“Christians are made, not born.” Tertullian penned this pithy saying in the late second century AD. This raises questions of how well we are making Christians today, how we make Christians, and where we make Christians.
Let’s start with “where.” As the early Church taught, “One Christian is no Christian.” As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware explained it, “No one can be genuinely Christian in isolation.” Christians are made in communities, chiefly families and parishes: the Church at home and the Church we call our parish. Others will speak about the role of families, so I’ll focus my energies on parishes.
Everything we do in our parishes is teaching us what it is to be an Orthodox Christian, working to make us Christians throughout our lives and not just when we attend Sunday school or GOYA. The primary teacher for learning the Orthodox Faith and way of life is the life of the Church as experienced in a dynamic, faith-filled parish. In that parish, all members are teaching through their examples, even as certain individuals are appointed to instruct us in the Faith and way of life. Through our shared life as Christians in community, we transmit our Orthodox beliefs, our values, and our way of life (our practices) to one another. We instruct and correct, reinforce and guide, all aimed at living the life in Christ. Just as I would not want to have a surgeon who learned surgery only from a book, we cannot assume that you can learn what it is to be an Orthodox Christian only by reading a few interesting books or blog posts or watching a few well-crafted videos.
Since Pentecost (see Acts of the Apostles 2:41–47), the Church has identified the keys to Christian life: koinonia (the fellowships, organizations, ministries, groups and more); leiturgia (prayer, liturgy and worship, sacramental participation, fasting and feasting, the liturgical year); diakonia (philanthropy, charity, and social action); and martyria, kerygma, and matheteia (preaching, teaching, witness, study, and learning). Each of these is lived out in our personal lives, in our families, and in our parishes and the Church at large (our metropolises, Archdiocese, and the global Orthodox Church).
We learn best when we study topics that matter in depth, discussing them with others and doing things together. We don’t learn as well or as much when we only read, watch, or listen. The parish community, the Sunday school class, the adult education class, and the Bible study group are just a few examples of where this kind of learning can occur. In short, the church is a place to hold a religious conversation that matters. The Bible, textbooks, videos, websites, blog posts, theological resources, and other writings are at the center of these conversations, focusing on great questions and issues that are meaningful to people’s lives.
The parish community is also a place that offers pathways to practicing the faith under the guidance of experienced practitioners: from yia-yia and pappou to the bishops, priests, deacons, teachers, and others, even as those practitioners recognize that they too are learning from others, including those they are teaching. The parish is a place to initiate novice members (usually the young, but also new members to the Church and parish) into the way of knowing and life of the Church, steadily guiding them from the peripheries into leadership, from worker to leader, from student to teacher.
Too often we speak about “keeping people in the Church” with solutions that are essentially “fences that keep people in.” Christ met the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–30) at a well where the water was deep. In that meeting and discussion over the proper place for worship and God, she learned that she had met the Messiah. We learn in conversation with others, we develop our relationship with God and His Church (that is, His people) by drawing from the deep well of our Faith, His book and His word, and the Tradition of the Church that is the centuries of wisdom, prayer, and lived faith, not just to appreciate the past but also for application in the present and into the future.