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Dorothy Day was a Catholic social activist. A Cardinal once described her as trying "to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist."
This is a beautiful description that should apply to every Christian’s life!
After all, as Saint Paul wrote, the Gospel is something that doesn’t quite make sense in light of the wisdom of our time: "We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (1 Corinthians 1:23)
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And this “foolishness” makes perfect sense to Christians because we are not shaped by the folly of the world. Rather than think as the world thinks, “we have the Mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16)
But do we really have this Mind?
Do our lives only make sense in light of the crucified Christ?
Or do our lives makes perfect sense without God?
Asked another way, are we Orthodox Christians shaping the world…or being shaped by the world?
I’ve spent my entire life involved in the ministries of the Church, both as a participant and a leader (I started teaching Sunday School when I was in high school, for example).
And, based on those decades of experience, I’d argue that the ministries of the Church often make perfect sense without God: that they’re shaping people according to the foolishness of the world rather than the Mind of Christ.
That’s a bold statement, I know. So let’s get into it…
The Shape of Orthodox Christian Ministries
As the Director of Y2AM, I spent the last nine years trying to address a significant problem.
Because the way Orthodox Christians tend to approach youth and young adult ministry simply hasn’t been working…
Generations of young people have passed through a dizzying array of ministries: Sunday School, summer camp, youth group, you name it. By the time someone turns eighteen, he will have spent as many as fifteen years involved in various youth ministries.
And yet, we all know that the overwhelming majority of these young people are increasingly disaffected and disengaged from the life of the Church. They are increasingly of the opinion that their lives "make sense" without God.
They grow up, not into faithful Christians, but former Christians.
Of course, it’s easy to blame the culture for this phenomenon…
But what if we Orthodox Christians have internalized a flat, “secular” worldview? What if we have designed our ministries and communities to make sense without God?
What if, after a lifetime spent in a variety of ministries, young people are simply far more at home outside of the Church than inside the Church?
Because that’s exactly what we’ve taught them to seek!
Now, this can be a particularly hard pill for Orthodox Christians to swallow…
After all, we believe the same dogmas we’ve always believed. We still read the same works of theology we’ve always read.
I mean, if anyone can claim to be immune from the influence of contemporary culture, surely it’s the members of the venerable and ancient Church.
Surely it’s us Orthodox Christians!
One Young Adult’s Story
I’ve given talks to thousands of young adults across the country, and have been blessed to speak face-to-face with hundreds of them. When young adults share their stories, I’ve noticed a common thread.
And that thread was incredibly obvious when I met Catherine at a young adult event.
We were going around the room, sharing our stories and struggles. And, as Catherine spoke, everyone in the room began nodding in silent agreement.
Because her story, while stark, is far from unique…
Catherine described growing up in the Church. She was active in everything: from Sunday School to the parish dance group. She played on the basketball team and never missed a youth event.
Yet, as soon as she graduated high school, her relationship with the Church dissolved overnight…
Catherine spent the next few years popping in and out of different clubs and groups. And that’s why our paths crossed: as soon as she heard that there was an Orthodox young adult event in the area, she made sure to attend.
Because, as she described her journey, one thing was clear: Catherine was desperate to belong to something.
She grew up belonging to groups. And, having heard a new young adult group was meeting, she was eager to join.
But you know what she wasn’t looking for? A relationship with Christ. A place in His Church.
She’d never experienced any of that in her life, so it wasn’t something she knew to look for.
Instead, Catherine had internalized an institutional group identify. A lifetime of ministry hadn’t prepared her for anything deeper.
Even after spending most of her deeply embedded in the ministries of the Church, she never felt like she knew Christ or belonged to His Church…
"Institutionalized" by Ministry
How can someone who was active in literally every program the Church offered feel so disconnected from the Church?
Well, there’s a scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption that may help help us understand what’s going on…
The movie takes place in Shawshank State Prison. And Brooks Hatlen is an elderly inmate, someone who was locked up as a young man and spent his entire life behind bars.
Unexpectedly, Brooks learns that he’s been paroled at age 73, after over 40 years in prison.
You’d think that would be cause for celebration, right?
Yet Brooks isn’t pleased with the news. Instead, he holds a knife to another inmate’s throat and threatens to kill him.
One of Brooks’s friends is confused by this reaction: why isn’t Brooks happy to finally be a free man?
Another inmate soberly responds: Brooks has been institutionalized. He’s spent so long in prison that he no longer knows how to live as a free man. There is nothing connecting him with the wider world.
After all, what’s a prisoner without prison walls?
And what’s a youth group member without youth group?
The End of Ministry?
I’ve spoken to a lot of concerned grownups over the years: from priests to parents to parish council members. Whether or not they have children of their own, they tend to share an anxiety about the direction of ministry. And they tend to express that anxiety with a simple question:
How do we keep kids in the Church?
This question, simple though it may appear, assumes that the purpose or “end” of ministry is to do things like:
keep kids out of trouble;
help kids grow up to be Church participants and donors; and
ensure that kids keep identifying as Orthodox Christians.
Of course, none of that is bad, necessarily. But something critical is missing…
Because what we call “ministry” is really just about behavior management or organizational development or brand awareness.
Is any of this particularly Christian, in the deepest sense of the word?
Is any of this really about knowing Christ?
This question hit me when I was preparing to give a talk at OCF’s annual College Conference. As I prepared to speak to over 300 college students, I wandered in the Antiochian Village museum and discovered this painting:
I was mesmerized.
Artist Niko Cochelli portrays the moment of Saint Ignatius’ martyrdom in vivid detail. As the first beast bites into the great saint, we can see both the pain and hope in his eyes.
As the life begins to bleed out of him Saint Ignatius looks into the distance, keeping his attention firmly rooted on Christ and the Life that only He can offer.
I had read Saint Ignatius’ words, but seeing Cochelli’s painting finally brought them to life:
Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.
(St Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans)
As I gazed upon the witness of this great saint and martyr, I wondered: what if I were to tell that roomful of college students that this is the end of ministry?
What if I were to tell their parents?
What if I were to say that the goal of Christian ministry is not to raise well-behaved, respectable parishioners who pay membership dues and affiliate with the correct religious club?
What if the end of ministry is to encounter Christ, embody His Church, and engage the world in His name?
What if the end of ministry is to know Christ? To love God with ones whole heart, soul, strength, and mind? To love ones neighbor as oneself?
No matter the cost…
If this strikes you as foolish, you’re not alone. When I was growing up, people wanted me to become a doctor or lawyer, someone successful who lived a comfortable life.
Sunday School would help make sure I was a good boy. Youth group would help me learn to be a productive member of the community. Young adult group would help me meet a nice girl with whom I could have nice, well-behaved babies and start the cycle all over again.
That all makes perfect sense without God, doesn’t it?
Whatever mind we’ve developed as a body of believers, it doesn’t seem to be the Mind of Christ.