Challenges and Opportunities for the Ancient Faith Today
November 02, 2013 Length: 53:26Kevin Allen
Mr. Kevin Allen: As you see, I was asked to speak about “Challenges and Opportunities of the Ancient Faith Today,” and we are witnessing major changes in the religious landscape, both in the world—we can see that certainly in the Middle East—but [also] in Western Europe and especially in America, which is where I’ll tend to be focusing, and these changes give rise to many challenges and opportunities for the Orthodox churches, and this is what I’ll be discussing and we’ll be discussing today, hopefully with humility, clarity, and honesty. I hope that what I have to say isn’t more honesty than maybe you were expecting, but…
Initially what got me thinking about Orthodoxy’s challenges and opportunities in the 21st century were several articles written by Evangelical and Protestant writers on the state of Protestantism and from their perspectives. As you know, Protestants are still the majority Christian faith in the country, with some 36,000 [denominations]—we used to talk about 26,000. Last time the census was done, but Gordon-Conwell Seminary did a recent study, and it’s now 36,000, and that’s not even including the non-denominational churches in that number. Protestants still comprise about 48% of all Americans, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. No, my presentation is not going to be all about statistics.
Pew also reports that Protestant adherence is down from 65% of Americans 50 years ago, so we’re seeing a change in those dynamics. We talked about the “none"s, the non-affiliated, last night. They represent 20% of Americans and are clearly the fastest-growing, which is one of the reasons in the areas where there are opportunities.
But getting back to the articles, one of them that I read was called, “The Coming Collapse of Evangelicalism,” written in 2009 by a now-deceased ex-pastor of a megachurch, named Michael Spencer. His apocalyptic opening words were: “Within two generations, Evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants.” According to this author, there are several reasons for his prediction of the so-called coming collapse of Evangelicalism: (1) too close an identity that Evangelicals have with conservative social and political issues and movements, i.e., the right wing, the Religious Right; (2) the failure to pass on to their young people a (small-o) orthodox form of faith that can withstand the rising tide of secularism; (3) Christian education that isn’t working; and (4) an inability to pass on confidence in the Bible and the importance of their faith. This isn’t us saying this; this is an Evangelical saying this.
And one of the author’s observations really caught my attention. And he wrote (and I’m quoting):
Two of the beneficiaries will be: the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions. Evangelicals have been entering these churches in recent decades, and that trend will continue with more efforts aimed at the conversions of Evangelicals to the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.
We’re obviously seeing that occur, but from an Evangelical observer, I thought, “Whoa, that’s pretty interesting.”
Another article that really caught my attention is by the Protestant professor of theological ethics and Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas, who, in an equally [direly] titled article writes, “We are now facing the end of Protestantism.” Again, that’s not us saying that; it’s not the Catholics saying it; it’s Evangelicals and Evangelical professors saying it. He makes his argument on the grounds that—again, I’m quoting—“more Americans go to church than their counterparts in Europe, but the churches to which they go do little to challenge the secular presumptions that form their lives.” So he argues that it is Protestantism’s failure to distinguish between the kingdom of God and its values with the world, especially American values; that is the death-knell of their tradition. Again, this is Stanley Hauerwas.
I’m not necessarily convinced of Protestantism’s imminent demise, nor am I a cheerleader for that, but, as I said, we are clearly witnessing major changes in the religious landscape in the U.S., and one of them certainly is the influx, albeit small to date, of American Protestants of all denominations, coming to historic forms of Christian faith and ecclesiology, including the Orthodox Church. In fact, an article in 2007 in Christianity Today—if you’re not familiar: it’s a major Evangelical publication—even asked the rhetorical question: “Will the 21st century be the Orthodox century?” You saw the article.
A1: I did.
Mr. Allen: Well, my question would be: is this trend sustainable? That is, will the influx of Protestants into Orthodoxy develop into a full chapter in the book of the history of the American religious landscape, or will it remain a mere footnote of a transitory trend? These articles certainly raise provocative and challenging questions for Protestants; no question about that, but I think they also raise equally significant questions for the Orthodox Church.
