April 30, 2017 Length: 1:31:08
Joining Bill and Fr. Barnabas is Dr. Ann Bezzerides, the Director of the Office of Vocation and Ministry at Hellenic College/Holy Cross. Together they bring empirical and practical perspectives in assessing the existing challenges and focusing on workable solutions that parishes and parents can implement.
Mr. Bill Marianes: Do you wonder if your children, grandchildren, or godchildren will stay in the Church, or know their faith, or raise their children in the Church that you love? Have you ever wondered why our youth and emerging adults are either leaving the Church [or] they’re becoming disengaged from the traditional American Christian churches at a record pace? Have you ever wondered what can be done about it? The negative trends of disengagement from the understanding of the life of the traditional Christian church in the U.S. is well-documented, and they don’t appear to be mere passing fads. What is less clear to many are the causes and the solutions, and yet holy Scripture in Proverbs 22:6 actually provides the profound and simple answer: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
As it turns out, there are seven key findings of what is happening to our youth in their religious beliefs in the most comprehensive empirical and scientific studies that were undertaken in the United States, and there’s some critical lessons that we can all learn and apply in our churches and families to address these issues. Tonight we will explore how we can do a better job of making engaged disciples and serving our youth and emerging adults in the areas of religious education, church engagement, and stewardship.
Hello, brothers and sisters; welcome to Stewardship Calling and the Fifth Sunday series on Ancient Faith Radio. This is Bill Marianes from Atlanta, Georgia, and stewardshipcalling.com, along with my friend and broadcast partner, Fr. Barnabas Powell, of Faith Encouraged Ministries.
Fr. Barnabas Powell: Good evening.
Mr. Marianes: I have a simple premise. You have been called by your Creator to a personal calling: a reason to your life and a reason for your life, something you need to do with all of the gifts over which God has made you a steward. It’s what I call your stewardship calling. And Ephesians 2:10 makes it crystal clear that we all have a calling. We learn from the Scripture passage: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians 4:1, says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
Now, before we dig into tonight’s focus on youth and emerging adults, you have a right to know who’s taking you on the journey. As I said at the outset, my name is Bill Marianes from Atlanta, Georgia, and my volunteer ministry, stewardshipcalling.com. Until this past December by day I was blessed to be a partner in a great international law firm of about a thousand lawyers, where I practiced in the area of mergers and acquisitions in corporate law, but my “why,” my personal calling, is to be a stewardship calling evangelist. I’m here to help people and parishes discover and live their stewardship callings as they follow Christ’s great commandment to love one another and his great commission to make disciples of all nations.
Welcome to the journey. This program and a lot of other helpful tools and information about effective churches and stewardship and discipleship and calling and strategic planning and other topics can be found at my always-free website, stewardshipcalling.com, and you can always reach me by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After we lay the foundation of the research, we’re going to talk about tonight, we want you to call in and interact with us at 1-855-AF-RADIO—that’s 1-855-237-2346—or join the lively chat room at ancientfaith.com that is already up and operational.
Our special guest on tonight’s program that we’re going to feature in the third segment is Dr. Ann Bezzerides whom we’ll hear from after we set the stage of the challenge. And my companion on this Stewardship Calling Fifth Sunday series journey is my good friend and an amazingly inspirational Orthodox speaker. Man, did he set them on fire today! [Laughter] Fr. Barnabas Powell from Ss. Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene Orthodox Church, and the host of Faith Encouraged Live with Fr. Barnabas, every second and fourth Sunday in the same time slot. He also hosts the Faith Encouraged devotionals every morning. I start every morning listening to him which is sort of—
Fr. Barnabas: Oh, yikes.
Mr. Marianes: Yeah, I don’t know, man. It’s starting to wear on me, here, but it’s really good stuff. [Laughter] Because he actually teaches how to be Orthodox on purpose, and has released this phenomenal “Journey to Fullness” video that I hope everyone gets to see. Fr. Barnabas, welcome!
Fr. Barnabas: Thank you, sir. Good to see you.
Mr. Marianes: Thank you for joining us.
Fr. Barnabas: Christ is risen!
Mr. Marianes: He truly has risen.
Before we dig into what’s happening with our youth and emerging adults, let me offer you a big tease. In the middle of the second segment tonight, where we’re going to present the data, we are going to be able to share with you the most amazing conclusion from all the research that might explain why so many of our churches are experiencing any number of issues with their adults as well as their youth. So stay tuned, because I think this is a really big discovery.
Let’s get started with the real data. Allow me to share just a few of the high-level stats and provide some of the basis of the alarm that some of you have been feeling for a while. The U.S. Religious Landscape Study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, showed that over a seven-year period, the absolute number of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants, all declined, but the number of religiously unaffiliated, the ones we call the nones—not the ones with the black pointed hats, but the n-o-n-e-s—grew to 23% of the United States population. Perhaps more troubling are the percentages of losses of the Orthodox faithful reported in the study. So the data showed that, of Orthodox adults, only 53% of the adults who were raised in the Orthodox Church still identify with the Orthodox religion. Yeah, you heard that right. We’ve lost 47% of our Orthodox adults. So the bottom line is, we have to some degree lost almost half of our adults within the Orthodox Church.
Now, the Pew Forum data, in their historic millennial generation religious study, showed that about 30% of millennials, those that are between the ages of 18-30, now claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s almost one-third of all millennials who now say they are unaffiliated. Now let me give you a frame of reference on that. When the baby boomer adult parents of these millennials were their age, the age of the millennials, those parents only claimed a 13% rate of unaffiliation. So to make sure you understand the import of the data: essentially, millennial youth are about 2.3 times more likely to be unaffiliated than their parents.
We’ve always historically noted that young adults tended to come back to the church when they grew up and had kids of their own, so we’d like to think this departure is only temporary. We obviously won’t know for sure for another 10 to 20 years. However, this time it’s different. When we looked at the past instances, they would say, “Well, I’m taking a break from church. I’m stepping away from church. I don’t have the time for church.” Now they are actually claiming to be unaffiliated with the church. So this different phenomenon, I think, unfortunately, will portend a much more troubling future than we have previously experienced.
You’ve always got to be careful when you extrapolate data, but just kind of looking at it at a simplistic, high level, we’ve lost 50% of our adults and millennial youth are leaving at a rate 2.3 times the rate of the adults—well, you do the math. I mean, what happens if these drastic and dramatic trends continue? What’s our Church going to look like in just a generation? Just to put a fine point on this: a 2010 Barna Research Group study entitled, “Do Americans Change Faiths?” concluded that 71% of those who had significantly changed their faith views did so before the age of 30. Now the Pew Forum study, entitled, “Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” concluded—and now I’m going to quote—“Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before the age of 24.” So while the exact age departure or changed faith perspective is going to differ a little bit, slightly, and any way you cut it, the focal point of losing our youth and emerging adults as engaged disciples is certainly before they turn the age of 30, and maybe before they turn the age of 24.
So when you look beyond the trends and start to get into the research that might show us causation and why this is happening, the data shows some very troubling trends in the shallowness of the faith we’re passing on to our youth and emerging adults. For example, the Barna Research Group suggested from their studies that—now, listen to this—63% of American teens who were professed Christians do not believe that Jesus is the Son of the one true God. They say they’re Christians, but 63% of them have trouble accepting that Jesus is God’s Son. And 58% of the avowed Christians claim that all faiths teach equally valid truths. We’re going to explore this a little bit more in a second, but one of the most troubling conclusions to clearly result from these studies is the fact that just going to church was not enough to prevent the drift into doctrinal error and wanton lifestyles that we seem to be re-characterizing in Christian teens. The bottom line is that the data tells us we may have failed to pass along a deep understanding of our faith.
The questions we must ask ourselves include: Is that just because we never understood its fullness ourselves, or did we just fail to make it a parental, educational, and lifestyle priority, or is it some combination of both?
Barna Research Group principal David Kinnaman wrote a must-read book for all youth workers and those interested in ministry. It’s entitled, You Lost Me: Why Young People are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith. If you go to my stewardshipcalling.com website and look at the internet radio tab under the outline for this April 30 program, you will find a link to that book and all of the other studies and information I and Fr. Barnabas and Ann are going to cite here today. We have a reference document in there that you can download.
Let me just highlight for you four of the key findings from that research. One, Barna Research Group asked a nationwide random sample of adults with a Christian background to describe their journey of faith. 59% reported that they had dropped out of attending church regularly. Their data suggested that six in ten young people will start to leave the church beginning as early as age 15. By the way, for those of you that have seen that stat floating around about 60% drop-out rate, this is where it’s coming from, so you know. And when they looked and asked them the reasons for dropping out—this was very interesting—the primary reason was the shallow teaching of what they believed. They didn’t even know what they believed. They also had an issue with the Christian demonization of the culture, including the church views on, like, sex before marriage, and they also had a feeling that they could not express their doubts; it wasn’t a safe place where they could talk about it.
