Our Youth

In the Office of Vocation and Ministry (OVM) at Hellenic College, we have the exceptional privilege of working with high school juniors and seniors and college youth (ages 16 to 22) around the topic of their vocation as Orthodox Christians.  While this age is often trying for parents, we love it! It is prime time for spiritual formation. This is when our youth are exploring who they will be, beginning to make their own decisions, and discerning their life commitments.

And Their Vocation

We also love the topic of “vocation” for it allows us to take a big question that youth are often stumped over, “What will you be when you grow up?” and get to the real heart of the matter. The real vocation question is not about some theoretical future but about the present: “Who are you?”

We define vocation as one’s unique and ongoing response to Christ’s call to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the neighbor as oneself.  “Vocation” in the most Orthodox sense includes both choice of career path AND guiding faith—and everything in between. One of the chief values of our Orthodox definition is that it does not put vocation as some mysterious thing in our future that we may or may not figure out: everyone has a vocation in Christ, and we may choose to live it at every moment.

Holy Decisions

This means that the decisions our youth make now—what to believe, how to spend time—all this forms them in their vocation.  Every decision is an opportunity to respond to Christ’s call to become holy. Making holy decisions comes from making decisions out of love for God and love for our neighbor. As St. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 13, even if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, have faith to move mountains, or submit to being martyred, “I am nothing” and “gain nothing” without love.

Unfortunately, for young people, decision-making is challenging for a number reasons. Teenage minds do not have the ability to reason through decisions in the way adult minds do.  Their developing minds are required to juggle many competing factors when making decisions, including an overwhelming number of options, constant input from media and technology, and challenges from American culture itself. (See Resources 1, 2, and 3)

Our Culture and Decision-Making

In our work in the OVM, we have found the single greatest challenge facing our 16-22 year olds in making holy decisions is that the basic criteria our culture gives them for making the big decisions in life has little or nothing to do with the way in which we are all called to love by Christ. Our research of contemporary youth culture highlights two particular challenges:

  • Culture of Competition – The need for test scores, resume building, the stress of getting into the good college, etc. (See Resources 1 and 2)
  • Culture of Self-Focus – Educational and parenting models moved from balanced discipline to ultra positivity. A goal is to “catch them doing well.” This has in turn created “praise addiction.” (See Resources 1 and 3)

Our culture says: pursue those things that are going to make us successful and happy in the eyes of the world.  But this is remarkably me-centric when we break it down:  “I need to become the best I can be at the most prestigious job that I happen to really love in order to buy all the stuff that I think will make me the most happy.”

Unfortunately, some churches have taken our culture’s obsession with materialism and selfishness and turned it into a Gospel of Prosperity—where God exists to “make you a better you” or “get your best life now.”  Raised in the same culture, it’s often easy for us as Orthodox to do the same.  “Kids, you can live like everybody else during the week. Just make sure you go to church on Sunday, kiss the icons, and make your cross.”

What This Means For Parents

So what do we as youth workers say to parents about helping their young people make holy decisions in a culture that challenges an Orthodox view of vocation? From as early as we possibly can in our children’s lives, we strive to raise them to know that their ultimate purpose is found in Christ, and that they will only be fulfilled when “seeking first the Kingdom” (Matthew 6:33). This message should be reinforced through small daily decisions (making it a habit to have daily family prayers, etc.) as well as the way we navigate greater parenting and family issues (how money is spent, etc.).  But even if we have made these things a priority when our children are young, certain challenges come when teenagers become their own people and assert their own wills.  The following points on parenting youth and young adults come largely from the wisdom of Fr. Thomas Hopko. (See Resource 4)

Parenting for Vocation

  1. Live our own Christian vocation, modeling holy decision-making. As parents (and youth workers!), we must have the courage to tell our youth that sacrificial, Christ-like love is the criterion for their decisions.  Our words will only be meaningful if we ourselves are striving to “practice what we preach.”
  2. Expect that this will be a struggle, especially as we parent our children. The spiritual journey by its very nature includes struggles and challenges, and our own weaknesses as parents are often magnified as we try to parent well.
  3. Recognize and come to terms with how our own parents shaped us—in both positive and negative ways. This can both bring healing to the family and help us avoid repeating dysfunctional patterns with our children.
  4. Regarding the spiritual life of teenagers and young adults: When children reach this age, the parents’ role is to be there to respond if they have questions, concerns, etc. More often than not, our own children will not come to us about matters of faith; they will seek wisdom from others. Our role is to pray and guide them to find other adults who can serve as spiritual mentors.
  5. Know that our children’s knowledge of their faith must grow if it is to meet their emotional, spiritual and psychological needs and hold weight as they make their life decisions.  This means that at some point, simple textbook answers will not suffice. We must acknowledge their tough questions and be willing to explore the rich resources of our Orthodox tradition for good answers.

In Summary

In conclusion, our work with young people suggests that they are thirsting for something deeper than what the world can offer, for a challenge that they will rise to meet, for a love that is Christ-like, pointing upward toward God and outward toward the neighbor. All these desires lead to our ultimate purpose—as parents and children—as being made by God for life in Him. Although there are many challenges to teaching and living this, both in our families and in our society, for the sake of our youth, we must persevere in living our vocation here and now, thus inviting our children to do the same.