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A Renewing Ministry, Part 2: An Old Ministry for a New World

Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese Convention 2017

St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Coral Gables, FL hosts the 53rd biennial Antiochian Archdiocese Convention in Hollywood, FL July 23-30, 2017. Ancient Faith Radio, in partnership with the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese and with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, is happy to bring you a few of the recordings from the convention.

August 2017

A Renewing Ministry, Part 2: An Old Ministry for a New World

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

August 2, 2017 Length: 24:13

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V. Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick: So before I begin, I just want to ask: How many of you heard what I had to say yesterday? How many of you didn’t? Okay. So for those of you who didn’t, I’m going to begin with a very short summary of what I said yesterday, but I’m told that this is going to be appearing on Ancient Faith Radio, both parts, and also in The Word magazine, so if this is not clear, you’ll have a chance to read it or to listen to it later.

Yesterday I accused myself and all of you of being secular, and we explained what that means. We now live in a secular-three world, in which daily life is basically about what we can see and feel with our senses, in which it is hard to believe in the transcendent, in which unbelief is plausible, and we are all subject to the cross-pressure of both faith and doubt. We believe the same things that our Fathers in the Faith did, but we believe them in a different way. People are no longer looking for answers, but rather to find their authentic, true selves, and that has some big implications for how we do ministry.

So today I would like to speak of how we do ministry within this context, a ministry that touches directly on questions of ministering to youth and young adults, but really to all of us. I’m going to begin with two stories from a wedding that I conducted just a couple of weeks ago, in which I had encounters with two young men.

After finishing vespers after the wedding, I went to the reception. It was beautiful, of course, and joyful. I spoke with the couple’s parents especially, but to other family and friends as well. And then it happened that one of the groom’s cousins approached me as I stood on the periphery. I had never met him before that day. He lived in another state; he wasn’t an Orthodox Christian. He told me how he had recently become divorced, how he didn’t know what to do with that relationship, how he didn’t know where his life was going. He then said to me, “Father, I have really lost my path. Will you please pray for me?”

He wasn’t asking to be put on a prayer list, even though that was my first thought: “I’ll put you on my prayer list.” I could tell that he meant right then, so I did, and I prayed that God would show him that path, that God would heal his broken heart and bring him back to himself.

A little bit later in the evening, a 17-year-old boy approached me, the cousin of the bride. He said this to me: “Have you ever thought about doing something different with your life?” I was struck at how different this question was from the one that I think that all clergy get, which is: “When did you know you wanted to be a priest?” We’ve all gotten that, haven’t we? It wasn’t that, but rather: “Have you ever thought about doing something different with your life?” In other words, would I stop being a priest and pursue the quest of finding my authentic, true self somewhere else? Or perhaps is it possible that I am not really certain about all this, that I don’t really know that I want to be a priest? Can it be that even though there I was, standing in all black and sporting a shiny cross, that I am human and haunted by doubt?

I told him that I actually did have something else I did with my life once, that I was a stagehand for ten years, that I entered the seminary only in my late 20s. I said that I knew that this is what I wanted to do, that it made a lot of sense to me. I didn’t say that God had called me, and while I believe in that idea, I didn’t think that it would make sense to mention that in that conversation.

Those two brief chats at that wedding reception illustrated for me the problems of doing ministry in a secular-three world. In the first encounter, the young man wanted to reconnect the transcendent to his immanentized world immediately: Please pray for me. In the second, the young man didn’t want answers but was asking about a personal path: Have you ever thought about doing something different with your life? Most of our ministry is aimed at a secular-two world that no longer exists. When we have problems, we think about doing conferences and teaching things, at making handouts, at giving the Orthodox view on hot subjects. In other words, we are still aimed at trying to prepare people for the culture wars, for the battle between faith and unbelief, between Christianity and secularism. We are looking for solutions, programs, and fixes.

