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People Before Programs. Always.

“She looks just like her mom!”

Nothing has so ubiquitously been spoken of my youngest daughter. And it’s true. She does have a striking resemblance to my wife.

And it’s actually pretty cool to see. It gives me a sense of what my wife might have been like as a little girl, a part of her life that I obviously didn’t get to witness and have only heard stories about.

So when I see Amelia act and move a particular way, when she has a funny facial expression or says something adorable, it’s actually quite enjoyable to imagine that my wife may have done or said something similar in the past.

By looking at my daughter now, I can get a clear picture of something that my wife used to be.

And it has made me wonder: can I look at my wife now and get a sense of what my daughter will be?

Is my wife, in the present, a view into what my daughter might look like in her 30s? It’s sort of a trippy thought, actually, but not terribly far-fetched.

The reality is this: we reproduce what we are.

The harder reality is that this is just as true on the spiritual level as it is on the biological level.

We also reproduce what we are spiritually.

I have lost track of the amount of times that I have cited the fact that sociological study after study has shown that the most important influencing factor in the spiritual lives of young people is the spiritual lives of their parents and the adults that surround them.

This is, at this point, something that unquestionably true - annoyingly so, in fact. Especially if you’re a parent.

It can be easy (for me!) to take some sort of high ground about the youth ministry programs at church and wonder why they aren’t doing more for our kids, what they need to do to reach our kids, and why they don’t seem capable of producing a program that will lead young people to encounter Christ, embody His Church, and engage the world in His Name.

I’ve heard stories of Orthodox parents who feel distraught about the lack of programming their own local parish has for their children, and so they send their kids to the megachurch down the road because at least they have a teen bible study that meets on a weekly basis.

And I get it.

I really do.

It’s tempting to look at the bells and whistles of a fully-funded, multi-staffed youth ministry program and feel the pangs of envy; just imagine what we could do with that kind of budget!

It’s understandable that we would fall into the trap of thinking that if we just had more resources, then we could really develop robust programs that would change the lives of our children.

But all of this misses the reality that the most important influencing factor in the spiritual lives of young people is the spiritual lives of their parents and the adults that surround them.

So really, when it comes to the spiritual formation of our young people, there’s something we should bear in mind:

Far more important than the kind of programs we create is the kind of persons we become.

Don’t get me wrong. Good ministry programs, strong Sunday School curricula, and thorough catechesis are valuable and should not be dismissed, but we should be careful to assign these too much weight.

As a friend of mine who is steeped in Classical Education told me recently, “While a school’s curriculum does matter, there’s a saying in our circles: the teacher is the curriculum.

The teacher is the curriculum.

This statement is quite astounding, and it perfectly captures the essence of what these sociological studies have shown. Yes, curricula matter, programs matter, but what ultimately matters is the life of the one doing the teaching.

I’m sure that any of us could reflect on some of our favorite classes that we took either in high school or college, and when we are pressed to articulate what made those classes powerful, we’re not very likely to say, “Well, I just really loved the curriculum. The syllabus was fascinating.”

While classes with great reading lists can be excellent – I took several such classes – what really made those classes leave a lasting impression was the person who taught them.

I think of my Junior Year English teacher, who forever changed my life through our relationship. Yes, we talked about Hamlet and C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, but what really mattered was his presence.

I think of my college advisor whose Modern European Literature class changed my life, not because we read Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, but because Dr. Lundin (may his memory be eternal) was able to open up the dynamics of The Brothers Karamazov and help us see how we, too, could become Ivan.

Far more important than their curricula, far more important than the program was the person teaching.

It seems to me that we should bear all this in mind, then, as we consider exactly how we hope to reach youth and young adults with the transformative reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is no amount of resources, no amount of programming, no amount of curricula that can lead to a transformed life.

The only thing that can transform a life is a transformed life.

If we want a program for transformed youth and young adults, then we must ourselves become that program.

After all, the teacher is the curriculum.

All of this points to a simple-but-not-easy reality: if we really want effective Orthodox Christian youth and young adult ministries, then we must truly become Orthodox Christians.

