Monthly Message from Fr. Timothy - September 2019
BACK TO 'CHURCH' SCHOOL!
The absence of youth from the life of the Church was mentioned several times during our Archdiocese’s deliberations in Grand Rapids in July. It came up at the clergy assembly, the keynote workshop, and at the General Assembly. For some, it was a topic of conversation over lunch and dinner. The discussion noted a noticeable decrease in Church commitment by young adults over the past several years. There was no real analysis of the issue, and no practical solutions offered. It seems to be a social trend, and we should assume that our missing young adults will eventually return home – something like the story of the 'prodigal son.' Some of us didn’t buy it and believed the question is more profound, and the answer is more complicated. The role of a Christian home in the formation of young believers should be central in any discussion about choices young people make.
When we celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage, we pray that the Lord will “Unite [the couple] in one mind and one flesh, grant[ing] them pleasing children for education in the faith...” Sacramentally, the responsibility for teaching the Faith to children belongs with the parents. Given the antiquity of the Marriage Service, it is evident, that the Church has recognized this from early on.
We like to say that 'religious education begins in the home' and anyone involved in church school can testify to the integrity of this statement. A parish church school curriculum only supplements what a child experiences 'at home.' Of course, learning at home implies that some necessary religious information is shared there. Ideally, the best model for a parish religious education program is 'homeschooling.' Parents equipped to teach the basics of Christian Faith to children at home using appropriate material will be far more successful than any parish church school program. They will also fulfill their obligation to educate their children "in the faith." Unfortunately, most parents are unable to make this commitment. Most lack the necessary religious education themselves needed to teach their children effectively. This brings us to the topic of 'adult religious education.'
We offer 'adult' education programs; bible studies, workshops, guest speakers, etc... We seem to believe the key to nurturing an Orthodox Christian identity is to teach content; catechism, church history, scripture, doctrine, liturgy, etc. But experience and research suggest that knowledge is secondary, not primary, to why people connect to a parish and embrace its mission.
A better way to engage adults – of any age – may be to help them discover and explore their own spiritual lives. What if we sat down and talked with each other about our best personal experience at St. George parish. Can we discover something new in each other’s experience? Can we relate this experience to something we know from the Gospel? Can we imagine that the Gospel is asking us to do something about it? Can we design an ongoing conversation with our co-parishioners that helps us to remember the best experience and anticipate future ones?
If we want to educate ourselves in the Faith, we can start by sharing our own stories. Then we can consider what we want and need from the parish. People engaged at that level-mindful of their own spiritual life and interacting with co-parishioners-should have an 'ear' for what God is doing in the community.
Several organizations, including; Gallup, Pew Research and some Pan-Orthodox research studies identify different degrees of Orthodox Christians. Their research confirms that about 15 % of those who call themselves Orthodox are fully engaged in the life of the Church and consider it a core part of their spiritual and family life. About 50 % are not involved - some of them may 'go to church,' but the Faith is not an active part of their identity. About 35% are disengaged – some of them may show up once or twice a year, but they are by-in-large not committed to the Faith or the parish.
These statistics, in general, seem to hold for St. George parish. Our challenge is to work with those who are engaged and bring them into deeper engagement, while not neglecting those who are unengaged but who might remain open.
An ideal Christian community – a parish – is the byproduct of deeper personal interactions, of one-on-one friendships and of knowing that someone cares who we are. Successful parish-based religious education – child or adult - must respond to a real need of the community.
It's not enough to put together some program and hope people show up. Better to hear from the people what they need and then respond. Some parishioners may want more scripture, others more history and others more liturgy. Some want to talk with friends about their Faith and journey and where the 'parish' fits in.
Over the next month or so we’ll offer several opportunities for small group in-home conversations about parish life and our expectations. Please say yes if asked to host or to attend. In the meantime, let's see that our children are enrolled in and attending our religious church school education program which begins on Sunday the 8th of September.