One question is, of course, are we in the Orthodox Church any less vulnerable than Catholics and Protestants to the seduction of secularism and materialism? His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow and All Russia, for example, stated publicly recently that “Russia is one of the most secular countries in Europe.” Elder Amphilochios of Patmos wrote in Greece some time back: “Our country is covered with the ice of materialism and of atheism.” And this is Mother Greece. We’ll talk about secularism in due time.
Another vital question is: Are we doing a better job of passing on a vital Orthodox Christian faith to the next generations that can withstand the onslaught of secularism? Sadly, I have to say history tells us no. The Church has lost, as most of you know—been around longer than I have—many generations of traditionally Orthodox to other Christian faith traditions and to apathy. We haven’t done a very good job of getting them back. I’m here referring to what are called “reverts”: those who were Orthodox and left the faith for various reasons, and then come back to rediscover her.
But we’re also facing challenges keeping our converts. I alluded to that last night. My wife and I go to a parish of largely converts. We average about 10 to 15 newly illumined adults per year for the last 10 or 15 years. We have our share of attrition, too. Some of them leave California because of economic reasons; it’s very expensive there. We don’t mind that so much; we feel like we’re kind of a farm club of Orthodoxy. Get them catechized, send them off: that’s okay. But the ones that we struggle with are those whom we catechize, baptize or bring in through chrism, who begin very enthusiastically and some of whom disappear and fall away after time.
We struggle to figure this out and how to meet this challenge. I believe we’re just a microcosm of what’s happening on a broader scale in the Orthodox Church. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we have or there is a revolving door in the Orthodox Church through which converts enter the Church and leave, as some have alleged, I would say that the doors do revolve, more or less, depending on the parishes and the particulars. Again, we’re not immune from what is a very fluid religious landscape.
Moving to my major premise, I want to begin by stating here and at the outset what I believe is the cause of many of these specific challenges that I’ll be discussing that we face in the 21st century in North America. I think at the root of it is the lack of a cohesive and coherent strategic vision and plan for the future of Orthodoxy in the U.S. The reason I believe we do not have a cohesive and coherent strategy and plan, again, in my view, is directly related to the fact that we do not have a coherent and cohesive ecclesiastical structure in the U.S., despite the unity that we proclaim.
On the latter point, Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory told us back in the 1960s, and I really believe he was prophetic, and the reality hasn’t changed from that time, that the Orthodox Church in North America exists in what he called “canonical chaos.” He reminded us that the structure of Orthodoxy as a “family of many autocephalous churches,” which is what was have as a reality in the U.S. is by no means the original one.”
So the question we must ask is: How can 13 independent Orthodox jurisdictions—you know them: OCA, Greeks, Antioch, Russians, ROCOR, Serbians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Carpatho-Russians—comprised of national churches dependent—with one exception: OCA—on ecclesiastical centers located thousands of miles away from America and frankly—I say this humbly—many disconnected from the realities or the needs of the Church here in America: how can they possibly develop and implement a cohesive and strategic vision and plan for Orthodoxy in North America in the 21st century?
This leads me to my follow-up question: How can any organization, whether it’s spiritual or temporal, address and solve the pressing challenges and needs of the 21st century without strategic thinking and planning? In our case, without asking where God is leading the Church, what the Church’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are—those of you who’ve done strategic planning know I’m referring to what’s called “SWOT”—and how the Church plans to navigate them.
In fairness, and I need to say this and we’re recording, this question is not being entirely ignored. The patriarchs and the hierarchs of the Church have formed a canonical Assembly of Orthodox bishops of North and South America which met in September of 2013 for the third time, with the mandate that the problem of the Orthodox diaspora be resolved as quickly as possible, and that it be organized in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology and the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church. This is on the Assembly’s website. We really should and need to pray for and support our hierarchs in their godly efforts, as they carry a heavy burden and will be accountable, as we all will, but they’ll be accountable on another level than we.
So am I personally optimistic that there will be a single administrative body of the Orthodox churches in the U.S.? Well, I have to be honest and say that I’m not convinced we’ll see it any time soon for various reasons. You may know the old joke, right? Question: How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Change? What’s that? The truth is there are significant challenges to becoming a united Orthodox Church in the U.S. One of them, as His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recently confirmed in a public statement—he was speaking to the Bulgarians with whom there is some conflict—that there are problems in the relationships between the worldwide Orthodox churches which have and are hindering the process of convening a holy and great Synod, for the gathering of all Orthodox primates to discuss issues of common interest. Without a holy and great Synod, because of the principle of conciliarity which governs Orthodox churches, there can be no resolution to the Orthodox anomaly of jurisdictions in the U.S. and the 12 other areas which are called the diaspora.
