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The End of Orthodoxy (Thank God!)

It is too easy for the timeless goodness of Orthodoxy to be frozen in the past, but it can be freed through a robust vision for ministry in the future.

In the 15 years I’ve worked in youth ministry, I have found myself all around the country, frequently at edges of a parish fellowship hall following Divine Liturgy. Usually I’m there because the day prior I had been leading a retreat or offering a workshop of some kind.

But it almost always goes the same way. 

As an introvert, I tend to keep to myself in new settings, particularly highly social ones such as coffee hour. I find the table full of donuts to be far less overwhelming (and more jelly-filled) than most interactions I’m likely to have.

While I contemplate just how many cheat days I can justify, I’m usually saved from myself by a kindly parishioner who approaches to let me know that they sincerely wish they could have attended yesterday’s retreat, explaining that they would have been there had the marketing been more clear or if little Johnny hadn’t had some sort of soccer tournament.

I anticipate that they will ask whether the day was “successful,” followed by an inquiry into how many people were there (usually these two questions and their answers are linked in their minds). If all goes as normal, they will then express to me their appreciation about what we’re doing at these retreats because we really need to work harder to keep our kids in the Church. 

They will then usually ask some variation of a question I have heard more than any other in a decade and a half: 

Why do our kids keep leaving the Church?

Before I can begin to present some thoughts, my conversational partner will take a crack at answering it themselves: “I’ll tell you why! It’s sports (but at least Johnny’s coach is a Christian)! It’s the liberal agenda! It’s all the influence from their peers! It’s that the service isn’t in English! It’s secularism!”

I can certainly sympathize with these folks.

They are good people who really care about the wellbeing of their children and the other young people they know. They want to see them take hold of a faith that is incredibly dear to them and which has given them a solid sense of who they are, where they fit, and how they can make a difference.

I mean, I’m one of them.

I, too, want my kids to be Orthodox. I, too, want them to believe in this ancient tradition and to participate in it fully. I, too, hope they will avoid the snares of modern life.

But for those of us who love young people and want to see them be Orthodox, we must ask an important question: Why?

Why do we want young people to stay Orthodox? What is it that we hope will happen if they remain steadfast and committed in their faith?

Another way of asking this question is: What are we to believe that Orthodoxy is for?

This is where the admittedly click-baity title of this post comes to play. What is the end, the telos – i.e., what is the goal of Orthodoxy? 

If we can answer this question, then I think it will help us direct our minds and paths as we think about a related question: What is Ministry for?

I think this is important because both of these questions largely point the same direction, and if we could have a solid answer for either of these questions, it would point to a solid answer for the other. 

Indeed, this is the main problem we will very briefly (don’t check the word count) seek to resolve in the rest of this post. We so frequently divorce ministry with young people from the larger mission of Orthodoxy that we forget these things need not be separate. 

Orthodoxy ultimately exists for one end: the deification of the human person.

Orthodoxy exists to make human beings like God.

This is what Orthodoxy is for.

Yet this goal cannot be accomplished by any human work - rather, it is the work of God that makes human beings like God. This is, in its most basic state, then, what all ministry is for.

Orthodoxy and ministry have at their core the same goal - the deification of the human person. 

Our role, then, as ministry workers, is to participate in this work, in this Ministry of God. In ministry work, we partner with God as God makes human beings ever more like Himself.

This is what ministry is for, and it is through Orthodoxy that human beings can find the path to become like God. This means that when it comes to our approach to ministry, we may need to reevaluate our goals.

Ministry is not primarily about keeping young people in the Church. It is not primarily about protecting them from sinful or evil influences in the world. It is not primarily about having successful events measured by numbers.

Ministry is God’s Work toward the deification of the human person, and this is true regardless of the demographic with which we participate in God’s Ministry.

Ministry with children. Ministry with teens. Ministry with young adults. Ministry with elders.

All ministry is ultimately God’s Ministry, and our role is participating in God’s work to make human beings like Himself.

What does this look like, you may wonder? How is it that God makes human beings like Himself? What exactly is a deified human life?

When we look at Jesus’ life, we see exactly what the deified human life looks like. It is a life that He Himself lived and by His Spirit empowers us to live as well. So by looking at Christ’s own rhythm of life, we also begin to see the path forward which has been emulated and imitated by saints throughout the ages. 

In Luke 6, we find this passage:

“In these days he went out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

And he came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all.” (Lk. 6:12-19)

When we look at this passage, we can begin to discern three concentric circles, three degrees of relationships that make up the rhythm of the life of Christ.

When read, “He went to the mountain to pray; and all night He continued in prayer to God,” we see what lies at the very center of His life: communion with God. 

He spends the entire night in communion with His Father.

This communion is the unshakeable foundation of who He is. As He spends the night in intimate relationship with His Father, Jesus dwells fully in the Father’s Love, coming to know Himself ever more deeply and securely as the Beloved Son. His identity is secure through His communion with God.

No matter what befalls Him – pushback from religious leaders, betrayal from friends, execution at the hands of the state – Jesus is untouchable, knowing who He is, trusting that He is safe in the will of the Father. 

But Jesus doesn’t merely remain on top of the mountain in deep prayer, and this moves us into the second circle.

