At a time when most millennials spend more time on Facebook and Snapchat than faith-based activities, Chris Kolentsas spends six days a week inside the glimmering, spacious halls of St. Sophia's Cathedral in South Los Angeles.
Kolentsas, 32, is the pastoral assistant at St. Sophia's and will soon be ordained as a priest serving under his mentor, Father John Bakus. As a young person committed to an ancient faith, Kolentsas exemplifies the Greek Orthodox Church's potential as well as it continuing challenges in trying to attract a new generation of parishioners that are investing their time in other activities away from religion.
It has been a long journey for the Boston native, who lived a life focused on exercise and nutrition before making his way to the West Coast and into a life immersed in his church.
"When I was a kid, I saw the film Samson and Delilah with my father and I became fascinated with human strength. I thought it was just so cool," said Kolentsas, who could not predict that years later the story's biblical meaning would become what is important to him.
Kolentsas has been lifting weights since he was 12 years old, and went on to study exercise physiology for his undergraduate degree and strength and conditioning in graduate school.
A year after Kolentsas got married and became a full-time personal trainer, his wife encouraged him to join the seminary. He had thought of becoming a priest when he reached the age of retirement, but suddenly it seemed like the right time for him and his new family.
Kolentsas describes his calling as "serving and spreading the message of God" – something that sets him apart from most millennials his age, according to church officials.
"Some of our young people have given up or don't participate in the religious community," said Father Tony Vrame, director of religious education for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in Boston. "In America today, most would identify [their religion] as none or they might say they are members of the community but don't participate," Vrame said over the phone.
A 2016 study released by the Pew Research Center found that millennials, defined as those born from 1981 to 1997, were less likely than older Americans to attend church, pray or even consider religion to be a part of their life. Only about half of millennials said they believe in God with absolute certainty, compared with 70 percent of Americans in the Silent Generation and Baby Boom cohorts.
But religion experts say the younger generation has not entirely turned its back on spirituality.
"One of the biggest misconceptions of this generation today is that young people are all atheists," said Richard Flory, a research associate at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. "Atheists and agnostics have increased slightly over time, but not nearly at the same rate as those who have left Christianity but manage some form of supernatural belief."
In fact, Flory emphasizes the downward trend of people moving away from religion. Religion is not an empowering factor in many people's lives that compels them to commit, according to Flory's findings.
This self-centered, "distracted" mentality, as said by Kolentsas, [from millennials] has trickled down over the years to today's generation, causing some churches to worry that they'll have trouble recruiting new parishioners.
The Greek Orthodox Church is now employing new tactics to keep the younger crowd engaged, developing social outlets and gatherings such as the Greek Orthodox Youth of America (GOYA), the ministry to teenagers for the purpose of fellowship, worship, service, and witness, and the Greek Orthodox-run Folk Dance Festival (FDF).
On the West Coast, the annual Folk Dance Festival is one of the most popular cultural events that bring together the dispersed members of the Greek-American community. As for the East Coast, the community does not face the same kind of cultural and religious apathy seen in California, Washington and Oregon.
"I'm from the East Coast, where it's very ethnic," said Kolentsas. "Everyone in the church speaks Greek and is Greek. It's not like that [in Los Angeles]." As a result, the Greek Orthodox Church in California chooses to stress the spirituality of the religion more than congregants' ethnic identities. He added that in Southern California, if a church is very ethnic in character, "that's when we see the [church] population dying."
Among the 1.2 million Americans reporting Greek ancestry in a U.S. Census 2015 American Community survey, 135,000 live in California – second only to New York among the states. St. Sophia's Cathedral is one of 20 Greek Orthodox churches in Southern California.
Although Kolentsas is Greek-American, he says that he and his older brother were not raised in a religious household. When it came to God, his parents spoke in an abstract sense.
"My parents were not very religious at all. They believed in God, but there was no study," said Kolentsas. "We didn't grow up going to church on a regular basis. It was searching for God [for me]."
Kolentsas was not baptized until the age of 19, which is when he chose to be a part of the Greek Orthodox Church. By this point in his life, he was seeking to actively serve the Lord.
Ever since Kolentsas was a student, he has shown interest in helping people his age. "Chris comes across, to me, as somebody who is really interested in young people and cares deeply about his faith," said Vrame, the church official in Boston.
Chloe Cutbirth, 20, is among those young people who Kolentsas ministers to at St. Sophia's. Both are outliers amongst people in their generation and both maintain a close relationship to the church and God.
She has been attending services at the cathedral since moving from her home in Denver a year ago. Her strong connection to the Orthodox Church is what keeps her coming back, she said, but she wasn't born into the religion. After many attempts to find the right church, Cutbirth's parents decided to convert to Greek Orthodoxy when she was 14.
"We felt at home when we started attending the Greek Orthodox Church near my house," said Cutbirth. "Now, if I don't attend church, I don't feel right. It helps me find inner peace and completion. I've never found anything as fulfilling."
She believes people her age turn away from the faith more frequently because of their strict, religious upbringing.
Despite the fact that parishioners may find it disappointing to see the lack of millennials present in their congregations, Kolentsas unintentionally preaches the message of the Orthodox Church and of the Lord as he keeps his optimistic attitude high.