Without resolving this reality of multiple jurisdictions which are a result of obvious and well-known historical realities, but nevertheless also the cause of canonical, administrative, and personal relational fragmentation and isolation between Orthodox, there can be no coherent and cohesive strategy. No single jurisdiction, including the one that’s the biggest and the wealthiest, can speak for all of Orthodoxy or shape Orthodoxy’s future in this land. Such lack of coordination and cooperation between Orthodox churches, more importantly or as importantly, belies the unity Orthodoxy and catholicity is supposed to display to the world around us.
Another challenge to Orthodox unity is that perhaps many of our patriarchates, local bishops, as well as clergy and laity, even favor the continuance of separate jurisdictions and the maintaining of specific ethnic and national identities. And I hope no one gets offended by what I’m going to continue to say here. As one bishop confided in me at the Assembly’s formation in —and I won’t do foreign accents—“This Assembly is the worst thing that has ever happened to our church,” by which he meant his jurisdiction. Additionally, majorities in some jurisdictions, according to Alexei Krindatch’s polling data, some of which we saw last night, see the preservation of a strong ethnic and national identity as a key part of their purpose as churches in North America, and therefore are very hesitant to see that change. According to the data, for example, 70% of (not picking anybody) GOA clergy agree with the statement that their parishes “remain essentially Hellenic in heritage and culture.” 50% of Serbians, 52% in the Greek Archdiocese, and 53% of the Romanians, and 49% of the aggregate agree with the statement: “Our parish has a strong ethnic heritage that we are trying to preserve.”
Speaking as one who converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and who is very thankful and grateful to our forefathers for bringing the faith and maintaining it, that’s not why I converted to Orthodoxy. In fact, if being Greek or Serbian or Romanian or Arabic were integral to being Orthodox, I’m not sure we and my grandchildren would be here today. However, having said that, I recognize that for some people, ethnic cultural traditions and language are very connected with their Orthodoxy, and therefore important to maintain in the Church. So there may never be one uniform way of being Orthodox in this country, and I’m not necessarily advocating that. I’m just speaking the facts as I understand them. We may always have parishes of new and recent immigrants, those that feel preserving ethnic heritage and language is important, and others that are more open to and geared to Americans and converts, and maybe that’s okay; God knows.
But having said that, which may come across as a little negative, we have seen positive trends, thank God, especially in the last decade in the Orthodox Church. Although we’re still a small fragment of the American population, under three-quarters of one percent of the population, the numbers run anywhere from 800,000 on the Krindatch data to 1.3 million on the Pew data, new parish mission and monastery growth in the past decade is, Alexei presented last night, up 15% over the previous decade. This, at a time when both the Catholic Church, which is down 5%, and the mainline Protestant churches, down 12.8%, are in decline in numbers of adherents. That is according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.
In fact, according to the number of new churches and missions started, the Orthodox Church is the sixth fastest-growing religious communion in the U.S. when looked at by new church formation and growth. If you add the Oriental Orthodox to the numbers in the mix, which some data resources do, specifically the Copts and the Indian Malankara-Syriac Church, then Eastern liturgical churches as a category are the fifth largest-growing of all religious bodies in the U.S. by number of churches, exceeded only by the Southern Baptists, the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and… Guess the last one.
Audience: Jehovah’s Witnesses. Muslims. Amish.
Mr. Allen: The Muslims. But a sober review of the data also indicates that the growth has largely been driven by immigration, principally by the Romanians who are up 122% in new churches over the previous decade, and the Bulgarians, also up 120% of new churches over the previous decade, and really not by the addition of new adherents.
Observers predict, as I mentioned last night, a new wave of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the U.S., especially from the Middle East escaping Islam. This will have an impact on both the flavor of Orthodoxy as well as taxing our limited resources in this country, especially if we’re not prepared for it. Let me give you one example of a story that illustrates this.