The number two finding, what the Barna Research showed from this nationwide survey, is that overall there’s a 43% drop off between the teen and the early adult years in terms of church engagement. So we can actually calibrate, at least with this one critical time period to focus on.
The third major finding of all the research resulted in a conclusion, and I’m going to quote:
In survey after survey, the majority of Americans described themselves as Christians, but the connection is often shallow and on the surface, having more to do with cultural identification than it does with deep faith.
And number four, Barna Research concluded that
Teen church engagement remains robust, but many of the enthusiastic teens are not growing to be faithful young adult disciples. The drop-out is, at its core, a faith-development problem. The church is not adequately preparing the next generation to follow Christ faithfully in a rapidly changing culture.
So Kinnaman concluded that most American Christian churches are not yet prepared to handle the “new normal” of young people who don’t follow the traditional path of leaving home, get married, have kids, come back. He said that many of the churches are just ignoring this transition. Look, brothers and sisters, I’m not going to bludgeon you with any more statistics. I mean, your head’s probably already ready to explode.
Fr. Barnabas: I already have a headache.
Mr. Marianes: I can tell. [Laughter] Pull out the Excedrin.
But if you’re interested further, again, you can download from the Stewardship Calling Internet Radio tab portion for the April 30 program the listing of all of these sources where you can read as much of this as you want. But here’s the point I want to make: I am not Chicken Little. Like all evangelists, I am just an alarm clock. I want to start an open dialogue after we wake up about the real challenges and let’s start focusing on the real solutions.
Let me give you the spoiler-alert conclusion for all the data. We do not—I repeat: do not—have a God problem or a Christ problem. We have an us problem. We is the problem, as we sometimes say. Look, we’ve all seen plenty of examples of Christian churches and ministries that are growing engaged disciples and stewards among their youth. It can be done, right? But we’re just not doing it in most cases and in most places. So that suggests that the old models and approaches are no longer working as effectively—quite frankly, if they ever worked well at all—but the empirical research shows us that it’s time for some changes in thinking and what we do.
While the root cause—and we’ve always got to get down to the root cause—are not singular or simple, the research all shows that no solution or new program or ideal will be truly effective until youth and emerging adults become what I call truly engaged disciples. They must both understand and actively practice their faith. It cannot be a cultural adornment or a 30-minute-a-week class on Sunday only. Look, to be sure, there’s a lot of churches and other groups that do a great job retaining and training youth that make traditional Orthodox feel uncomfortable, and I am not suggesting that we change our fundamental theology at all, but I am asking you to think about what the celebration of Pentecost means. Does speaking the language of the intended audience have any validity, or is it just okay to lose them? What would Christ say about that, I wonder?
So, for example, I’m asking you when was the last time you actually engaged in a dialogue with your youth or emerging adults about what they were thinking about their faith and what they were worried about and what they thought it meant to be an engaged disciple of Jesus Christ? Notice I said “dialogue,” not an ineffective one-way rant or monologue on our part, right? The lecture and reminder of “the way things were when I was young…” Man, it just ain’t working. It’s just not effective with this different demographic.
I travel the country all the time, working with parishes on all kinds of issues like this, and I cannot tell you the number of church programs I’ve participated in where we start to focus on the challenges of youth education, engagement, and stewardship where the adults in the room monopolized the discussion of the problems and solutions. I am sure they were well-intentioned, but they do so even when there are youth and young emerging adults sitting in the room. Sometimes I have to interrupt them and ask them if they can stop talking long enough to listen to what the youth are saying. They just can’t seem to help themselves. A kid would start talking, and then all of a sudden the adults would interrupt them, butt in, monopolize the conversation, and, folks, this just doesn’t work.
Before we take a break, I want to turn the microphone over to Fr. Barnabas who has a lot of experience in this area, and I want to get your insights with regard to this data and what you see in terms of the fundamental problem that we’re dealing with. Then we’ll take a short break and come back and really explore the solutions. So, Father, take it away.
Fr. Barnabas: Thanks, Bill. I appreciate it very much. Well, you know, nobody is surprised because even in the traveling that I’ve done one of the questions that I get asked all the time is: Father, how can I get my kids or my grandkids reconnected to the Church? How can I have them really appreciate the faith? And that question has been constant ever since I started traveling and speaking around the country; I always get that question. One of the things that I keep telling them is something that I actually heard another priest say that really struck me very powerfully: that the best youth program in any parish is a robust and purposeful adult religious education program! If I will help my adults feed their kids and their grandkids good stuff, I’ll be doing a great [thing], because the reality is their school and their peer groups and their other activities are going to have them a lot longer than I’m going to have them on Sunday morning or any kind of GOYA program, any kinds of things like that. That’s just reality. So I have to enlist everybody to do this.
One of the things that I was saying this morning is that the struggle is that for all intents and purposes many times we are basically just functional atheists in our lives. We say we’re Orthodox, we say we’re Christian, we say we believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, we sing it over and over again, and all of that is wonderful and good and powerful and necessary—and yet, there is this real disconnect from my everyday living to the stuff that I say and hear on Sunday morning. If I don’t bridge that gap, if my faith isn’t informing how I live my life, how I spend my money, how I spend my time, where I work, where I live, if the faith isn’t informing those parts of my life, even if it’s just… It doesn’t necessarily… Because I’ve met people who have been Orthodox their whole lives, and their faith really does that; their faith really shapes how they live their lives, all the time. And yet, in this culture, especially in this day and age, we have this false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, and it’s killing us, it’s killing our kids, it’s killing our faith—that’s the purpose of the evil one. So the reality is we have to stop being functional atheists in our lives on a daily basis and have the faith inform every aspect of our lives.
Mr. Marianes: Now y’all just heard a shorter version of an incredible homily today. I hope you’re going to put that homily up on your website.
Fr. Barnabas: It’ll be up on Tuesday.
Mr. Marianes: You need to put that homily up there, and I hope y’all will check back in there. As you might imagine, when he used the “functional atheists” comment, there were a few gasps, and I’m not sure… There were a few people I was getting ready to perform CPR on, because I didn’t think they took a breath the rest of the homily. But it was actually wonderful, and I said to him afterwards; I said it’s like we had talked together even more than we normally do, because when you listen to the second half here, when we really get into the solutions, you’re going to see the essence of what Father talked about so briefly.
So let’s take a short break right now. When we come back, we’re going to start to present you the empirically supported solutions to the problem of youth and emerging young adult religious education, engagement, and stewardship. This is going to be an important segment. When we come back afterwards, we’re going to ask you to feel free to call us at 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-[237-2346], or join the lively chat room at ancientfaith.com. So let’s take a break, and we’ll be right back.
Mr. Marianes: Welcome back to Stewardship Calling and our Fifth Sunday program where we’re exploring how we can do a better job of making engaged disciples and serving our youth and emerging young adults in the areas of religious education, church engagement, and stewardship. I was reminded as we went off to the break that I clipped the last end of the telephone number. So the call-in number is 1-855-237-2346.
Fr. Barnabas: I always get in trouble on my show as well, brother.
Mr. Marianes: Boy, I tell you what, man, I get so excited over here. Or if you really want the short version, it’s 1-855-“afraidy-o”. [Laughter] I mean, that’s 1-855-AF-RADIO, but I just call it “afraidy-o.”
So, look, we could spend a lot more time on the empirical data that demonstrates the order of magnitude, but, quite frankly, we’d rather spend the time talking about the solutions: things that can actually work and that the data suggest can reverse these downward trends. Now, here’s what’s really important, and hear me clearly, folks: we’re not going to be expressing Fr. Barnabas’ or Ann’s or my opinions or just anecdotal observations. We’ve actually gathered the research and empirical data that informs us some of the things we all can do. For example, when I first started my Stewardship Calling ministry and started traveling the country, I investigated every church I worked with to find a youth stewardship program. They just didn’t exist! Virtually no parish has a really effective youth stewardship program at all. I mean, does yours? So occasionally I would find one that would merely pass a tray during their Sunday school, and in so doing they unfortunately started to reinforce the inaccurate conclusion that stewardship was just about giving money. There was literally no training on what true Christian stewardship is and how to live and be generous. So without a deeper understanding of what stewardship is, we often inadvertently teach the wrong thing.
One reason this mission of the teaching of our youth is so horrible is what the empirical research shows us. Let me introduce for the first time tonight Dr. Christian Smith of [the University of Notre Dame]. You’ll hear more about him later. And some of the other researchers that have done some pioneering work in understanding how stewards are formed and when and what works and what doesn’t. The work is assembled in what’s called the Science of Generosity studies. Again, you can find a link to this great work in the research document on my Stewardship Calling website under the Live Internet Radio tab. In fact, one of the things that they did that was so phenomenal is that they gathered all of the studies—and you’ll see the link on the website—to a document where you can actually now go pull each and every one of those individual studies.
