Friday, December 13, 2019

Taking Responsibility for our Children is Evangelism

The Lord has blessed our parish and our parish families with many children. This is something to thank God for! It is wonderful to hear the voices of the choir that will sing at our funerals “warming up” for that task from their earliest days in our parish. That means there is a bit of noise in the parish church sometimes, but we should be thankful for this too! There are many parishes where there is no noise such as this – no children – and that is always very sad. We see our parish has a future. Of course – the future of the Church is Christ. But still – if we only have adults in our parishes eventually we will have to lock the doors and turn out the lights forever – and certainly that is not why we are here. We are here to serve God and man – and to spread the true faith of Orthodox Christianity: to evangelize our children and to those who come to the parish that the Lord has entrusted to us.

That is an important point, and not one we should pass by without considering it somewhat deeply. The Lord has entrusted this parish to us. It is His parish of course, but He allows us to manage it for Him. This is a great blessing for us, but like all great blessings this one comes with a lot of responsibilities. We’ll talk about a few of those here in hopes that our mutual work for God’s glory will continue to bear fruit: both in those that find Christ in our midst and in our children that we are raising in our parish.

These issues are mutually dependent on many levels, and I guess that is the main point of this post. If those who find Christ in our parish family continually misbehave during the services of course we would rightly correct them. Sometimes when people first come to the parish they are not sure what to do and when to do it. Correcting a person with love is easy in this regard – we can do that without insulting our visitors relatively easily. But those who are seeking Christ in our midst rarely misbehave. However, when it comes to our children the story is somehow, and quite confusingly, very different. We allow our children to run roughshod in the parish church, misbehave, even vandalize God’s House. And we do nothing about it. Not only do those whose children these are NOT do nothing (which we could argue makes some sense in certain contexts), but the parents of these children do nothing! Let us be clear: those who have brought a child into the world will answer for that child – especially spiritually. This responsibility cannot be delegated to others! And doing nothing is not raising a child, it is creating a delinquent. We teach our children that the parish church is a playground rather than the House of the Most High God. Moreover, by doing nothing and allowing children to misbehave terribly we drive others from the church. New people come seeking Christ in His Church, and they find chaos. That word – chaos – is not chosen lightly. St. Paul says: “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (I Corinthians 14:40). Period. Full stop. That applies to us too – and we are falling far short of this important admonition.

New people are telling us that they cannot stay because of the chaos and the danger. Yes – danger. A young mom was trying to nurse her child recently in the nursery and two young boys were trying to kill a fly on the window by kicking the window. Those boys were completely unsupervised by their own parents. The mom did what she could to stop them while trying to nurse her child and protect her child from broken glass, but as is perplexingly often the case in our parish, the kids did not listen to her pleas for them to stop. How have we managed to raise a generation of children who do not listen to other adults?! Of course there are always a few kids who will not listen to adults other than their parents, but we have lots of kids that simply do not listen to adults: either their parents or others. If I would have disobeyed a direct order of any adult in the town I grew up in my parents would know that before I got home and the retribution would have been swift and Biblical in proportion. I am not saying we must beat our children – every family has to decide how to punish their children for misbehavior, but no family can not correct their child! Children do not innately know what the right thing is to do: we must teach them. St. Theophan the Recluse says: “Of all the Holy Works, the education of children is the most holy…” That does not just mean educate children from books, although that is part of it of course, but what it really means is: we must make saints. This is the work of the Church! To make saints – those who are truly transformed into the children of God! We don’t do this by allowing our children to misbehave to the point that they drive others from God’s Church. Saints do not do this.

So let us begin anew – let us decide today that we will help our children to learn to behave appropriately in God’s House. And that NEVER AGAIN will we receive word that unsupervised children are threatening to drive away from the parish church those who (rightly) expect to find decency and order in our midst according to St. Paul’s admonition. We have fallen brothers and sisters, and I first and foremost, since I have not done enough to keep us from coming to this grave situation. Still, as our Lord Himself said: “...with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26) We cannot despair – we can fix this! But not without action. Success only comes before work in the dictionary. And success only comes when we work together with God. Perhaps because of our negligence in this regard the Lord has not allowed us to get to the point where we can build our new church? It may be that we need to fix the house we have been given before we can build new. I am not saying this IS the case, but that this MAY be the case. Certainly we cannot dismiss out of hand such a thought.

We understand very well that parents’ jobs are difficult and we are very sympathetic to this reality. And for this reason we would like to propose that we begin a new program in our parish where we match those whose children have already grown with the children in the parish so that in addition to each child’s parents they have another mature Orthodox adult that will mentor them and help them to grow into an Orthodox adult. The latest research in the level of persistence in church attendance over time shows that having another Orthodox adult – in addition to one’s parents – that one knows and trusts increases the persistence of children in active church life over time. Thus, by creating such a mentoring program we not only bring more resources to each family in the raising of their children, but we also give each of our parish children the best chance to grow into an active, believing, Orthodox Christian adults. If someone would be willing to help me plan and execute this program I would be grateful – I will need some help if this is going to work well.

It will be important for parents to explain the mentor program to their children at home once this is in place. Speaking of the home, the best way to prepare our young people for their prayerful presence at church is to pray with them at home with the same expectations of behavior as at church. In this way we can help our young people associate expectations of good behavior with prayer – no matter where that prayer takes place. But we must beware of the opposite: teaching the kids to hate prayer because they have to be like soldiers when they pray, standing at attention and not moving an inch. This is not what we are suggesting by any means, and all must be done with love in a family and in the church. If love is our basis for helping our children then they will feel that, know that, and associate love with prayer – not military decorum. This is our goal – that our children know that God is love, as the Apostle John wrote.

One should always make one’s weakness one’s strength if at all possible, and I know we can do this here! We can go from things being in chaos to being done decently and in order if we only make a sincere effort and ask God’s blessing on our work. We can go from threatening to drive new families from our parish to being an example of what a parish can be while attracting new families who will be impressed greatly by the excellent behavior of our “saints in training” in the parish. But we have to work. We have to take this seriously. We have to take responsibility and care for our own children first, and then add mentors who can help us even more. The care of a child cannot be delegated to others. No one is responsible, in the end, for your child except you. And if I do not make this clear, if I do not teach our parish that this is the case, then I will answer for all the unsupervised children and the chaos that they cause in our parish – including those that the Lord has sent us and who we drive away. I am not willing to take that responsibility and I hope you will forgive me for that. Rather, as we have spoken of in this venue in the past, it is my responsibility to challenge you. To point the way to the Christian path. To help you however I can to get there. But not to confirm that when you are doing wrong it is really doing right. I cannot and will not do that. We need to fix this problem. Let us begin – all of us – whether we have children or not – with praying daily for our parents and children! It is difficult to raise saints! But if we – as a parish family – can support our families prayerfully and materially to the greatest extent that the Lord gives us the power to do – then we can have great hope that in the not too distant future all Orthodox Christians in our area (as well as those who are not yet Orthodox) will whisper to each other about how well our parish children are behaved – about how we are really raising saints. That is not what they whisper now. Let us get to work and change that as soon as we can so that the behavior of the children in our parish will be a shining image of the Gospel! This will be TRUE evangelism!

Fr. Gregory

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