Oriental orthodoxy in America is a new phenomenon probably not more than 60-80 years old. We could safely say that Oriental Orthodoxy was introduced by immigrants who adhere to practicing and living the orthodoxy. The Coptic Church has been in the West about 60-80 years. The Eritrean Orthodox Church in the west is not older than 20-30 years. Actually, it only had one church in North America before 1990’s. Similarly members of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Russian, Greek, Antiochian, etc.) began migrating to the United States over 200 years ago and have established many churches throughout the United States. When the Eastern Orthodox Church was established here, its goal was not only to preserve the “Orthodox faith” of the immigrants, but their culture as well. It allowed immigrants to feel "safe" and isolated from Western culture while continuing to practice their religion. As time passed, these immigrants had children in the US, and as they grew, they began to feel more and more alienated from their ethno-centric church. Gradually, large congregations dwindled as the youth left the church or married Westerners, outside the church. In the 1930s, the Eastern Orthodox Church decided it needed to change its course. It created three seminaries in the US to call a new generation of priests from America, and sought to remove the cultural barriers that prevented it from thriving in this country. The Current state of the Eritrean Church seems Eritrean etino-centeric culturally in terms of language, attitude of “rejecting what seems and looks foreign” and lack of english language competent Sunday school teachers and clergy.The faithful who have immigrated here hold the faith only as a matter of heritage but not of deep knowledge of what orthodox really is.The Liturgy and all Church services are in Geez [similar to Coptic language in Egyptian Church], all people communicate in Tigrigna [official language of Eritrea}. Toward the end of 2016, based on the study involving 117 Teenage youths, from 6 Churches in Midwest Eritrean Church, showed that ⅓ of the Youth were on the verge of leaving the Church due to language barrier, non-relevant sermon, and lack of close relation with the clergy. It is tragic.
The challenges for our brethren growing up here are multifactorial on different levels - mainly in three levels : - Parents [Family], Church and the world. The primary source of youth problems is at home where there ought to be the first and basic school of the faith, and there is often just non-existence. The other main challenge for our youth is the World. The secular system has been attacking the faith’s foundation [Holy Bible and its belief] and its practices systematically and left the youth in doubt even starting from kindergarten. The western culture now is much more like that of Athens mentioned in Act 17. The Judeo-Christian basis is no longer there. The western culture through the education system, and social media have been changing the hearts and minds of the youth, at most against the basic teaching of the faith and at least to tolerate sin and live with it. The Eritrean Church, being a newcomer to the West, haven’t tackled the youth challenge in a timely and to the level it required. The youths feel that they have been alienated from the Church on a day to day basis mostly due to language barriers. Even for those who followed the Church every Sunday, the Sunday School has not made an impact on saving the youth since the lessons are still not in english. The youth are lacking a teaching that builds a Christian Worldview that they could use in a day to day life. Lastly, the youths have a big time challenge in creating a strong relationship with the clergy [hence the Church] due to language barriers.
Principles for successful youth Ministry.
Authenticity in content and delivery. In Chapter two of the Book of Acts, we see how the faithful during Apostolic time were continuing “the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”. These basic Christian doctrines, worship and government are never up for renegotiation. They are not ours to change. We received our faith from Our Lord through His disciple to pass it to our Children. For example one cannot be an orthodox priest and reject the divinity of Christ, His virgin birth, resurrection, ascension into heaven or second coming. The fact you find rituals and practices in the Orthodox Church similar to the early Christian Church shows the radical nature of the church, in which its content in maintaining the faith, rite, and practices that were handed down to us since the beginning by Our Lord Jesus Christ. The universality of this Holy Church worship practices in different countries with different language and culture also proclaims it’s progressive nature to deliver its message. Another thing is that the Eucharist worship, in its structure, rites, ceremonies, text and its whole Spirit is in fact a practical life giving source of spirituality of the Church and its members. We shouldn’t change it in any way to accommodate foreign tendencies or culture for the sake of accommodation. We always need to preserve the Liturgical spirit of the early Church and continue to live by it and to draw life from its source. Equally important to the authenticity of the message in its content, the deliverer of the message should be authentic with an integrated Christian personality encompassing full knowledge and life of servanthood.