But that kind of secularity is gone. We are all secular now, so how do we do ministry now? I’ve been exploring that question for several years, and one of the things I have happened upon that has helped me to understand what our problem is in terms of how people connect with Church life comes from our own Antiochian tradition. In 1964, when the Orthodox Youth Movement in the Middle East was still fairly young, Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon wrote this about Christianity in the Middle East at the time.

Popular piety, like the piety of other Mediterranean Christians, is profoundly ritualistic. Service books and diverse manuals of devotion put the allegorical and spiritual meaning of the liturgy into relief, but the psychology of the ordinary Christian remains dominated by the sensual and aesthetic aspect of the offices. The great majority of the faithful do not penetrate in any way into the spiritual significance of the rite. They often bring with them authentic private piety, but a sense of the liturgical community and of the bond between the individual person and the praying assembly is rarely consciously experienced by the majority of the faithful.

That’s what he wrote in 1964. In other words, Metropolitan Georges is saying that, though people may be sincere in their approach to Church life, their connection with what is actually being prayed and their connection with those around them as they pray is almost non-existent. “They do not penetrate into the spiritual significance of the rite”—that’s his language. “Nor do they usually have a conscious sense of being not just individual believers, engaged in prayer, but truly being Church in a way that binds them together.”

I believe that we can all observe the same approach to Church life in our own time and in our own place, and maybe even in our own hearts. This, I believe, is at least part of why so many young people and others are finding it easy not to be connected to our parishes. They were not taught how to bring the transcendent truly home for themselves in a world where almost everything they experience is just immanent, just the regular physical experience of daily life. And they were also not taught how to be bound together by prayer. This is the powerlessness of common religious practice in a secular-three world.

So what do we do? From the little I’ve learned of the Orthodox Youth Movement in the Middle East, part of what they did early on was to connect in a personal and direct way with the prayer of the Church. So they would read psalms and other Scripture to each other and pray the Jesus prayer together. They would also practice intercession for each other, together and separately. In other words, they wouldn’t merely teach that people should engage in Scripture reading, prayer, etc., but they would actually do it with each other.

I must admit that when that young man approached me at that wedding reception and asked me to pray for him, my first thought was to put him on a prayer list. That’s what I thought. That was my first thought. But then my second thought said, “No, pray for him and with him right now, right here, at the periphery of this party.” This kind of spontaneous intercessory prayer is not in any way opposed to our traditions of liturgical prayer. We see it in the Bible, and we see it in saints’ Lives, even recent ones. St. Silouan the Athonite, for instance, would spend hours praying for people, and we find it hard to take one minute. It is so much easier to act in an institutional way.

It is not Protestant for us to take prayer requests and immediately pray with people. This is Orthodox, too. There is nothing un-Orthodox about reading the Bible together out loud. It is this direct, personal contact with the fiery elements of our faith that people hunger for. Church services and classes and all these things are good, but they are not a point of entry for most people today. They need to have a sense that the transcendent God is touching, is reaching right now into their lives, into their own quests to find who they authentically and truly are, and he is connecting with them, he cares about them. He is not only their Teacher, but their Father. I think we often pay only lip-service to the Fatherhood of God.

We often say that it is good to practice fasting and silence, but how often do we do that with each other? How often do we demonstrate what that looks like? When will our sense of community fasting rise above the level of “which foods are prohibited at coffee hour and which foods we tell people not to eat on their own”? Are we fasting and praying for anything? It happens all the time in the Bible and Church history; can’t we do that now, too? Is fasting merely good for you, or is it aimed at a purpose? I suppose that we at least have the sense that we are fasting for someone else, that our ascetical efforts are aimed at the objects of our prayers for someone.

Finally, let me suggest that when we think of ministry, especially ministry involving our youth and young adults, that we think not so much about ministering to them as with them. This applies to all of us, really, not just younger folks. This goes beyond finding them something to do or giving them a job, although both of those ideas are on the right track. It reaches, rather toward the sense that we are all a royal priesthood, a holy nation. We all have a priestly ministry. We say that a lot, but how much do we actually say, “So how are we going to do that?”

