It Takes a Village to Make a Church: Pt. III

What our Children might stay for

The natural community has been forever shattered by globalism, though we should remind ourselves that globalism is as old as Phoenician ships. The community, be it village or city or state that shares a common culture, including a common religion, is the relic of a past world, never to be regained. Sub-cultures must contend with the ever-present reality of choice, magnified by the instantaneous availability of information in the digital age. An islander in Polynesia learns about Swedenborg through an Instagram ad,  a Mennonite young man is confronted by Dungeons & Dragons at his local Wal-Mart, and a young lady in rural Missouri wonders why none of her friends are Orthodox.

Intentional communities can never provide the limitation of choice that was the source of relative content within the natural community. There is no point in trying to resurrect the bliss of ignorance. We fought for freedom, now we have to live with the consequences: the burden of limitless choice.

However, I believe it is possible for church leaders to nurture a sense of place for which our children might stay. The next three posts will offer a few ideas from which to make a start.

Encourage culture building

The Church, at least in a local, visible sense,  is only as strong as the ecclesia from which it is comprised. While informed by the degree  of its spiritual maturity, the strength of the Church is also dependent upon maturity of its culture. Since its earliest history, the Church has been the locus of culture’s greatest achievements, whether it be in art, architecture, literature, music, even technology. We tend to think that iconography or hymnography simply descended from heaven upon a cloud. Any serious research will provide thorough evidence to the contrary. Iconography adopted what was best in the surrounding culture, hymnography did the same. In its golden age, the Church attracted the greatest artistic minds to beautify its worship. Andrei Rublev was undoubtedly informed by the clear, spiritual vision of his pure, saintly life, but he was also a darn good artist, thoroughly educated in his craft, whose mysteries far predated Christianity. We could say the same of John the Damascene, Gregory Palamas, or Alexander Kastalsky.

A Fayum Portrait from a Roman Mummy.
An icon of St. Peter from the 6th century

What is urgent today is not a renaissance of iconography or hymnography, but of art and music itself. Culture at large, and in the West in particular, seems to be all but lost in the post-modern, satirical mockery of itself. The solemn truth is that if our children do not acquire culture outside the Church, they will certainly never be able to bring it within. For example, if our children do not learn to sing together in their homes and schools, they will be incapable of doing so in worship.

It is sad to note that in many church communities the only occasion at which song occurs is during the Divine Liturgy and perhaps a Christmas concert. It is of little surprise that these events are often transformed into a  desperate attempt to sing “everyone’s favorites” and participation is perceived as the lawful right of every congregant. Can we expect any degree of artistic beauty to emerge from these events? What if, instead, the Divine Liturgy was the culmination of a vibrant musical culture that included singing folk songs around a roaring fire, gathering in a home to play through a Schubert quartet, attending La Boheme in the nearby city, and performing a concert of Brahm’s German Requiem?

None of these musical activities are remotely “Orthodox,” but they would be the musical well from which the Church could draw. The music sung in the Church, would thereby be not the desperately clutched right of every member, but the offering of the very best from a far wider circle of artistic talent. A liturgical cycle that was more comprehensive than the all-too-common “Sunday only,”  would allow for exponentially more opportunities for participation from among the laity, our children included.

An article, published a few weeks ago, argued for an expansion of liturgical services in parish communities based upon the inherent necessity of greater lay participation (click here). A recent article in The Guardian (click here), noted that while parish communities in the UK continued to decline, especially among the youth, cathedrals, with their full liturgical calendars and robust choirs, had experienced a 30% increase since the year 2,000, primarily among the younger generation. Both essays point out the apparent attraction of non-eucharistic services like evensong. Though lacking sacramental distribution (i.e. holy communion) these services are rich in hymnography and liturgical pageantry and require a large force of lay readers, singers, and servers, in addition to the greater circle of artists, woodcarvers, architects, tailors or seamstresses, candle makers, hymnographers, poets, and a host of others that are necessary to the function and beauty of just one cathedral service.

Orthodox Christians would do well to take note. Ironically, the revival of frequent communion and the solicitation of greater lay participation in the 1950’s–1970’s, led to a more pronounced clericalism and the exodus of our youth who saw no “place” for them. The contraction of worship to the ingestion of the Body and Blood of Christ supplanted the necessity of the Church’s broader liturgical cycle and reduced the Church to a sacramental dispensary. The opportunity to offer was eclipsed by the directive to take. Church became a location to “get,” rather than a place to be. In this model, all that is necessary is a priest and a communicant, the one to give, the other to receive.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification of the historical decline of lay participation. However, one can only observe with grim agreement that such is the case in a large majority of American parishes; a lone, semi-retired priest keeps the doors open to a church by occasionally serving a Liturgy for a handful of communicants. I am sorry, the mere, mechanical, reception of communion at a monthly Liturgy is not going to keep our kids in the Church, even if they were there.

What if instead our churches were a “place” that genuinely needed our children’s cultural offerings, talents, and skills? What if it were a “place” that needed business managers, administrators, accountants, digital designers, and technicians to operate its industries that employed craftsmen and women that produced liturgical cloth and clothing, candles, woodcarvings, metal fixtures, both for the Church and broader markets. What if it were a “place” that needed children to help bake bread for use in the daily Liturgies, to help sing in the choir, serve in the altar, light candles, clean floors and polish brass. What if it were a “place” that needed men and women to write music, compose services, edit books, paint icons, instruct seminarians, teach music, direct choirs, administer our schools and educate our children. That would be something worth staying for. 

Yet, none of this will be possible unless each adult and child has a broader cultural experience from which to draw. Thus, it is expedient for church leaders to both facilitate the cultural immersion of the ecclesia and provide opportunities for its application within the smaller circle of the Church. Without the former, the Church will have no well from which to draw, and without the latter, the talents and skills of our youth will migrate, with them, to fairer harbors that value their offerings.

Next Up: Forming Intersections (Click here)

2 Replies to “It Takes a Village to Make a Church: Pt. III”

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