Beyond Sunday School: Bridges to Orthodoxy
It started with a simple plea from my kids… “Sunday school is boring mom – please don’t make us go!” I looked at them and asked, “What if I promise to help make it better? Will you go?” “You promise?” they insisted. “I promise,” I answered.
So I promised…and, a promise is a promise. To be honest, I had no idea the rabbit hole this specific promise would lead me down. Fast-forward 8 years: I started writing curriculum, developed youth ministry principles, and even earned a Masters in Orthodox Theology with a Youth Ministry emphasis. What I’ve learned more than anything else is that we (the Orthodox Church) have to do better to be there for our North-American-born youth.
The next step seemed obvious (scary, but obvious) – I needed to create a platform to share what I’ve created with others. Thus, www.bridgestoorthodoxy.com was formed. I felt called to provide helpful resources to our Orthodox parish Sunday school classrooms. There is one thing that must be emphasized though: Youth Ministry is so much more than Sunday school.
There is a growing hunger among the American-born generation of youth in our Orthodox parishes – a hunger for identity, direction, and belonging.
Growing up with Egyptian immigrant parents—I can relate. I always felt awkward and completely out of place both in school and in Church. At school, I had the strictest parents, the weirdest food at lunch (especially during Lent), and a misunderstood cultural identity. I always felt like an outsider. At Church, no one seemed to speak English and I did not really understand the Liturgy other than needing to stay “quiet.” I always felt like an outsider.
The Orthodox Church model is from the Apostolic roots of “togetherness” and “a common life.” (See also Acts 2:44). We believe that the Church is indeed the Body of Christ with Jesus Christ as the Head. Every member is as important as the next, especially the children. It seems to reason that the Orthodox Church is the perfect place where youth feel a sense of identity, direction, and belonging.
All too often, unfortunately, they do not.
Why? I truly believe it is because many of our Orthodox parishes in North America do not put enough resources in developing a well thought-out Youth Ministry effort. Sunday school curriculum is a valuable tool and a valuable part of a Youth Ministry effort, but it is not and should not be the only part. A one-hour lesson per week (if we are lucky) will not satisfy the hunger of our youth.
Youth Ministry must be thought of as a multi-tiered approach to provide not only spiritual education, but also a place for our youth to make meaningful friendships, be exposed to spiritual role models, and, most importantly, develop their own identity in the Body of Christ. Each one of us was knit together uniquely, and it seems to me that we all (especially the youth) have a natural desire to discover what makes us unique. To discover strengths, weaknesses, and all the in between nuances of how God uniquely knit us together and, hopefully, how to use these insights for God’s glory.
The youth need to grow to understand that being a Child of God is not a compartment reserved for Sunday, but an innate part of who they are 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our living God, moreover, is not a mere character in an intellectual textbook, but our Creator who desires to have a personal relationship with each one of us.
I hope the resources at Bridges to Orthodoxy bring relief to the stretched-thin volunteers and freedom to parish leaders to create other tools in their buckets. I hope the materials, which are a mix of social topics, Biblical study topics, and Orthodox faith topics, prove to be a valuable resource to open conversations with our youth that they so badly need to hear.
But parishes should not stop with the Sunday school experience. I challenge parishes to look beyond Sunday school – create tools and then share them with the rest of us. Be it fellowship groups, community service opportunities, spiritual retreats, trivia competitions, sports groups – our youth need us to be there for them.
Parish volunteers have an amazing responsibility to lead – but one does not lead by writing and re-writing curriculum. Leave that to us and, instead, lead by example. Make a promise to the youth you serve and let Bridges to Orthodoxy help you make good on that promise. After all, a promise is a promise.