This past Great Lent, I preached a ten-part sermon series, connecting with each Sunday’s themes in the Triodion, but also revolving around the overall theme of the priesthood, especially the royal priesthood of the people of God. Probably at no other time in my pastorate did I receive such a strongly engaged response from my people. These direct and personal approaches to ministry are not opposed to what we might think of as our more institutional traditions of liturgical prayer and so forth. Indeed—and this is really important—what they actually do is to vivify our practice of those traditions, to breathe new life into them and help us to penetrate to their true spiritual significance and to bond more deeply with each other as a praying assembly. And they can be done both in parish ministry and within the family itself.

So these are just some thoughts that I’ve been thinking. I’m not an expert, and I have no expertise. I’m also not very good yet at applying these ideas myself. I have, however, learned a lot of these things from two friends whose names I would like to mention. Steven Christoforou and Christian Gonzalez, of the Youth and Young Adult Ministry of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, although it’s worth noting that both of those men are parishioners at Antiochian parishes. You may know one of their best ministry tools already, a video series called Be the Bee. Who’s seen Be the Bee?

Why Be the Bee works, and why all these ideas can work in our secular-three world is that they are aimed specifically at bringing the transcendent into the daily life of people who are reaching for transcendence but don’t know how to bring it to themselves. And they are also aimed at helping us to interpret our lives in the light of holy Scripture and the rest of holy Orthodox Tradition. And that, I believe, is at least part of the answer to our most vexing ministry questions.

Thank you very much. [Applause]

Sayidna, do we have time for a little discussion? Okay. Sayidna tells me we have time for a little bit of discussion. If any of you would like to ask a question, there’s microphones in the middle, but before that happens, I just want to mention that if you’re interested in these questions, maybe fleshing out this secular-one, -two, -three scheme in your mind so you can understand it better, I’m happy to talk to you separately, but also there’s two resources I want to suggest to you. One is a book by the author James K.A. Smith, and it’s called How (Not) to be Secular. It’s only about 150 pages, and it’s a relatively easy read. The other is an episode that I was blessed to be part of. I have a podcast called The Areopagus. Anyone’s heard of The Areopagus? A few of you. The Areopagus is me sitting down with a Protestant pastor friend of mine and talking theology, often with guests. We had Steven Christoforou and Christian Gonzalez on the show, and we had a two-hour session with them. The title of that episode is called “Are We Doing Youth Ministry Wrong?” Those are both suggestions I would give to help you flesh out some of these ideas to try to understand, because I know I’m asking you to think in a very different way from what we’re used to thinking. Any questions anyone has? Fr. Patrick O’Grady.

V. Rev. Fr. Patrick O’Grady: Yes, thank you, Fr. Andrew, for your very lively presentation. I appreciate that. When I came to southern California about ten years ago…

Fr. Andrew: Could you get a little bit closer to the mic? I can’t hear you very well.

Fr. Patrick: Yes. I’m afraid of hearing the feedback loop, and right now it’s like I’m in a bathtub. Echo-chamber. Forgive me.

When I came to southern California ten years ago, one of the issues that presented itself to me was ministry to the youth was conceived as something separate from other things, like outside of the other categorizes. It was compartmentalized, and I was very troubled by that. I kind of worked with the youth leader at that time, and I said, “Look, let’s work with the families. Let’s work with the community as a family, and the families in particular,” because the most important impress that the youth receive is from their parents. They’re watching their parents. If the parents are off-loading them to the Church with the hope that somehow they will mysteriously become holy, this is hypocritical, and, believe me, the youth are more critically aware of those discordances than the adults are. Nobody’s pulling the wool over their eyes.

Would you comment, then, on so-called “doing ministry” but within the familial context of a Christian family and the Church at large?

Fr. Andrew: Yeah, absolutely. That’s an excellent question. For those maybe who didn’t hear what Fr. Patrick said, he was talking about his own ministry in southern California and how he noticed that this question of youth ministry is often off-loaded on the one hand that the Church tries to find someone to take care of those kids, but also that the parents act that way, too. “Church, your job as the religious professionals are to make sure my kids remain religious. Good luck.” Is that not essentially a summary, pastors? Does that not sound true to you?