A listener told me that in her city of Florida there are well-financed Evangelical churches with outreaches and ministries to—specifically targeting—Russian émigrés. One has a ministry to teach English as a second language to Russian émigrés and Ukrainian émigrés, etc. She told me of a Ukrainian émigré she knows who, when her family settled in South Florida, felt she needed to learn the new language, English, that her children were learning, so she began attending English classes at a local Baptist church. You can fast-forward and guess the outcome of the story. After a while, what? She connects with the people there and starts going, and when she finds out that there are English-speaking Orthodox churches, she’s already connected with the Baptist church. So Orthodoxy missed an opportunity that the Protestants didn’t miss.
Nevertheless, we have been blessed with new converts over the past decade. Of course, more in some jurisdictions than in others. No surprise, the top three are the Antiochians, the OCA, and the Greeks, in that order. According to the Krindatch data, Orthodoxy in fact has a higher percentage of converts when compared with Protestants and Roman Catholics from other Christian faith traditions. Where we’re not doing the job in my opinion is in drawing non-believers to the Orthodox Church, from New Age, from Islam, from other faith traditions.
And in 2010, Eastern Orthodox parishes also grew more in attendance—we are up by 18% by aggregate—than Roman Catholics, who were down 2% in that decade over the previous, and mainline Protestant churches, who were down 1% over the previous decade, and even above Evangelical churches, which were up 8% over the previous decade. So we’ve had more attendance on average. Not the case in all archdioceses, but primarily those with the highest number of converts, [for] example, the OCA and the Antiochians. Another example, the GOA is only a 23% average attendance rate of those that are on their rolls.
We’ve also seen an explosion of Orthodox old and new media in the last decade, including information sites like the Orthodox Christian Information Center, an excellent source of information; Journey to Orthodoxy, telling journey stories of people that are coming from all sorts of interesting traditions; many individual Orthodox blogs, “Glory to God” by Fr. Stephen Freeman, one of the best; and a variety of Orthodox publishing houses, some more traditional and others less. Here, of course, comes a shameless plug. Ancient Faith Radio, as one example, averages now over 650,000 downloads per month. Unique downloads per month. [It is considered] as one of the leading factors, if not, frankly, the leading source in [the] English-speaking world, at any rate, of interest and information about Orthodox Christianity. But my point is that the growth in media, new and old, wouldn’t exist if there weren’t interest in what we’re communicating. There are now many excellent sources for the transmission of Orthodox theology and apologetics, when 25 years ago there were hardly any.
In summary, there are reasons to be optimistic, at least in the short-term, as the Orthodox churches have been one of the beneficiaries of immigrants from traditionally Orthodox countries, which will probably continue, as well as Evangelicals looking for a safe, theological, and ecclesiastical harbor. Overall, I wouldn’t want to trade our problems for those of, say, mainstream Protestants or the Roman Catholic Church.
But before we start raising high-fives and doing back-flips, we need to consider some of the real challenges that the Orthodox Church faces in the U.S. First I want to state the obvious so you won’t be discouraged by what I’m about to point out, and that is that the Orthodox Church, at all times in her history, has battled against heresies, challenges, and threats, internal and external. Our Lord promises us that the gates of Hades shall not and will not prevail. For example, writing in the fourth century, one of the supposed Golden Ages of the patristic era, St. John Chrysostom wrote these words:
The present Church is like a woman who has fallen from her former prosperous days and in many respects retains the symbols only of the ancient prosperity, bereft of her wealth, displaying only the repositories and caskets of her golden ornaments.
That’s from Homily 36: On Corinthians. So if St. John Chrysostom was bemoaning the state of the Church in his days in Constantinople, then it should come as no surprise and no discouragement that there are issues and challenges that we’re facing today. I think that the Church faces what can be characterized as external challenges that we cannot control, like secularism and continuing immigration. It’s a challenge; not a bad challenge, just a challenge.
And internal or structural challenges that we have some control over, like the fact, for example, that 48% of all Orthodox churches are concentrated in just five states, because this is where most Orthodox are located. We don’t have central planning; we don’t have strategic planning. Orthodox go somewhere, they raise some money, they build a church, they bring a priest, a bishop comes, whatever—and that’s where it is. As a result of this distribution deficiency, many inquirers and Orthodox immigrants have no Orthodox mission or parish within a two- or three-hours drive. I get this all the time on the show that I host. They tell me, “I’m interested in what I’m hearing about the Orthodox faith on Ancient Faith Radio, but there is no Orthodox parish near me. What should I do?”
