A blank stare.
There may be no clearer picture of the hopelessness that resides in the youth of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, than what is written across their eyes.
“If you look at the faces of people in general, very, very few look happy,” said Agris Ozolinkevics, pastor of a Pentecostal church in Latvia. “Happy? Free? Content? No.
“You see a lot of stress. Tension and stress is what you see on the faces here.”
Pastor Ozolinkevics, serving as the Youth Chair for the upcoming Baltic Youth Festival on June 9 in Riga, Latvia, is determined to reach the young people of his country for Christ. But he knows it won’t be easy.
It’s an uphill challenge and the obstacles come in all shapes and sizes. “The youth culture has become quite universal,” he said. “Basically they struggle with the same things the youth in Western Europe or the U.S. struggle with — drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity.”
But in Ozolinkevics’ neck of the woods, there’s another layer attacking young people.
Teen suicide in the Baltics is one of the highest in the world, but that’s just a symptom of what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the youth.
“They don’t see a future,” he said. “There’s no hope, basically.”
A recent study of Latvian high school students revealed some sobering results. Teens are so down on their future, a majority don’t even see themselves living in the same country when they enter the work force.
“A reality is that many of them end up in Western Europe, in Ireland or Great Britian,” Ozolinkevics said. “They don’t see their lives here and that is sad.”
But what they do see is plenty of depression. Just off the top of his head, Ozolinkevics can list three people he knows personally that recently took their own lives. Two in high school and one in college. All three young men.
“This is one of the things that stands out,” he said of the high rate of male suicide. “I think in many cases we as a church have not been able to address the issues in relevant ways to the youth.”
And that’s where the Baltic Youth Festival — featuring Michael W. Smith, the Newsboys and the preaching of Franklin Graham — comes in. Finding a way to reach out to a generation that feels depressed, misunderstood or sometimes both.
“They do not have a Christian background, many of them,” Ozolinkevics said. “They have parents who have been educated under the socialistic and communistic ways.”
And when most of the parents and grandparents are still disconnected from the evangelical church, that bleeds into the fabric of the youth. “These people don’t have any place to turn for answers,” the pastor said. “In general, they don’t see the church as a place to find answers.”
But that has a lot to do with the lack of role models in the Christian faith, Ozolinkevics said.
“The older generation who have been influenced by the Soviet system,” he added. “The gap is too big. They don’t understand each other. That’s the challenge with the older generation to pass along their faith.”
Now don’t misunderstand, Ozolinkevics said. He doesn’t want to paint a completely bleak picture. The church in the Baltics has grown steadily over the last two decades since its independence from the Russian Empire.
“Not explosion growth, but substantial growth,” he said. “We do have a pulse here.”
Personally, Ozolinkevics has seen his Pentacostal church in Jelgava (about 40 kilometers southwest of the capital Riga) grow to the point where two additional churches are being planted from his current congregation — one in Dobele and another in Olaine.
He’s heard of similar growth in Lithuania and Estonia, especially from the Baptist and Methodist denominations.
And he knows that there’s only one way this is happening. And it’s the same thing — the only thing — that will give lasting hope to the Baltic youth.
“They need to hear about Jesus,” Ozolinkevics said. “That’s the only answer from what I see.
“They need the Gospel. They need Jesus. There’s no other choice. I don’t see any other way.”
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