Okay, and often then, as pastors we experience a frustration, and as lay ministers we experience a frustration that, number one, the short amount of time that we get to have with young people, either on Sunday or at some other time, is really not enough to actually make them into Christians. And then there’s also the problem—Fr. Patrick didn’t mention this, but there’s also the problem that increasingly we don’t even see the same young people every single Sunday. Inconsistent attendance is now the norm in every single church in America, actually. That’s now the norm.

So there’s that problem, and we often think, “Well, unless parents do something at home, we’re never going to get them. We’re never going to be able to take care of them in a really good way.” I think that’s definitely true, so the question is: How do I make parents do their job? Right? Isn’t that a good question: How do I make parents do their job? Well, I can tell you that saying, “Parents, this is your job. Snap to it!” is not working, actually. I have attempted that; I’m sure some of you have attempted that. What I am going to suggest is that parents are actually not doing their jobs very well because they don’t actually know how. So one of the things that I would suggest as being a lesson from the Orthodox Youth Movement, at least as I read about it—I’m sure there are some of you here who’ve experienced this directly, so I’m just reading about your experience—is gathering together and doing spiritual practices together, immediately together.

Instead of saying, “Look, you should practice some silence at home,” they said, “We’re going to practice silence together right now, here.” Or: “Make sure you pray for people when you get home.” No. What is it you need me to pray for you? I’ll pray for you right now. Right now, right here. Yes, I might pull out a prayer book, but I might just say whatever… trusting that God is going to give me a prayer, because he does, he will, even if your prayer from a literary point of view is lousy. No one is going to record it. The whole point is to pray for someone, there and then.

What does it actually look like to do these things? We often tell people to do them or teach people to do them, but don’t actually do them together in church. We have a very meta approach to ministry in many cases. Meta: “Go home and do the thing we told you about.” Rather than actually giving them the experience of doing it together.

So I think one of the best things we can do for our adults who might happen to have children, or even those who don’t, is actually bring them together and refamiliarize them with the real bones and heart of our spiritual life: the Bible, the songs. Let’s look at one hymn and read through it and talk through it and really examine it closely together, rather than just repeat this mantra here sometimes, especially in some circles of “Come to church and the services will teach you everything.” Services are awesome; I love doing lots of services, but if people don’t know how to hear what’s being said in the services, if they don’t know how to read it, don’t know how to connect to it, it won’t matter how many they go to. They’ll just have a vague aesthetic experience of Church, without ever, to use Metropolitan Georges’ language, “penetrating into the spiritual significance of the rite.”

You have to learn how to read before you can read. You have to learn how. So let’s get down in the dirt with people and actually do that more. I am speaking to myself here; I am criticizing myself. That’s one of the things that I would suggest. It may be that you’ll only get a handful of people in an individual parish who are actually ready to do that with the priest or a lay leader. Take those people. Take those people, and do it with them.

I remember reading an article several years ago from His Eminence that he wrote when he was bishop in Los Angeles, when he talked about his ministry style. This article—I think it was in the DIAKONIA, the ladies’ magazine, and, Sayidna, you wrote about Jesus’ leadership style. He served everybody, but he took twelve men, and he really worked with them, and they became his apostles. He lived with them, he prayed with them, he worked directly with them. I think that that is an approach that can actually work, because it’s what Jesus showed us how to do. It’s much more direct. Not everyone heeds every call. Pastors, you know what I mean. We stand up in the pulpit and say, “Please do this. Please do this. Please do this,” and only a few, at most, if maybe you beg them privately… But that doesn’t matter. Just take those few that are actually willing, and say, “Okay, now we’re going to do this together. We’re going to pray together.”

And watch what happens the next time you come to Liturgy and you experience the services and really, really connect with them in a deep and powerful way. Does that make sense? Anything else? Thank you very much. [Applause]


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