So here’s a big spoiler alert: Their research shows that each person decides whether or not they will be generous and a giver at an early age. It’s that decision, to be generous, that forms their adult practices. Some time in their formative years, they make a decision to be a giver, most often as a result of the teachings of their parents or the actual stewardship behaviors that are modeled by their parents. These youthful decisions—they then carry that decision in practice with them through the rest of their lives, which is why when generous people are asked why they give so freely, they almost seem puzzled and say, “Well, this is just what we do… Doesn’t everybody?” At one time they made a conscious decision, thereafter reinforced by years and years of generosity. It eventually became a subtle habit and second nature, and this is their current [practice]. Cemented in their adult behaviors is their behavior to be a true steward. Again, this isn’t an opinion; this is empirical research.
So true Christian stewardship has to be taught early and often—and here it comes, folks—and it has to be reinforced and modeled by the behavior of the parents. The research all proves that people who give a lot of time and money and are generous people had parents who did the same thing. See, as it turns out, the stewardship challenges we’re facing in our churches today are not likely going to get better, because our own bad habits and lack of stewardship education is being reinforced and replicated in our youth and emerging adults.
Look, if you remember nothing else from tonight, please remember the importance of developing an effective and successful youth stewardship program and implementing it in your parish for your youth and emerging adults immediately. But it has to include the parents and other adults modeling and teaching the right behaviors—and that is the hardest part. In the interests of time, please allow me to summarize some of the most significant practical findings from the pioneering research in the Science of Generosity studies. For those of you who are looking for the secret sauce and formula, here it is in a nutshell.
Conclusion number one: As we said, after thoughtful reflection, people form an existential opinion about themselves and if they will be generous at a fairly early age. It’s shaped largely initially by their parents and the behavior of other adults that are important to them. But even if they don’t reach the right decision as youth, your parish can find ways to help people confront the existential question of giving and learn to decide to be generous. They need to confront that fundamental question: What kind of person do I want to be? And there’s actually some techniques to be used in that.
Let’s go to the second conclusion. After they form that opinion, then they look for easy and routine ways to be generous. So, parishes, make sure you have an easy electronic and other giving options, and create a simple and routine timetable for your donors, including your youth. By the grace of God, my wife and I are blessed to be stewards at several parishes. At one of them, the electronic stewardship and other giving was easy to set up, gave me all the information I needed and the opportunities to give in a very efficient and intuitive manner. Fr. Barnabas, I’m not blowing smoke up your vestments, but it will not surprise you to find out that this exemplary parish was yours.
Fr. Barnabas: Man, I was hoping. I mean, and if it wasn’t mine, I was hoping you were going to give me what they’re doing so I can change! [Laughter]
Mr. Marianes: Right, so now we go to one of the other parishes that we’re a steward of, and I’m sure somebody is listening, so you’ll know whom I’m talking about, but I won’t name names. The stewards were given a long and convoluted and counter-intuitive sign-up giving process. When I finally got to the screen where I could actually give them my money, I got an error message that said I had to call the church during office hours! Bad, bad, bad! I mean, someday I’ll get around to that—maybe. Look, folks, when your tithers and percentage givers find it difficult to contribute, you can imagine the impact on the less committed givers. You have got to make it routinized and easy.
All right. Conclusion number three from the Generosity Studies is that people model the behavior of their peers and those around them. So a parish has to communicate a culture of generosity rather than a culture of scarcity so that those who are in it, they see themselves as being part of that generous culture. As the statisticians say, “There are no loan givers.” People’s giving is affected by whom they know and how generous they are. So think about this from the perspective of your parish. Do you have a social network of generosity among the youth and adults? Are you encouraging creative ways for your youth and adults to decide to become generous?
It’s important to get generous givers to talk constructively about their giving and the joy that it brings them when they see the good they can do with their stewardship. Look, I know this is tricky, because most generous people don’t like to brag, but the key is that it’s about encouraging others to be generous in very creative ways, not shaming them into it, but encouraging them to freely give of their first-fruits.
The fourth conclusion from these studies—and you’ll love this one—is that people who attend church regularly generally give more money and are more generous. It’s improved when the church actually makes a religious call to give. In other words, you have to ask and remind—not constantly, but consistently. What doesn’t work is when you ask about it in the context of needs or paying bills or leaky roofs or challenges or problems or the faults. It’s been proven over and over again that such uninspiring appeals are just not effective at creating true and sustainable stewardship behavior. What does work is when you share the vision of what you want to do to change lives or make the world better. It’s about living the vision and being a part of something bigger that matters most to people. And here’s the secret: in no place will you find a better, more fertile ground for that than with young people, because they really do want to make a difference in the world. So as you start to think about how your stewardship message is delivered to your youth, you need to think about it in the context of sharing a vision of changing something for the better.
All right, conclusion five of their studies: Parents need to proactively and explicitly teach their children about giving generously. Look, I’m blessed to know many generous adults, and when I asked them if they talked about their philosophy of generosity with their kids, they almost always say no. So let me ask any of you that are listening: Have any of you done so? I mean, look, there’s no question that your kids watch and mimic your visible behavior, but offering your generosity is invisible to your youth. So you need to make it visible or at least talk about it so that they can see how you live and thus provide them instructions for how they should live.
I’ll never forget one time I was driving with my daughter. We were in inner-city Baltimore, and we were on our way to the airport. Every stoplight, there was somebody begging, and I would roll down the window and hand them some money. And we did this for [about] 15 stoplights. Finally about the 13th one, my daughter looked at me and said, “Dad, you know these people are professional beggars.” And I said, “That’s on them. This is what we do.”
Fr. Barnabas: Mm-hmm.
Mr. Marianes: And that’s just the kind of conduct and behavior—I’m not holding myself up as an example, because I’m a horrible example, but this is the kind of dialogue that we have to have.
The sixth conclusion that they reached was that parishes need to cultivate an attitude of abundance and gratitude, not scarcity. We truly, most of us, are blessed to have plenty in our worlds and our households, but the attitude of abundance has been shown psychologically and—get this—biologically to cause people to reframe their own reality. It allows people to become more generous with what can be viewed as their excess. So you have to create a culture of abundance in the messaging of your community.
All right. We have more time on that for another program, but moving beyond teaching stewardship to your youth and emerging adults, the next big issue we see is the challenge of religious education in parishes, and in the third segment, our honored guest, Dr. Ann Bezzerides, who is an expert in this, is going to dig into this. But I want to tell you that as I travel the country and work with parishes, I always ask the parishes that have a Sunday school—and unfortunately not all of them do—if they have any evidence that shows that their religious education program is actually effective. They either look at me with blank stares or say, “Well, uh, I think it’s effective.” So when that happens, my next question is: How do you know? In other words, what metrics are you using to ensure that what you’re doing is the most effective job you can. The answer to that question is always just a repetition of their opinion. In other words, they honestly don’t have any idea.
So if we don’t know what to measure and if we’re not measuring anything, how can we actually be sure that our religious education is effective at teaching a meaningful faith that will last as the youth grow up? Before we unpack the data on what’s going on [and] why and what we can do about it, let me very briefly touch on one item that every parish needs to at least consider. There are a lot of great solutions to our youth and emerging adult issues. Many of the people that are in the chat room are talking about the ideas that they’re doing and the ministries they’re involved in. Folks, they’re all great. I am not throwing any of them under the bus. But there’s one thing I do want to talk to you about, one critical idea I want to leave you with, of absolute importance, and that is that every parish have an experienced and trained full-time parish youth director whose sole job it is to work on that ministry with that constituency.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: It shouldn’t be layered on as an additional responsibility of the clergy if you want to be most effective. And it’s more than just wonderful parents who run sports and dance and other youth programs. God bless them, those ministries are all great, but they do not as effectively create engaged disciples of faith. If youth are really our most important future, then we need to start acting like it.
Let me ask you a provocative question in this area: How much does the average person spend on extra lessons for their kids in sports, music, art, dance, language, computers?—pick your poison. I thought that was a provocative question, and I wanted to look at that. So Forbes, in 2012, reported that parents of children in grades 6-12 spend on average $671 per person (per child) on just sports-related training and costs, and 21% of those parents spend more than $1,000 per child per year. So now what do you do when you layer in all the other extracurricular activities—the dance, the music, the language?
They did research, and Activity Hero estimates that the average American family spends about $2,400 per year per child on enrichment support. So you do the math for your parish and just multiply some portion of $2,400 a year times the number of children you have in your parish, and see what kind of money might be available to hire a full-time youth director.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: This doesn’t even get into the extra amount of money that parents spend on the physical health of their children. So what exactly is the worth of the spiritual health, the souls, the religious education of our children, our grandchildren, and our godchildren? The question I want to leave you with is: Why is it that the same parents that undoubtedly love their children enough to want to enrich their education or athletic and artistic development sometimes aren’t as willing to spend the extra money to fund a full-time church youth director to focus on the more important spiritual health of [their] children.
