East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 1996, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Reaching Out to Russian Youth in Crisis

Kaarina Ham

Gazing Eastward and Westward
After 70 years of Communism it is appropriate that the new, official emblem of the Russian Federation is once again a two-headed eagle, with one head facing East and the other facing West.  This might be the best way to describe the youth of Russia:  gazing intently both eastward and westward.  To the East, their glance is toward the Soviet past, as well as the charm of Russia at its cultural best.  But to the West, their focus is on progress, modernity, and every form of enticement long-denied.

The "Snickerization" of Russia
Very quickly after the fall of Communism Russian youth increasingly came under global influences.  Rapid internationalization, symbolized in the "Snickerization" of Russia (the result of too many choices of Western chocolate), continues apace.  Russian adolescents are facing enormous, stressful change which, nevertheless, is exciting and stimulating for those who are flexible and willing to learn.  Countless international businesses and new Russian commerical ventures seek teenagers with computer, foreign-language, and management skills.  Indeed, many young people have become major breadwinners for their parents, thus entirely altering family structures.

Other Russian youth, however, have not coped well with change.  Particularly vulnerable are teens lacking a caring home environment and those caught in a vicious cycle of truancy, child labor, mafia-related crime, substance abuse, or cults.  Previously unpublicized social ills, including pornography, promiscuity, communicable diseases, suicide, and incest, plague young people to an alarming degree.

Youthful tastes in clothing, the arts, and music have been revolutionized in recent years.  Where once spending a week at a camp was a sought-after experience, today's Russian youth observe their friends becoming "biznezzmen" and driving BMWs.  No longer content with simple hobbies, they crave electronic devices and all that goes with keeping up with the times.

Also, Russian youth are increasingly busy.  School and part-time jobs occupy much of their attention.  Although working under the age of 16 is not legal in Russia, the Ministry of Labor lacks either the will or the means to halt the great number of children working illegally, either through their own choice or through parental or mafia coercion.  On the other hand, the percentage of youth actively engaged in reading and time-honored academic pursuits is decreasing; and their attention span, once enviable by Western standards, is decreasing as well.  Russian youth, fascinated and preoccupied with the media, have made Western sports and movie personalities their heroes.

Orthodox and Protestant Outreach
Within the Russian Orthodox Church those charged with the task of youth ministry have made efforts to involve young people in one of the many church or monastery renovation projects.  Catechism classes, summer camps, and pilgrimages sponsored by individual churches have also been major means of engaging Orthodox youth spiritually.  Syndesmos, the Pan-Orthodox youth movement, has inspired several special projects in Russia.  And some Orthodox youth from the Hosanna fellowship in the Moscow region have responded enthusiastically to Taize spiritual development meetings in several West European locations in recent years.  At present the Russian Orthodox Church is making plans for official youth work.

The legacy of suffering and the "survival mode" of the last seven decades have deeply affected the thinking of Protestant churches as well.  Many older leaders are unsure of stepping out in new ways, and some lack a willingness to empower youth workers.  For their part youth leaders wonder if innovation is "spiritual."  Can their efforts to reach youth include contemporary music, sports activities, and creative fun?  In addition, more attention needs to be given to the development of social skills and a willingness and ability to foster discussion and interaction.  Often youth leaders are effective in programming an event.  Unfortunately, other youth leaders do not relate to teens in a heartfelt way; they do not spend time with them outside of church-sponsored events; and they do not instill in teens courage to express their feelings and ideas on biblical or secular themes.  The need is for youth leaders to stimulate thoughtful dialogue on biblical applications in light of tremendous cultural pressures upon teens.

Many traditional approaches to youth ministry in Russia are based on the concept that spiritual instruction should be structured and serious.  Such youth programs tend to be informative, but very much like a traditional school experience.  Conversely, many Western-inspired youth ministries are based on the concepts of enjoyment and participation.  The latter stress activity and wholesome fun, but sometimes contain little structure or teaching content.  Combining the best of both approaches in a way which is meaningful for Russian youth is an urgent challenge for both national and expatriate youth workers.

In Russia "youth" is a sweeping term which stretches from the early teen years well into the 20s and 30s (usually until marriage).  In the West, an age-level scale of 11-13 for early adolescents; 14-16 for middle adolescents; and 17-19 for late adolescents might commonly be applied to youth ministry--and debated unceasingly!  Rather than force axioms appropriate in other societies in this particular setting, much work is needed to assess the values, maturation levels, and needs of youth according to a scale workable in the Russian context.

Youth workers focusing on students have noticed significant changes over recent years.  First, school authorities do not as readily give permission to contact students on school premises as they did a few years ago.  Second, although Russian students are still more open to being contacted than their counterparts in many Western settings, they are less curious and less responsive now than in the early 1990s.  And third, Russian students appear less willing to make the effort to travel any distance to regular meetings or special events.

Growing Homelessness and Lack of Direction
A special area of ministry concerns youth in crisis, whether because of parental neglect, substance abuse, emotional or psychological trauma, or crime-related problems.  Burgeoning numbers of homeless include a growing percentage of adolescents.  Whereas under Communism harsh sentences were meted out for begging, thus forcing the practice underground, now many legitimately needy individuals, as well as many opportunists, literally have taken to the streets. With family structures undergoing great upheaval, with traditional means of entertainment and community involvement through the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) now obsolete, and with urban problems of overcrowding and skyrocketing  inflation, many young people lack direction and purpose.  Two-liter bottles of Pepsi costing 10,000 rubles (over $2) and vodka costing 4,000 rubles (less than $1) help explain why many teens are choosing alcohol to numb their pain.  Clearly, Russia needs Christian crisis intervention programs, drop-in centers, sports clubs, shelters, and skilled church youth workers.

Although some minimal structures have been created (such as a rape crisis hotline), serious legal and social barriers still must fall before young homeless receive adequate attention.  First, the general population harbors tremendous fear of the militia (police), of psychology and psychiatry, and of the homeless themselves.  Second, law enforcement lacks predictability. What is true one day, in terms of permissible charitable outreach, is often not true the next.  Third, those in power, rightly concerned with maintaining order, often lack understanding and can close down entire ministry efforts at will.  And fourth, local community opposition, because of prejudice, superstition, and lack of knowledge about communicable diseases, means that reception areas and shelters for the homeless are placed in buildings detached from public commerce.  Such premises, however, are extremely difficult to obtain.  Clearly, compassionate Russian Christians must step forward to battle bias and indifference on behalf of homeless youth and other social outcasts. 

Kaarina Ham is a missionary with Youth for Christ International and Moscow-based Youth Ministry Association.

Kaarina Ham, "Reaching Out to Russian Youth in Crisis," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Spring 1996), 3-4.

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© 1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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