Eastern Orthodoxy and American Youth, Part 2: What’s the Draw?
When my journey began, I had no idea that other young people were becoming Orthodox, but now I hear such stories regularly. In our church, many of the recent members and inquirers are between 20 and 40.
Why would young people join the Eastern Orthodox Church? Today I will address the practical reasons and tomorrow the theological ones. Of course, young people are not a homogenous group. I can speak only about that subset of the demographic that is in fact attracted to Orthodoxy.
First, younger adults have grown up in a multi-cultural society. We have been encouraged to learn about and appreciate religions other than protestant Christianity, religions that involve mysticism, chanting, daily spiritual practice, fasting, and specific types of dress. So, for many of us, ancient Orthodox traditions are not foreign or off- putting. In fact, they inspire longing and curiosity.
Second, Orthodox churches in America are changing. For decades, they functioned as safe havens for new immigrants, places to preserve their culture and speak their native language. However, as the children of immigrants assimilated into American society, these cultural distinctions became less important. Today, Anglo-Americans (and the children and grandchildren of immigrants from traditionally Orthodox countries) can find plenty of Orthodox churches that hold services in English and do not put a primary emphasis on cultural background. The leadership of the Antiochian Orthodox Church has made intentional, concerted efforts to welcome newcomers. Additionally, blogs and online programs such as Ancient Faith Radio have developed an Orthodox presence on the internet.
Third, in our parish at least, children are welcomed and celebrated. Although services are long, parents are free to bring their children for an age appropriate duration. Babies are often passed from person to person. We have no pews, so small children are free to sit on the floor and play with trucks or look at picture books.
However, kids jump at the chance to participate in tactile worship experiences, such as lighting candles, kissing (or just looking at) icons, and touching the robe of the priest. Much of the congregational singing involves repeated choruses, so children learn the music and often sing out as if they were watching Veggie Tales.
Although Orthodox worship does appeal to children, it is not childish. The music and text are richly complicated and call for intense noetic concentration; the multi-sensory nature of services draws the worshipper in and reveals spiritual reality.
I know not all parishes are like ours, but I would venture to say that any growing church creates a welcoming space for children and youth while attending to the spiritual growth of adults at the same time.
Read Part 1.
Continue to Part 3.