Look, if you want to hear an amazing talk about how a full-time experienced youth director can make a difference with youth and emerging adults, and again you can find the link to this in the reference materials on the Stewardship Calling website for this program, but you want to listen to Jacob Saylor’s great short talk at the Youth and Camp Workers’ Conference in 2017, entitled—listen to this—”Kids Come Second: Building Parish Ministry by Developing Young Adults.” It’s phenomenal, and he explains exactly how you can do that.
Fr. Barnabas: It’s a great talk. I love that so much.
Mr. Marianes: I hope everyone will get a chance to listen to it.
Fr. Barnabas: In fact, I was just at his wedding just a few weeks ago.
Mr. Marianes: That’s awesome.
Fr. Barnabas: Last week, actually, yes.
Mr. Marianes: Time goes by, doesn’t it?
Fr. Barnabas: And it was in California, for heaven’s sake.
Mr. Marianes: Yeah, you’ve got time zone problems.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: So let’s dive into some of the data for the other critical solutions that we promised we’d talk about. Perhaps the most meaningful and massive empirical studies is the National Study of Youth and Religion directed by Christian Smith of [the University of Notre Dame] and generously supported by the Lilly Endowment. Listen to this: It actually began in August 2001, and they’ve been studying 3,300 youth and their parents from 46 states and many denominations, continuously as they’ve grown up. In other words, they’re following the same kids and their parents through the trajectory of their lives and can see emerging trends regarding their religious beliefs.
For Christian youth ministry, the study also reveals ways that current attempts at forming adolescent faith are either succeeding or failing miserably. My brothers and sisters, if you are involved in youth ministry in any way and you’ve not reviewed the data from this study or watched any of Christian Smith’s incredible videos on YouTube where he presents this data, you are missing a lot of valuable information. Again, to make it easier for you, we have loaded on the Stewardship Calling website the links to those videos and to this material that you can download. In the meantime, let me summarize quickly the seven major findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion. As usual, there’s some good news and some very bad news for organized religion.
The Center for Youth Ministry Training actually did a great summary of those seven key findings that everyone should read. Again, I’ve included a link [to] that on the reference materials for you to look at, but for educational purposes and in the interest of time, let me quickly summarize the seven key conclusions.
Major finding number one: Most American teenagers have some kind of religious beliefs. It’s a little different [from] the conventional wisdom that said teenagers were hostile to religion. Actually what Dr. Smith and the team realized was that roughly two-thirds of American teenagers believe in a lower-case-g god who is similar but not actually identical to the God of the Bible. More than 84% of teenagers identify themselves as religious, and a vast majority of them, 75%, claim to be Christian, but only half of the American teenagers report that religion is very important or extremely important to them, and even a smaller 40% of teenagers attend religious services weekly or more often. While there may be some real hostility to some of the more social and moral positions taken by some religious denominations among the youth, generally speaking, the study shows that youth are not hostile to religion generally.
But the question remains: what do they actually believe and how deep is their faith? This led to major finding number two: Organized religion doesn’t matter much to most teenagers. I know this is hard to hear, folks, but the data is behind this. The National Study of Youth and Religion reveals that teenagers have a ho-hum feeling about religion. For most teenagers, religion is a “very nice thing,” but not something to which they ultimately pay much attention. Religion is not a source of identity for most American teenagers. Mostly it kind of resides at the edges of their lives and the periphery of their schedules. So the apathy led the researches to describe the dominant teenage attitude towards Christianity as “benign whateverism.” It’s just not that big a deal. For example, a majority of teenagers report that they have close friends with whom they have never once discussed religion: just not that important.
Major finding number three: For a significant minority of teenagers, faith does matter. While benign whateverism is rampant, the conclusion of the National Study of Youth and Religion describes a minority of American teenagers that Dr. Smith calls “highly devoted.” For them, faith is an important guiding force. This group of teenagers are [more] likely to be Evangelical or Mormon than mainline Christian. They’re more likely to have married and highly educated parents who attend religious services often. They’re more likely to be girls than boys, more likely to be younger rather than older, and they’re more likely to be involved in youth group and have close friends involved in a religious group. But again, this is a distinct minority of Christian youth in America, and generally found in the Mormon and Evangelical Protestant denominations, and not the other mainline Christian faiths. Sorry for the tough news, folks, but facts is facts.
Let’s go to major finding number four: Adolescents are incredibly inarticulate about their faith. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that teenagers suffer from what is referred to [as]—and I quote—“an impoverished ability to talk about their faith.” This is potentially the case because youth are rarely encouraged to think through their faith. Even those who reported that religion was important to them were often woefully unable to express what they believe or why it’s important. These same youth can be very articulate on other subjects, however. So Dr. Smith and the researchers suggested that the religious inarticulateness is due to churches—and here’s the quote—“failing rather badly in religiously engaging and educating youth.”
Let me go to major finding number five: Religious vitality differs by tradition. Mormon youth were off the charts in terms of their articulateness and their understanding of their faith and the effects of their faith on their lives and their actions. Next down the line were Evangelical conservative Protestants and Protestant teenagers at predominantly black Protestant churches. However, religious vitality among Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and other Christian denomination teenagers was lower and, in some cases, much lower. When you look at the intensity of religious education, the demands placed on youth on the Mormon [and] Evangelical Protestant churches and compare them with the relative lack of rigor in education and daily practice of the faith in many of the other traditions, you really can start to see easily why they are more successful at teaching and retaining their youth as they become emerging adults.
Here’s an anecdotal story. So I go to a Greek festival at a Greek Orthodox church. I park in the remote parking lot, I’m being shuttled to the church, it’s summer, I’m wearing T-shirt and shorts, and I look on the shuttle bus, and there’s five young men in black suits and ties, and they’re carrying books—I’m a little bit inquisitive. So I go up to them, and I say, “Hey, guys, what’s the deal?” Two of them had just graduated high school, two of them were in college, and one had just graduated college. They were Mormon youth who were taking a year off, devoting their lives to the teaching of the faith and promoting their faith. They were showing up at a Greek Orthodox church festival to teach people about the Book of Mormon—and our youth were dancing a syrto. There ain’t nothing wrong with Greek dancing or Ukrainian dancing or Russian dancing or any of those kinds of things, but look at the difference in the practices, and you’ll start to see why there’s a different arc of the faith traditions.
All right. Major finding number six: Highly religious teenagers fare better than non-religious teenagers. In terms of a variety of life outcomes, Dr. Smith’s team found that highly religious teenagers did better across the board than their less religious counterparts. For example, more religious teenagers fared better than less religious teenagers in (1) risky behaviors, (2) quality of family and adult relationships, (3) moral reasoning, (4) community participation, (5) media consumption, (6) sexual activity, and (7)—listen to this—emotional well-being. In other words, engaging our youth more actively in their religion will actually help them later in life in many other dimensions of their life. Look, we’ve anecdotally thought about this for years, but we now have a comprehensive empirical study that shows this.
Finally, major finding number seven. Listen closely, folks. Teenagers mimic the religious devotion of their parents.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: The National Study on Youth and Religion found that parents are the greatest influence on teenage faith. Teenagers tend to share beliefs similar to their parents and subscribe to the same religious traditions, attend the same services and with a similar frequency. In other words, second to parents only are other adults whom the children know and who model and help teach religious behaviors and convictions in their lives.
So that’s the good news, but it’s also deeply troubling in light of the invasion of what Dr. Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism” in the American religious landscape. It’s often defined as America’s new default religion. They spent hundreds of hours conducting in-depth interviews with teenagers and adults about their faith, and Dr. Smith and the researchers concluded that teenagers from all faith traditions are united by this common creed.
Now, there’s essentially five elements of this emerging American doctrine that he calls moralistic therapeutic deism. First, teens believe God exists. Second, they believe God wants people to be nice and fair to one another. Third, they also believe that the purpose of life is to be fulfilled and happy. Fourth, they think that God doesn’t need to be actively involved in their lives unless they’re in trouble. And finally, fifth, they believe that good people go to heaven. Those are the basic tenets of what they call moralistic therapeutic deism, and they’re widely held among teens in the United States.
Fr. Barnabas: Yep.
Mr. Marianes: The lower-case-g god of this philosophy isn’t one who makes demands, but who is instead available on demand. It’s what I pejoratively refer to as the ATM God, someone whom you go to that you can withdraw from something when you need or demand, but is really not otherwise a part of your life.
Fr. Barnabas: Mm-hmm, that’s it.
Mr. Marianes: And a bigger part of the problem—and listen to this, because this is going to tie right into what you’re talking about, Fr. Barnabas—this moralistic therapeutic deism isn’t a teenage phenomenon.
Fr. Barnabas: Nope.
