Fr. Alex Goussetis: Welcome to Family Matters. My name is Father Goussetis, and we are blessed to be speaking today with Steve Christoforou. Our topic today is entitled, “Have We Been Doing Family Ministry Wrong?” Steve is well known to all of us. He is the director of Y2AM, the department of Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. A seminary graduate and former attorney, Steve is passionate about introducing young people to Jesus Christ, and helping them live out a relationship with Him and the Church. Welcome, Steve.
Steve Christoforou: Father, it’s great to be with you, thank you so much.
Fr. Goussetis: For those who may not know you, could you tell us a little bit about your work, what you’ve done, and what you’re involved in now?
Christoforou: Sure, so as you said I direct Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which for short we just call Y2AM, Youth and Young Adults Ministries, Y2AM, YxY Y^2… it’s a goofy math joke, I guess. We do a lot of traveling, we do a lot of multimedia work, probably the things that the listeners might be most familiar with are shows like Be the Bee, which is a hundred and thirty-three episode video series that we concluded actually this past summer, on Finding God in Everything Every Day, a podcast that we work on called Pop Culture Coffee hour, which is also available on Ancient Faith, and a new video series that we started called Live the Word, which is about the weekly epistle and gospel readings for the coming Sunday. So I mean what we really try to do is challenge, I guess, some of the assumptions that some people hold about ministry, try to think through ways to really do ministry in a way that is as Christ-centered and kingdom oriented and authentic as possible, while also just sort of realizing that we live in the year 2017, as of the recording of this podcast, and that we have to speak to people in ways that they can connect with and understand. It’s really just kind of living in that tension between being as faithful to the eternal as possible, and being as true and sensitive to the needs of the moment as possible. So that’s kind of what we try to do.
Fr. Goussetis: And we’re very thankful for your very fruitful ministry. You were raised in the Church, Steve, so how did you experience ministry growing up in the Church?
Christoforou: I did, and for me, as with probably a lot of people in my generation, although I don’t think it’s actually exclusive to my generation, ministry was not always the most positive or fruitful thing. I think we’re probably all aware of the challenge that people have pointed to that a lot of people of a particular generation seem to be disconnected from the Church. You know, if you read books like “You Lost Me” by the Barner Group, there’s research that suggests that around 60% of young adults of all sorts of Christian backgrounds have fallen away from the Church at some point as they’ve transitioned away from youth into young adulthood, and in my own life, honestly, I’ve done the math and it’s probably closer to 90%, which is a pretty severe number to think about and say out loud. But I think that’s because ministry as a kid was about obligation, ministry was about bait and switch, you know, it was about trying to get people here to the pizza party, or trying to get people here through the basketball group or whatever it is, and then shove some religious thing down our throats… I think the problem that I, in retrospect now, sort of gone through seminary, and trying to get a sense for what ministry is, I think we, as a Church, as particular Christians, I don’t know how big we want to phrase the problem, but I think we have forgotten in a sense the why behind what ministry is all about, which has led us to put it into practice in an overly-formulaic, in an unnecessarily dry sort of way. There’s a metaphor that I actually use, which might connect with people, for people who have watched the movie “Shawshank Redemption,” for instance. It’s a movie about prisoners and a prison break, and one of the prisoners, who is very old, gets his parole. And he’s not happy about it, which confuses a lot of the other prisoners until one of the realizes that the man has been institutionalized, because what’s a prisoner without the walls of a prison? And I think, as I look back on my own life growing up in all the different ministries of the Church, and looking at the ways sometimes we still do to this day, I wonder if our GOYA [The Greek Orthodox Youth of America] programs, and our JOY [The Junior Orthodox Youth] programs, and whatever, aren’t doing a very good job of simply creating participants in those programs. And then when those programs go away people are lost, because what’s a GOYAn without GOYA? Time and again I hear from young adults, who are so active in high school, and then suddenly those programs go away, and they feel adrift at sea, without basketball, without whatever it might be, because I get the sense that these programs are self-perpetuating, and are not really forming a new generation of Christians who actually are comfortable just living in the Church and connecting with the Lord on a daily basis. And so that’s why when the programs go, the program participants seem to fall away. That is really one of the big takeaways that I see looking back on my experience growing up in the Church, and I think it’s still something that we’re struggling to figure out.
