April 4, 2012

Let the Children Come to Him

2012 Youth Workers' Conference Reflections
The Agony of Christ in the
Garden of Gethsemane

During the last few days of January during an unseasonably warm winter in what I call the American Holy Land—Western Pennsylvania, a group of about 60 Orthodox Christian youth workers gathered at the Antiochian Village from all over North America, spanning almost every Orthodox jurisdiction. The presence of three Orthodox hierarchs gave us extra grace and encouragement—Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, Metropolitan Alexios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and Bishop Irineu of the Orthodox Church in America, who are the members of the Committee for Youth of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. They each stated that the goal of the Assembly and the Committee for Youth is unity of the Orthodox faithful and unity of the Orthodox youth. It was a true image of the Orthodox Christian Church in America and a true witness to the reality of our unity in Christ, a granting of His prayer to His Father in John 17:21 in the Garden of Gethsemane, that we all “may be one.”

 Father Bogdan Bucur’s keynote addresses focused on sharing both a living and generous faith with our youth. These sessions, as well as every workshop that was conducted by many talented and God-loving speakers, all served to train us as youth workers for all levels of ministry from Orthodox camp programs, youth ministry, Christian education, and Orthodox Christian Fellowship college ministry.
Prophet Moses
Father Bogdan beautifully demonstrated a most perfect pedagogical method of teaching—the use of the Scriptures. He taught us in this way by a detailed study of Exodus, where Moses introduces the people of Israel to God—emphasizing that this is the work of youth ministry. Those of us called to youth ministry are to introduce young people to God, much like Moses did with the people. He spoke about how this process involves a gradual description of who God is by the use of the Scriptures. He encouraged us to not present God as a concept, but as a dynamic, living reality with Whom we have a continual loving relationship. The living God and a living faith in Him is transformative, and not a simple pietism, tradition, moralism, or belief out of fear. When these things are separated from faith in a living God, and then shared in this way with our young people, they will reject it. He encouraged us to show our youth the challenging path of pursuing and loving the Living God, who transforms us, and whose work we do in complete humility and in the utmost sincerity. We are also to show them that our vertical relationship with God is directly connected to the horizontal relationships we have with others. We are to teach young people by our example that all human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore, we are to show them a generous faith where we show unconditional love and mercy to our fellow human beings.
Among such great spiritual training, here is a list of additional jewels of wisdom for youth ministers I gained from this wonderful conference:
  • To listen to our youth and to encourage them to listen to the Word of God. 
  •  To present them with Christ by the exampleof living a true, honest and chaste life ourselves, showing them that we put Christ first.  
  • To invite them into an encounter with Christ through our ministry programs, but especially through reaching out to them and offering a personal relationship with us. To remind them of the power of repentance when we fall short, but also to show them the great joy of having Christ in our lives and to be hopeful for even greater things to come in both this life and the next. (From Father Philip Rogers’ talk ‘Come and See.’)

Philip Brings Nathaniel to Christ (Gospel of John 1:45)

  • In our work we are to have a good knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and to be prepared to answer their questions about them as honestly as possible.
  • To encourage the youth, their families and ourselves to minimize the ‘useless sounds’ of the world and to replace them with the sounds of holiness, as Bishop Thomas said.
  • To provide opportunities for them to connect with the Orthodox community either in the parish, in summer camp programs, and when they go to college, so that they may experience the same love as that of the community of the Holy Trinity, on a regular and continual basis.
  • For both lay and clergy leaders working with the OCF college ministry, the mission is to keep college students connected to their Orthodox faith. The ways by which we could do this were discussed in sessions with executive director of OCF, Jennifer Nahas. This included encouraging and guiding students to:
    • Organize programs that will help them cultivate an Orthodox spiritual life both on campus and in the local parish.
    • Form strong bonds of fellowship with other students and people in the parish, and to perform service to others in the name of Christ.
    • Also, for high school students, there should be efforts to encourage parents and parish priests to prioritize the criteria for college selection—the presence of an Orthodox parish and an OCF chapter at the college of choice. 

I am so very grateful to my parish of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Charlottesville, Virginia for supporting my attendance at this gathering of youth workers. I was greatly blessed in being in the company of so many fellow Orthodox Christians who struggle to love Christ daily in their lives and who generously share themselves with our young people to inspire them to tend to their salvation.

Icon of the Inexhaustible Chalice

It is always an experience of a taste of Paradise when I spend time at the Village, and it was especially true this time. At this conference, we not only worked together to gain more wisdom and enlightenment to share our faith in our youth work, but also, we had the opportunity to come together in worship and in fellowship, enjoying being in the presence of each other and our Lord Jesus Christ, who unites us always, regardless of the physical distances between us.

For information on Orthodox Camp programs and future Youth Workers' Conferences, go here.