Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides, Ph.D.
Office of Vocation & Ministry

Today’s young adults face many social challenges that cause them to yearn for authentic Christian experiences to nourish and support their religious and spiritual lives. When they approach Orthodox parishes they too often encounter barriers that cause them to search beyond the walls of Orthodox parishes for community and experiences of transcendence. Orthodox Christian archdioceses, metropolises, and regions are doing amazing work hosting conferences and retreats on regional and national levels. And in some remarkable communities, young adults form an important part of a parish. But what if a growing number of individual Orthodox parishes were able to inspire and nurture the religious lives of young adults in their communities?

Through a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment to Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, the Office of Vocation & Ministry has the extraordinary opportunity to launch The Telos Project, an initiative geared at energizing parishes to build relationships with young adults in their communities and to pilot ministry for and with them. This initiative, drawing on the biblical concept of the Greek word telos, or end goal, aims to focus both young adults and whole congregations on their own end goals, as people and as communities—to plan backward, to think with the end in mind. What is the reason for faith and religion? What is the reason for our participation in the life of a congregation? And for parishes—what is the end goal of why a parish exists? How does this shape our attitudes and understandings of young adults and our interactions with them?

Since the coinage of the term “emerging adulthood” by Jeffrey Arnett in 2000, there has been an explosion of study of young adulthood both generally and, more particularly, around the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults.[1] Much of this work focuses on how the religious faith of young people today is distinctive because of the unique contours of their generation—they have been called Millennials, Generation Y, Generation Next, and the Echo Boomers. The literature on emerging adult faith often centers on the notion that Millennials have given up on Christian practice and identification. There are keen insights to be learned from this dominant narrative, but at the same time, critical challenges as well. Jonathan P. Hill’s 2015 monograph, Emerging Adulthood and Faith, argues, “the standard exodus narrative turns out to be quite flawed” because it too often latches onto one particular statistic rather than takes into account a much broader range of data as well as the larger social and historical context.[2] A key takeaway from Hill’s sociological study: doomsday narratives about young adults leaving the church must be avoided. He argues that we should be instead focusing on the following questions: “How does the Church provide a compelling counter-narrative to the dominant script?”[3]; “how can we involve emerging adults in our own congregations?”[4] These questions leave us with the question: beyond generalizations and statistics, how do we, as Orthodox Christians, get to know the young adults in our particular communities?

We hope that through The Telos Project pilot parishes will identify a new cohort of young adults who have an awakened passion for their faith in Christ and the relevance of both Church and the parish to their life. We hope parishes will also see an increase in the number of adult members of the community who reach out to young adults visiting or attending the parish and can articulate the importance of this outreach. This project has the potential to dramatically shift the religious landscape of young adult participation in the life of Orthodox churches—certainly within the partner parishes, but also more broadly to additional parishes and regions. By God’s grace, it may change the predominant narrative about young adults and parish life from one of disassociation and irrelevance to a narrative of inclusion, belonging, mentoring, and community where young adults are supported to navigate challenging life transitions in and through a transformative and life-giving faith in Christ.

As this important work takes place at the parish level, it is a blessing to have the home of this project at Hellenic College Holy Cross. We expect that every pilot parish will have its own unique experiences to share and that the Church as a whole will be able to learn from the variety of creative and faithful dynamism. The integration of Telos Project learning into HCHC curriculum will allow the school to be better positioned to help its students prepare to lead congregations to live out more fully their telos as communities. The project will produce a new highly accessible body of knowledge for the Orthodox churches in the United States on the religious needs of 23-29 year olds, the variety of ministry emphases that effectively respond to these needs, and the process itself of local team-building, designing new initiatives, and reflecting on learning. Telos Project learning will thereby prepare every future pastor and lay leader trained at HCHC. At the same time, Office of Vocation & Ministry will also integrate this knowledge into its vocation work with teenagers, college students, and alumni. Join our community to learn along with us!

[1] This book seems to establish officially this point: Jeffrey Arnett, The Oxford Handbook of Emerging Adulthood, Oxford Library of Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] Jonathan P. Hill, Emerging Adulthood and Faith, Calvin Shorts (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Calvin College Press, 2015), 11. See also page 4.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 68.. Hill also leaves readers with a keen insight, one that resounds with Orthodox Christians who are deeply liturgically focused: the central place of Christian worship for all ages, as “a necessary source of continual sustenance for the Christian, not an optional add-on to faith.”