The program was created to help Eastern Orthodox churches grow both spiritually and physically. The idea behind the course was to give local churches a tangible program which would have a positive impact on the local community. The techniques in the small group discussions help guests to feel loved, listened to, and welcomed. They come for many reasons, but they return because they are being treated as "truly human."
Our lives in this modern world become so busy that we are constantly distracted from asking ourselves the fundamental questions and reflecting on the importance of their meaning in our lives. As Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory said in The Lenten Spring,
People feel unhappy and they don't know why. They feel that something is wrong, but they can't put their finger on what.... They have everything, yet they want more. And when they get more, they are still left ... dissatisfied. They want happiness and peace, but nothing seems to bring it. They want fulfillment, but it never seems to come. Everything is fine, and yet everything is wrong.... It is covered over by frantic activity, and endless running around.... It is drowned out by television programs and video games. But when the movement stops, and the power is turned off, and everything is quiet ... then the dread sets in, and the meaninglessness of it all and the boredom and the fear. Why is this so? Because the Church tells us that we are really not at home. We are alienated and estranged from our true country. We are not with God in the land of the living. We are spiritually sick, and some of us are already dead [spiritually].
There are perhaps 60 million unchurched people in America who have not been to a church in six months. Perhaps one-half of these are individuals who previously attended a church earlier in their lives. Almost all of the "unchurched," however, have not been exposed to the understanding of God in the Orthodox Church, which has preserved the apostolic doctrine handed to the Apostles from Christ Himself. While our Archdiocesan churches have always been open to those who nd their way to us, few of our parishes have undertaken efforts to seek out those around us who hunger and thirst for the Orthodox Faith, whether they realize their hunger or not.
Under the leadership of Metropolitan Joseph, who wants our neighbors to have the opportunity to receive the blessings of Orthodoxy that we enjoy, our Archdiocese is making a new effort to that end. The idea originated in 2009, when Charles Ajalat spoke out for the need of the Church to be the Church by following our Lord's Great Commission: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations ... teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you ..." (Matthew 28:19–20). The laity must, under the guidance of the priest, also take this commandment to heart. St. John Chrysostom says it emphatically: "I do not believe in the salvation of anyone who does not try to save others." As Fr. Peter Gillquist of blessed memory said, too: "You don't have to be a gifted evangelist to take part in being an effective witness for Christ."
The "Becoming Truly Human" program offers those outside the Church a comfortable, inviting and gentle introduction to the fullness of our human lives, as offered within Orthodox Christianity. The goal of the program is to help fulll the Great Commission according to the two Great Commandments of Christ: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Why is the course called, "Becoming Truly Human"? Aren't we "human" now? The answer is No. We need to understand what it means to be truly a human being, made in the image of God, and to understand that the purpose of life is to have an intimate relationship with God through His Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch, on his journey to his martyrdom, begged his followers not to prevent his death, because to die and be with Christ is to live, to be truly human. It is because God created us so: "Let us make the human being in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26). Nicholas Cabasilas said, "To sum it up: the Savior first and alone showed to us the true human being, who is perfect on account of both character and life and in all other respects." St. Athanasius has said that only through Christ's death and resurrection and our resulting re-creation, can man "become truly human." Fr. John Behr, Dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary, has suggested in his speeches and work on death, that perhaps only in death are we ultimately truly human, for then we see fully the reality of God and His Kingdom.
The program runs once a week for six weeks, including a one- or two-day retreat. There is an on-site four-hour training session for those who will be administering and helping. The course is designed not to be a burden on the parish priest, but led by local church leaders who are trusted and approved by the priest. This is a real opportunity for the priest to empower the laity while furthering the work of the Church.
The way the course is run for newcomers is based on the researched premise that people become Christians because someone they know and admire is a Christian and they want to know, therefore, what Christianity is really all about. The setting for the dinner and course is a home or inviting church hall (perhaps with candle light and a warm atmosphere) or other suitable setting. Each session of the program starts with an informal dinner, followed by a twenty-minute talk from someone speaking extemporaneously, but conveying material from a script that is provided. (Alternatively, we hope to have professionallyproduced twenty-minute videos available later).
The six session topics include fundamental questions, such as, What is the purpose of life? Who is Jesus? Why did He die? and How can I have faith? After the talk there are discussion groups. Each group has a moderator, who does not have to be theologically trained, but whose role simply is to keep the discussion going and not let any one person dominate.
The program ideas were developed in 2014 by a committee co-chaired by former Chancellor Charles Ajalat and the Metropolitan's assistant, Fr. George Kevorkian. Bishop Nicholas served as the episcopal overseer. Fr. Ken DeVoie of the Missions and Evangelism Department wrote the first draft of the materials. The program was then transferred from the Department to be directly under the Metropolitan. It was funded for the first two years by the Orthodox Vision Foundation and the Archdiocese. Although initiated in the Archdiocese, the hope is that, after an experimental and refining stage, the program will spread to all Orthodox jurisdictions in this country and elsewhere.
