We told you when we started this project that Telos is an unknown destination. We’re here to first understand and then strengthen and deepen the relationship between Orthodox parishes in 2018 America and young adults, ages 23–29. We’re not here to outfit you, as Ann said earlier, with a new, national program. We’re actually going to get hyper-local, not national, asking you all to dig really deeply into your particular contexts and your particular young adults, while we watch, listen, and learn.
Deep digging, as gardeners will know, at first creates more mess than sense. It will first uncover questions, some of which might not have obvious answers. It might uncover attitudes you didn’t expect to encounter or structural challenges that make you think you’ve hit a dead end. And for us at Telos HQ, it’s going to do that at least FOURTEEN TIMES. But we’re in the mess together; the only reason the Telos Project exists is to think through hard questions with you, to listen for the voice of God together and to help you find the resources you need to do what you are called to do: make your parishes a place where young adults thrive.
So, as a way of embracing, of literally living in that messy question stage, let me explain a couple of things about the room we are in and every room we’ll be in this week.
On the wall to my right, we’ve posted a few questions we have for you. We’re asking you, at various breaks or other free moments, to come have a look, give us your thoughts, your answers, writing them right on the posted sheets. As the sessions progress, we might add more questions, so keep checking.
On the wall to my left, we’ve just placed a heading “QUESTIONS & WONDERINGS.” This space is for your questions to us. If you have a question, write it on one of the post-its on your table and stick it up there. The question can be ANYTHING Telos related. If you have a very practical question about a concrete next step in your work, feel free to post that question on the wall. If a speaker makes a statement that makes you wonder about something, wonder about it onto a piece of colored paper and stick it on the wall. As the consultation progresses, we are going to keep checking the wall and answering questions, responding to wonderings, as time allows. But this way, even if time doesn’t allow, we can have a record of your questions and find a way to respond to them later. These walls are going to be a moveable feast; they’re coming with us into every main gathering each day, so whenever the opportunity or urge strikes, put something up there.
So, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we don’t know where we’re going… but in working with you all these last few months, we do think we’re figuring out a formula. We are beginning to believe that Telos is made up of three things:
truth + reality + tools = the telos project
Tools are much of what we have dabbled in so far. We asked you to do StrengthsFinder assessments to help you understand one another’s working styles and what each of your team members was bringing to the table. StrengthsFinder is a tool.
We asked you to read about adaptive design thinking, because it’s a school of thought that addresses how to support creative development and growth, not in a vacuum, but in older institutions with an established way of doing things. Adaptive Design is a tool.
We asked you to try a variety of mapping exercises, so you would start to pay attention, in some very elementary, baby-steps ways, to where and how young adults fit into your communities. Mapping exercises are tools.
The world is full of tools that people use to better understand and unpack challenges. On the one hand, tools change over time, so they should be held lightly. On the other hand, the right tool at the right time can completely change a situation and make incredible things possible. When Ss. Cyril & Methodius designed the first Slavonic alphabet, they created a tool that unleashed the gospel for millions of people.
So, tools are important and, because of that, all of tomorrow—all of our time with Mark & Sophia—will be dedicated to them. Tonight, we’re not going to talk about tools. Tonight, we’re going to step back from tools and step inwards, focusing on deeper, more foundational aspects of the work. Tonight we’re going to focus on
truth and reality
What do I mean by truth? In short, truth is our “why.” A little while ago I said Telos HQ was here to help you find the resources you need to make your parish a place where young adults thrive. Why do you want to do that? What’s your motivation? Why are we here? Why should young adults open the door of your parish and step inside when they have questions about their spiritual and religious lives?
I’m going to ask you to bracket all the reasons we sometimes hear in our parishes. I want you to bracket concerns about paying bills, preserving our heritage for future generations, or, my favorite summary quote of why some parishes think they need young adults (and this came from one of your conversations): “lift this, clean that.”
I also want you to put aside the complacency, a dangerous one we sometimes settle into, (and this one we read in some of the original applications to Telos) that it’s normal for young adults to drift away from the Church for a time…that they’ll go, but they’ll come back. That what happens in one’s 20s, stays in one’s 20s and has nothing to do with the work of the Kingdom of God.
Bracket all that. Why should we give serious attention to the religious and spiritual lives of young adults?
The deep and critical truth is this: God never imagined the Church without young adults; the very birth of the Church at Pentecost, as St. Peter preaches, is God fulfilling a promise: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” God loves and longs for young adults—no matter the still evolving nature of their lives—as much as he loves and longs for anyone else. And God unleashes something powerful on the world, in the Church, and in our hearts when young adults and older adults are knit together into a community, in mutual care and respect for one another and in service to and worship of Christ.
