I remember when I was newly married and had just started attending an Orthodox church. People would complain about how their children were refusing to come to church any more, and how when they left the family home, they often left the church entirely. So this is far from a new problem, and there must be hundreds if not thousands of articles written not only by Orthodox authors, but also by writers in many other religious groups, who are facing the same problem: children are not following their parents’ footsteps in faith.
This is clearly a critical issue. No young people means no future for our churches. So I started doing a little thinking about it, and I hope this article will start you thinking about it, too; and perhaps it will start a discussion in your family or in your parish.
There are lots of reasons why children choose to leave the church as they grow up. Some of them are related to the church practices – perhaps the services are in a language the children don’t understand; perhaps even if they understand the language they still feel bored or unconnected during the services; perhaps they never learn why coming to church and participating in the Sacraments are essential for our spiritual life; perhaps the priest and other adults don’t listen to their questions, much less answer them.
All of these are serious problems that we need to face and address honestly. Are we doing all we can to make the children’s time at church (not only in the services but also in Church School, in other church groups, in their interactions with other parishioners) a positive reason for them to want to stay and keep coming back?
However, I was thinking about other more fundamental reasons that the children might choose to leave the church as they grow older, and this involves the family. From a very early age, children pick up on the parents’ attitude about going to church. Is it a really meaningful and important commitment for the parents, or is it something they do from time to time as it fits into their busy schedule? Is it important to arrive on time for the services, or is it okay to come in toward the end of the services, whenever it’s convenient for them? Are the services and Sacraments the fundamental reason to come to church or does it simply provide more of a social time with friends and acquaintances the family doesn’t see during the rest of the week? Does the family pray, or read the Scriptures and Lives of Saints at home? All of these give a basis for the impressions the child might have about church.
But (in my opinion at any rate), perhaps the most important element for the child is how the family “feels” about going to church. Is it an “obligation” with the children pushed and scolded to get ready for church, behave themselves in church, and not bother the adults otherwise? If this is the “feeling” the parents communicate to the children about church, surely the children will remember it in a rather sad way.
The families I’ve seen over the last thirty years whose children have remained in our churches and have become the next generation in our parishes, seem to share some common traits. For one thing, their faith is an important part of their lives, not only on Sunday but also during the rest of the week. They pray together, they try hard to apply the lessons from the sermons and from their spiritual readings to their lives, and they share their faith with their children. And even more than that, they enjoy their faith and are happy and eager to come to church – for them it is a positive experience, and they look forward to it. They encourage their children and help them to find ways to learn and participate in the services.
We need to be honest about what we are asking of our children. There are enormous societal pressures on families these days not to attend church – organized sports activities, invitations from non-church-going friends, just the opportunity to stay home and relax after a busy week. And let’s not sugar-coat a basic issue: many young adults just hit a time when they need to break away from the parents and “leaving the church” is a pretty easy way for them to make a statement. And as they get older, the possibility of a “mixed marriage” with the other spouse being non-Orthodox is quite high, leading to a pull in other directions.
There are also sad situations in church where members find themselves in bitter disputes with other parishioners. Even if they don’t know the causes, the children pick up on the tension and unhappiness in what should be a loving environment; and if there is a disconnect between what the adults say and how they actually behave, the children are quick to label the adults as “hypocrites” and the faith therefore false.
So we need to recognize that what we are asking of our children is not easy, and if we can’t provide them with adequate support and try our best to “live what we preach,” we are letting them down in a big way.
On the other hand, there are families who come faithfully in spite of problems in their church and find a way to overcome any negativity, and indeed bring light and love to the rest of the parish. And there are children whose parents are not really connected to their church by their faith, but who find a mentor or friend in an adult, perhaps the priest or a Church School teacher or a grandparent, and find a deep faith of their own in that way. God works in mysterious ways indeed.
So what are some ways we can help our children grow in our faith and remain in our churches? We can give them the best instruction possible; we can bring them to all the services; we can teach them to cook, sing and dance according to our own traditions. And all that will (or at least might) help. But just like raising children in general, there is no simple “one way”. And I am no expert – in our own family, of our three grown children, only one attends an Orthodox church regularly at this point.
But my thought is that the bottom line for children has to be in the positive experience they find at church, and perhaps most important of all, how the family as a whole makes their church experience a happy, meaningful and spiritually enriching part of their lives. Then we beg God’s forgiveness for our mistakes and failings, and add a lot of prayers for the spiritual safety of our children as they grow up!