“I’ve heard young people are joining the Orthodox Church. Why would they do that? It’s so old.” -Anonymous
My personal journey to Eastern Orthodoxy began on a 6-week trip to Ireland. While there, I heard horrific stories: Catholic monks and priests murdered by Puritan soldiers, children molested by their Catholic caretakers. My illusions about the Christian church were shattered, but, ironically, my interest in Christian spirituality blossomed. I encountered Saint Brendan the Voyager in abandoned island monasteries, quiet chapels, and ocean cliffs. I became enamored with illuminated manuscripts and the ancient Celtic church.
Nine months after we returned from Ireland, my husband and I stumbled upon a Russian Orthodox monastery on Vashon Island, WA. We talked with the abbot, ate a meal with the monks, and attended vespers. I experienced, in the present, the spiritual fullness that I had sensed in Ireland’s history. Within six months, we had become catechumens at Three Hierarchs Antiochian Orthodox Church in Wenatchee.
I had not attended church regularly since high school. I believed in Jesus, but for eight years I expressed my faith, not through church membership, but through para-church ministry and small home gatherings. “The church,” whatever I thought that was, seemed unnecessary and, based on history, dangerous. At some point, however, I realized that I was not going to be able to find the perfect gathering of believers, the one that had never, and would never, hurt someone.
Freed from paralyzing idealism, I accepted the Orthodox Church for what it is: a spiritual hospital. The human race is sick and when sick people crowd together conflict arises. So, I learned to pray the prayer of Saint Ephraim, “…grant that I may confront my own offenses, and remember not to judge my brother. For you are blessed, always, now, and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Finally, I began to experience the reality of a community that transcends time. Some of us are old; others are young. Some of us are alive; others are dead. We all pray together, Saint Brendan included.
When my journey began, I had no idea that other young people were becoming Orthodox, but now I hear these 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? I will address the practical reasons then 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 Americans. 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, the 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 in the worshipper and reveals spiritual reality.
I know that not all parishes are like ours, but I would venture to say that any growing church creates some kind of welcoming space for children and youth while attending to the spiritual growth of adults at the same time.
Now I will address why the theology of the Orthodox Church attracts young people.
First, many of us are sick of being the object of marketing campaigns. Therefore, church services that are obviously staged to be “attractive to young people,” can look silly or even offensive. Moreover, pop culture changes so quickly, that a church may be years or decades behind the times even as it tries to be cutting edge. A service that has its roots in 2000 years of tradition can be refreshing in comparison.
Second, many of us are committed to social and environmental causes, but feel like we have failed in our efforts to change the world. We are not interested in simply knowing that our sins (or anyone else’s for that matter) are blotted out on some heavenly ledger: we want real change. The Orthodox understanding of sanctification, or theosis, the process of becoming truly God-like by grace, is appealing because it says a person can become, here and now, an agent of God’s healing presence. And the ancient Orthodox tradition presents a tried and true path for transforming the heart and sanctifying the whole person.
Theosis involves spiritual discipline, but we can understand that. Once again, young people have been introduced to many traditions that take discipline seriously. Holding strenuous body positions for long periods of time? We’ve done yoga. Fasting? You mean I’m supposed to eat a vegan, raw food diet on Wednesdays and Fridays? That’s cool. Of course, these practices are not an end in themselves, but a means of growing in Love.
Fourth, the Orthodox Church, like the early Church Fathers, does not teach that God the Father demanded a blood sacrifice in order to satisfy his own wrath. Rather it teaches that Jesus, through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, defeated death, the tyrant, and united man to God. As we sing at Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.”
Fourth, many young people desire to know God in a way that transcends intellectual profession of faith. When we look at the lives of the saints, we see that that is possible. We are done with fundamentalism (of liberal or conservative stripes) and want a faith that applies to real life. How can Orthodoxy provide this kind of faith when it looks so old? Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the current patriarch of Constantinople, puts it well in a speech that he gave at George Town University:
“It may appear strange for a progressive think tank to sponsor a talk by the leader of a faith that takes pride in how little it has changed in 2,000 years,” the patriarch explained, referring to the talk’s other sponsor, the Center for American Progress. “…. But even though our faith may be 2,000 years old, our thinking is not. …Christianity was born a revolutionary faith and we preserved that. In other words, paradoxically we have succeeded in not changing the faith that is itself dedicated to change.
Not that Orthodox Christians always live up to this ideal. Those who expect perfection from the Orthodox Church, or any church for that matter, will leave disappointed. Five years ago, I would have been among that number.