A Mission With A Mission

After reading the different comments that recent posts have generated and thinking about things a bit more, I realized that I have failed to be clear about the idea of a missionary parish. So let me first ask forgiveness for any distress caused by my lack of clarity and express my gratitude for the patience of my readers and for the love of the Church and generosity toward me, that your questions and comments demonstrate.

Now to work.

The notion of a mission committed to the catechetical and spiritual formation of the laity is not, as Chrys points out, something that is contrary to the goal of any Christian community. Our commitment to Christ, as with our commitment to our spouse, our children, must be intentional. If it is not intentional, it does not exist. In this light, I would say that the project that I’m proposing is less programmatic and more attitudinal.

What I mean by this is that we can, and should, structure our communities around the idea of carefully, and systematically, not only explaining the Gospel, but helping people shape or form their lives by the Gospel.

If there is any credibility in the recent demographic studies of Orthodox communities here in U.S. this intentional formation of the faithful is either not happening, or is happening with scandalous infrequency. We need only look at the difference between the claimed membership in an Orthodox jurisdiction and its actual or effective membership to see that something is spiritual wrong in the Church. If some 75%-90% of the Orthodox faithful are not at Liturgy on any given Sunday morning, something is terribly wrong not only in parish life and ministry, but seminary education and even more fundamentally in our approach to the faith.

What I am proposing under the rubric of “A Mission With A Mission” is that we focus all the ordinary activities of the parish around helping people (1) come to know who they personally and uniquely are in Christ (their vocation) and (2) embodying or incarnating that identity in the concrete circumstance of their daily life (the life of Christian virtue). For the mathematically inclined among us: F= D + I where F = “formation,” D = “Discovery of Identity in Christ,” and I = “Incarnation of Identity.”

How might this be done?

What I’ve done, and actually still do, in based on a variation of the standard three point sermon. In my own preaching, teaching and counseling, the three points that I touch on are pretty consistently these:

  1. What does the Church believe?
  2. What does that faith look like in practice?
  3. What are the different ways that we either undermine or foster the living of that faith in our daily lives?

So for example, in the Sunday sermon I might ask myself what aspect of the faith of the Church’s do I see reflected in the Epistle and/or Gospel for the day? In answering this question I am guided not only by the text of Scripture itself, but also parallel Old and New Testament texts. In addition, I often find guidance in the hymnography for Vespers and Matins as well as the liturgical season. And of course, I take into account the concrete needs of the community.

In seeking to answer the second question, I again will look to the text of Scripture. But I do not limit myself to the biblical text as I try and describe the faith in action. I will draw from the history of the Church, the lives of the saints, as well as literature or current events. The goal here is to flesh out the faith so that—whether immediately applicable or not—my listeners have a sense of how the Gospel is embodied concretely in human life.

Third and finally, and what is for me the most challenging and interesting part of the sermon, catechetical class or counseling session: How can we put this faith into practice?

In answering this question I’m guided by the biblical and patristic notion that the spiritual life begins in the practice of the virtues. Interestingly for many of the fathers the practice of virtue begins not with doing good deeds, but in abstaining from sin. For this reason I am concerned here with articulating the obstacles to living the aspect of the faith that I’ve just described. What are the things we do that, for example, make it impossible for us to have the humility of the publican? This “negative” approach is complimented by a consideration of what one of my professors in graduate school called the “facilitating conditions” for living the faith. Basically, what are the habits of thought and action (virtues) that contribute to our living, to return to the above example, the humility of the publican in the circumstances of our everyday life?

In the applicative section I allow draw not only from the fathers, but also works on theological and philosophical anthropology. I also look at what I know from psychology and sociology. But above all, I am guided by what I know about the community or person. It is in the applicative phase where I think my own commitment to serve in truth and love the community or the person is tested. It is here, in my ability, or lack thereof, to guide the community or person in the life that Christ’s called them to live, that I demonstrate (or not) my effectiveness as a pastor of souls.

It is this third applicative aspect that is really the heart and goal not only of the sermon, but also the whole of the parish’s catechetical program, each and every single pastoral counseling session, our evangelical outreach. But it is also the work of every meeting of the parish council, the building committee and stewardship program.

It is this third, applicative, aspect that is really the “mission of the mission.”

To accomplish this requires from us, personally and community, not only a commitment to the good of others, but also simplicity of life. While I will explain this in a later post, let me simply suggest that if I am really serving your good, then I need to remain detached from the pursuit of my own good. Creating as we have a parish life that seems at time to see the parishioner as almost the “property” of the parish this pursuit of the good of the person is very difficult. So often, and this is where material simplicity is important, the “mission” of the parish is subsumed under the goals of the building committee. After 5 years in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, I can’t help wonder if we have not overemphasized the church building at the expense of the church community.

But that is for another essay.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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