How Hard Is It?

During the 1970’s through the 1990’s many of America’s mainline denominations experienced a frightening loss of membership. Every preacher worth his salt blamed the loss of members on whatever his favorite hobbyhorse was. It was the lack of this, or the presence of that. In Orthodoxy, particularly in parts of the Northeast and in some other parts, a similar decline occurred. The Eli Lily Foundation actually did some studies on this phenomenon back in the 1990’s and reached solid conclusions that the losses in memberships were primarily losses in young people. Various Churches lost their youth for a variety of reasons – but it is not a mistake to say that this loss was widespread in America and cut across a wide swathe of ideological persuasions. Liberals lost – conservatives lost. But the constant is that all groups produced people more than willing to interpret the loss as proof of the need of their own agenda.

Liberal Churches thus found liberal agendas being fostered in the name of regaining the lost members, etc. If we were more sensitive to women, if we changed the liturgy, etc., all would be well. And of course that wasn’t right.

Some Churches in the Evangelical Spectrum saw their own radical changes in “liturgy” as an answer, and though it produced “mega churches” it did not likely solve the problem.

Now, of course, I’m a priest and I have my own favorite conclusions to draw on the problem, but that’s why I have a blog. I can write these things, and you can judge them.

There are many demographic and sociological forces at work in the statistics the Churches have experienced. The Baby Boom and their offspring have been a large part of the phenomenon. For heaven’s sake, my generation actually created a market for coonskin hats in the 1950’s.

But one of the great forces at work in our culture has been the simple failures in many areas to evangelize our children. You can discuss many ways to evangelize them – Sunday School, Camps, Retreats, etc., but still the law holds true, “God has no grandchildren.” This is certainly the case in our modern, quickly changing world.

I look at my own children, who have done fairly well in the Christianity department. Two daughters in their twenties are married to priests. Both of my teenage children continue active in Church. I pray for more and better in their lives. But I know that it is not inevitable that children grow up and fall away. It does not have to happen.

I also know that most of the agendas floated on the back of the fear engendered by the losses experienced over the past 30 years are false. They weren’t lost by the Church being too traditional or not modern enough (neither non-traditionalism nor modernity save – nor do traditionalism nor anti-modernity). Christ alone saves. The great issue is to successfully present Christ from one generation to the next.

This requires that the first generation actually know Christ. And it requires that this same generation cares enough about their children to tell them about Christ. There are many ways to do this, but it is no harder than that.

I am in my fifth decade of life. I still have children to teach, possibly grandchildren if God blesses. I have continuing generations of children in my Church to teach, to evangelize, with the help of their parents. But their is never a guarantee that somebody else will do it or that it happens without us making this the deepest part of our intentions.

I suppose this is part of my reflection from a series of conversations here in Boston. I have not told enough people about Christ, and there are many more to carefully do this with. I have not thought enough about children and their need for the gospel. I have a major agenda on my prayer plate coming home. We have a major agenda on our Christian plate in the generation that comes behind us. God give us grace to give them what they need. May they know Christ as He would have them know Him, and may I not be a stumbling block.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





11 responses to “How Hard Is It?”

  1. Jonathan Bush Avatar

    Father Stephen–
    You’re so very right about the need to share Christ with the next generation. This post and its timing is simply amazing. You have no idea how what you said dovetails with thoughts that have been going through my head as of late. I hope you and I get to talk soon. (I hope this weekend in Lexington, but I’m not banking on it.) Likewise, I hope that the conversation will be ongoing, if God will grant that it be so.

    As I mentioned above, I’ve been thinking much about youth and the need to evangelize and how to do that in an Orthodox context–more or less interpolating between my past life as an Evangelical youth ministry major (at one point, at least) and my life now as an ambitious Orthodox college student with the same fire for youth. Also, how to provide things so those coming from Evangelical backgrounds don’t just see the services and think “is this it? where’s the youth group? where’s the fellowship? where’s the younger community?” (And the fact that those are good things to have in general, former Evangelicals or not.) And my thoughts go on and on.

