My father once told me that if you want a strong Church, and a engaged and loving community, we must all be like Christ and not like those great leaders and rulers, theologians and philosophers, gurus or mystics, however influential, pious, and powerful they might be. Yet despite the logic and simplicity of his observation, the weight of ensuring a strong community that grows and prospers is an issue that I and many other pastors and those in church life wrestle with.
We dream up new programs and ways to proclaim the Gospel and engage the hearts and souls of the world around us, but this is ultimately as fruitless as trying to reinvent the wheel.
One such thought was presented in an article I read a while ago, that asserted that what Christianity needed to enable growth and relevance, was more entrepreneurs and not shepherds (pastors).
Although I thought this was an off-the-cuff opinion of a mega church pastor whose aim was to challenge pastors to be more apostolic (or entrepreneurial) and to encourage business men and women to apply their talents in service to the church, it nonetheless is an expression that seems to have permeated church life regardless of the size of the congregation or denomination. (Someone recently once told me that if this kind of model worked for microbreweries and designer coffee bars, why shouldn’t it work for the Church.)
Beyond the desire for more active pastors (which we can all agree upon), the expectation of results and growth from Church leadership (in our case bishops, priests and parish councils) has more people looking at the qualities and successes of business and commerce with directors, supervisors and managers as an improved way in which to grow and be relevant.
Although there is some common ground between churches and commerce that could benefit, grow and enrich a community, the application of this as a model for leadership in the Church is ultimately the fruit of a tradition where “God is up there, and we are down here”: and the sacramental presence of Christ, and the sacrificial responsibility of the faithful (the royal priesthood) are simply symbolic.
The danger is that this approach runs the risk of making the whole economy of salvation a business plan, and not the manifestation of the Kingdom. It risks making the faithful into consumers, and not participants.
As Orthodox Christians, we are immersed by our services and prayers into the active work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and it is the saints, those men and women throughout the ages who proclaimed Jesus Christ, who works all things for our salvation by the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts, (See Rom. 5:5) to the Glory of God the Father “whose good will it is to give us the Kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). We need to look no further than at the witness of our beloved patron St. Nicholas to see this.
The life of St. Nicholas, his kindness and generosity, his zeal for the faith and his selflessness, has transcended cultures, centuries, and even a Christian context, becoming the foundation of our beloved Santa Claus. It is a testimony to his work that he is one of the most beloved and cherished saints throughout the ages.
I suppose that we could call St. Nicholas an “entrepreneur” rather than a “shepherd” perse; but if we are consistent with the traditional witness of the Church throughout the centuries, it would be more accurate to say that St. Nicholas in his vocation as a bishop heeded the word of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ to “feed my sheep”. This was not because it was a proven method to grow the Church, but rather because it was the life of Christ he wanted to share, and the responsibility given to him in baptism and revealed in his ordination and consecration as a priest and then bishop.
From his constant prayers and intercessions, to his boldness at the Council of Nicaea (325), St. Nicholas, time and time again, showed Christ’s saving love and work (as he does now even in our little parish) . He multiplied the fruit of the Holy Spirit for those seeking meaning and life beyond the mundane and corruptible.
We remember with love this blessed Archshepherd because his corruptible and limited life (after all, he was just a human like you and me), was made incorruptible and boundless in bearing Christ’s saving love to the world, and throughout the ages.
The challenge he presents to bishops and priests (who bear the burden of responsibility) and all the faithful, is to grow the Church, that it be enrich with mercy and grace, that it might prosper and multiply. He does not ask us to reinvent with new programs and systems the deposit of faith given to us in the waters of baptism, and in Chrismation, but rather to manifest the faith through “taking up our cross daily” and following Christ (Lk. 9:23). We are inspired to be like Christ, to be like St. Nicholas whose very life manifests the work of the Holy Spirit, the saving gift of life in Jesus Christ.
It is in this way, that we all will build a strong Church, and an engaged and loving community that will stand until the end of time.
By the prayers of St. Nicholas, may we be strengthened in this.