When the Church was very young, when the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus was fresh in the memory of His friends, and when the classical world was at the zenith of its power and influence, how was it possible for unlettered, unschooled, poor urban workers and their families to “turn the world upside down” as it is described in the Acts of the Apostles? An early Christian writer named Tertullian quoted a pagan official say about the Christians: “look at how much they love each other!” Love is the wisdom and power of God. Love was the power of early Christian witness to the Resurrected Christ. Love was the fire of the martyrs. Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus, as he was going to his voluntary and life-giving sacrifice on the Cross, gathered his disciples together a last time, told them not to weep and lament that he would leave them, and then he “called” them friends. And St. John, the beloved friend of Jesus, poignantly shares with us Our Lord’s feelings at leaving his friends: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
As I read my Bible I am struck by the fervor of friendship, fellowship, and love that the Christians had for each other. It jumps out at us in every letter of St. Paul. He goes to great pains to remember to greet everyone he meets in the Lord, to exhort his friends to “greet each other with a holy kiss,” to pass on news from one church to the next. He says to the Corinthians: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Does this statement sound familiar? At the Liturgy the priest says these same words to his parish as they are gathered into a divine community to commune with all the saints and to join together at the Eucharistic cup to become one body, the Church. In the Book of Acts we read: “And day by day, attending the Temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” There is no secret! People wanted to love and be loved the way the Christians loved and were loved.
A True Church Family
Remember in the liturgy when the priest says, “Again and again let us pray to the Lord?” In the Orthodox Church it is always the “us” that is the beginning of prayer, just as it is always the “congregation” that is before God. God is social, Three Persons who are God!
My point is this, no matter how abundant our religious education resources are, without developing a true fellowship and love within the Church, without an abundance of love, and a sense of being in this whole enterprise together, we are hopelessly lost. And not only will Church membership not increase, but rather decrease, “day by day.” Jesus, it says in the gospels, sang hymns with his disciples. He ate, walked, talked, and lived with them as a family. And finally he died for them and all of us whom St. Paul calls “adopted sons of God.” Jesus has made us “family.” By the blood and water that poured from his body as he died on the cross he smothered all divisions and hostilities among men. In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Yet, in our normal Church lives, in many cases, we are only slightly related to each other. We see each other, sometimes, only on Sundays. Is it any wonder that when we hear these phrases: “again and again, let us pray to the Lord,” “let us lift up our hearts,” “that with one mind we may confess,” “with faith and love, draw near;” they seem remote from us? If all week long we are isolated from our family in the Lord, concerned with “me” alone, all those words like “us” and “our” and “with one mind” will be alien to our experience and tedious, even upsetting to our minds. But the “us” and “our” and “with one mind” is the strength and witness of Christianity. For these expressions are manifestations of love. And love was the force that changed the whole direction of pagan culture and stamped history with the unique life of Christ forever. Love is the motivation for all religious education.
Social Life Today
The social life of the early Christians is not like our own. Many of us travel some distance to get to Church. And already Church on Sunday takes up much of the day. But there are ways to develop a Church-based social life today, a social life so fundamental to effective and efficient Christian education programs in our Orthodox parishes. It can be done but first it must be willed and planned to happen. Our North American lifestyle is too complicated to let it happen “by accident.”
One’s objective is to create a true Christian fellowship where members truly enjoy the things of the Lord and of His Church: scripture reading, almsgiving, singing, sharing meals, playing, enjoying each other’s company. If the objective is reached wonderful things will happen. In the Holy Spirit, where people are gathered together, people will begin to be open with each other. They will not be fearful of revealing certain talents they might have, certain ideas they might have, because they will feel secure with the knowledge that even their eccentricity will be met with gentleness and acceptance, for we all are eccentric, all of us sin. People in our parishes will begin to be joyful about Church and about themselves.
I will offer some suggestions about how to establish a social life around the church, to which I hope you will be able to add your own.
- Try to find out just how far people in the parish live from each other. If it is possible try to meet together, as often as desired, at a home that is centrally located. Meet and share scripture study, discussion, coffee, cake, meals. Narrow the physical, geographic distance that makes being a family in the Lord difficult by creating local “family” units of several parish families.
- Plan to go out to restaurants as a group. Take the extra time and money to make it a priority to structure these kinds of activities at a time when people are free to go out together. Plan on a movie, play, or other entertainment together. Try to allow for as broad a participation of different ages as possible.
- There are many opportunities for teens and adults to meet at gyms and health clubs as a group. The early Church very much supported physical development as a partner to spiritual growth and maturity. Plan sports and field activities for the entire parish. A parish picnic is a good opportunity.
- Try to structure formal church school lessons around an activity that occurred during the week. Maybe one might discuss the life of a saint in relation to what happened at an activity. Would St. John have liked this movie? Try to have a continuity between activities and actual classroom lessons to help create a Christian consciousness.
- Encourage group interaction and evaluation: St. James says, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Being together more often will cause people to sin against each other, to hurt one another, be distressed with each other. But sharing, in an open way, revealing faults, weaknesses, problems has the power to kill sin and produce genuine repentance, strengthening the community.
- Make it a point to attend more liturgical services. Structure an evening fellowship meeting, a parish supper, around vespers.
Too long our rooms in our homes have been castles surrounded by moats filled not with water but with sounds and images from stereo and television. It is all too easy to plunge into our own private, select worlds. Let us rather turn our homes into meeting places, into Churches – the place where God is seen and experienced through love. This is the basis of effective Christian education for the total parish community.
Reprinted from OCEC News, Yonkers, N.Y., Vol. 4, No. 4, November, 1983.
Rick Michaels is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and lives in Ironwood, Michigan, where he is a member of St. Simon’s Antiochian Orthodox Church.