But getting to our major challenge… And I believe the major external challenge and threat to Orthodoxy is the same threat that looms over all Christian traditions—I mentioned it at the beginning—and that’s secularism. Fr. Alexander mentions that—and this [was] in Fr. Stephen’s lecture yesterday—it’s the great heresy of our time. As our Church Fathers caution us, peaceful coexistence between the world, which in our post-modern context would have to be called secularism, and religion is impossible. Secularism and religion are, in fact, polar opposites, and can’t coexist peacefully as philosophies of life. One must give in to the other.
Here’s how St. Isaac the Syrian described the passions against which we are told to do battle:
The passions are the following: love of riches, desire of possessions, bodily pleasures from which come sexual passion, love of honor which gives rise to envy, lust for power, arrogance, and pride of position, the craving to adorn oneself with luxurious clothes and vain ornaments—I’ll pick up my new sports coat I got from Ireland—the itch for human glory which is the source of rancor and resentment, and physical fear.
Well, sounds a lot to me like the ethos of contemporary America and most of the West.
So how do we as Orthodox actually stock up in our beliefs against the prevailing secular worldviews of our society? Do we reflect holy Tradition in this post-modern and post-Christian age in our thinking, our social values, our politics, our sense of morality? Or are we conforming to the general society around us? Is our Church doing its job of educating and catechizing Orthodox, or is it the secular world, the culture, that is our chief catechist? When I taught Sunday school, I described it to my kids as the People magazine culture.
There’s now data, thank God, which provides a window into the minds of Orthodox Christians and whether their beliefs and lifestyles are in accordance with the teachings of the Church or the values of the world. Let’s take a quick look. For example, in the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, in 2009, 30,000 Americans who self-described as Christians were polled. They did it by denomination according to the representative percentage of those religious groups in the entirety of America. Around 1% of them, or about 300 to 350, were self-described as Orthodox Christians. Now, I have no idea which jurisdiction they came from or how pious they were or whatever; the data doesn’t reveal that, but it does say that there were between 300 and 350—I can’t exactly remember—of Orthodox Christians.
Here’s a summary of some of the questions asked of Orthodox in their surveys, and I’ll kind of get hands to what you think the answers are. We’ll play, make a game out of this. Question 1 that I have is: They asked: agree/disagree: “My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.” What percentage of Orthodox would you say agreed with this statement from zero to 100%? “My religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.” What’s the percentage of Orthodox.
Audience: 75. 50%. 80. I would say, yeah, 75.
Mr. Allen: How about 20%. Catholics, 16%. Evangelicals, 36%. So you can see where this is going to start going.
“Many religions can lead to eternal life.” Agree/disagree. How many Orthodox agreed with the statement “Many religions can lead to eternal life”? What are the percentages?
Audience: Bigger now. 80%.
Mr. Allen: I gave it away, right? 80? Anybody else?
Mr. Allen: The answer is: 72% agreed with the statement: “Many religions can lead to eternal life.” Catholics, 79%. Evangelicals—surprised by this—57%.
Next question was: “Do your religious views most influence your thinking about public affairs and government?” Agree/disagree. What percent of Orthodox would say, “Do your religious views most influence your thinking about public affairs and government?”
Audience: 15%. Yeah. I was going to say that.
Mr. Allen: Anybody higher or lower?
Audience: 50. 10. Lower.
Mr. Allen: Who said ten? You got it. 9%. Catholics, anybody want to take a guess?
Mr. Allen: 9%. You’re pretty close, sir. Evangelicals?
Mr. Allen: 30%.
Here’s the one that almost brought tears to my eyes. “Abortion should be legal in most/all cases.” How many Orthodox, by percentage, according to this poll agreed/disagreed?
Audience: 98%. 78%.
Mr. Allen: Well, thank God… I don’t know if I should thank God for this. It was 62%. So 62% of Orthodox agreed with the statement: “Abortion should be legal in most or all cases.” Catholics?
Audience: 50. Much less.
Mr. Allen: 48%. Evangelicals?
Mr. Allen: 33%. Fewer agreed with the statement. 75% disagreed with the statement.