Mr. Marianes: It’s actively colonizing whole churches and entire denominations. He once said this:
It may be the new mainstream American religious faith for a culturally post-Christian, individualistic, mass-consumer, capitalist society. In other words, youth and adults, many of them members and participants in Christian congregations, are increasingly subscribing to this belief system that is only Christian on the surface. I mean, the shallow belief led a theologian and youth minister Kenda [Creasy] Dean to describe the situation of youth and American churches [as] “almost Christian.”
Now, brothers and sisters, here: pay close attention to one of Dr. Smith’s most damning conclusions. He said that youth and emerging adults are merely mirrors reflecting the faith of their parents. Let that soak in for a second.
Fr. Barnabas: That’s it. That’s it.
Mr. Marianes: In other words, to the extent that their youthful understanding of their faith is shallow and not a meaningful part of their lives, it’s a direct reflection of the shallowness and relative irrelevance of faith in the lives of the parents. This is the big finding of the research I’ve promised you at the beginning. We now know empirically we have a significant engaged disciple problem with our adults that is just being reinforced and manifested in our youth. The one critical finding of this research explains a lot for every one of the listeners who are clergy or lay workers in the Church.
Look, I’m not presenting this data to offend anyone or to incite criticism. It’s important, and it’s an essential conclusion from an extremely extensive sociological study and something we’ve got to consider and hopefully address. While most parents continue to believe that peer pressure is the greatest influence on their youngsters, the studies actually dispute this. So the peer pressure’s undoubtedly significant to a degree, but it’s actually parents’ influence that is the most critical in terms of what youth and emerging young adults do and what they don’t do.
Here’s what’s interesting: as it turns out, King Solomon got it right somewhere between 970 and 931 BC when he said in Proverbs 1:9-10: “Hear, my son, the instruction of your father, and do not reject the laws of your mother, for you will receive a crown of grace on your head.” Look, the very uncomfortable and unfortunate truth is that many parents have surrendered the nurturing of the children to the public school and the Church, with the complaint regarding our churches being, “Why isn’t the Church doing more for our youth?” At the same time, they’re ignoring and irrationalizing the reasons for their Church neglect of their Bible lessons or failure to attend worship services faithfully and the worldly socialization with ungodly friends.
The bottom line of all this great body of empirical research is that the majority of teens are not yet antagonistic to religion; it’s just not understood by them or not important to them. They just don’t know it or understand the basics that their faith tradition teaches, and they just cannot articulate it as being an important part of their daily lives; it’s just marginalized. For example, studies have found that most adults don’t engage in the discussion of religion or faith with their teens. Adults just don’t seem to be invested in teaching the religious faith to their teens. So we Orthodox and other Christian adults essentially have outsourced our religious education to a small number of volunteer Sunday school teachers who are all very well-intentioned and dedicated, but may or may not have the right training or tools to be effective, and we limit this religious education to about 30 or 45 minutes a week with no follow-up discussion by us. In short, my brothers and sisters, here’s the really, really bad news. The biggest take-away from this program and all the empirical research and data that I quote is this—and here’s the quote—
Our unwillingness to make religious education, engagement, and stewardship a critical parental responsibility is the single biggest impediment to our youth understanding or being educated or engaging in their religious faith.
As it turns out, my brothers and sisters, it really is all about you. Elissa Bjeletich has a great Ancient Faith Radio broadcast, entitled Raising Saints: Educating our Youth in the Orthodox Faith, but she did an amazing talk at the Youth and Camp Workers Conference in 2017 where she made the profound point—and let me quote it—“Parents cannot give their children what they do not have.” Let me say that again: “Parents cannot give their children what they do not have.” I’ve included a link to this great talk in the reference document that’s on the website, and you should go and listen to her talk, because she actually explains how Sunday school was not an Orthodox invention; it was something that we inherited from the Protestants as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
So ask yourself the profound and difficult question: How is religious outsourcing working for you or your kids and the youth and the emerging adults you know in your community? Bottom line: when we adults who can most influence our youth do not ask about, reinforce, or even discuss what they hopefully learned in Sunday school or religious programs, our youth will increasingly become disconnected with their faith, and our Sunday schools will fail in their long-term objectives. The kids will see their parents not being devoted in prayer, fasting, religious discussion, and Christian living. They will learn to model that same “benign whateverism” and disengaged behavior. As we say: Proskomen. Listen carefully.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: If you don’t remember anything else from tonight’s program and all the data, here’s the key—and this is a direct quote.
The greatest single predictor of the teens’ belief in the importance of faith is their parents’ belief in the importance of faith.
I believe the major conclusion from the National Study on Youth and Religion is this—and here’s the last quote—
Parents are the most influential pastors of their children, and they set a glass ceiling of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise.
Let me repeat that: “Parents are the most influential pastors of their children, and they are the ones that set the glass ceiling of religious commitment above which their children cannot rise.” See, as it turns out, as I said at the beginning—Holy Scripture in Proverbs 22:6 always provided the right answer: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
So now that we know the best things we can do, I’m sure Fr. Barnabas has a few instructive ideas before we take our last and final break and bring in our special guest.
Fr. Barnabas: Yes. Well, Bill, I’m sitting here and I’m doing a lot of work in the background, especially looking at the chatroom. We’ve got some folks in there, and I tell you I have been listening to what you’ve been saying and I’ve been reading what’s been going on in the chatroom, and over and over again it’s just reinforcing this clear message. As a parish priest, I’m telling you, I cannot overcome the influence of parents on the lives of their kids. If my parents don’t have anything to give their kids, that’s on me; I’ve got to train my parents. That’s the reason when we do vespers every Wednesday night, an adult religious education right after it. That’s the reason why we do a morning Bible study. That’s the reason why we do Saturday vespers and have training at that time, too. The main goal is to get our parents engaged and, frankly, also, Bill, it’s one of the reasons why I’m big on the pulpit of our Orthodox parishes being effective communication of religious connection on Sunday morning. Most of our folks are going to be there on Sunday morning; 99% of them are going to be there on Sunday morning, and the reality is if that sermon doesn’t take the opportunity to connect this cosmic theology of Orthodoxy to everyday life, this is why—I mean, I believe Jesus is the theanthropos, the God-man, and this is how it affects how I change lanes in traffic on Monday morning.
Mr. Marianes: Every part.
Fr. Barnabas: If that’s not the connection, then it’s going to be easier and easier and easier for our parents to think that our faith is just some kind of cultural decoration that we take off the shelf now and again and show it to our kids, and then we wonder why in the world the kids aren’t valuing it. It’s because they’re not seeing it valued in their homes. When that happens, I can’t overcome that. The Holy Spirit can. God can step in at any moment and change all of these statistics to wonderful things, but the reality is we’re going to have to be present and purposeful in our practice of the Orthodox Christian lifestyle if we’re going to pass it on to our kids.
Mr. Marianes: Yeah, and that’s exactly right. I think that’s really the set-up here. We’re not dismissing, we’re not disrespecting any of the great programs and ministries and activities and things that are going on. They have to go on. They’re an integral part of it. Remember what the science shows us: that even if the parents are absent, absent or not as effective, if there are other mature adults who are modeling the right behavior that the youth can identify, then that’ll be fine. So we really need to be fully functioning in all the various ministries. But hopefully this is going to be a little bit of a wake-up call for some people to understand that it actually starts with each and every one of us.
If we are not serving as engaged disciples and acting as engaged disciples and living as engaged disciples, then everybody watching us is going to see that, and those that will model us—which tend to be our kids and those people that we influence will have that same thing. So when we talk to our Sunday school teachers and they’re frustrated, we need to own that frustration. Even if they’re doing a great job, even if they have the right materials, even if they knew what to measure and how to measure it, if at the end of the day, after that hour, half-hour, 45 minutes, whatever they have, we as parents don’t take on the responsibility to talk to our kids about what did they learn, what did they discuss, how can we apply it in their lives, then that’s the part of the challenge that we’re missing. So all of you, God bless you, whose day jobs and commitments and callings…
Fr. Barnabas: Man, these volunteers!
Mr. Marianes: ...are working, everybody who is working the church work, we now have the clarion wake-up call to all the rest of us to get engaged in a more profound and serious manner. And actually we’re going to have another program on Stewardship Calling where we’re actually going to talk about the four different dimensions of different Orthodox—two cradle and two convert Orthodox—whether you’re intentional or incidental, but more on that later.
So here’s what we’re going to do—
Fr. Barnabas: Before you go on, let me just add one more thing real quick.
Mr. Marianes: Please.
Fr. Barnabas: This is a thing that I want everybody to hear very clearly. Gang, what we’re talking about here is hard work.
Mr. Marianes: Amen.