Creating fellowship and discipleship [Mt 28, Lk 6, Jn 8, Act 2& 6,]. The true faith that started with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ propagated in the Church from the apostles to now through discipleship. He taught them with His word, and action. They saw Him praying, talking, dealing with different people and situations. He established an authentic relationship/ discipleship and then sent them to the world to create first fellowship through teaching of His Word, living and acting the teaching and finally creating disciples. A church or christian teaching which couldn’t create disciples is not authentic. If we can not produce, through the help of the Lord, a committed, intentional and deliberate disciples with the mind of Christ [1 Cor 2:14-16] meaning with authentic Church teaching and hierarchy, then we need to rethink our way and redo it right. Because our faith with its Tradition that was delivered once for the saints flourished through discipleship.
All things need to lead to heaven. St. Paul in his message to I Corinthians 9: 24 teaches about running and winning the prize. What profit is there if the labor doesn't bear fruits? Once in a conference I remember a teacher was teaching about marriage. The teaching turned to discussion and the topic ended about the use of marriage in a Christian way to lead a happy and stable family. But this was an actual example of half true teaching. If a married person couldn’t reach the holiness that led to repentance and communion and ultimately to heaven, then the teaching has failed the orthodoxy of practical life. All roads [teaching, action, thinking in youth ministry] must lead the Oriental Orthodox Church first, and the Church through its sacramental grace, could guide us to achieve salvation, which is heaven. As St. Paul said, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the Lord”; Whatever we plan or do in the Youth Ministry must lead the youths to salvation.
The primary language of worship, ritual and sermon must be in English [1 Cor. 14]. The Church has both radical and progressive nature in it. It is progressive in the way it delivers its message i.e. using different languages to deliver the message. It is radical in keeping religious content, in maintaining the faith, rite and practices that were handed down to us since the beginning by Our Lord Jesus Christ. We can only rely on the Holy Tradition of the Church through learning, understanding and most importantly translating the faith with its spirituality in English, in a language where the youth can understand, relate and fall in love with the Church, and then pass it to this generation. It is essential to know the meaning of prayer, before praying. If we just recite prayers, without understanding the meaning of prayer, we would just be saying words without feeling them or understanding them. It would be much more fruitful to worship in Liturgy through rite if we enter into its spirit and understand its life, not standing at the external and sensual part of it when it is done in a language the diaspora believers don’t understand. St. Basil the Great says, “He who has not tasted something, does not know what he is missing; but once he has tasted it, he is filled with sweet longing”. “If you speak in a different language and do not explain what you say,” the Fitha Nagast [corresponding to the Coptic of Canon of Al Magmou Al-Safawy] comments, “How shall it be possible for others to understand what you say?
Regarding contents to be taught to the youth. As much as it is useful to dedicate lessons to help the youth deal with everyday problem they face from the world, it is also very important to include basics teaching of the church into the curriculum [to name a few The Five Pillars [Holy Trinity, incarnation, Baptism, Eucharist and Holy resurrection, the Seven Sacraments, The Orthodox Creed, Stories of Eritrean Orthodox Saints and E.t.c] ]. The church without changing its dogmatic teaching also needs to incorporate today’s contemporary issues the youth faces with the Church/Bible study lessons. We ought to explain Church doctrine in a simple word; and teach them to defend the faith using the bible as a core message, but not only limited to. Where they need to use reasoning and science to tackle world contemporary issues/problems, we ought to teach them that too. Lessons need to be connected with the daily life of the youth so that it is relevant to their life. Lessons’ should not be repetitive and often need to follow the Church calendar. In general the lesson’s must be age appropriate covering the Holy Bible, social, dogma, history of the Church and rituals.
The above principles are not exhaustive principles to run a successful Sunday school program. However, based on what I read, learn and understand, these are the basic requirements to have a fruitful Sunday school.