Orthodox Christians are defined here as those who belong to Churches arising from the ancient Patriarchal Sees of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. This definition encompasses both Eastern Orthodox groups and Oriental Orthodox traditions such as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The historical roots of these communities lie in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean but in recent times many Orthodox communities have been established in countries such as France, England, the United Stated, and Australia. A key factor in understanding the challenges facing Orthodox youth in Western countries is to recognize that they are not, comparatively speaking, large communities.
The first issue that these Christians face is that their churches are usually identified with a particular ethnic group. This is often expressed in the group's selfdescription such as Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, or Macedonian Orthodox. Maintaining ethnic identity with emphasis on language and other salient social features can be quite difficult, but these issues are compounded when religious beliefs are also included in cultural identity. When an Orthodox youth attends a community event, for example, is this an affirmation of his or her ethnic or religious identity? Undoubtedly the influence of both factors are difficult to distinguish, but a number of writers have pointed out that religious beliefs and practices suffer if they are made subordinate to a more general expression of ethnic origin.
A second issue can be given the general heading of difficulties living an Orthodox life in a culture that, whilst not openly hostile, does not support traditional beliefs and practice of Orthodox Christians. A critical point is that many of the social and moral expectations placed on Orthodox youth, especially women, are not in accord with Western norms, and tensions can arise from what are seen as burdensome regulations. These tensions are most pronounced in those communities that are the most integrated into the wider community. In general, more integrated communities are those that have been established in Western countries the longest and are of European origin as opposed to those that have arrived more recently usually from the Middle East. Many of the ritualized practices that form an important and sustaining part of Orthodox life are also foreign, or even at odds with, norms in Western cultures. For example, many Orthodox communities have extensive and elaborate fasting rituals, which in countries of origin are more readily accepted than in lands of recent settlement where even most mainline Christians have abandoned or curtailed traditional fasting practices. In a similar vein, the liturgy, which is at the heart of the communal life of Orthodox traditions, is a long and elaborate ritual that can be difficult to fit into a busy weekend schedule with many competing demands.
In comparison to both Catholic and Protestant traditions, Orthodox communities lack a comparable level of institutional support. Orthodox youth and young adults are often without the benefit of specific educational initiatives, such as schools and universities that cater to their needs. In Australia and elsewhere, for example, many Orthodox youth attend Catholic schools in the absence of ones for their particular community. As a result, the local Orthodox Church becomes an important focus for a wide range of activities that must cater to a range of ages. Without proper planning and support, local communities can struggle to develop these services leaving youth to feel that they have been neglected or excluded. A sign, however, of the increasing prominence of Orthodox communities in many countries is their willingness to address these structural deficiencies with a new emphasis on establishing an instructional presence. One example of this is programs designed especially for young adults that run during holiday periods in purpose-built facilities.
Lastly, many of the core beliefs of Orthodox Christians flow from rich and complex theological positions. Whilst these dogmas are tenaciously adhered to, they can be difficult to pass on to younger generations who are influenced by the highly secular discourse of Western societies and have not benefited from targeted educational programs. An example of this is the pivotal nature of Trinitarian statements to many aspects of Orthodox belief and practice. These beliefs derive from the common experience of the Patristic period but involve technical and precise language that is often difficult to convey even to young people who have a high level of secular education. This can lead to cognitive dissonance between the professional knowledge of the young adult and their religious beliefs. In such circumstances the side with the weaker cognitive basis tends to be overwhelmed by the stronger. In the case of Orthodox youth this can lead to their worldviews becoming more secular and akin to that of the prevailing culture.