A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Some brothers live with me, do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The old man said to him, ‘No, just work first and foremost, and if they want to live like you, they will see to it themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves, Father, who want me to be in charge of them.’ The old man said to him, ‘No, be their example, not their legislator.’ From: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
Even before COVID-19 restrictions reduced the number of Sunday worshipers, church attendance and religious affiliation has been declining in this country. The recent Gallup Poll shows that younger generations are less likely to commit to one congregation or religion than their elders. The decline is in both Roman Catholic and Protestant (probably Orthodox too, although not mentioned) communities and all ethnicities.
It is easy to point fingers as to why this is occurring. Major church scandals, moral failure among well-known clergy, Christianity being used to support political and social agendas; the list of why people are abandoning commitment to the faith is long. Some of these points may be correct. However, the first incident of finger pointing in the scripture was in Genesis (3:12-14). Adam blamed God for giving him the woman who gave him the forbidden fruit. She then blamed the snake for deceiving her. Accusations did not heal the fact that human freedom of choice means that we have a tendency to make wrong decisions and alienate ourselves from God and each other.
Our Lord was tempted to play the finger pointing game when asked about certain Galileans killed by Pilate (Luke13:1-3). Rather than join in the noise of earthly accusations, Jesus reminded us of His earliest message; repent. No matter what social institutions or physical structures fall and are in need of repair, our calling as the body of believers is to have a change of heart and mind away from the passions that lead to sin and death. We are to repent and seek to be one with God.
The ancient Egyptian Father Poemen understood something that modern Christianity often forgets. Our calling is to be examples of repentance no matter who we think we are, or what happens around us. His disciple was popular and had a following. So what? The monk still had to be humble, fast, pray, speak wisely, and be watchful over his soul. The number of followers, indeed, if anyone followed, was insignificant. Dressing the part of a monk without living the life of repentance is a recipe for failure even if hundreds wanted to follow him.
Christianity and belonging to a faith tradition is declining in America. What concern is that for us Christians? For the first 300 years of the faith, our ancestors willingly embraced death rather than to live renouncing Christ. After Constantine’s Edict of Milan legalized the Church, many believers moved to the deserts of Africa and the Middle East to die to worldly pursuits that would tempt their souls. Other Christians sought them out for wisdom and collected volumes of their words. Latter monks went to the Russian and Eastern European forest following the older examples. Believers saw them and built villages and towns near the monasteries.
Examples of true Christian belief and practice will resist the ways of the world, battle against their own personal demons, strive to gain the virtues, and love God and their brother and sister human beings. Our calling is to be the examples in times of persecution and popularity, as in times of old. Alternatively, in times of disinterest and doubt of today.