"Becoming Truly Human" is a vehicle to share the Orthodox Christian view of life with others, while revitalizing the faith of parishioners. The "Becoming Truly Human" course is not a catechetical course, but an evangelistic one. The ultimate goal is that many of the newcomers taking the course may go on to an inquirer's course or catechetical course under the priest. Thus they may begin the transformation of their own lives, becoming committed chrismated or baptized Orthodox Christians.
The course is now being given experimentally in 14 Antiochian parishes, with another 27-plus planning on beginning the course between now and the end of September. These over 40 churches include large parishes, small parishes and missions, "cradle" and "convert" parishes, churches in each diocese and churches (so far) from 23 states and provinces.
All of the courses, except one, are in Phase 1 – the running of the course among existing parishioners internally in the parish so that they might not only be revitalized themselves, but feel comfortable inviting friends, business acquaintances and unchurched family members to Phase 2. So far, the courses generally have been enthusiastically received. One church, having finished Phase 1, has started Phase 2 with college students. This version of the course is for those from beyond the parish who might be interested in exploring Christianity. After that group's first session, all the comments were positive. One person stated, "There aren't many places I've been where I could be involved in a discussion like this." His comment points to the problems – the lack of a forum to discuss the important questions of life, and fear of "organized religion" – and it shows the need for a solution like the "Becoming Truly Human" program, presented in a warm, friendly, loving environment.
The Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church jointly said in 2008, "The evangelization of God's people, and also of those who don't believe in Christ, constitutes the supreme duty of the Church." Patriarch Ignatius said on February 6, 1987, "The Orthodox Church is not only for one nation, one civilization, one continent. It is like God Himself, for all and for every place." His successor, Patriarch John X, made clear that evangelism or spiritual outreach is our task in this Archdiocese, and our tradition in Antioch, where they were first called Christians (Acts 11:26): "In this beloved Archdiocese, evangelism realizes a full sense of the historic missionary vocation of Antioch." Metropolitan Joseph, at his enthronement, said emphatically, "I shall use this staff to proclaim the Gospel [the good news]."
But what is that "good news?" "The good news," Fr. Keiser writes in Spread the Word, "is that Jesus came to establish the Kingdom of God." If we do not start understanding and living in the Kingdom of God now during our lifetimes, uniting both our faith and our actions, our souls may well not live in the Kingdom of God at the time of our death, when our souls leave our bodies until soul and body are reunited in the general resurrection.
How are we, as an Archdiocese, doing in fullling the mission of the Church in bringing the Gospel, as understood by the historic Church, to the more than sixty million unchurched in America? Unfortunately, not as well as we should be. According to the Archdiocese census information, as the best available measure of newcomers, 88 percent of our more than 275 churches and missions have four or fewer chrismations per year. There is no reason, however, why all of the top twenty churches (in terms of chrismations), if not all our churches, cannot each have thirty chrismations per year. Although increases in chrismations and baptisms of the unbaptized likely will be slower in the beginning, if God blesses the implementation of the "Becoming Truly Human" program, in 16 years the Archdiocese could double the number of its faithful. Equally, if not more importantly, if God blesses the program there will be a change in culture, so that all of the Archdiocese's churches will be interested in evangelism or spiritual outreach, and there will be a desire on the part of all in the churches that they be warm and welcoming places for those who want to know Christ's Church.
How can you be involved in the "Becoming Truly Human" program? 1. Pray for those administering and participating in the program; 2. Help start the program in your own parish; and 3. Donate to the "Becoming Truly Human" Evangelism Fund, by sending a check so marked, to the Antiochian Archdiocese, 358 Mountain Road, Englewood, NJ 07631. Your generous gift will help insure that the program, as blessed by God, may produce bountiful fruit. Beyond the need for resources as the program expands among the parishes, there is a need for a website, for the production and sale of materials and videos for the program, and much more.
How can your parish be involved in the "Becoming Truly Human" program? If you have the blessings of your priest, and together with him can find a potential local administrator for the program, contact the program director, Adam Roberts, firstname.lastname@example.org (615-971-0000), or the program's consultant, Fr. Michael Nasser, email@example.com (270-823-3371).
Pray that the "Becoming Truly Human" program will revitalize many of the faithful and accomplish God's will by bringing many additional new, wonderful, committed Orthodox Christians, whether originally "cradle" or converts, into His Church, so that they might have a foretaste now, and live forever, in the Kingdom of God.
"Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations ... teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you ..." (Matthew 28:19–20).
Charles Ajalat, Fr. George Kevorkian, Fr. Michael Nasser and Sub-deacon Adam Roberts
From The Word, June 2015