Fr. Goussetis: So, in terms of what we’re doing wrong regarding family ministry, from what I’m hearing, we emphasize too much a programmatic type of ministry. What would be an alternative? What would be something that we could do to replace that approach?
Christoforou: Well I think that the attitudes about family ministry are really something that as a Church we need to get over because it’s part of, I guess, the culture in which we live, that we tend to outsource different kinds of instruction to different kinds of professionals. So, you know, I don’t know math as a parent, I’m going to find a tutor that knows math to teach my kid math. And I think that what we’ve done, I was going to say begun doing, but I think it’s something that’s kind of established in the way that we tend to think about ministry related to the family in particular, is that we kind of rely on the religious professionals to outsource our ministry and our leadership, too. It’s not that we are going to teach kids to love the Lord in the house, we sort of send them to a program to do it for us. We’re not going to teach kids the basics of what it is to pray, we’re going to send them to a religious professional to do it for us. We don’t model, in other words, the sort of lived experience of what it is to be a Christian. Not simply on Sunday morning but every day of the week, we outsource it to a program that’s going to squeeze it in for a couple of minutes or a couple of hours every now and again. And the sociological data suggests that when it comes to the markers that show that a kid is going to grow up into an adult that still remains faithful, the faith of the parents is really at the top of that list in terms of what’s important. And in terms from within the Church, looking back at the lives of some of our favorite Saints, for instance, I think that when we tend to look at a charismatic elder and how that elder got his start, or an eldress and how she got her start, it started with watching their parents in the middle of the night venerating before the icons and praying towards the Lord, and asking for the help of the [honestly, didn’t know this word] as they raise their kids, I mean, that’s the crucible in which sanctity is formed in our hearts, and for whatever reason we just kind of think that 20 minutes in a classroom setting or 20 minutes at a basketball camp or whatever is going to do the trick. So I think, again, that’s part of that question of really figuring out what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and maybe changing some of those assumptions that explicitly or not, we seem to be buying into.
Fr. Goussetis: So whether it’s our families, or whether it’s parish ministry, we need better or more sanctified role models as opposed to just programs that we plug into?
Christoforou: I think that is definitely a huge piece of it. A phrase that I’ve taken to use is sometimes when we overprogramatize and we overcurriculumatized, if I can make that a word, we tend to treat the experience of the church as undescended theology. You know, if you read some of the ascetic literature of the Church, the filioque, and things like that, we talk about this “descent of the mind into the heart”, that it’s really the connection of the noose being draught down to the very core of the human being, is the core of our identity, the core of our experience. And yet so often these programs, I think, tend to be about, on a simplistic sort of sense, just passing the time as a sort of alternate daycare. Or again, in a different sense, just hitting people between the eyes, as if we’re trying to give them darts of religious education or darts of religious data rather than hitting them in the heart and actually challenging them and inspiring them, and forming the sort of upright character that should define us as children of God the Father.
Fr. Goussetis: Do you have specifics in mind in regard to how we minister to youth, and how we minister towards families?
Christoforou: There are the big questions, and then there are the questions of how we sort of put this into practice. All of these questions I think are going to be different depending on the particular age groups that we’re talking about. My sense, though, is that as we’re talking about really younger kids, in particular, it’s really about beginning to form good habits in the lives of our children. We talk about sometimes “second nature,” that things should be second nature. Of course I think we can all think of the struggles in our own lives, how sin can very easily become a second nature, not something that we consciously choose, you know, in anger, or pride, or lust, or whatever it is that we fall into just sort of out of habit because it’s so ingrained in us. I think good habits can become something that is second nature. If we pray together as a family, if it’s just a practice that before we go to bed we’re going to say our prayers, if it’s a practice that before we eat, we’re going to give thanks, if it’s a practice that before we go to communion we are going to ask each other for forgiveness, or even every night before we go to bed we’re going to do these sorts of things. Creating the scaffolding upon which some of the deeper work can happen as the kid gets older, I think if we start with some of the daily constant practices from youth, then we have a really strong foundation that we can move into as we then get into some of the deeper complexities that come up as the child becomes a high schooler, and a teenager, and faces all sorts of different questions of insecurities, and identities, and pressure from school and so forth, but at the very least I think we should be starting with the liturgical practices that should be setting the clock by which we live as families.
