Why is Church Boring?

June 21, 2016 Length: 12:48

In this episode of Fr.TEDTalks, Fr. Ted explores the question of why many may perceive the Church as being boring or non-participatory. There is a tendency to compare Orthodox worship with other, Western, Protestant worship services. Fr. Ted explains the essential differences between the two approaches to spiritual life.

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Hi, everybody. I’m Fr. Ted from Fr.TEDTalks, and today we will be discussing participating in the Liturgy.

Fr. Ted, I have attended church services in non-Orthodox parishes. Their services are participatory, gleeful, and full of song and experience, even hand-shaking and welcoming those around you. I felt more in touch with the spiritual experience and connection at these churches. Why isn’t the Orthodox Church more participatory?

So the first thing I would say about the Orthodox services, the liturgical life of our Church, is that it is not supposed to be like every other part of your life. So we don’t consider Orthodox ritual and worship entertainment. Something that you’ll see in a lot of other churches or Christian denominations is that they will attempt to bring in the pop culture, the modern culture of the time, in order to entice people to come to church. You will see that there is the inclusion of instrumentation, rock bands, video screens, the latest contemporary musical pieces. All these things are brought in in order to kind of create or give a perception to its people of a type of Christian version of the outside world.

The Orthodox Church is kind of the opposite of that. What the Orthodox Church offers is something otherly, something otherworldly. Our ritual services, our worship services, are not supposed to be like the rest of our lives. They’re not supposed to be like our everyday, mundane music that we listen to or instrumentation that we’re accustomed to. It’s not supposed to be about all the videos that we see on the outside of the Church. But rather it is supposed to be offering us a sacred space, a space separated from the rest of our lives, in order that we have the ability to calm ourselves—calm our minds, calm our hearts and our souls—and to be able to pray. It is meant to offer us a space, sacred space, that is completely different from the rest of our lives so that we are able to change our mind and look towards the vine, towards God, who himself is otherly, is nothing like what we understand.

So it’s important to remember that our religious services are modeled after what we believe to be the heavenly liturgy, what is happening in heaven, not what is happening on earth. The services themselves are extremely allegorical, very interpretive, very spiritual, very symbolic. Obviously it takes time and it makes it more difficult for somebody to engage with them, because one has to be immersed in the culture of the Church, which is very different from our modern-day culture. So that does make it a little difficult for people to navigate, especially people who are either new to the Church or those Orthodox Christians who hardly ever to go church: they are more influenced or saturated with pop culture, with modern culture, and they are not so familiar with the culture of the Church, the way in which we pray, the way in which we speak to God, which is on a completely different level and requires a lot more work in order to be able to have a meaningful experience from our religious services.

One could say that this is a mistake of the Orthodox Church, that our services should be changed, that they should be adapted to suit the modern era, to be able to make it easier for people to understand, easier for people to attend, to make the service shorter. However, I think that if we look at other aspects of our lives, if we look at, for example, sports, if we look at hobbies, if we look at different things that people are involved in, usually, to be a master of something, to be deeply involved in something, to really get to know something, it takes time. It takes time and it takes preparation, and it takes work.

Now, our faith should take all those things. It should require time and preparation and work in order to fully understand it, just like relationships take work. So when we go to church, we go not so that we can watch something or so that we can simply have a “spiritual experience,” but rather we go to cultivate a relationship with God, and that relationship will take time, and it will also require a lot of effort on our behalf, just like our regular relationships, from day to day, also require a lot of work. If our relationships with our spouses, our family members, our friends, take so much time, how much more time will our relationships with God?

One of the common criticisms about the Orthodox services is that they are too long, that we should shorten them, and this is an interesting point, because I think that we live in a society that is all about brevity, all about fast-food culture and instant gratification, and that most of the services that exist out there, whether they be spiritual and religious services, but also other types of services, such as food services, government services, counseling services—all those things are based around getting things quickly and getting things efficiently.

However, when it comes to spirituality, we have to ask the question: How long does it really take for us to change as human beings? Is it something that happens quickly or is it something that happens gradually over long periods of time? In the same way, when we speak about prayer, the Orthodox Church realizes that the human being requires quite a long time to kind of clear their mind and be able to put their mind in a proper frame so that they can actually commune with God. This is why the Orthodox services are particularly longer than the average Christian service, because the Orthodox Church knows that a person has to come in and sit for at least half an hour to 45 minutes in order to clear their mind and allow the hymns to permeate their whole being so that they may be able to concentrate and focus their mind on Christ.

Even then, our minds tend to wander to other things, to worldly things. Few people can just walk off the street, sit in a pew, and after five minutes say, “I’m feeling very spiritual. I’m in a spiritual mood right now.” It usually takes time to warm up to the idea, to put ourselves in the “zone” of spirituality. So our prayer services are built in that way, to kind of lead us away from the secular life and into the spiritual life and to lead us to a point where we can commune with God. This is why in the services, especially, for example, Sunday Divine Liturgy, is built as a build-up to a climax. So we start at the beginning and move through the antiphons, the reading of Scripture, the sermon, and then, moving into the cherubic hymn and the prayers in the anaphora, and finally culminating in the reception of holy Communion.