    I’ve spoken with Fr. Samuel here in town at St. Nicholas Antiochian, and he had some really great thoughts on the matter which I’ll share with you as a part of our discussion.

    There is so much more I could say, Father. You have really tapped into my heart’s desire with this post. But, I’ll stop myself now, lest I write a few volumes on it here and creash your blog page. 🙂

    Glory to Jesus Christ!
    Jonathan Bush

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Its not just sharing Christ as important and central as that is, but integrating our children into the community as valued and productive members. There is nothing more damaging to young people than the myth of a “youth culture”. That is ridiculous. Young people need to be brought up as apprentices so that they can experience various aspects of life in a Christian community–not in some made-up way as they will instantly dectect the condesension and reject it. Are we raising our children up for God in the Church or as a sacrifice to the world. How many are lost when they go away to college without any continuance in community.

  3. Theron Mathis Avatar


    I am an Orthodox convert as well. I was a youth ministry major at Liberty University, and since becoming Orthodox have worked some with the youth of our parish but not extensively.

    I have given a lot of thought to this as well, because our paradigm is so different than the evangelical one. However, there is an Evangelical book that does a good job creating a youth ministry model that is closer to how I think an Orthodox model should look. The book is Family Based Youth Minstry by Mark Devries.

    The jist is that most youth groups create christian teens but don’t prepare them for Christian adulthood and this creates the dropout rate we often see after college. I think this is true for a lot of Evangelical churches as well. The book attempts to integrate youth ministry with the other “age-groups” within the church rather than constantly segmenting them.

    God bless your ministry. I have three boys ages 1,4,&7, so this is a constat worry. My wife and I have actually talked about trying to create a better children’s program curriculum than what we usually find among our publishing houses.

    God Bless

  4. Jonathan Bush Avatar


    God bless you for your words of encouragement and for your book recommendation. I will be sure to read it when I have the chance, which only God, in His infinite knowledge, knows when that will be.

    I agree that it should be a family-based approach. In fact, in talks at St. Anne, I’ve often echoed Matushka Beth that youth things should include intergenerational activities, both up and down the age scale. The smaller children shouldn’t be afraid of being around the older kids, nor should the youth feel too cool to associate with the, *ahem*, much older kids. 😀

    One of the many things which I admire about the Baptist church where I spent the first 23 years of my life (and where I still remain close) is that there is no youth Vacation Bible School class. Instead, the youth are strongly encouraged to work within VBS, from central administration during the school (running general errands, taking roll, etc.) to teaching classes to helping in the kitchen. By doing so, they come into contact with every age group contained within the community of the church. And they do it eagerly! It’s truly wonderful to witness.

    That church and its leaders understand that you mustn’t simply raise youth with a love for Christ, but a love for Christ and his Church. If that is instilled in them and it is genuine, then they’ll naturally want to continue finding outlets for it when they move on to college and beyond, thereby staying interested in and focused on the Savior whose Church they desire to serve. At least, that’s how I see it.

  5. James the Thickheaded Avatar
    James the Thickheaded

    Fr. Stephen:

    You have hit one of the potholes in my life. It is difficult to pass the faith on to the next generation….even those we love most deeply and most closely. I did not have examples as a child myself in this, so I know that the Spirit works beyond our own abilities. How is simply a mystery. But it is particularly in the vortex of modern confusion that many of us who have tried to do this have been unsuccessful. We have prayed as a family, we have gone to church and seen our children confirmed and yet it has not grafted at this point. The patience and liberty that would support an independent rooting risks much in the process for at least a time.

    As involved as I was as a church leader, the unwillingness to teach basic Christian creeds, doctrine, history and spirituality and focus instead on a very one-dimensional (but nonetheless with merits of its own) social-political views of sanctity ultimately threatened to turn my frustration with constant change into the “I Can’t Take It Any More” sort. I left and came to Orthodoxy…and yet it is among my great repentances that as of this moment, I would have to say that I have failed my college-age family to whom it matters to me most.

