Why do people come into the Church these days? What are they looking for and what do they expect?
Alexey Naumov (Moscow, 10 years of experience as a catechist): People generally come because of a feeling that they are lacking in something that they really need. Perhaps they sense that their life is disordered, both internally and externally. People often come because they feel frustrated and are not finding meaning in their lives or in what they do. People also come into the Church when they run across the fact that a very different life from the one they know is available. They come to church seeking that different life, although initially they can rarely articulate this purpose to themselves. At the beginning of catechesis, we distribute a questionnaire, in which one of the questions is about what people would like to learn at our open mission meetings (preceding catechesis). People often write, “I want to learn about the Scriptures,” “I want to learn to pray” or “I want to learn how to behave in church.” These are certainly important interests, but they aren’t the ultimate reason that people come to God or enter the Church. People are actually thirsting for happiness, fullness of life and joy.
Oleg Glagolev (Ekaterinburg, 14 years of experience as a catechist): First, I want to mention a specific group of people who tried to enter the Church in the 1990s and are now coming back again for the second time. They wanted to enter the Church before and some even began coming to church but somehow it did not work out for them and they left. We are not talking about one or two people, but whole groups who are coming into the Church for the second time. They come into the Orthodox Church because they are seeking God and happiness. As for the rest, it is all the same: people come into the Church because they are seeking to satisfy their needs. This consumer bent in people’s hearts is widespread: whether people are going to the shop, to church, or somewhere else, the main motivation is to acquire some ‘good’ for themselves. We need to understand this and take it into account in order to understand what to speak about with these ‘seekers’, as we endeavour to reveal to them the One who is good and is the Treasury of genuine goodness.
Lyudmila Komissarova (Moscow, 8 years of experience as a catechist): People in our society have lost their bearings. They have no direction – not even a false ideology to lean on, as in Soviet times. They are, however, looking for something that is real. It is not true that there are times in history when people are not looking for anything. Many young people these days are looking for reality, and they do not find it in any sort of organisation. They have some notion of God and faith because they read a lot, including all sorts of religious literature, which is not always Christian. Almost all young people understand that God is something transcendent and eternal, and this is what they are coming to church to find. Middle-aged people most often come to find help dealing with their personal problems, though this is far less frequent than in the 1990s.
Valery Larionov (Tver, 10 years of experience as a catechist): People are fleeing from fatigue, meaninglessness, running in place, and vicious cycles from which there is no escape. Sometimes people come to catechesis because of a crisis, sometimes economic in character. At a recent meeting, a Georgian citizen told us why there are more believers in Georgia: “We have harder lives. It is because the economic crisis started earlier there and it is more severe.”
Svetlana Chukavina (Moscow, 15 years of experience as a catechist): The answer to the question depends upon many different factors, such as age and social status. The main thing for young people, as far as I can tell, is the pursuit of freedom. When they begin to seriously reflect on God’s Word and understand that there are certain boundaries that actually give us freedom, when they begin to hear what is written in the books of the law, it makes a serious impression on them. Today’s young people are often quite serious about life and don’t want to waste it. They often have serious jobs or courses of study and write serious dissertations. I would say that they are looking for freedom even more than for meaning in life. Or, people sometimes end up coming to the Church for a different reason: it may be that they are not looking for anything in particular, but suddenly respond to the living word about faith, God, meaning and the foundation of life. At this point it is very rare that people come to our pre-catechetical open meetings with conscious, meaningful, hard-fought existential questions – either that, or they find it very difficult to articulate such questions. It is more common that profound questions begin to arise after people are acquainted with the Church and with Scripture. Having said that, people are always interested in the practical questions, such as how to avoid emptiness in life, what to do when confronted with evil, how to change their lives for the better and where to find the strength to do this.
What do you think is absolutely necessary in terms of preparation for baptism and life in the Church? What needs to disappear from our lives, and what new elements need to appear?
Alexey Naumov: Baptism is the beginning of ministry, as Protopresbyter Nikolay Afanasyev says in his books The Ministry of the Laity in the Church and The Church of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, as preparation for baptism and in order to begin ministry, we must, first and foremost, order our lives according to the commandments of God. And it is not just that we need to get used to keeping the Old Testament commandments; in order to serve, we also need to come into the New Testament experience of life revealed in its fullness – the path of love and freedom.
Oleg Glagolev: A person has to repent and leave his previous life behind. If he does this, then his entry into the Church becomes the joyous fulfilment of his innermost need, like coming home into a long-awaited atmosphere, which everyone has longed for since childhood and could nowhere find. And if he repents genuinely and enters the Church, his hopes come true. Such a person now knows that the Church is the place where he belongs. And what is repentance? It is a careful revision of one’s life: one has to reconsider – through the lens of the Cross – all the sweetest, most important and most serious aspects of life prior to entering the Church. If we do not lose heart but boldly bring to Christ all that is good in our lives including job, love, family, and education, and ask “does Christ need this? How can I serve Christ through this?”, then we will find inspiration. And if we don’t bring each of these aspects of life to Christ, we will suffer. Often people get to the very end of life without heartfelt repentance; they live split lives. And the task of the catechist, of course, is to help the catechumen rid his life of idols and attain to fullness and integrity.