We need to look past the negative statistics or fatalistic freak-outs that everyone drags out when the topic of young adults in the church emerges. We need to, instead, fix our eyes on this truth: God loves young adults and we in the Church are incomplete without them.
Orthodoxy is filled with expressions and examples of this truth. We can find it spoken in the scriptures, we can find it captured in the lives and writings of the saints, and God even allows us, in his mercy, to experience it lived out in the lives of faithful Orthodox Christians we know and love, or who have inspired us from afar—when we meet or read about people who did amazing things as Orthodox young adults, or older believers who pour themselves out for young adults, who maybe poured themselves out for you as a young adult, in an unmistakable sign of God’s abundant love.
I’m going to share a few of the signs that have encouraged me and taught me that integrating young adults fully into the life of the church is worth working hard for.
I have heard in the epistle read in liturgy how the Apostle Paul writes to Timothy in the very first generation of the church and encourages him as a young adult trying to serve. St. Paul says, “ Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” It sounds like there must have been tension about the place of young adults in the church—especially in leadership—even then. (And reading your conversation notes, for some communities that tension is still there.) And yet Paul not only assumes that Timothy is active in the Church, but also that other believers will learn from Timothy in critical ways: in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.
Reading Isaac of Syria this past Lent, I was struck by his direction: “Sit in the presence of the Lord every moment of your life, as you think of him and recollect him in your heart.” “EVERY MOMENT OF YOUR LIFE.” Even in your 20s! Why every moment? St. Isaac explains “otherwise, when you only see God after a period of time you will lack freedom of speaking openly with him, because you will feel awkward or ashamed.” This spiritual truth appears in your conversations also; many of your young adults have said that when they’ve become more distant from the Church, often at first almost by accident—because of a new job, a move to a new city, the intensity of graduate school—reintegrating feels challenging. Small barriers to participation feel bigger and sometimes it becomes easier to just stay away. But others affirm— and this is encouraging— that one of the gifts of our tradition is that Liturgy anywhere can feel like home; if they can just get themselves in the door, and if they are welcomed into a community through relationships, then sitting in the presence of the Lord again feels sweet. They miss it! They want it!
I’ve been inspired by Orthodox young adults doing great things. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, whose article “I believe in God” we asked you to read, long before he was a metropolitan, was a young refugee doctor living in Paris in his 20s during the 1930s. He was part of an entire generation of Orthodox young adults who stepped out into a world of complete chaos— collapsing empires, militant atheism, war. Theirs was a world in which all of society was being reinvented, radically reinvented, and, in a very real way, they could have decided to try to be anyone, do anything and go anywhere. But they said, each in their own way, “I believe in God” and made the decision to invest in one another and the Orthodox Church.
They created the Orthodox youth movements—a completely new model of ministry. These young people either became or inspired an entire generation of Orthodox leadership here in the United States, in all our jurisdictions. And honestly, when I read your conversations or even just the directory for this gathering, and I see all the gifts, the strengths, and skills in all of you and those young adults you are connecting with, I wonder what it is that God has in store for all of us.
And I’ve been inspired by young adults doing small things with great love. One day, as a 24 year old graduate student, I got on a bus to go see what an Orthodox vespers was like. I had grown up in a house filled with icons, but they’d been hung by a non-observant Orthodox parent. On the bus I worried aloud to my non-Orthodox husband about how we would know where to get off, about what the building would look like, about whether we’d understand the service, about whether we’d be welcome—and the two young adults sitting in front of us turned around and introduced themselves. They were heading to vespers too and we were absolutely welcome to get off the bus with them and stand with them in church.
Eighteen years later, those now older adults are our best friends and godparents to our oldest son. And here I am, a presvytera, a graduate of an Orthodox seminary, talking to you. Because two young adults were brave on a bus…and because they carefully introduced me to the friendly people first and saved the grumpy people for later. Think about it. Your brave and friendly conversations, in diners, in coffee shops, on busses, have the same potential.
Signs in the scriptures, signs in the saints, signs in the lives of faithful Orthodox people that speak the truth that young adults must matter to the Church and that the Church must matter to young adults; these are the signs that brought me here. We asked you to think about what signs you have seen, what truth feeds your soul for this work as you prepared to come here.
And now we want you to take 5 quiet minutes to reflect on what I’ve shared, what you thought about as you prepared to come here, and to write:
What truths from the Orthodox tradition—what scriptures, writings, or examples from the lives of the saints (or not-yet saints!)—inspire you to want to give serious attention to the religious and spiritual lives of young adults?
And then you’ll have 25 minutes to share with one another at your table and then write yours on sheets like mine and add them to our Truth wall. WHAT ARE THE TRUTHS FROM OUR TRADITION THAT INSPIRE ALL OF US TO DO THIS WORK?
