Recently, I was talking with some young adults of our community and asked what they think the biggest problem facing the Church today is. They thought it was ‘religious education’. They felt that today’s Orthodox youth were not sufficiently informed about their Faith or the Church for it to be truly relevant in their lives. They felt that, for most of their peers, neither the Church nor the Faith were a viable point of reference for making decisions in their lives. I don’t know why, but this really surprised me.
These young people were ‘brought up in the Church’ so to speak, they graduated from Church School, they went to the ‘Village’, they participated in PLC’s and Conventions, Diocesan Day’s, Retreats and Teen SOYO. I assumed that young adults with their experience had a good working knowledge of the Christian Faith, the Gospel, the Church, the Sacraments etc. and that this experience helped inform them as they made decisions about their lives. They were saying ‘not really’. It gave me real pause.
Looking back at my own ‘religious education’, I realize that it all started at home when I was a very young child, where my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all practiced their Faith. Where we went to Church as a family every Sunday and Holy day. Where we kept the fasting regulations, prayed together before every meal and before going to bed at night. Where we loved God and served our neighbor. Where the values taught in Church were already present at home. Where these same values were shared in my local community and were propped up by the prevailing culture. My conversation made me realize that my experience truly was ‘back in the day’.
In addition to experiencing the Faith lived out in my home as a child, I also attended parochial school where I was ‘taught’ religion by religious professionals. I memorized prayers and verses from scripture. I read the lives of Saints and could quote the catechism. I served as an altar boy and sang in the boys’ choir, in a foreign language, none the less. I learned that what I was being taught at Church didn’t conflict with what I experienced at home or in the immediate world around me. Looking back, it’s safe to say that my conscience was formed and my moral compass pretty well set by the time I left grade school. I realize that today’s young people don’t have the same privileges I had.
My own ‘religious education’ continued in High School where the good brothers encouraged our questions and took us a couple steps up from the catechism. In College, the holy fathers entertained the ultimate questions of life and death and grappled with doubt. In graduate school and the Seminary we explored the core tenets of belief and the niceties of theology, worship and spirituality.
With this ‘religious education’ as my spring-board, I was able to figure out as an adult why I was a Christian. It really turned out to be quite simple, I love God and thank Him, I honor my parents and my family, and I love and serve my neighbor as best I can, all this I learned and experienced since I was a child. My ‘religious education’ reinforced this, it fine-tuned my compass settings and revealed the preeminence of a Christian conscience in decision making.
Here at St. George, we will inaugurate our Church-School ‘religious education’ program on Sunday, 11 September. Our ‘religious education’ program is meant to reinforce the values our children are already learning from their parents at home. Our classroom instruction is intended to supplement the real teaching that takes place in the family. Our lessons can only complement the religious experience our children already enjoy. Our ‘religious education’ program won’t make a child a Christian. Our program can only help parents prepare the child to live a Christian life.
Our parish has about 380 children under age eighteen. That’s more children than a lot of parishes have people. Approximately 275 children are of Church School age. We invite these parents to enroll their children in the ‘religious education’ program we are offering. We invite them to accept our assistance in educating their children in the Faith. We invite all parents to join, support and assist us as together we bring up our children in the knowledge and love of God and neighbor.
According to some of our young adults, ‘religious education’ is the biggest problem facing the Church. We may not be able to do much about that institutionally but we sure can do something about it parochially if we determine to make education a central priority in our parish life. Our Church-School can be part of that effort. Our parents and families are critical to our success. Let’s start by enrolling our children for the first day of class – 11 September.