Fr. Barnabas: It’s just hard work. It’s hard work for our Sunday school teachers. It’s hard work for our youth pastors. It’s hard work for our priests. It’s hard work for mom and dad who both mom and dad are working and they’ve got full lives and they’ve got all kinds of schedules. Gang, this is hard work, and that’s why prioritizing our faith to inform every other aspect of our life is just not an option. It’s not an option. If I’m going to find a way and a reason to do this hard work—you’ve got to be motivated to do hard work. Every time I try to start an exercise program, I prove that. But the problem is if I don’t have a deep and abiding and lively faith, I am never going to understand why it’s worth doing this hard work, and it is hard work. So it’s extremely important that we know that: there’s not a magic pill, there’s not this…
Mr. Marianes: ...“easy” button.
Fr. Barnabas: There’s no “easy” button. This is hard work.
Mr. Marianes: “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Fr. Barnabas: “...is not worthy of being my disciple.”
Mr. Marianes: Amen. There we go. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take a short break right now, and then we are so excited to introduce one of the greatest gems of Orthodoxy, Dr. Ann Bezzerides, who’s devoting her life to improving the religious education, engagement, and stewardship of our youth and is really doing some amazing, amazing work that we want to hear from and have her incorporate what we’re talking about. So let’s take a short break, and we’ll be back shortly.
Mr. Marianes: Welcome back to Stewardship Calling and our Fifth Sunday program, where we’re exploring one dimension of the effect of Church modeling in the area of engaged disciples with respect to our youth.
We really want to get our special guest introduced. Dr. Ann Bezzerides is the Director of the Office of Vocation and Ministry at Hellenic College/Holy Cross. She earned her doctorate degree from Boston College in theology and education, and her Master’s in Divinity from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where she served as a lecturer on religious education. Ann’s been directing the Office of Vocation and Ministry since 2003, and was the founding director of OVM’s CrossRoad summer institute. She edited Christ at Work: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Vocation, which really serves as a guiding text for OVM programming. Her research interests include Orthodox theology perspectives on vocation and ministry, the history and contemporary practice of Christian religious education…
Fr. Barnabas: Wow.
Mr. Marianes: ...evaluation methodologies—all kinds of wonderful stuff. I really need to post her publications. After this program, I’m going to post her publications on the website.
Fr. Barnabas: That would be good.
Mr. Marianes: ...because they go on for several pages. Some really, really cool stuff in there. Two that jumped out at me was she did one on—was co-editor and contributor of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in American Higher Education for the University of Notre Dame Press and Educating Laity: Ideas on Present, Past, and Future Orthodox Christian Religious Education in the United States, and then the one I really want to talk to her about at some other time—we don’t have time to talk about it tonight—is Saints are Communists.
Fr. Barnabas: Oh, wow!
Mr. Marianes: But let’s welcome Ann. Ann, thank you so much for joining Stewardship Calling, the Fifth Sunday series.
Dr. Ann Bezzerides: Bill and Fr. Barnabas, it is such a pleasure to be here! It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.
Mr. Marianes: That’s great. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to tee up four things, and then I’m going to cut out and let you go with this. We want you to tell us a little bit about the great programs that you supervise and operate, and then there’s kind of three questions. Talk about whatever you want with regard to the trends that you see regarding the engagement of our youth and emerging young adults in our churches, and then think about some of the three to five things that our churches and the people that are listening and can do to increase the likelihood that our youth and emerging young adults will learn and remain true to their faith as they grow older and can actually do something with regard to their stewardship. We’re just going to open it up and let you wherever you want to go, and Fr. Barnabas and I are going to follow you.
Dr. Ann Bezzerides: Awesome. Thank you so much. Well, let me give you first a little bit of background of what the Office of Vocation and Ministry here at Hellenic College/Holy Cross is all about. In 2003, that same organization that funded the National Study of Youth and Religion funded a two-million-dollar grant to Hellenic College. Hellenic College is the Greek Orthodox college that shares a campus with Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and they knew, the Lilly Endowment knew, that across the country college students were struggling with a sense of meaning and purpose. We were then one of 88 religiously affiliated colleges and universities across the country to receive this grant, and through it we began the office. It was this belief on the part of the Lilly Endowment that religious affiliated colleges are in a unique and wonderful position to dig into their religious, theological, and spiritual roots to aid students in vocational discernment.
As I say this vocational piece, I want to just explain that, because it comes up so much in our work. The cool thing about the grant was that Lilly didn’t tell us how we were going to define vocation, but said to us: Dig into your religious tradition to discern what’s an appropriate definition for your context. So we did; as you mentioned, we compiled that book, Christ at Work: Orthodox Christian Perspective on Vocation. That’s a collection of essays from about nine theologians, predominantly from Holy Cross or St. Vladimir’s Seminary, but not exclusively, and we asked them, as theologians, to think of, okay, what are we going to say is our Orthodox view of vocation.
What we came up with is that when we say “vocation,” we are not going to speak narrowly of the calling to the priesthood or to monasticism, as was common in some Catholic circles, or vocational like low-tech schooling, but rather broadly: as our way of being, as Christians in the world. So “vocation” is—and our definition that our recent CrossRoad alums can actually sing for you—[Laughter]—they put it to song: “Our unique and ongoing response to Christ’s call to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the neighbor as our self.” Our unique and ongoing response to Christ’s call to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the neighbor as one’s self. It’s really about identity and purpose as we respond to Christ’s call. So it’s super important.
Another brief important part of our work is that we believe when individuals and communities engage in the theological exploration of vocation, that this is the bedrock of real leadership development. So our work centers on the understanding that our world and our Church need the next generation of servant-leaders who exhibit the deep roots of identity in Christ and in their professional and personal lives live out a transformative love for God and neighbor.
So the Office of Vocation and Ministry currently has four interrelated initiatives that do this work. We are most well-known for our CrossRoad summer institute for high school juniors and seniors. We run, at this point, three sessions on campus here for 30 students each session, and are in the hard spot of having dozens more applications than students we can accept. We now have close to 680 alums of our program, and this has just been one of these incredible miracles of seeds planted that just keep sprouting and growing. It’s been unbelievable.
Second, we work with Hellenic College students here. We host retreats, leadership workshops, student discussions, career services, and courses. Third, we have a brand-new Lilly Endowment grant. This is one of the other other great surprises of life.
Mr. Marianes: One of the good surprises of life, rather than the bad surprises.
Dr. Bezzerides: Amazing, amazing, lasting surprises. But we have a new grant to energize Orthodox parishes to work with young adults, ages 23-29.
Fr. Barnabas: Yay!
Dr. Bezzerides: That project is called the Telos Project, and we’re currently accepting applications for parishes that might want to be a pilot parish or pilot some work and teach the rest of the country what you’re learning.
Then, finally, we publish resources to share our learning. Bill mentioned our staple book, Christ at Work: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Vocation. Our most recent volume, Eastern Orthodox Christianity in American Higher Education, that volume actually emerges from various projects, working with Orthodox Christian Fellowship and Orthodox Christian faculty across the nation from the last 14 years, and asking: What is the relationship between faith and learning for the Orthodox? What is the vocation of Orthodox scholars of all disciplines—not just theology—and what is the vocation and potential of Orthodox Christian higher education institutions like Hellenic College?
So if I were to identify what makes all of our programs of the OVM unique, it’s the intersection of three things. It’s teaching the concept of vocation; it’s the power of theological inquiry by and with young people, a habit that’s made possible by and nourished by our home at Hellenic College/Holy Cross; and thirdly the belief that great Orthodox servant-leadership principles need to be practiced at the department at the way in which we do our work, and also taught to youth and young adults, our students and participants.
Thanks for letting me give you a quick background. Do you want me to answer any questions at that point, or should I move on to answer your question about trends?
Mr. Marianes: I would like you to move on, but here’s the one thing I noticed in just listening to this. I mean, I’ve seen it, I’ve read it, I’ve talked to you, stuff like that, but what’s interesting to me is that you’re actually touching the bases that all the research say need to be touched. I think that’s really, really powerful in that regard. I think the last part of the equation is now: How do we then make it… How do we engage the parents in some manner associated with taking this and moving it to the next level and the next dimension? But all the other bases, in one form or fashion or another, the way you’ve actually outlined the program seems to be perfectly in line with what the research tells us is the most effective way to proceed. So congratulations on that. That’s really wonderful.
Dr. Bezzerides: Well, amen. The one thing I came to a couple years ago and just now need the time and the research people to do it is the fact that the parents of our CrossRoad kids are an incredible data mine that we just…
Mr. Marianes: Yeah. There you go.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Dr. Bezzerides: So if you’ve had kids—and some have had multiple kids—come to CrossRoad, what have they… Can we actually ask them: What are they doing?
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: And I think that’s a connection. If you can get the parents to assume a responsibility, in other words, it’s not just a great experience for the kids, but I have a responsibility that continues… actually, maybe even before, but certainly afterwards, and that responsibility is to follow up on what you’re doing, and then actually report out. In other words, they’re accountable to report to you, and then build a network of them. So now all the parents of the CrossRoad kids are themselves connected in a network, and the kids are connected with that broader network, so now they’re seeing the reinforcement of their parents, but they’re also seeing the reinforcement of the parents of the friends in the college that they built, and that’s now starting to build a robust model of Orthodoxy that can survive a generation.