REFLECTION & CONVERSATION
Time for written reflection followed by table discussion and adding Truths to the wall
What is reality? Reality is the very real circumstances we live in the midst of, the concrete texture of our world, our culture. What’s the difference between truth and reality? Truth is eternal; reality shifts from place to place, from age to age. So while reality is not as precious to us as truth, it is incredibly important. Because reality shapes the context in which we strive to live out truth. And because it is the job of the Church in every generation to bring truth into new realities.
All of our best Orthodox teachers and successful Orthodox missionaries have always engaged reality head on.
Acknowledging reality is why Ss. Cyril and Methodius undertook that long, difficult and sometimes dangerous work of creating the first alphabet for Slavonic and began translating the scriptures and the liturgy into that language. Or why St. Nicholas of Japan spent years living in Japan, learning Japanese, observing Japanese culture, listening to Buddhist priests, reading their texts, so he would understand how to preach to the Japanese people. Or why Sophie Koulomzin, a refugee from the Russian Revolution living in France, worked with the YMCA to develop the first Orthodox summer camps for kids—realizing that removed from an Orthodox culture, children needed a way to experience the Orthodox rhythms of life. And, frankly, it was also a response to the reality that many Russian refugee families were completely destitute. Camp gave her a very real way to feed children well for a few weeks, without triggering the shame of their parents (many of whom had been from the upper classes in Russia). She and St. Maria of Paris would go begging door-to-door, taking shame upon themselves instead, to be able to buy healthy groceries for those who came into their ministries.
All of these people had laid claim of a truth, that God loves and longs for all his children, whatever their language, culture, or age, so much so that he can and will make a way in a strange new world. They sought to bring that truth into their new reality, often using new tools as they did so.
So this is what we at Telos mean by acknowledging reality; becoming aware of the actual situation on the ground and then thinking carefully, deliberately, with patience, with self- sacrifice, about how to engage it.
But too often when we say “reality” when talking about young adult spiritual and religious life, it becomes a way to list rationalizations. For older adults, we are prone to want to list all the reasons why it’s so hard to get young adults to “lift this, clean that.” It’s young adult obsession with media and their attachment to their phones. Or it’s all the things that young adults don’t understand about church and if they only understood, well then, there would be no problem.
Young adults have rationalizations too. About that person in coffee hour who they overheard ranting about politics they disagree with. Offhand remarks about how there is no time to come to services–even while finding plenty of time for a host of other things. How they don’t think the parish budget makes sense—but they never stay for the annual meeting.
Folks, we are asking you to stand in the gap and listen, deeply, attentively, to everyone. This is where the empathy comes in! We are asking you to be present—lovingly present—to the entire spectrum of human excuse making—indifference, distraction, misguided zeal, frustrations, perhaps pain, perhaps anger. We expect you’ll hear justifications that grow out of real wounds, and justifications that grow out of bad habits. And once you’ve listened long and hard, once you’ve built good relationships, we hope you’ll dig beneath the justification and be able to ask, both those at the heart of your communities and to those on the margins, in the highways and byways of coffee shops: What is really going on? What is reality in this situation? What are we responsible to think hard about? What will God call us into account for regarding our young adult brothers and sisters in Christ?
If the excuse is that they don’t think the parish budget makes sense, perhaps the reality of why they don’t stay for the annual meeting is that, as young adults, their input is continually dismissed. We’ve discerned the truth that God wants us to make a way in this wilderness; so now we need to discern the nature of that wilderness, to see what we’ll need for the journey. We’re asking you to be present to the litany of “impossibles” but then step up and help people understand the “possible”, and then help them find ways to do it.
In other words, we’re asking you to be a little like Moses.
The ancient Israelites living in Egypt were not necessarily great examples of piety, or centeredness. Their commitment to the God of Israel could be shaky, at best. They were a bunch of suspicious complainers who almost invariably acted against their own best self- interest and could be incredibly annoying. Probably a good chunk of them only observed religious rites on holidays.
But the truth that motivated God to act was not their worthiness, but that they were suffering and they were slaves when He had created them to be free. Their reality? They were physically trapped and without a leader. When Moses, nervous and unskilled, agreed to try to be that leader, to address that reality, to focus on what he could do and not indulge in rationalizing the countless things he couldn’t do, God unlocked the rest.
It is time for the Lord to act. But he needs us to show up, to do the work of the people, in this case, on behalf of and with young adults.
The reality is that young adults are living in a world unlike any we have ever seen before and we need leaders through this new wilderness. And we need some of those leaders to be young adults.
