By Alexandra Lucs
We all know that our youth are critical to the vitality of our church – both present and future. Unfortunately, it is in the critical age of the teenager years that many parishes lose so many of these members, and many will never return. As they learn more about the world around them they often begin to feel that they have outgrown the church. Therefore, we ask ourselves what we can do to show the love of Christ to these maturing members of our church and how to engage and educate them so that they continue to grow within the church. Parishioners of all ages have an effect on this age group, simply by being members of the church and interacting, or failing to interact, with the teens. Educators in particular play a central role in maintaining the students’ engagement with the church. In the article that follows I humbly offer my advice on teaching this age group as well as examples from my class.
Passion, Prayer, Education
There are three tools which will, if used properly, engage youth in their church – passion, education and prayer. Teenagers are by their very nature passionate beings. They are most easily engaged when responding to passion. In this case, our task is simple – to portray our passion for our faith. Education, although not absolutely necessary for a close relationship with God, is armor with which our youth will be better able to withstand the assaults of the secular world. In an age when basic morals are being compromised, questioned, or challenged and with religious sects and atheism abounding, many of our youth are faced with questions that they are poorly equipped to handle. Without the strength of knowledge some will leave the faith simply because of confusion. And, of course, our efforts are in vain without prayer. No matter how extensive your preparations are, if you are not praying for the students and their struggles, you will not reach them. In this I speak from painful experience. One year I grew too complacent with my class and inadvertently stopped my prayers for them. The results were loss of interest on their part and frustration on my part. It was not until I started praying for them again that I began to notice a positive change in their attitude.
Passion and prayer are both very personal, and, other than the brief example I have given regarding prayer, are difficult to expound upon. Education, however, more readily lends itself to examples. In our parish, education at the teenage level is based on the theory that experiences are critical and the engagement of the students on multiple levels is essential. Although still a work-in-progress the basic format of the class is a teacher-led discussion for 35-45 min after the Divine Liturgy. This weekly routine is enhanced by a series of guest speakers and field trips. The curriculum varies from year to year and is based on the needs and feedback of the students in the class. These needs vary incredibly as our class encompasses students in the 11-16 year old age range. Although not an ideal age range, the inclusion of so many ages gives us a critical mass that allows for engaging conversations on a weekly basis.
Discussions are the central part of the class and the most unpredictable. I have had lessons planned on the structure of the Divine Liturgy and found the discussion to center around the proof of the existence of God or a lesson on St. Mary of Egypt which ended in a discussion of the church’s stance on masturbation. Honest, frank, and open conversation is the strongest asset of our weekly classes. I pray that it prepares the students for the choices they will soon have to make.
Outside the Parish
Those choices become magnified once they leave their home parish and find differences in the way that the faith is practiced in other parishes by other people. To more properly prepare them for the world that they will encounter beyond their home parish we also have guest speakers and field trips. The guest speakers bring into our classroom a sense of what it means to be Orthodox outside the parish. They have ranged from an Orthodox surgeon to His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah. If there is someone whom you feel would have an impact on the lives of teens in your parishes, I encourage you to ask them about speaking. Even people from far away or who you think are too busy – with some organization and enthusiasm, will find a way to come if they see your passion and desire to educate the teens in your community. Guest speakers can also be a blessing for the parish in that, when appropriate, they can deliver the homily during the Liturgy. However, their main task is to speak to the teen class and so the regularly-scheduled Church school time is protected for them.
It may also be necessary to plan for an honorarium to be made available from the parish’s budget for church school curriculum. Keep this in mind if it is appropriate for the guest.
Field trips cannot be contained in that time, and so are not as well attended but can have a huge impact on the students. We have had trips that range from visiting the local synagogue to a weekend trip to an Orthodox monastery. This does require additional planning, and permission from parents, but can serve as a great bonding experience for the teens as well as their families, and you the teacher.
Prepare for the Unexpected, Love Your Students and Pray Intensely
The best advice I can give about teaching a teen class is to be prepared for the unexpected, love your students and pray intensely. There are many challenges from parishioners, parents, and the students, but there is also love and support from all of these and most importantly from God. May God bless all of our interactions with the youth and protect his next generation of Saints.
Questions for Discussion
Does your parish have a Teen Class?
If so, what topics have most held their interest and sparked some good discussions?
What materials that you’ve used have been most successful?
In what ways could you improve your program? Have you considered outside speakers, field trips? If you’ve had them, have they been a plus to your teen program?
Do your teens bond as a group? If so, how? where? If not, what are the obstacles?
How else are your teens engaged in parish life besides the Teen Class?
In social programs?
In parish or community outreach programs?
Alexandra Lucs, who attends Holy Trinity Church, East Meadow, NY, has been active in the church since childhood. She is the mother of two daughters, age four and nine, and a cancer researcher at the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research on Long Island, NY.