What sort of questions do teenagers have when they come to church? How should adults prepare themselves to answer them? Should the language of subcultures be used to answer them? Priest Alexei Zabelin talks about this.
Faith, as the knowledge of God, Whom my eyes have seen and my hands have touched, Whom I have come to know with all my senses, as He was with me in sorrow and joy—we can only talk about such faith with young people out of personal experience of a meeting with God. This experience of meeting God first transforms the person himself, and then he has something to share with others—the joy of personal transformation. I recall an incident from the life of one clergyman, when as a young man he was returning after a wild night at the discotheque and late Sunday morning made his way to the bathroom, grasping the walls. At that moment, his grandmother entered the apartment. She was all radiant and joyful. Her grandson asked her where she’d been and she answered that she had been at church, at the service. The grandson suddenly felt the desire to be just like her, to have that light and joy, and so he resolved to learn more about the faith and be baptized. The Paschal joy of prayer and a meeting with Christ in church through his grandmother gave that young man the thirst for a new life, there in an ordinary Moscow apartment.
It is very hard to believe without having an example of faith before your eyes; it is very hard to pray if the one talking about prayer doesn’t have any experience in prayer of a meeting with the living and known God. The success of apostolic preaching came not only through the help of the Holy Spirit, but also because the apostles had witnessed the real God, Whom they had seen, and with whom they continued to have contact after His Resurrection from the dead. Christ answered His disciples’ requests. And this was what made Christianity so extraordinary—God answers, God exists, He is known and close, and calls us His children. If there is no such faith, no such experience of a meeting, then what can we talk about with others? Outside of personal experience, conversations about the faith turn into a banal retelling of stories about the Creator that are not real for me. It is only after a real meeting with Christ that the mystery of a person’s change happens—it is impossible after meeting God to remain the former old man, because you’ve tasted a new life of grace, and you know the taste. Teenagers are still children, who continue to experience adults’ words on the level of feelings, the level of emotional trust—or repulsion; they feel an adult’s falseness—or the honest experience without embellishments of a sinful person’s meeting with the Creator.
I often see during the sacrament of confession how teenagers are pushed to the analogion by their parents, and I hear what they are silently asking God while they name aloud the sins the sins they have learned to name. The wordless question the youth is asking the priest is, “Did you really see God? Have you really been in Heaven? Can you really correct my bad deeds, and I will also see God?
One day, some children from the children’s home came to confession. In the church they were hyperactive and a little too independent. But when they came up to the Gospels and cross, they asked forgiveness from God without a shade of self-justification or hypocrisy for their bad deeds; and they furthermore asked that they could have loving parents—parents they never had. Their confession was an open conversation with the Lord. At that moment it seemed to me that if I myself can be an example to them of love, faith, and purity, then these and other teenagers will believe what I say about God.
The family’s authority in the teenage years is shaken, and children begin to search for support on the outside, in teenage “crowds”. The interests of these teenage crowds seem completely incompatible with the Christian teachings they learned mainly from their parent’s words, or sporadically in in the church their parents took them to. For example, at age twelve to thirteen a critical moment comes when they reassess their childhood ideas; they want independence, creativity, and fun. But their parents say that in church that this or that is “forbidden”. While continuing to believe in the existence of God, the teenagers do not see any alternatives to their desires; they may not even hear the arguments behind church bans, and slide away into another, parallel reality. For example, a teenager comes to have a talk with the priest and tell him about his attraction to the world of fantasy, the world of elves and goblins. But the priest has not read such books and tells the teenager about the sinfulness of this kind of literature. Not having heard a reasonable argument from the priest and not seeing a living, interesting alternative to the world of fantasy, the teenager leaves and goes to the place where, so it seems, they understand him and accept his interests. But back in the fifth century Blessed Jerome described the meeting of St. Anthony the Great with the centaur, which showed him the way to St. Paul of Thebes. How could that have been possible? Was that real, or was it just a pretty allegory in a saint’s Life? Once the famous writer J. R. R. Tolkien was asked by one of his readers whether this fantasy world really exists. The writer answered, “If it pleases God, then it all exists.” Although J. R. R. Tolkien himself saw the meaning of his life only in uniting with God in frequent Communion: “The only medicine for those with weakening and dying faith is the communion of the sacraments,” he wrote to his son Michael. The words of this famous fantasy writer about faith, about the Eucharist, could be a serious authority for a young man drawn to this sort of creativity.
It seems to me that it is very important for the teenager that his inner world, thoughts, feelings, and hopes would be interesting both at home and in church, to that he would be understood and accepted as he is, so that people would speak to him honestly, openly, and without any reproachful tones. Perhaps the youth with his ideas does not fit against the background of Andrei Rublev icons in the church, but it’s absolutely permissible to accept the children’s interests, feelings, and hopes in the churchyard, within the church gates.
Essentially, the Church can become a second family for the teenager, where he can discover the non-intrusive love and care of the faithful, and find the vibrant, attentive eyes of the priest; where he can hear words about God from Orthodox teachers in a language that is accessible to his subculture.
Of course, if the teenager is educated in a Christian family and his sphere of interests is connected with church life, we might be able to get around using the subculture language. Just the same, we have to make sure that there is always food for the mind and heart, so that in the child’s life would always be an interest in knowing the faith, the world of religion, and the world of the Church Mysteries as God’s space.