Fr. Barnabas: That’s it. And, Ann, I’ll tell you this. As a parish priest, most of my kids in my parish are fifth grade and younger, but the teenagers that we do have—I hope that you’re pleased about this, but I basically tell the parents that they’re required to send their kids to Crossroad. That’s all there is to it. They have to send their kids to the CrossRoad program. That’s something that I as a parish priest strongly support because of, frankly, the results that come out of it.
Dr. Bezzerides: Thank you, Fr. Barnabas. That’s phenomenal. Love it. Love it!
Mr. Marianes: So you’ve got… I love your seat. You’re like in the owner’s box of the greatest stadium of all. You see what’s going on on the field and you see the playbook and you’ve written it, you’ve read it, you’ve studied it, you’ve prayed about it. You’ve got the universe of expertise around you. So kind of give us some ideas of things that, listening to all the data that you are well familiar with and what-not and the experience that you have, give our listeners some really practical things that we can take home and start to work on ourselves.
Dr. Bezzerides: Okay. Let me start with one point that I think is really important and we mix a lot together. I do think that we tend to—our churches—too often group youth and young adults together in the same category. We shouldn’t, and the reason we shouldn’t is that, as you can just think instinctively about it, there’s a huge difference. Teenagers, up to around age 18, are one group, and their activities are very much defined by parental oversight and engagement. College-age students are different. They’re often out of the home for the first time, but living in dorms with peers all their own age for four years. And then post-college is again most often a whole different ball-game. Quick fact to sort of establish that is the book you referenced, Bill. You lost me, but the Barna study. Teenagers are some of the most religiously active Americans, and American 20-somethings are America’s least religiously active.
Mr. Marianes: Yeah.
Dr. Bezzerides: So you’ve got a major change in a very short time period. This leads the study’s author, David Kinnaman, to talk about the drop-out problem, as you mentioned. But he says the problem is not that this generation has been less churched than children and teens before them. The problem is that much spiritual energy fades away during a crucial decade of life: the 20s.
Fr. Barnabas: That’s it.
Dr. Bezzerides: So that’s really, really important. So, quickly: trends on youth engagement. I do see some really good stuff going on in our Church. The fact that CrossRoad attracts our kids who are super-engaged in their communities, that’s what I see, and I see these amazing kids. As I said, we have way more applicants for CrossRoad than kids we can take every summer. The kids are amazing. When I say amazing, I don’t mean kids who are perfect church kids; I mean kids who have wonderful, thoughtful, deep, and provoking questions about the faith and the Church, kids who are on a pilgrimage of understanding. As one pastor responded when asked why so many young people were in his parish, he said, “I think it’s because we’re willing to welcome a lot of questions.”
Mr. Marianes: Amen.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen. Amen.
Dr. Bezzerides: Isn’t that awesome? So good. And there’s a phenomenal new study. It’s worth everybody grabbing, and we’ll get it for you. It’s on your website, but it’s called Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church. It’s out of the Fuller Theological Institute, and it’s just…
Fr. Barnabas: A-plus!
Dr. Bezzerides: It’s just phenomenal.
Fr. Barnabas: Yeah, I need that, Ann. Just send that…
Mr. Marianes: Yeah, let’s get it out to everyone. We’re going to get it promoted.
Dr. Bezzerides: We could do a whole show on it. This book is so, so good. It’s a study of 250 congregations across the U.S., two of which were actually Greek Orthodox. It just studies them and says, okay, what’s going right and what does it mean to have things go right. But they actually put it, they said: It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith; it’s silence.
Mr. Marianes: Yes.
Fr. Barnabas: Wow! Ann, say that again. That’s… I’m jotting that down, because that’s going into my next homily.
Dr. Bezzerides: There you go. It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith; it’s silence.
So what I see that our youth engagement… Our youth engagement is pretty good through our camping programs, especially diocesan and metropolis youth camps of all jurisdictions however big and small—Antiochian Village, Ionian Village, CrossRoad. We’ve invested in these camping programs, and this is huge. It’s a huge, huge blessing, huge network.
Mr. Marianes: Can I interrupt you for just a second? I’m sorry. You actually just touched on something, and while you were talking I was getting ready to say it, and then I just got a text message from somebody who is listening in to the program, saying the exact same thing. You said it’s a huge network, and here is the part that I am just piling on to what we talked about before, and that is: now connecting that network together. So let’s build the bridge between all the kids that go to the camp in each of the metropolises and jurisdictions and the different organizations, and even the parishes, for that matter, because some parishes have really good camping things.
And let’s build (a) that network, and then (b) let’s build a progression, so that I start here, I may go to my metropolis, and then I go to CrossRoad and then I go to [Ionian Village], whatever. Let’s build this progression, and that does a lot of powerful things. Not only does it reinforce this whole faith messaging that we’re talking about, but it also gets these young men and women to know and meet each other in a much broader way than we can in any one individual way so that when they go off to college or they go off to move or work or someplace else, there’s now all of a sudden this notion of network. That’s one of the things that really—I’m sorry to digress, but—the notion of intimacy that’s created in a parish is probably one of our greatest strengths that we are somehow squandering.
Dr. Bezzerides: I just wanted to… I think these camping programs are phenomenal, but let’s not let our parishes off the hook.
Mr. Marianes: Right.
Fr. Barnabas: That’s it.
Dr. Bezzerides: So I think that’s the key piece, and that’s what’s so exciting about our new program with young adult engagement, because what I’m realizing… We just got someone from Lilly Endowment programming [who] called [and said], “What are you noticing about how this new work with young adult engagement in the parishes is interfacing with your old work?” I said, “You know what? For the first time I’m really thinking about the communities that these kids are coming from and going to.”
Fr. Barnabas: That’s it.
Dr. Bezzerides: Which is phenomenal. So it’s really, really exciting and making more of those connections.
Let me just jump to now. I just want to underscore and emphasize with a million exclamation marks Bill’s point about every parish having a youth director who is really a family ministries director. If we can invest in that, financially invest in that, I think it will go miles. I think that’s hugely important.
Trends in young adult engagement, overall I would say there are a few wonderful exceptions of parishes across the country that are doing amazing inspirational work with young adults. When I say “young adults,” I mean those who are outside their parents’ home, living on their own, actually not always outside their parents’ home. But overall the trend of young adult engagement in our churches is that we generally assume it’s a time when young adults won’t come to church and we generally let that be okay, when in truth it’s not. I think older generations of us just felt like: “Oh, the 20s, they won’t come to church and it’s fine. They’ll come back when they get married and have kids.”
Fr. Barnabas: Dangerous.
Dr. Bezzerides: It’s not true. Not only is it not true, but it’s not good for them even for us to assume that, because (1) 20-somethings need Christ now, (2) they need us, a community of believers in the Church, and (3) we actually need them. So as we were studying our CrossRoad alumni in their 20s and mapping it onto some of the Lilly Endowment research, here’s a couple things that come out: it’s that young adults long for spaces to explore vocational questions of identity and purpose and yearn to tap into traditions of wisdom to help sort out questions and make life-defining decisions. I think that’s so important.
Secondly, young adults want to make connections with and be supported by their leaders. The number of times our CrossRoad alums talk about the extent to which a priest took an interest in them or another leader in the community took an interest in them when they visited were huge. So as I switch over to sort of: What are the things our churches can do to increase the likelihood of our youth and young adults will learn and remain true to their faith as they grow older? I would sort of separate them out into two different categories that we really need to think of distinctively. For youth I think it’s core to engage their parents. Another huge thing is to challenge them. In our interviews done for this book, Growing Young, 40% of young people specifically mentioned challenge when they talked about where their church is effective with their age group. The quote is:
Teenagers and emerging adults in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them; they are running toward it.
Fr. Barnabas: That’s significant, Ann. That is significant.
Dr. Bezzerides: It really is. From the beginning, the tagline of CrossRoad has been “Orthodox youth take the challenge,” and that’s been our motto. How can we take them—we joke sometimes that CrossRoad is AP Orthodox theology, but of course it’s much more than that. We need to create opportunities for youth to learn to engage the faith that is on par with or better than all the rest of the experiences that they have as part of their education: with the service, with the learning, everything. Young adults I think were in a different space, and I would rewind to something so, so very simple: encourage every parishioner to talk to them. [Laughter] Reach out.
Fr. Barnabas: Seems simple, but it’s a big deal.
Dr. Bezzerides: A huge deal! Get to know him or her. In a meeting last week, one incredible young adult who travels a lot for work said, “Just say hello to us. Acknowledge my presence when I’m in church.” I think that young adult who walks into your parish to pray one Sunday morning is someone else’s child. Their parents are halfway across the country, praying for their children, but at this point have left direct involvement. Young adults need parishes to be a community of mentors, the true body of Christ. And to get there our parishes need to be these sort of warm, cross-generational communities, ones that can reflect that if we’re missing an age demographic, what is that age demographic missing, and do some soul-searching about what we could do to change it as a parish.