Lyudmila Komissarova: Before being baptised, it is important to have particular instruction in the Christian faith, including knowledge of God and Christ. The catechumen must also wish to be baptised and, after baptism, live in accordance with the life of the Church. Healing from a split life and attaining to wholeness and integrity in life is of primary importance. When living a split life a human being recognises God and wants to call out to Him in prayer but doubts whether it is possible to live by faith. Moreover, the whole world shows him that it is impossible to live by faith. And he continues to life as before, calling out to God only occasionally. This is not what life in the communion of the Church looks like, though many lay people and even priests consider it normal, believing that not all Christians – but only some – are able to live a holistic Christian life. Sometimes people view entrance into the Church as a heavy burden, when in fact it is the joy of liberation from sin and a split life, and, ultimately, an overflowing of the heart and willingness to serve others.
Valery Larionov: When a catechumen is preparing for baptism, it is very important that he learn to distinguish between the genuine freedom and its false, worldly substitutes (for example, ‘freedom’ is often understood as ‘freedom of choice’). When someone overcomes the spirit of bondage he can then be baptised, because he has come into a common mind with the Church. It is impossible to enter the Church without overcoming the captivity of the spirit of this world. This is closely associated with repentance because we first need to recognise our condition of captivity and bondage to sin, and must truly desire to ‘get up off our knees.’
Svetlana Chukavina: First of all, we really must want to follow Christ. If we hear Christ’s call and answer it in our hearts, then we will want to continue further down this road and will, ourselves, start making an effort to put our lives right. There can be no talk of baptism if this does not occur. Once we hear God’s call and feel love within ourselves, then there is also gratitude, which means that we will contribute in the context of the Church. It is not possible to be baptised just for yourself so as to solve your own problems.
Why are various forms and systems of catechesis needed in our church?
Alexey Naumov: It is because of the different situations in different regions and across different social strata. Leading catechesis in a rural area is entirely different from the experience in a large metropolis. Catechising young and middle-aged people is entirely different from dealing with the aged. For example, our Transfiguration Brotherhood runs both full and short forms of catechesis. But the most important thing is that any type of catechesis implies entry into the real Church –community, brotherhood and parish.
Oleg Glagolev: The reason is that no system can be a universal key to the human heart. There is no system of catechesis which would be applicable to all. And it is very strange that the dioceses of our church very often look precisely for such a universal system which would be suitable for all. We know of examples, for instance, when at the diocesan level a system of catechesis that is appropriate for city use is adopted, but priests in rural areas encounter serious difficulties when they try to implement it. For example, they are compelled to organise twelve meetings in the form of hours-long intellectual conversations at table… but in today’s rural culture, gathering for a meal is not associated with long conversations on important topics. Thank God there are people in our church who just go about the business of catechesis – especially priests – who seek out and use the options that best serve their own needs. This was especially evident at the conference on catechesis held at St Philaret’s Institute in May last year. If the heart yearns to bring others into the Church, one will always find the proper path or system and will be understood by his listeners. It is important for catechists to communicate and learn from each other. Forms may differ depending upon whether the setting is rural or urban, in Albania or in China – but the essence will be the same because the path is one – bearing witness to Christ.
Lyudmila Komissarova: The reason is that people have differing experiences of church life. Those who already take communion, for example, and live a regular church life, do not need the same catechetical instruction as unbelievers who know nothing about God. Yet a different approach is required for those who are entering the Church from other religions, such as Islam and Judaism. The type of catechesis also depends upon the individual person, for instance, upon factors such as age. Some people are unable to attend the full-fledged catechesis (a year and a half or two years) which is required in today’s world, due to current levels of scientific and religious knowledge. There is also a dearth of catechists able to lead the full version; the shortfall applies to clergy, too. Yet despite this, we need to be offering catechesis without waiting until everyone is perfectly prepared.
Valery Larionov: It is because people who come into the church are very different from each other. They have different life conditions, different jobs, different attitudes to the history of our country, different family and cultural traditions. Some people – because of health or for other reasons, require a shorter period of catechesis. Other require an even longer one. These differences determine different forms and methods of catechesis but never remove the need for catechesis as such, because catechesis is the only possible path to full-fledged entry into the Church.
Svetlana Chukavina: Our catechetical system has many difference options; I can not really comment on others, as thus far I do not have any experience of them. Probably different specific conditions determine the need for different versions of catechesis, but there must be a church environment for catechumens to move into after completion of catechesis. This environment, too, can vary, depending upon the life conditions of a given church community. There must be different options for different social groups, for example, the young and the elderly. A catechist should not rely on some special instructions to just fall from the sky, but should start small and do things that are actually within his power. Along the way, he should accumulate and analyse the experience of catechesis so as to understand what helps people come to God and into the Church, and what does not help, since catechesis is part of the living experience of Church.