THERE ARE SUPPORT GROUPS FOR EVERYTHING today. People gather in schools, hospitals and churches for a variety of purposes. Some groups exist to enable discussion of sensitive personal matters: physical illnesses, behavioral issues or family issues (e.g. domestic violence, sexual abuse, abortion, miscarriages, divorce, bereavement, single parenting, etc). Other groups focus on the needs of returning veterans, ideas for homeschoolers, job seekers – in short, for anything for which people and their families feel the need of help. Such groups may be facilitated by professionals who do not share the problem of the members (such as social workers, psychologists, or members of the clergy) or by volunteers who have personal experience in the subject of the group’s focus.
In a sense there have always been support groups without the name. Even the two blind man of St Matthew’s Gospel can be called a “support group” for one another. They are seen traveling together following the Lord Jesus who had performed wonders of healing in Capernaum. In traditional societies the extended family generally served as the ultimate support group. People depended on their extended families as patterns and role models for the children and for young families. This worked well in ordinary circumstances; however people who did not or could not live by its norms because of their physical, emotional or moral conditions were often ostracized. Lepers come first to mind, of course, but there were others recorded in the Gospels: the demoniacs who lived among the tombs and the Samaritan woman who could only draw water at noonday, when everyone else had gone home. Our era has provided for situations such as theirs – and this is a great blessing for us – but the groups in our secular society do not meet all our needs.
The Church, an Extended Family
The model Church community is also an extended family, meant to be a support group in which people assist those in greater need. As St Paul emphasized, “We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me’ ” (Romans 15:1-3). The “strong” and the “weak” here refers to the maturity of a person’s faith. Paul saw “the weak” as those who had scruples about failing to observe the Law of Moses or about eating food offered to idols. He urges “the strong” to be sensitive to the feelings of their weaker brethren and not to dismiss their concerns haughtily or inconsiderately.
Under our present conditions, there are several groups who might be considered “the weak” and who should not be ignored by the Church. The parish as the extended family of faith is extremely important for helping these persons make and deepen their commitment to the Lord. The first such group is the young: children, adolescents and young adults. Canadian Orthodox Archbishop Lev Puhalo sums up their needs: “It is very important, therefore, that our parishes strive to be loving, joyous, Christ-centered extended families. Our children should always feel an atmosphere of warmth, love and joy in our churches. They should sense that they are loved, wanted, understood and highly valued. They should feel comfortable and at home in church. We should take great care to develop such an atmosphere and develop as many family activities around the church and the extended family of the parish as possible. Our church schools should be vital and take a central place in our planning.”
At a very early age young people absorb the consumerist way of life espoused by the media and endorsed by the “valueless” education of secular schools. Christian parents are hard pressed to communicate a Biblical lifestyle without appearing moralistic or al least “uncool.” They need the support of an extended family.
The values, concepts and ethos evident in our extended family units penetrate and help shape our young. They absorb ideas, ways of thinking and their world-view from the environment which they are most exposed to. The young need a deeper immersion into the extended family of the parish than has been the custom in recent years.
Furthermore, since peer pressures are great for pre-teens and teens, the peer influence of an extended parish family can be vital in helping to offset the peer pressures in public schools and neighborhoods.
This demands sacrifice on the part of the church – to make room in its structures and planning for the young. It also demands sacrifices on the part of parents – to make time for involving their children in their church’s ministry to the young. But as St. Paul noted in the text quoted above, such sacrifices are made in imitation of Christ who “did not please Himself” but identifies with the weak and lowly (us).
Those Seeking to Live Our Church’s Life
Another group needing the support of the parish extended family consists of those who want more from the Church for their spiritual lives. Many of those who leave the Church say that they did so because they “were not being fed.” Some parishes gear their activities to the social set. They reduce their liturgical life to suit those who may be there under a sense of obligation rather than out of love. They all but abandon the Church’s calendar, transferring even the greatest feasts to Sunday instead of working to build attendance at their proper observances. Parish leaders need to identify those in their midst who are seeking more spiritual activity from their church and take steps to provide it.
Personal Spiritual Growth
Most people in support groups which deal with addictive personality disorders (alcoholism, drug, gambling or pornography addiction) are encouraged to employ the Twelve Steps to extricate themselves from their addiction. These programs promote reintegration into society through regularly attending meetings, committed participation in a particular group, relating to a sponsor, and employing the Twelve Steps in daily life.
All these steps are in fact based on the life of the Church – regular assembly, spiritual fellowship, and relating to an elder. The Twelve Steps themselves are based on spiritual principles drawn from the ascetic Fathers of the Church – humility, obedience, repentance and love. In origin they were applied to dealing with our sinful condition. While people can apply these principles to deal with any kind of transgression or spiritual infirmity, by and large we do not do so. Confessors might do well to employ these “support group” techniques to help people deal with their inclinations to “bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking” (Ephesians 4:31) and any other passion stemming from our fallen nature.