During my recent interview with Dr. Ron Jacob, we discuss topics from his paper, "The Revolution," which was originally presented at a conference in 2013 and then published in the Marthoma Messenger. I am reposting the paper here with the author's permission as an electronic copy of the archived messenger publication is not currently available. --George
This paper is not the opinion or personal agenda of just one person. The opinions of more than 50 people who were raised in the Mar Thoma Church were sought out. Some are active members and leaders; some are inactive, and some have even left the church. The purpose was to make sure that all views were expressed with one goal in mind, to realize what the second generation envisions the Mar Thoma Church to be. Thank you to everyone who contributed.
History is only studied for one reason and one reason only - so that mistakes do not recur. We as a church must study our history so that the successes can be repeated, and the failures avoided. At the onset of any new endeavor, there must be a mission. There must be a purpose for beginning a task and ultimately goals that allow us to have a vision. When the Mar Thoma church began in the U.S, I think it would be safe to assume a purpose was established even if it was not necessarily written out.
It’s been almost 60 years since the first Mar Thoma organization was set up and almost 45 years since the first Mar Thoma service was conducted here in the U.S. Next year we will celebrate thirty years of owning and building the first Mar Thoma churches in the U.S.
With all that said, has the vision and mission of the church been achieved? I believe we have succeeded on many fronts.
We now have almost 70 parishes within the diocese, many of which have purchased their own property. This allows each parish freedom and flexibility in organizing events and setting up programs without hesitation. This is quite a blessing
considering how difficult and inconvenient it is to not have a “home of your own.” The first generation of Marthomites deserves incredible credit for this achievement.
The organizations within our parishes have been established to cater to our mixed demographics. Recently, the following question was posed to a group of people – “Which organization of the church do you believe is the strongest and best run?” Unanimously, Sunday School was the answer. There has been a shift in recent years of leadership and the Sunday Schools in many churches now have a core group of leaders with professional teaching and counseling backgrounds.
These teachers have openly accepted Christ as their personal Savior which was not always the case in the early years of the church. Years ago, there were teachers more focused on discussing Hindu teachings than Christianity. The organization is often run efficiently with the focus clearly on spiritual growth and bringing children to Christ. Despite this, there is a strong call for the curriculum to be completely revamped to be more relevant and applicable to the next generation of students. More bible studies and relevant doctrinal teachings need to be incorporated into the lessons. It is good to know that the curriculum is currently being overhauled.
The youth fellowship has gone through some major changes as well. Before there were the youth fellowships as we currently know them, there was nothing. Yuvajana Sakhyam existed, but it quickly became an outlet for the youths who had come from India. Due to the cultural differences, another channel was needed. The formation of Youth Leagues across the country addressed this issue. Soon Junior Youth Leagues began to creep up in various churches in order to address the needs of the Junior High School students. Everyone was seeking an opportunity for fellowship.
Once the Youth Chaplaincy was established, there was a clear and specific direction for the newly organized Youth Fellowship. The decision to establish the chaplaincy was not only a good choice but one that literally saved a generation of Marthomites from leaving the church. The few active members between the ages of 30 – 40 can vouch for this. If imitation is the ultimate form of flattery, the Mar Thoma church should be honored since multiple denominations like the Pentecostal and Orthodox churches have attempted to or have established similar positions within their respective churches. As with every organization, the efficacy and strength of the group are usually dependent on the leadership.
Youth Fellowships should aim to model themselves after successful Sunday Schools and maintain consistent, committed, and dedicated leaders who serve for decades. During this time, they are to be discipling and mentoring the younger members. The idea is to add leaders to the flock, not replace them.
The Mar Thoma Qurbana service has also seen its fair share of changes within the Diocese. In most churches, half of the services are in English. In response to the desires of the second generation Marthomites, contemporary music is now incorporated within the service. After initial resistance, most churches make use of instruments such as guitars, drums, and pianos. The newly revised service has been shortened in length and Achens have become more willing to prepare audio and visual presentations to accompany their sermons. The addition of short English services before Malayalam Qurbana services has been positively received as well. An additional offshoot of the Youth Fellowship is the Young Family Fellowship. This has been thriving in some parishes for years and in some, it is still in its early stages. Now an annual YFF conference is held every fall.
Another successful achievement that should be credited to the Diocese is the continuing education programs which are available to everyone. The LEAD program, Lay Leader training, and multiple dialogues/question-answer sessions with the Bishop have enabled us to grow and solidify our foundation within the church. It has also opened a line of communication that didn’t always feel easily accessible. The establishment of Missions projects in Mexico, India, and among the Native Americans have begun to meet the desires of our second generation to serve those in need.
The positive attributes about the Church that were most often mentioned include the fellowship, family atmosphere, and relationships that have been built. Families view it as a great blessing when three and sometimes four generations of a household pray and worship together. A grandchild seeing and hearing grandparents openly calling upon the Lord in worship is a lasting memory that will be embraced for the rest of their lives. Lifelong friendships have been forged through the church. It has also been noted that the ability to interact with people of the same cultural background is a significant attraction for young parents because it is not an opportunity that easily presents itself through other forums. This view is shared more with Young Families than the Youth Fellowship because of the desire to expose the children to their culture.