I have a sticker on the back of my laptop that reminds me of this every time I sit down to write anything, including this blog post. It reads:

“People before programs. Always.” (1)

This helps me remember that people are always more important than programs, to be sure, but it also helps me remember that Jesus Christ didn’t leave behind a program. He left behind witnesses.

He left behind persons who had been transformed by their relationship with Him.

He left behind persons who had been transformed in the context of their relationships with one another.

And He left behind persons whose very relationship with the world had been transformed.

For Jesus, the program was always His people.

His was a ministry of building a new humanity, not a ministry of building a program, establishing a curricula, or gathering resources.

In Genesis 1, we see the same people-are-the-program plan when God acts to make humankind in His own Image, after His own Likeness. It was always the plan that human beings were to be the mediating presence of God in, to, and for the world.

We, of course, lost track of that pretty quickly (just look ahead 2 chapters in Genesis).

But the invitation of Jesus Christ to follow Him is an invitation to reclaim our unique place within God’s world.

It is an invitation to fulfill the program of God, which is to say to become a human being fully in His Likeness.

This is why fretting about resources, curricula, and programs is ultimately going to be fruitless until we focus on the deeper call of the Gospel: to repent for the Kingdom of God is within (Lk. 17:21).

The Kingdom of God exists within the human person to the extent that we allow Jesus Christ to sit as King on the throne of our hearts. The Kingdom of God is revealed through human beings living lives transformed by His presence.

So for youth and young adult ministry to truly be effective, for it to truly make an impact, the key question we must ask ourselves is this:

How seriously do we take Jesus?

Are we allowing our minds to be shaped by His teachings?

Are we allowing our hearts to be cleansed and purified by His Love?

Are we allowing our hands to do the things He has commanded?

And if not, then why would we be surprised if our youth and young adults fail to see anything compelling in the Orthodox Christian faith? If we are continually allowing other things to dictate the shape of our lives, then why would they want to be a part of the Christian life?

All of these questions are why we at OYM are not merely interested in creating and curating valuable resources and programs for youth and young adults, but why we believe that true Orthodox Youth and Young Adult Ministries begins with those who are ministering to youth and young adults.

It is why we believe that the most effective way to invest in the spiritual lives of youth and young adults is to invest in the spiritual lives of their parents and the adults that surround them.

It is why our 3ETreats focus not just on youth and young adults, but why 3ETreats include an opportunity for parents, clergy, and youth workers to encounter Christ, embody His Church, and engage the world in His Name for themselves.

It is why our first podcast offering, Dear Parents, You’re Not Alone, focuses on the highs and lows of trying to raise young people in the Orthodox Church, and it’s why we will focus not just on techniques for doing so, but on the people we are trying to become.

Over and over again throughout the Scriptures, throughout Church History, we see that transformed persons are act as God’s mediating presence to the world, the very program through which God acts to transform other lives.

The question before us always must be: What kind of people are we becoming?

This matters because we reproduce what we are.

In the case of my daughter’s looks, she is going to be a lucky woman, and she will get all that from her mom.

My hope and prayer is that my wife and I continue to become the kind of people that we want our daughter(s) to become herself.

That we become patient and kind, that we become people full of grace and truth, that we become people who take Jesus seriously enough to base our lives on everything He did and taught.

Because the reality is clear: how important my daughter makes her spiritual life is directly related to how important we make it.

So here’s to hoping that my daughter will be lucky enough to have parents who help her be just as beautiful on the inside as she’s pretty much guaranteed to be on the outside.


(1) Special thanks to Fuller Youth Institute for a) this sticker and b) this constant reminder.

–By Christian Gonzalez

Christian Gonzalez is the Director of Ministry for OYM. He is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Arizona and draws from his understanding of family systems to explore questions of spiritual formation and the building up of the Church as the Household of God. OYM seeks to bring young people into this Household through Christian spiritual practices that help young people encounter Christ, embody His Church, and engage the world in His Name.


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