What is this wilderness? What’s its reality? Any young adult can turn on their phone, their computer, their Apple TV, at any time and be plunged into the consumerist vision of what their life should be like. What they should be wearing, what they should be caring deeply about, what should outrage them, what they should be eating for lunch (and photographing). Regardless of the degree to which they buy into it or not, this is their environment and, as we talked about in the Landscapes webinar, it’s easy to get lost in the marketplace of ideas, people, and things. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and not be able to orient yourself simply when making decisions.
Many of the young adults you’ve been having conversations with have expressed this: that they don’t know exactly how they came to a place where they feel far from the church. Sure, there are those who had a conflict or a bad experience drive them away, but for so many, they can think of nothing specific. A whole bunch of circumstances collided and it just seemed to happen. And now, in the midst of an overwhelming amount of options and choices and opportunities, they don’t know how to come back…or if they should.
These young adults are describing their reality. Will we believe them? Will we take them seriously? Will we think hard about how we can minister to and with them in this wilderness? Or will we retreat into rationalizations about why we cannot respond?
Because it’s about more than them being overwhelmed (honestly, I think all of us find this world a little overwhelming).
Life has always been hard, in fact it’s mostly been harder than it is now. But the incongruity that emerges between how easy life LOOKS and how hard life FEELS is new and different and real. And for many young adults their burdens are made heavier by what they feel their lives SHOULD be.
Honestly, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been, I was struck by how many of the young adults in your conversations have already struggled with real hardship. The person in their 20s always feels stereotypically carefree to those of us who are older, right? But life’s challenges were all there. And because of the way making and maintaining friendships can be challenging in America’s increasingly mobile and isolating reality, young adults are, more often than not, facing these hardships alone. Our intern Adam Murphy shared a study with Ann and I the other day, done by Cigna, the health insurance company. Of 20,000 adults surveyed across America, 54 percent said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. And, the survey found that loneliness went up as age went down.
So many of your young adults are facing hardship alone. Parents ill or dying or going through ugly divorces. Difficult break-ups of their own relationships. Sometimes crippling insecurity about a big life decision. Financial stress. For some of them, catastrophic levels of educational debt. Can you imagine being 25 and owing the equivalent of a large house, but without the house? And no sure prospect that you’ll be successful in your chosen career yet either? If not, know that some of your young adult colleagues in this room are probably living THAT reality. A number of the young adults you’ve spoken to in conversations certainly were.
Encouragingly, many of those shared that the Church had been a resource for them and their families in hard times, and because fellow believers engaged, concretely, with THEIR REALITY, they are connected to their parishes today. Many parishes are actually quite good at supporting people of any age through certain kind of hardships. We know how to support and love the grieving, the ill.
But we need to be honest: some of this is going to be difficult. Our parishes struggle more with how to be appropriately supportive when faced with the ambiguity that surrounds situations like divorce or non-traditional dating patterns, parenting outside of marriage, or non-Orthodox spouses. And I have yet to encounter an Orthodox parish anywhere that has any good ideas about how to engage their young adult parishioners’ student debt.
Again, these young adults are describing their reality. Are we willing to think hard about what we can do to help our parishes navigate this landscape with them, even when there are things that, on principle, we disagree with? It is so tempting to retreat into rationalizations about why we cannot respond. But instead, we have the call, the joy of working on this project together: How we can minister to and with them in this wilderness?
So we now turn to the question we asked you: What realities of young adulthood have loomed largest for you in your Telos conversations? Take 5 quiet minutes to reflect and to write:
What are you yourself experiencing or hearing about the realities of young adult lives in our world today? What themes are emerging for you based on your work of relationship-building and empathy?
And then you’ll have 25 minutes to share those realities with one another and then write yours on sheets like mine and add them to our REALITY wall. Don’t worry about duplications.
REFLECTION AND CONVERSATION
Time for written reflection followed by table discussion and adding realities to the wall.
To close, I just want to put before you our equation, as it now stands.
truth + reality + tools = the telos project
This is what we’ve learned so far working with all of you. Over the next few years, as we learn more, this might evolve. But these are the things that have emerged as important now. Something else we’ve learned? That some people want to try to skip the truth and reality parts and head right for the tools. Some of you may have encountered that impulse, people in your parish asking what Telos is giving you to fix the problem of young adults; some of you may have had that impulse! (It’s okay, you can tell me—no judging!) But we’re here to tell you, without the truth and the reality, no tool is going to work in the long term. Truth is about learning to see young adults and the Church with God’s eyes; reality, where we are and when we are, is exactly where Christ is asking us to be faithful. If God is for us, in divine solidarity, as Metropolitan Anthony said, and if we commit ourselves to “learn from that perfect solidarity, from the insuperable courage and love of God”, who can be against us?
CHRIST IS RISEN!