth as a part of the mystical body of Christ and not simply as future church members. The youth are not the future reality but rather an essential part of the whole. As such, they are invaluable and should be treated accordingly.
What activities/programs are offered by the National Youth Board for young people to learn about their faith, encourage participation in the Sacraments and maintain and strengthen Greek Orthodox traditions?
In the past three years the reorganized Metropolis Youth Board has initiated a number of new projects.
First, we created regional youth assemblies to be held on the years opposite of the Clergy Laity Assembly. This was done with the aim of maintaining and building on the momentum in local communities and fostering an environment where local youth groups can build relationships with neighbouring communities. These assemblies have been well received and very successful and have not only allowed relationships with different communities in a specific geographic area to grow but have also fed into the success of the national youth assemblies.
Second, the Met Youth Board re-designed and re-launched a brand-new independent website; www.metyouth.ca serves as a hub of information for all Orthodox youth in Canada. It provides regular news updates on different events happening throughout our Metropolis, features blogs written by our own youth members from coast-to-coast, links our national youth board with our camp ministries and our missions board. The website also hosts a forum where youth can discuss and share ideas. In addition to our website, we have also branched out into social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Third, another program that we are currently working on is a type of handbook or guide to establishing a new youth association in a local community. This document will be available to anyone in Canada who is interested in establishing a new youth association, which would be done in close collaboration with one of our members and may include visiting the local community to jump-start the project.
Lastly, our most significant project right now is our proposed 2015 national youth pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This will be a truly fantastic opportunity for youth to have a hands-on experience of their faith by visiting the sites in which our Lord Jesus Christ lived, walked and preached.
Technological advancements and the proliferation of social media platforms have been truly transformative; how can technology be deployed to spread Orthodoxy, proclaim the Gospel and glorify Christ, particularly among youth?
One of the most significant ways that the Gospel is being preached through technology is podcasts. Currently, for example, my Sunday sermons are available as a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio [AFR] through a program called iSermon. It is very popular on AFR and reaches quite a few people around the world. In addition to our Metropolis podcast iEcclesia, it is imperative that we continue to properly and effectively use technology for the advancement of the Church and Her sacred mission. By networking and leveraging podcasts, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media, we meet the youth where they are and provide them an Orthodox Christian presence in a cyber-world dominated by secular thought and reasoning. It is important, however, to emphasize that this type of media is not an end in itself, although it can be used to draw people to the Church.
As long as we are using technology as a guide for people to reconnect on a personal level then it is a good thing; but, from the moment that technology begins to replace personal relationships, we have a problem. The Met Youth Board has done a good job of utilizing technology in a way that emphasizes actual human interaction. We do this by posting events that invite you to actual places where you can interact with other human beings. We shy away from over-emphasizing online discussion but rather use the online world to guide people to physical places and events, since it is only through personal interaction with people that we come face-to-face with Christ.
While the Church must be responsive to the spiritual needs of young people, what is their own responsibility to develop a relationship with Christ and more than just a transactional (e.g., baptisms; weddings; major feasts) relationship with the Church?
In some instances, unfortunately, we can have the best programs and the best technology and the best sermons possible and still not reach certain individuals. This is human nature. We all have to come to a point in our lives where we recognize that belief in God has to come to the forefront of our priorities. Until we come to this point it is very difficult to reach people in a personal way. As the sun constantly shines down upon us we on the other hand have to make a decision to open the door and let the light in. As youth workers we cannot get bogged down by things like low numbers or indifference amongst some of the youth in our parishes. We have to remember that Christ had Twelve Apostles and that these holy individuals changed the history of humanity.
So the solution is to focus on discipleship and not on numbers. Focus on the people we do have and make them true ambassadors of Christ. They will go out and preach the word for you. Quality and not quantity is the answer to the problem of youth and the future. If a young person experiences a personal connection with God and the Church, she/he will not only return again and again but also bring their friends. It is not up to us to create faith in people but rather to nurture the faith that is already there. From a young person’s perspective, it is their responsibility to make the effort to reach out. The Church cannot do everything for them; they have to care deeply about their spirituality — only then can a proper synergy happen.