The Diocese and individual churches, as evidenced above, have succeeded on many fronts. As an immigrant community, we have successfully established an institution that should be seen as a blessed inheritance for many generations ahead.
We are blessed with members of different educational and professional backgrounds. We should try to make use of these individuals and their wealth of experiences. Suggestions were made in the past to establish centers and clinics – an idea that did not seem financially feasible. As an alternative, we should make the services of these professionals available to all our members. For example, counselors may be able to help individuals cope with issues of alcohol and substance abuse, sexual abuse, and even marital counseling. A professional services directory for the Diocese would be helpful to those seeking assistance. Every year we see more couples divorcing, so setting up ministries for our growing number of single-parent families and divorced members is now necessary. Establishing pre-college, parenting, career counseling and even financial management seminars have also been suggested. These are great ways to make use of our talented church members.
We should also make use of the youths’ desire to serve. Each parish should set up programs to care for their senior citizens. Volunteers should be made available to assist them with snow removal, grocery shopping, chores around their homes, rides to church, and doctor appointments.
Along the way, however, some contend we have lost our primary vision. Some may even say we never had a vision, which will be addressed later. With all the successes, there have been some glaring issues that have caused nearly a whole generation of Marthomites from this Diocese to leave the church. It’s easy to blame the Diocese, Bishops, Achens, office bearers, committee members, and lay members of the church. I contend we as a collective group have brought this upon ourselves.
A former Marthomite once told me he was, “never taught how to serve in the Mar Thoma Church.” What’s even sadder is that this person’s father held multiple positions with the Executive Committee of his parish, but he was not able to teach how to love and care for others. The missions established by the Diocese begin to address this issue, but this must be dealt with on the parish level. The second generation has a desire to serve those less fortunate. Church budgets do not include a significant amount of money for local mission projects. There is not a designated person to coordinate a local mission for the parish. Many people within the second generation give less to the church because initiatives and programs to assist people in need are nonexistent. The second-generation regularly supports many charities outside of the church. If the church was to begin financially supporting local causes, there would be an increase in financial support from the second generation.
Doctrinal issues have been cited as a reason for people to leave the church. We know these core beliefs are the essence of our church and will never be changed, nor does it have to. Instead, we as a church need to do our best to teach our belief system to our children at a young age. Do not just teach it but teach why we do not follow the opposing point of view. Too often our youths have entered college without any training and are easily swayed by those who’ve been brought up not just in the faith, but in their doctrine. They are ready and willing to attack our youngsters and unfortunately, our youths do not have a defense system of their faith. This should be done from the pulpit, in Sunday School, prayer meetings, and youth fellowship meetings. College should not be the first time we try to teach these things, because by that time it is often too late.
The next issue is a sensitive one, but it must be addressed, and I hope no offense is taken. As I mentioned earlier, I had sought out input from over 50 people and this was a point that was brought up by each person. The pulpit has been another major reason cited for people leaving the church. Unfortunately, Sunday morning is often the only chance for church members to actually learn and grow in the faith. For the first generation of Marthomites, there were different organizational meetings, prayer meetings, and bible studies as outlets for growth. However, this is not the case right now for the second generation. Attendance at prayer meetings by this generation is minimal because it is not geared toward them. Sunday mornings now serve as the primary opportunity for growth. The second generation needs sermons in English because this is our first language. Even during Malayalam service, the incorporation of English into the sermon is necessary. We need to have some sort of service in English every Sunday, whether it is a contemporary service or Holy Qurbana. We need sermons that inspire us to serve and introspectively question our lives. We want to be taught the fundamentals of our doctrine & faith through Bible studies exposing the Word. We want the sermons to capture our attention and make us come back for more the next week. Purely reading from a piece of paper will not and does not work. The sermons must be conversations from the pulpit. The draw of Sundays for our generation will always be the words shared from the pulpit regardless of the style of worship. An example I’ve given in the past is if Billy Graham was speaking at a church, it would not matter if the church had charismatic worship or liturgical worship- regardless, the church would be overflowing with people. If we are inspired by these words, we will be in attendance. We know Achens are very well educated and have proper training. We just need Achens to be confident in their language and skilled in their ability to teach and facilitate learning. We need the Synod and Bishops to identify these Achens and send them not just as Youth Chaplains, but as Parish Vicars.
The second-generation desires to have personal and intimate relationships with their pastors. This can only happen if the Achens are comfortable and confident in their capabilities. They must make a concerted effort to establish relationships. We are always appreciative of the Achen who went out of his way to befriend us. An Achen once asked me, “Why must I go up to them?” I responded, “Because you are the Achen, you are the Shepherd, you are the leader.” The Vicar must view his parish as his mission field and immerse himself in our culture and lives. Too often there is an underlying feeling that some of our Achens are just looking forward to going back to India. We want to know that you are fully invested in us. We are not merely a time pass in your ministry. We yearn to establish those lifelong friendships. The Achens who have accomplished this have cemented lifelong bonds. Even though it may have been decades since they returned to India, Church members here would still do anything for them. There is plenty of evidence that this has occurred with several Achens who have served in our Diocese. The question isn’t whether Achens can establish those relationships, but instead if the Achens want to put the energy into developing those relationships. The second-generation understands that the role of the Achen is essential with the mission of the church; many want their terms to be extended to four or five years. They know that this allows the best opportunity for Achens to succeed.