    Yet it harkens back to the icon thing. I think they understand this most of all inherently – without theology….and that the failure of the church as they experienced it to reflect heaven as it should be left them with a view of the church as not the divinely instituted body of Christ…and therefore definitely optionable. In other words, I think they were turned off not by the authentic church….but by its pale imitation. If I they get better in the New York Times, or better social support at the fraternity house, why get up early on a Sunday and go to church? Substitution without a difference always fails. Young people want the authentic and see the opposite clearly. And yet sometimes they make up their minds too quickly or fail to keep looking secure in the knowledge that God has not abandoned his people….but trying to get them to come and see the real thing is at this point very difficult. And maybe I am just blind as well, but it seems to me the best we can do is to patiently witness to what we see in them and what we would see in ourselves as best we can, and pray that the Spirit will move them of their own, or give us openings to share our hearts more directly and gently…with reverence and invitation rather than imposition or judgment. It is a hard wait… know as well that the best opening may not come with our own children in this way, but with some stranger whom we might come to love as if they were our own…and yet they are not.

  6. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    I think my greatest insecurities as a father are rooted in this challenge.

    The amount of second guessing I’ve done in regard to my passing the faith to my children regularly drives me to my knees in both repentance and petition.

    But each of us is a free, unique, and unrepeatable person, and while a parent may do his best to share the faith with his children, ultimately it must come from their free choice.

    I confess I haven’t done my best, but perhaps the work of repentance and prayer is for my salvation as well as theirs.

    We do not grieve as those who have no hope.

  7. Dean Arnold Avatar


    I think homeschooling has been a key response by many parents to tackle the great issue of how to pass along truth, value and faith to the next generation.

    I don’t think its the silver bullet for all the problems, but it can make a major difference.

    Homeschooling won’t help a Muslim family to produce Christian kids, an atheist family to produce believers, or an evangelical family to produce Orthodox converts. But it does give them great opportunities, without greedy competitors at an early ages, to pass their own faith on to their children.

    Likewise, Orthodox parents, if they aren’t serious, won’t pass things along very well no matter what. But homeschooling certainly provides many opportunities otherwise lost or stolen by scant time and interaction, other worldviews, and ineffective institutions.

    Again, homeschooling isn’t the ultimate answer. While there is no ultimate answer in that the greatest saint might see a child not believe (Jesus had one bad apple), I do believe I have an anwser for the closest thing to the ultimate solution: integrity.

    I believe kids can see whether parents are genuine or not. I’m not talking about perfection, I’m talking about sinners who strive, who confess, who repent, who apologize to their kids and who continue to raise the banner despite their shortcomings.

    If children see an authentic Orthodox faith in their parents that translates into love for those around them and a fulfilling life, that is the ticket toward producing children who rise up to lead the faith into the next generation.

    That being said, I have to look into my own heart, my own attempts at integrity, and pray constantly, “Lord have mercy.”

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have to say that these comments are very encouraging. As I noted the thoughts I was writing came out of some conversations while I’ve been here in Boston. I have lots of thoughts and a sense of commitment, not a sense of the answers. It’s encouraging to read the thoughts of others who are thinking about the same thing and considering various solutions. It is truly essential work. Thank you all for your words and I look forward to these conversations.

  9. […] The post, entitled “How Hard Is It?“, was about sharing Christ with the next generation, and how imperitive it is to continuing growth—and to stifling decline—in the Church. Of course, it’s not just about numbers. In fact, it’s not really about that at all. But, I digress. […]

  10. […] – HOW HARD IS IT? “During the 1970’s through the 1990’s many of America’s mainline denominations experienced a frightening loss of membership. Every preacher worth his salt blamed the loss of members on whatever his favorite hobbyhorse was” … (fatherstephen) […]

  11. […] enjoyed the wonderful responses I got to my recent article, How Hard Is It?, in which I looked at our need to teach the faith to the next […]

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