Youth attendance in Greek Orthodox churches around Australia is seeing a significance rise, say three representatives of churches in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. All believe in providing services in English and having approachable clergy representatives is a significant factor in retaining youth interest in religion.
Father Michael Psaromatis, parish priest at Saint Andrew Noarlunga, in South Australia tells Neos Kosmos that one third of his parish attending services is made up of youths and young families. He says his church is in an area that is predominately resided by young families forming their own community around the church, and this trend is opposed to what he sees occurring in Greek Orthodox churches situated in the CBD of Adelaide.
“My parish goes against the trend as it’s a younger parish, a younger area; the area is most affordable so majority of my parish are younger families,” Father Psaromatis tells Neos Kosmos.
“There’s a strong sense of community because it’s a smaller parish, I think they’ve established relationships and there’s a common community aspect to it – they go out together, they spend time together, they get together.” He said traditionally, the Noarlunga-based Greek Orthodox church always had a younger priest which makes the youth feel comfortable in dealing with their clergy and plays a big role in retaining the youth. He says “younger priests are more approachable and bridges the gap” between the generations.
Father Nicholas Brown, parish priest at the Dormition of the Theotokou in Brisbane, echoes this sentiment and says of the cause of youth interest: “A lot of us priests getting out there and speaking one on one with the youth, and the priests being more approachable as well”.
“Back in the old days everyone was in awe of the priest but a lot of young people are finding they can have a normal conversation with their priests,” he adds stating matter-of-factly that it’s the “approachability of the clergy that is making the difference”.
Father Brown adds that he believes having bilingual services have made the church more attainable to the youth and second, third and fourth generations.
“I would say definite increase for the simple fact that in Brisbane we do an in English service as well so that’s the main thing that entices our youth to come back into the church, and people that haven’t been in the church for whatever reason for them to come back to,” he says.
Daniel Bellas, a representative of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in Victoria adds “the vast majority of our parishes are bilingual and the way the person is presented to a church they are engaged in different ways to the church in the way they were 20 or 50 years ago.”
Many Greek Orthodox churches have youth groups, bible studies, information sessions, online forums and are even using social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – to promote services.
Yet, recent statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics state that Australians are shying away from religion, especially the youth and the educated. But Mr Bellas believes that even though other denominations have noticed a drop in youth attendance, the Greek Orthodox faith is “bucking the trend” in relation to this issue.
“Each of our parishes has youth fellowship, we had a national youth conference and over 400 people attended,” Mr Bellas tells Neos Kosmos. “We have youth functions and they are always filled, and if you look at our sacraments such as baptisms and weddings they are always well attended by younger people.”
When asked if this is because of religion or tradition in the Greek Australian culture, Mr Bellas stated that the two are “inseparable” and that our “faith is our tradition”.
However, Father Psaromatis said that overall there is a drop in attendance from the past 20-30 years, but he is noticing a significant shift in the past years.
“The honest truth there is an overall drop,” he says, “I think safely we can say in the mid-90s we saw a dip in young people attending, but now I am noticing a slight shift back.
“Because there is a younger clergy coming through it’s assisting in reinvigorating church attendance by the youth and younger families,” he says.
Father Psaromatis adds that having Greek Australian priests who are born and trained in Australia is making a significance difference. He says in previous years, priests would either migrate from or be trained in Greece, and in some cases this wasn’t the most appropriate thing for followers of the Greek Orthodox faith in the diaspora who were growing up in a multicultural, multilingual and multifaithed society.
“Now we’ve come to realise this and by being more accessible we are able to give more answers and to be more open with how we can communicate and converse with the younger generation on matters of faith.”
Mr Bellas agrees, stating that one of the most important things for the Greek Orthodox faith in Australia was the ordination of Bishop Iakovos, who is Australian born and locally educated.
When asked about whether or not being educated plays a role in the drop in faith, Father Psaromatis says this is a double edged sword for the church.
“With regards to education I do think it plays a big role however, it’s a double edged sword as in many cases because in some cases it may promote – in my personal opinion – atheism.
“However, I think when you provide someone with a good education – no matter what background you come from – it gives the child the opportunity to select and to ask questions, and if we go from that basis then yes there have been many people who haven’t had that much contact with church and are asking questions and their faith is becoming stronger by their questions being answered. He says the church is now promoting a free will to attend, and says if you are forced to go to church it may be doing more harm spiritually and psychologically.
“If you want to come to church, you need to want to be there,” says Father Psaromatis.
“My personal opinion is the core role of the church is about helping the person in a moment of crisis and joy and that’s what we are here for: salvation. For them to believe in something more than the mundane in the world,” says Mr Bellas.