Fr. Goussetis: And really, isn’t that the way the church has been teaching us for 2 thousands years? We have this rhythm of church life, of periods of fasting, periods of feasting, different Saints’ days, and other ways in which the Church is reaching out to us… if we’re living the Church calendar, it is kind of in viewing those habits that we’re speaking of.
Christoforou: A thousand percent, and I think the question, or rather the challenge, for us is to what extent do we? Or are our lives as Christians just kind of a Sunday morning reality, untouched when it comes to the rest of the week?
Fr. Goussetis: Steve, you travel extensively to lead youth retreats and camps…what are kids thinking? What is it that they may not be telling us, or what is it that we really need to be listening to from our kids?
Christoforou: Listening, I think, is a really important word, and I think when we try to get a sense for the era in which we live and the particular sort of struggles that we’re working on, the challenges, and the struggles, and the thought processes that are really out there because of our particular point in history, my sense is that there is a lot of doubt. There is a lot of insecurity, and again there are big picture sociological reasons that we can point to for some of these phenomena, which I think we’ll sort of leave to the side, because it’s sort of a big question in and of itself. But I highly recommend, if anybody wants to take the temperature of our contemporary age, read a book like “How Not to be Secular,” for instance, to give you a sort of interesting introduction. But I think that listening is really the big word. Giving young people who are struggling a safe place in which to doubt, a safe place in which to ask questions, a safe place in which to struggle, because Christianity is a struggle. Mastering the passions and fighting against the passions is a struggle, opening up our hearts to God is a struggle, and I think that a lot of times we don’t give young people the grace that we sometimes give to ourselves, and a lot of young people can feel alienated because they feel like they’re not good enough, or they feel like one sin might very well be the end of their relationship with the Lord…all sorts of space to struggle. And I think it really boils down to whether we’re actually willing to listen without judgment, with real compassion, and with real understanding, and the desire to help people through the particular challenges and struggles and insecurities that they might be facing.
Fr. Goussetis: We see that in the Gospel in the sense of when Jesus interacted with others. He was, in fact, an excellent listener. He challenged people, but also allowed them to make whatever decisions they need to make about their life and faith. There’s a lot of open-ended, either parables or narratives that we read in the Gospel, that really mirrors what you’re saying in terms of listening, connecting, but ultimately allowing people to make their own decisions, because it’s only then that they make it their own.
Christoforou: Oh, a thousand percent. One of my favorite examples of this is the woman who was caught in adultery. The crowd is gathering there to stone her, of course, and they try to trap Jesus into saying whether or not she should be stoned, and He disarms the opponents and they all leave, and He looks down at the poor woman who was literally inches away from having her skull caved in by a rock, and He looks down at her and He asks “Where are those that accuse you?” And she looks up, and she’s alone, just there with the Lord, and she says “I don’t know,” and He says “Neither do I accuse you. Go and sin no more.” And it’s such a wonderful reminder that first, he establishes that trust. He wants to make sure that this owner knows that she is loved, that she is safe, that she is secure, that she is loved unconditionally, and then at the very end He gives her that “look,” is the way I imagine it in my mind. You and I know what needs to happen now; go and sin no more. But he doesn’t lead with a chastisement, He doesn’t lead with the lesson, He leads with the relationship. I think that sometimes as young people in particular, because growing up is hard, it can be alienating for us to have people chide and chastise and constantly wag their fingers. I’m sure that you, father, remember the experience of growing up, I sure do. It’s hard to think sometimes about having that safety, and the space, and the grace, and I’m not worried about disappointing, I’m not worried about whatever because I know that I will be loved regardless. That is a really tough line to walk.
Fr. Goussetis: So listening is the key virtue that all of us, as parents, as clergy, as youth workers really need to continue to cultivate. Is there another piece of advice that you might give to those of us again in positions of authority, whether as clergy, parents, or youth workers, advice that you have in terms of ministering to our children?