Even though the democratic setup of the church is viewed as a positive quality, the politics within the church is not just disliked, but despised by the second generation. Unfortunately, we have twisted and corrupted the system. The political arrangement of the church was intended to allow for a democratic structure where the decisions are made by the simple majority of the lay people for the church. All of this would occur while maintaining the mission and vision of the church.
In many churches, this is not the case. At General Body meetings, the participation is so poor; typically, 10% of the people make major decisions for the church as a whole. The meetings are literally hijacked by frivolous conversations and repetitive arguments prolonged over three to four hours. The meetings are not run using a parliamentary system and often get chaotic, sometimes leading to verbal and physical altercations. These gatherings have become so infamous that the second generation simply tries to avoid it and the people responsible for turning the meetings into a circus. Unfortunately, those responsible for the negative politicization of the church are so-called “leaders” of the church. Although former leaders may have been gifted administratively, their Christian leadership qualities have now come into question. We now have to change the format of the General Body meetings along with those we choose to lead our churches.
There is a strong sentiment that former leaders do not exemplify what a leader of a church should be. Would a person who does not support the Republican Party or its ideals ever be chosen as the leader of the party? No. Yet we often have people leading the parish who openly despise the church, diocese, bishops, Achens, and lack Christ-like character. The second generation seeks leaders who follow the guidelines listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-13. This type of leadership turns the church into a valuable inheritance that is to be cherished. The second generation who has accepted the call to serve the church is looking and searching for role models from the first generation, but they are far and few between.
To assess the performance of our past leadership, a recent observation was made of a few local Mar Thoma Parishes. These parishes have been in existence for almost thirty years and during that time, there have been between 50-75 different office bearers from the first generation of Marthomites. We can determine what percentage of the former office bearers’ children are currently active members of the church. (Active is defined by attending church once a month). It was determined that only 40% of their children are active members. That means 60% of those children have zero to minimal involvement with the church. Office bearers have spent endless hours working for the church, yet their children want nothing to do with the church. Why isn’t the hours and dedication put into the church reflecting in our children’s desires to serve? It’s simple; it’s not an inheritance they find appealing. We as a diocese and individual churches need to correct this.
Who is to blame; the diocese, bishops, former Achens, office bearers, the first generation, or the second generation? I believe it is the doing of the quiet majority. In every church, there are 85%-90% of the members who have a proper vision for the church. Unfortunately, they have given way to the 10%-15% who are the fire starters and troublemakers lacking Christ-like drive. Apathy and a hands-off approach have become rampant in our churches. The qualified majority surrendered the church to questionable leaders causing the current deviation from our mission. We do not want to be bothered by politics and burdened by the responsibilities. We do not want to be attacked by the detractors. Those that attempted to put up a fight have now been worn down. I, however, believe that it is now time for us to reclaim the church. We cannot sit back any longer and simply complain. Grumbling does not solve anything, but action does. The old cliché, “If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem”, rings true.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” We are not called to sit back and accept the wayward ways of the church, but instead, we are expected to do anything we have to in order to ensure that Christ is behind the wheel. The apathy must be replaced with a passion for the Church. We must reclaim the church from the hands of the aggressive minority.
The words written here are neither a “trumpet call for reformation” nor an “oath at a crooked cross”. This is a plea for a revolution within our parishes. This is a revolution that brings about a realignment of mission, vision, policies, and principles which are clearly laid out. The vision of the church has been clearly stated in The Constitution of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, Division 1, Chapter 1, Declaration Part II, clause 5:
“The ministry of the Church is the gift of the risen Christ. The responsibility to fulfill this ministry, in history, is entrusted with the Church. The Church affirms that the people of God are sent all over the world and that they partake in the salvation work of God, to unite everything in Jesus Christ through the ministry of reconciliation begun in Jesus Christ. The Church receives the power of the Holy Spirit, which enables the church to fulfill the redemptive work of God, who directs and controls the events in history. The Holy Spirit guides the offices of the Ministry, originated [through] divine plan and ordains the people of God to build the Church which is the body of Christ, in order that they may attain maturity, akin to the fullness of Christ, through faith and knowledge in the Son of God and the Unity of the Holy Spirit. The Church believes and proclaims the above basic principles of the Ministry of the Church.”
This is the vision for our revolution. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s been in front of our faces this whole time. We have a Bishop, Achens & leaders from ALL generations who are ready and willing to answer the call. Now it is our responsibility to realign every aspect of our church with the original mission and vision. To ensure the future of the Mar Thoma Church, are we willing to revolt and wrestle the church out of the hands of the aggressive minority?
Dr. Ron Jacob