Monday, April 13, 2015

Do You Love Church; or do you enjoy gimmicks?

Orthodox Christians have just completed the holiest week of the year. Holy Week and Pascha has truly been a spiritual journey as the Church reflects upon the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry while remaining vigilant to His promised return. Services throughout Holy Week are filled with rich symbolism and often evoke deep emotions in worshipers. Today is Bright Monday – the second day of Pascha, and for those who made the most of last week, not only are you a bit tired; you are also most likely feeling a bit of “Church withdrawal” after such an intense spiritual week in Church. But what is it that you are missing – Church or gimmicks?

Allow me to explain the term gimmicks in this context. Many, if not all, Orthodox Churches (I can only speak to the American religious context here) over the years have included special events, such as Communion breakfasts, Holy Friday retreats, even “reenactments” at the Tomb of Christ often include young girls or women “acting” the role of the myrrh-bearing women at the Tomb. These events are meant to “attract” youth to Church, while teaching about the events that lead up to the Passion of Christ. I use the term gimmicks since these activities are not actually part of the ancient liturgical patterns of the Orthodox Christian Holy Week. They have been added into an already intense week of prayer, fasting, confession and Holy Communion. I refer to them as gimmicks since they are designed to “get them to Church” SO THAT hopefully they will gain an appreciation for the awesomeness of Holy Week. After twenty-four years of Holy Week ministries (both as a lay youth director and now ordained Priest) I have noticed that the long-term result has been less than positive.

As the youth “age out” of such events, many stop attending the very services in which the gimmicks were included. Reflect for the moment on Holy Friday “Retreats” in your own experience. These retreats normally conclude with the “Taking down from the Cross” Service on Holy Friday afternoon. The youth who have been at the retreat all day gather around the Cross of Christ, many times even helping the Vespers by holding white sheets and throwing flowers on Christ’s Tomb, and “participate” in Church. Parents and grandparents are “gleaming with pride” that their kids are “in Church” for Holy Friday. They even used special excuse letters from the Priest at school so their children’s absences were not held against their status are star students! Now “look around the Church” and reflect on all the generations of youth who had participated in such events of the decades. Where are they now? I would suggest that if they are not in Church, then the gimmick didn’t work.

The rich liturgical traditions of the Orthodox Christian Holy Week are filled with deep meaning and are themselves designed to cause reflection and commitment, but they can become quite boring in today’s modern fast paced, high tech, entertainment driven, short attention span society, which is why the gimmicks have been added in the first place. They were never meant for harm to the Church. I get that, I really do. But did they have their affect? Do our youth learn to love Church or just the gimmicks?

For Orthodox Christianity to be a long-lasting lifestyle, it must be loved. Orthodox Christianity isn’t easy. It isn’t casual. It isn’t entertaining. It most definitely is NOT fast paced or for the short attention span. It IS holy. It IS deep. It IS about learning to love spending time with God. So do you love Church or the gimmicks? Only Church will keep you close to God for the long term. Eventually every Orthodox Christian needs to learn to “just enjoy worship in Church” or they will spend a lifetime seeking out new and more creative gimmicks. Of course this phenomenon is not limited to Holy Week, as many Churches feature “youth Sunday” where the teens serve as ushers, youth choirs sing the liturgical responses, and the Priest teaches a “youth” sermon. These all have the same purpose of Holy Week gimmicks, and if we are being honest, have had the same long-term result....nothing.

Disclaimer: You may currently be attending a Church which has solved this dilemma. If that is the case, BRAVO! For the rest of us, let’s learn to love Church!

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