Once you know young adults, figure out ways that they would be inspired to continue learning and growing in their faith. Let them help you design these opportunities. Give them some leadership roles, and give them responsibility. What are the ministries that need support in our community? They will be inspired to learn and grow when you entrust them with this responsibility.
What are sort of top things that our churches can do? Bill, your beautiful message of Stewardship Calling and the vision for stewardship which I share so deeply, this understanding of our need to financially support our ministries to make them possible—how do local communities invest in youth and young adult ministry? How do we get to a point where we have an inspiring budget for it? How can teams of young adults get together who want to dream a vision for their parish and then commit their own resources to youth and young adult ministry? I think letting adults target their giving and then showing the impact of giving is huge. I think modeling transformative giving, modeling it as parents, as adults, as communities, that’s just what you were saying. Experience the joy of giving, making it for every family a part of what they do as a family.
There’s an incredible book, speaking about abundance. One of my favorite books ever is called Imagining Abundance by a Catholic woman named Kerry Robinson. She came from a philanthropic family, and her family always involved her in the process of making decisions about how to give to charity, so a whole family did it. The whole family did it all growing up. She was then hired to raise money for Catholic campus ministry at Yale. She was raised to take them from a deficit. They gave her an ambitious goal—five million dollars—and she raised $75 million. [Laughter]
Mr. Marianes: That’s awesome.
Dr. Bezzerides: That was what a woman who had a family that had trained to think in an attitude of abundance, and she made abundance an incredible ministry.
Fr. Barnabas: That’s it. Amen.
Dr. Bezzerides: You know, I drove home… We’re selling ourselves short, too, if we don’t believe that young adults have an incredible power and desire to give. I drove home a wonderful young adult from church during Holy Week, and she asked me about giving at the parish, unprompted. She was sort of wondering out loud when and how she was going to be asked to give. I said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe your question. Where does that come from?” And she said, “You know, my dad brought me to parish council meetings when I was growing up to see how a parish works.” [Laughter]
Mr. Marianes: And she’s still in the faith? [Laughter]
Dr. Bezzerides: Yes, I know, right? But, you know, at a meeting last Wednesday, I heard the story of how, 30 years ago, the young adults bought the first computers for a Greek Orthodox parish in St. Louis.
Fr. Barnabas: There you go.
Dr. Bezzerides: Are we creating communities today of people who are inspired givers?
Mr. Marianes: And we’ve seen other faith traditions and other groups that have done it. There’s one that gathers millennials together on a regular basis, and over a ten-year period of time from this group of millennials they’ve raise over $17 million. We have parishes, metropolises that haven’t raised $17 million, and this is coming from millennial youth who themselves are already paying stuff. There’s no question that they have the capacity and the willingness if we can provide the inspiration and then give them the leadership opportunities to really develop and exploit it.
Fr. Barnabas: But they’ve got to know the why behind it.
Mr. Marianes: Always.
Fr. Barnabas: That’s what motivates all of us. Even if they don’t realize they know the way, if they’ve been taught, if they’ve been formed, if they’ve been shaped to understand why this should be significant, why it should be a priority, why it’s something they have to apply in their lives on a daily basis, if they know that, then—I’m going to tell you what, Ann, Bill—our work is done. We’re going to see kids engaged in the faith, and they’re going to become the adults that lead the Church to the next generation. It’s going to happen.
Dr. Bezzerides: Yes, and we just step out of their way.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen. And let the Holy Spirit do what he always does best, and that’s create the character of Christ inside of us, using the liturgical rhythm of our life and the wisdom and the spiritual disciplines of the Church. Most of the time I love what Fr. Evan Armatas said at the evangelism conference. When he was talking about evangelism, he said basically what we’ve got to do is we’ve just got to take the roadblocks out of the way. We’ve got to stop standing in the way of doing this good work and let it happen.
Dr. Bezzerides: That’s right, and I do… $17 million is pretty hard to beat, very hard to beat, but…
Mr. Marianes: Yeah, nice start.
Dr. Bezzerides: But just in case we say, “Oh, but our Orthodox ethos isn’t to do that,” our CrossRoad alums came back to us and said, “Okay, you’ve got this whole CrossRoad budget. Can I see it, by the way?” And I said, “Sure you can see the CrossRoad budget,” so we emailed it. And the head of the board, an incredible young woman started our CrossRoad advisory board, then said, “You know, I look at this budget. It’s overwhelming for us to think of the whole budget, but I look at what you give out in scholarship aid every year. How about if we try to raise what you need for scholarship aid?” And I said, “Go for it.” And you know, within the last three or four years, they’ve raised over $40,000, and these are…
Mr. Marianes: That’s perfect.
Fr. Barnabas: Isn’t that something?
Dr. Bezzerides: Over $40,000, and no one’s over 30.
Mr. Marianes: Yeah, that’s a great example of everything we’re talking about in terms of…
Fr. Barnabas: We’ve got to tell these stories, Bill.
Mr. Marianes: Giving that inspirational vision and giving them the latitude to go forward and seeing that notion of generosity—you’ve just helped them define their adult version of themselves through this notion of generosity and paying it forward, so to speak, and I think that’s a powerful, powerful message.
Dr. Bezzerides: One CrossRoad alum got his first job out of college, and he sent CrossRoad a check of $4,000.
Mr. Marianes: Oh my God, that’s incredible. That is awesome. That is absolutely awesome.
Dr. Bezzerides: So, talk about humbling! Anonymous, too. Wanted it to be anonymous.
Mr. Marianes: Even more so humbling, right?
Dr. Bezzerides: Totally, totally.
Mr. Marianes: Well, listen. Here’s the good news and the bad news, Ann. You did something. I’m sorry. You’ve done amazing things, so I’m not simplifying it. But what you’ve done here is you’ve lit a fuse [under] Fr. Barnabas and me and some of the other people. I’m just telling you. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you’re going to have to come back.
Fr. Barnabas: Yep.
Mr. Marianes: You are going to have to come back, Ann, and we’re going to dig a little bit deeper on some of these elements over here, because over and over again in my travels throughout the country almost every weekend, this is the topic that keeps coming back again, over and over and over again: what do we do, how can we do it, and how can we be more efficient and effective together? Would you agree to do that?
Dr. Bezzerides: I would be honored. Thank you so much.
Mr. Marianes: Ah, great! Put you on the spot there.
Fr. Barnabas: And we have it recorded, so she can’t bail out.
Mr. Marianes: It’s going permanently in the archives here.
So let’s do this, because we’re running out of time right now. Let me begin, Ann, by thanking you so very much for starting the dialogue, knowing full well that we haven’t even tipped the iceberg on that. I really want to thank you very much both for starting it and most importantly for everything you and the folks are doing in the Office of Vocation and Ministry and the various projects that you’re running and operating and for coming back and taking it to the next level.
For those that are paying attention, the next Stewardship Calling Fifth Sunday—we do it on any month that has a fifth Sunday—is July 30, and then the one after that is October 29, so mark your calendars for July 30 and October 29, and we’ll coordinate with Ann to see which one she can join us. Fr. Barnabas says: tell them we’ve got an answer for you. There is a fifth fifth Sunday in 2017, and it’s New Year’s Eve, so we’ve got to make a decision on whether we’re going to do this.
Fr. Barnabas: I hope you enjoy yourself, Bill.
Mr. Marianes: John, he’s already bailing out on us!
Fr. Barnabas: No, no, no. We’ll do something.
Mr. Marianes: But in any event, we’ll figure it out going forward. In the meantime, folks, if you want to check out any of the incredible resources that we talked about today, you’ll see the reference document and all the rest of the items on Stewardship Calling. It’s always available for free. If there’s anything particular you want us to focus on when we get Ann back again, or anybody else, you can always email me at email@example.com and let me know what you’re thinking and where you want to go.
I always have to thank my incredible colleague and broadcast partner, Fr. Barnabas, for (a) putting up with me and (b) providing such insights; and then of course the great folks at Ancient Faith Radio: John Maddex and his team who are staying up on Sunday to make this happen and dealing with us as we go through everything we need to do.
As we’re wrapping up here tonight, I just want to remind everybody here the famous Mark Twain quote that the two most important days of your life are first the day you were born and second the day you figure out why.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: This is all about your journey of living your why as you live your stewardship calling. If you’re not already a sower of your stewardship calling, then I hope that you’ll begin by being a seeker of your stewardship calling, so you can really start to live the most extraordinary second half of your life.
Fr. Barnabas: Amen.
Mr. Marianes: Everybody, I hope this has been a good start on what is going to be a continuing process, a continuing dialogue. As I always end: I pray that you will s-o-t-p-a-e-t-j, which stands for: Stay on The Path—capital T, capital P—and enjoy the journey. God bless!