Jesus comes down from the mountain and surrounds Himself with a group of disciples, and from them He chooses twelve to be His inner circle. 

Here we see that Jesus is living out His Communion with God within a Community.

Surrounding Himself with other people, Jesus connects His life to others through the intimacy of friendship and companionship. These twelve apostles will be a part of his motley crew who travel with Him, who gather around Him, who want to be promoted by Him, who love Him, who don’t understand Him, and who betray and abandon Him.

This is truly the makings of a human community, and Jesus deliberately surrounds Himself in relationships with others, all the while staying grounded in His Communion with God as the very source of His being. Yes, His friends matter to Him and He loves them to the end, but when we are given the last name in the list (“Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor”) we see in the very human community of Jesus that there is always a sour note. It is never perfect.

But it is in the context of the relationships in the Community that Christ’s Communion with God is lived out, not just for Jesus but also for His disciples. They are not called simply to an individual relationship with Jesus, but rather are invited into relationships with one another as they learn to become people who love and forgive one another. This is the task of the human community.

Finally, this imperfect community is also the very context with which Jesus enters the third circle, engaging the world in Ministry by casting out unclean spirits and healing people’s diseases.

Here we see that the Ministry of Christ’s community exists to go into the world, to form relationships with those from the surrounding area, caring for both the spiritual and bodily needs of the world. The disposition of Christ’s followers to the world is one of love and ministry; it is a relationship of care for those who are sick both in soul and in body, because it is to these that Christ comes as the bearer of glad tidings.

As you’ve likely noticed, central to each of these circles is relationships.

Ultimately, our life in Christ, following in His own rhythms are about teaching us how to have good and beautiful relationships, and it is through these relationships that we are transformed into God’s Likeness.

It is through relationships following Christ’s own rhythm of life that we become Christ-ians.

The rhythm of Jesus’s life shows us that transformation happens as we learn how to:

  1. Relate to Christ;

  2. Relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ;

  3. And relate to the world through Christ.

So, for those of us who are engaging in ministry with young people, an important question lies before us: to what degree do our ministries reflect the rhythm of Christ’s own life? 

To what degree are we engaged in practices of Communion, Community, and Ministry?

Indeed, the very reason that OYM exists is to help pass on a faith where every young person can Encounter Christ, Embody His Church, and Engage the world in His Name.

This is indeed the very path for the transformation of the human person into God’s own likeness.

We Encounter Christ through practices of Communion.

We Embody His Church through practices of Community.

We Engage the world through practices of Ministry.

If Orthodoxy is ultimately about the transformation of the human person into God’s own likeness, then these three concentric circles must form the very basis and foundation of all our endeavors of ministry with young people (or any people for that matter).

So what kind of practices can help nudge us in the direction of learning how to relate to Christ, to relate in Christ, and to relate through Christ?

Practices of Communion

At the center of our life in Christ must be communion with Him. Before we can be transformed into His likeness, we must first learn to sit as His feet. We must first be with Jesus.

In order to do this, the Church provides us with many practices of Communion with God. 

While future posts will offer more detail, such Practices of Communion include:

  • Silence

  • Solitude

  • The Jesus Prayer

  • Lectio Divina

  • Fasting

The core purpose of these practices is cultivate a disposition of being with Christ, of being grounded in His Love as the must unshakeable truth of who we are.

This is the only way we will be able to lovingly (instead of manipulatively) enter into Community with others because we will no longer be turning to them to satisfy our deepest longings.

Practices of Community

Community is the fire through which we are refined into being loving and merciful people, serving one another generously and forgiving one another for imperfections and sins. It is where we are exposed in our own fallenness and learn to receive forgiveness from others. 

Thus, it is in relationship with others in Christ that we learn to become like Jesus, such Practices of Community include:

  • Confession

  • Listening

  • Praying for one another

  • Small group discussions

  • Mutual forgiveness

These Practices of Community are indispensable in the Christian life as we seek to follow Jesus together. We understand one another to be sinners, and rather than lording our own goodness over each other, we instead learn to treat one another with mercy, just as Christ treats us. This is how we become like the one we follow.

Shaped in this context, we go into the world, then as servants, as those who know who we are and where we belong so that we can give ourselves away in love.

Practices of Ministry

Ministry is how we actively join in God’s work in the world as He seeks to bring all people back to Himself through sacrificial love, service, and generosity. Through Practices of Ministry, we are empowered by Christ’s Holy Spirit to do what Jesus did.

Such Practices of Ministry include:

  • Almsgiving

  • Service

  • Hospitality (philoxenia - love of the stranger)

  • Generosity (i.e., paying for someone behind you in the drive-thru)

  • Creation care (i.e., picking up random trash (someone has to do it))

All of this is to foster a way of relating to the world in the way that Jesus did. His eyes were always pointed outward, whether it was toward His Father, toward His disciples, or toward the multitudes that came to Him.

It is through these Practices of Communion, Community, and Ministry that we can reclaim a clear and robust vision for what it means to do Ministry with Youth and Young Adults.

We can push aside arbitrary metrics that the world clings to and instead lean in to the true end of Orthodoxy and the true end of ministry. We can become people who partner with God in His all-encompassing work to make human beings like Himself.

What else is there?

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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