Building Up a Healthy Church
This past week I was in Atlanta offering a series of talks to a group of 60 clergymen on the topic “Building Up a Healthy Church.” These talks, which are a part of a class I teach at Holy Cross, as well as are based on the mission statement of our Sts. Constantine and Helen Church, highlight the five central characteristics that every Church and all Christians should constantly use to evaluate and cultivate our own spiritual growth.
These five characteristics are 1) WORSHIP, 2) FELLOWSHIP, 3) EDUCATION THAT LEADS TO SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION, 4) SERVICE, and 5) WITNESS/MISSIONS. We must continually look at each of these aspects of Church life and ask ourselves how we can better live out each one, so that we can fulfill our role and responsibility as the Body of Christ.
As followers of Jesus, we have to remember that as the Church we are called to continue here on earth the work of our Lord - to imitate His ministry of love, healing, mercy, compassion and good news through reaching out to others. Are we doing this as individual Christians? How well are we doing this as His Body, the Church?
“If a parish has no awareness and consciousness of being “sent” by God,” says Fr. Thomas Hopko, the dean emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, “To speak His words, to do His work, and to accomplish His will in this world, then we are not a healthy Orthodox Christian Parish!”
We should constantly remind ourselves of the ultimate purpose of the Church – which is to lead people (those already in the Church, as well as to invite those outside the Church) on a path of salvation and union with God. This vision and purpose of our existence can help us understand the great tasks that Christ has given to us! With this clear goal, we have a map on how to live Christ’s mission in our individual lives and as a community of faith
Let’s look at our Church’s Mission Statement, as printed in our weekly bulletin, and let’s think together about how well we are fulfilling our five goals. (Have everyone look at the statement)
1) WORSHIP: What is the purpose of worshipping God? Is our worship something that is meaningful and relevant in our lives? If not, how can we make worshipping God something more central and significant? Maybe we’ve simply never taken the time to understand what the beautiful liturgical services and the Eucharist are all about, and how they can be the source of life’s greatest joy and power?
One huge mistakes we too often make in relation to our liturgical worship services is that we focus on ourselves and think that our repetitive services are boring and not something that makes ME feel good. Well, the first principle of worship is that our services are NOT about YOU or ME! Worship and prayer is all about GOD! And until we learn how to turn our attention away from our egocentric ways and desires, and focus on God, we won’t ever fully appreciate Orthodox worship. In the Liturgy we say, “Let us lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the king of all.” St. Ephraim the Syrian reminds us that the fountain of the Lord is hidden from anyone who does not thirst after God.
2. FELLOWSHIP: First of all, we need to realize that we cannot be saved alone, but only in community with others! We live in a very individualistic society, and too many American Christians believe that their faith is all about a personal relationship between themselves and Jesus. Our faith clearly teaches, though, that we cannot have an authentic relationship with God without having an authentic relationship with one another! And this is why our Church fellowship is so important. We work out our salvation through our relationships in the Church, as well as in the relationships we build with those outside the Church.
So a fundamental question we must ask ourselves is whether we are promoting a Christ-centered, loving, healthy fellowship here in the Church. And is our Church Family reaching out to others, welcoming and inviting them to join our Christian fellowship.
3. EDUCATION: Our Orthodox Faith is an inexhaustible fount of knowledge and wisdom. Since God is infinite, knowing God is a never ending journey! There is so much to learn, yet how many of us in our Church constantly seek to learn and grow in our Faith? We may have gone to Sunday School, and may listen attentively to the weekly sermons, but what else? How else are we striving to learn more?
The ultimate goal of Christian education is an induction into a new way of life, into become transformed and transfigured into the likeness of Christ. Christian learning should never simply be about more information. It’s a living and dynamic tool which leads us into a deeper, living and dynamic relationship with God!
But a good question is how our Church Family can take more seriously, and be more involved in Christian education? In the early Church, the first Christians understood education as a combination of teaching, liturgical experience, and spiritual discipline. How can we get more fully involved in each aspect of this type of education?
4. SERVICE: One of the most shocking yet beautiful images that Jesus left his disciples was the act of washing their feet. When the Apostle Peter reacted against this act of humility, Jesus reminded his followers, “If I, your Lord, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15) Our Faith and Christian life should be all about serving one another. The world teaches us that success, rising to the top, will mean that others serve you. Jesus, however, taught the exact opposite. To follow Christ means to humbly serve one another.
In the Church, we must all find ways to discover and use the gifts that God has given us to serve one another, as well as to serve the community at large. What are some new ways that our Church can reach out to the broader society?
5. WITNESS and MISSION: Finally, any Church that stays inward focused, ONLY worrying about itself and its own needs, is NOT imitating the way of Christ. Jesus taught His followers, “You are the light of the world!” “You are the salt that flavors society!” “You are the yeast that leavens the world!” “For God so love the WORLD that He gave His only begotten Son!”
If as a Church Family we are not concerned with the world outside our walls, reaching out locally, nationally, and globally to a world in need, if we are not doing this, then we are not faithfully living up to our call as the Body of Christ. As Arcbhishop Anastasios of Albania says, “Missions is the expression of the vitality of the Church as well as a source of renewal and renewed vigor… It is an essential expression of our Orthodox ethos.”
So today, let us reflect on what more we must do as individual Christians, and we as the Body of Christ, in the areas of Worship, Fellowship, Education, Service and Witness/Missions, so that we can use each of these areas to grow closer to Christ and become more and more like Him!
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