Christoforou: I think the listening is definitely a piece, and part of that I think, to push that a little bit further, is even to just sort of encourage speech on the part of our young people. It seems to me that one of the symptoms of not listening…well, there’s a reason that young people are so active on social media because somebody listening there. That if they post something or say something online, there’s always somebody there to respond back or “acknowledge” it in some sort of way. I ask a question very often when I do retreats with kids, and I’m surprised at how often young people complain about how their parents are distracted by their telephones, for instance…and these are parents, not people who grew up with these phones, but these are people who have just gotten into this habit. And there’s survey data that backs it up, I think something like 75%, and this is a vague recollection right now, an overwhelming number of kids who were surveyed in this one particular study complained that parents are too busy on their phones, whether it’s work or social media or whatever it is, and don’t give them the time of day. So I think it’s just to underscore listening, to underscore giving kids an opportunity to speak their minds, to unburden their hearts, you know, that’s what confession is, ultimately. And then to make sure that we’re building these liturgical practices in our lives, that the rhythms of the Church are shaping the rhythms of our lives and are not simply an afterthought, or religious obligations that we tack on once a week because we have to. I think those are things to really keep in mind on an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute basis.
Fr. Goussetis: Very helpful. Steve, you’ve shared with us your experience of being raised in the church, you’ve told us about the ministries that you’re engaged in now. Where do you see ministry in 10 years? What do you think it’s going to look like in terms of family ministry and youth ministry?
Christoforou: It is a great question. I kind of get the sense right now that we’re at a little bit of a fork in the road sort of moment. You know, there’s a lot of just wonderful wisdom out there, and a lot of people who I think are just trying to reestablish the footing of ministry in the person of Christ with an anticipation and hope for His kingdom. That’s why I’m grateful to you, father, and the work the Family Care Department is working on. There’s good work that is being done, but I think there is still a lot of awareness that needs to be raised among people who reshaping ministry in terms of what our ultimate goal is. So it’s hard to say. We could continue preaching something other than the Gospel, we could continue losing people by focusing on the surface-level forms of religion in the most demoralizing thin sense of the word, or we can really have a return to the Gospel, and we can really put our faith and our hope, and in a sense go all in on the person of Jesus Christ and put Him at the center of everything we do as families, put Him at the center of everything that we do as communities. I think if we do that, we will flourish. When we look back at church history, the Church grew by leaps and bounds when the Church was the Church, when the Church was faithful to the head, who is Christ. And now we live in this world where everybody is completely free to be Christians, and yet people are withering on the vines because I’m not sure that we’ve been feeding the sheep as well as Christ wants us to. So I see this as kind of an interesting fork in the road moment, we’ve looked at the last couple of decades, we’ve had some losses, we’ve had some negative experiences, but if we can really repent as a body, if we can remember why we’re in this, if we can remember who we serve, then I am confident that the next ten years will be a very fruitful decade in the life of the Church.
Fr. Goussetis: That’s our prayer for sure. We need to continue to be prayerful, discerning and allowing the shepherd to guide us. Steve, before we conclude, can you please tell us the website and avenue for those who are listening, to tap into the many resources that your department offers?
Christoforou: Sure, anybody can go to our website, y2am.org, you’ll also find a lot of our work on our youtube channel, you’ll find links on our website, but if you’re just looking for our Youtube Channel, it’s youyube.com/y2am, again that’s the letter Y, the numeral 2am, and if you search Y2AM you’ll find us on social media as well. But the website has links to upcoming events, it has links to a lot of our work, and all sorts of things. And anytime you want to email us or say hi, feel free to connect with us on social media or shoot us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fr. Goussetis: We’ve been blessed to be speaking today with Steven Christoforou: . Steve, thank you so much for the fantastic work that you’re doing and spending some time with us today.
Christoforou: Father, it’s always good to chat with you, I look forward to seeing you in person soon, and thanks for the opportunity. God bless you and continue to give you good strength in your work as well.
Fr. Goussetis: Thank you.