All those steps are necessary in order to lead us to a point where we are spiritually ready and in the right frame of mind to be able to receive Christ. It is done quite intentionally so that we are not hurrying our spirituality, we are not disrespecting the presence of the Lord by treating him as if he were some type of fast food that we were buying and consuming on a regular basis, but rather that it is the intersection of divinity with humanity, of eternity with temporality, and that we spend the appropriate amount of time preparing ourselves for these profound events.

Now I know the question that was posed via our Facebook group was not on how long the services are or the ritual elements of our services, but rather why the Orthodox Church is not more participatory. Well, I think the perception is that we don’t have great participation in the Orthodox Church because we have kind of allowed ourselves to fall into this, I guess, general malaise of just showing up to church once in a while, sitting in the pews, and watching the priest and the chanter do something up in the front. But this really stems from our inability and our unwillingness to learn more about the liturgy and also to fully participate. The Divine Liturgy is really the work of the people. That’s what leitourgia means, the Greek word: the work of the people. So it is not the work of the priest or the chanter but the whole body of Christ, convening together as an ecclesia, which basically means people called out for a certain purpose, separated from everyone else, so that we can offer everything of ourselves to God.

The more we learn about the Divine Liturgy, the more we participate, the more we give of ourselves. The less we know about it, the more we become spectators, the more we treat the church like a theater in which we go to watch divine opera happening, but this is not the intention of the Divine Liturgy.

This clock here in our church, on the front of the balcony is the only clock that exists inside the sanctuary of our church. I kind of wish it didn’t exist, because a lot of times I catch different people staring at it, wondering when the liturgy is going to end. Indeed, sometimes I catch myself staring at it. And this is another point that I wanted to make: that the Divine Liturgy really is not about how long we’ve spent in church and how many prayers we say, but rather it is truly an intersection of eternity with temporality. When we love something, when we know about something, when we educate ourselves about something, doesn’t it seem that when we are participating in that, that time just melts away? For example, if we are truly invested in a sport—for example, Eurocup is happening right now, soccer—I know people who love soccer so much that they can watch it for hours and hours, and it’s still not enough. They lose themselves in the event. In the same way, when we talk about prayer, when we talk about participation in the Divine Liturgy, the more we learn about it, the more we participate in it, the more the time just melts away and we find that liturgy just flies by and we don’t want it to end.

There are people who simply go to church and see a show, falling asleep in the pew or looking at their watch or the clock on the wall. But there are also those people who see angels participating with the priest in the Divine Liturgy. There are accounts of saints who have seen these things. Why are they seeing these things? Why is their perception so much different from ours? Could it be that their spiritual eyes have been opened and that they have cultivated themselves to a point where they are seeing other realities? realities that we are all called to experience in the Divine Liturgy, simply by taking our faith seriously and by expanding our prayer life to not only—once or twice a week or once or twice a month or even once or twice a year, but rather fully immersing ourselves in the religious and spiritual life of our Church so that everything that we do, whether we are in liturgy or just at work or with our children or with our friends, everything becomes a sacrificial offering to God, everything becomes a thanksgiving to him, everything has a spiritual dimension.

The Greek word for participation is “symmetechō” or “symmetochē,” which not only means to participate but also means to partake in. This is really important because, for us, the most important thing that we do as Orthodox Christians is partake of holy Communion. We all receive of the same cup of the body and blood of Christ. This is the ultimate goal: to become one, not only with Christ, but with his Church, with the body of Christ, which is every single each and every one of us. This is the participation that we strive for, not singing or clapping hands or listening to rock bands or even dancing in some places, but rather by preparing ourselves for the ultimate participation which is in his body and blood. We only do this through our proper preparation, through fasting, through self-reflection, through confession, and through the participation in all the sacraments of the Church so that we may truly become the body of Christ.

This is the goal of all Orthodox Christians, and because many of us do not take holy Communion quite often, we often miss the point of the true participation in the Divine Liturgy. We don’t understand what the point of it is since we ourselves do not partake. So, really, the Divine Liturgy is a banquet. It is Christ calling us to his holy banquet, to give of himself. And it is [we] who have to respond, it is [we] who have to show up, it is [we] who have to learn: who is this Person who is dying on the cross for us? who is this person who is giving us his body and blood to drink and to eat and to be able to act accordingly? This is the true participation that Orthodox Christians are called to do, and I think that many of us would do well to take this to heart, to truly understand what is going on by studying ourselves, by learning more about the faith, by prayer, by following the instructions of our spiritual father, by taking our faith seriously so that we, too, may truly participate, partake, of the divine nature of Christ through his body and blood.

Until next time, this is Fr. Ted from Fr.TEDTalks, asking you to pray, to prepare yourselves, and to truly participate in the Divine Liturgy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Don’t forget to like and subscribe. Take care, and God bless.