The last one that I wrote down was: “Homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society?” Accepted/unaccepted? What percentage would you say of Orthodox would agreed that homosexuality should be accepted by society?
Audience: Zero. 8. 9. 70.
Mr. Allen: 50%. Catholics? 48%. Evangelicals, 26%.
At any rate, this polling data makes it very clear that we’re not doing the job of catechizing on patristic values, on Church values, at the parish level. Or if we are, it isn’t working. As His Eminence Hierotheos (Vlachos), one of my favorite Orthodox contemporary theologians, says, “We are of the Church insofar as we are of the holy Fathers.” It’s not obviously just about membership rolls. As St. Justin (Popović) of Serbia wrote, “The supreme rule of the Orthodox philosophy of society is: We must not adapt Christ to the spirit of the times, but adapt the spirit of the times to the spirit of eternity.” It seems to me that there must be an expectation, that if we say we’re Orthodox Christians it must mean something, in how we live, vote, behave, spend our time and money, and respond to the issues of the day. Otherwise, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann points out, “Sooner or later one becomes a secularist in the Church also.”
Unfortunately, sadly, I think we can see this in the Church today, despite the fact that we maintain the external rubrics of the ancient faith. This is the significant challenge we face: the seduction of secularism. How to shape and reshape the thinking and behaviors of our “faithful” in accordance not with the People magazine culture, but with our ethos and canonical standards. Related directly to this is an observation that many observers of Orthodoxy mentioned to me when I was doing research for this talk, and that is the challenge of what Father called yesterday “nominal Orthodoxy,” that is, being Orthodox in name only, or what some might call “cultural Orthodoxy,” that is, self-defining as Orthodox Christians because that is one family’s or national tradition, but not, as we have seen in the Pew poll by integrating Orthodox thinking and behavior in our lives. It’s “I’m Orthodox because I’m…” Pick the nationality.
Nominal Orthodoxy doesn’t only affect those who are born into the faith. Ironically, we see this in churches that are largely made up of converts, too. Some come, not so much as a radical change in their way of life and worldview, but because they’re drawn to Orthodoxy as an attractive or more historic rite or way of worshiping or because they perceive it to be counter-cultural or because they like the particular parish community. They’re catechized and baptized, and then some continue in their previous ways of life and thinking. Nominal and cultural Orthodoxy is something that theology professor and life-long Orthodox Christian Bradley Nassif has been speaking about for many years. You may know his work. He annoys a lot of Orthodox because he’s so outspoken. He writes:
Orthodoxy is often failing to meet the spiritual needs of our people, in America as well as the mother lands of Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Parishioners are coming and going in and out of church with little visible change in their lives. In short, they do not know the core content of the Gospel or how to integrate its meaning into their everyday lives. I realize (he says) these are sad things to say, but a correct diagnosis precedes the proper cure.
I think the polling data sadly illustrates this fact.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann, whom I’ve been quoting quite a bit, since he wrote specifically on this topic, gave some prescriptions for spiritual restoration within the Orthodox Church, and they include:
The fundamental recovery of the true spirit and meaning of Liturgy as an all-embracing vision of life, fully integrated with everything we do—we’ve had some wonderful lectures on that this weekend—the parish as an unceasing education center, not merely Saturday evening and Sunday services, or just Pascha and Christmas; and recovery by the Church of its essential missionary character.
I would add to the last point that we also really need to learn how to missionize in this culture, to which I am personally committed. For example, we seem to have one primary mode of evangelism or outreach, and that is the emphasis on the history of the Church, reading and studying the Church Fathers, and popular patristic works. People essentially read themselves into the Orthodox Church. But what about the lost, the uneducated, those who are not intellectually inclined or gifted? How do we bring people into knowledge and experience of Christ through the Orthodox Church who are not interested in theology and Church history, but simply want transformation and want to know Christ? How do we introduce them to life in Christ who do not already know him from their previous Christian faith traditions? Or those who are entirely unchurched? This is going to be important, especially with future émigrés, and especially from Russia, because Russians have largely been unchurched the last half-century.
In addition to these challenges, we have major structural challenges, too. One is aging membership. According to recent data, the average age of the parishioners of the two largest Orthodox communions, the OCA and the GOA, the GOA and the OCA, is 52 years of age on average. That’s not exactly a favorable demographic trend if it continues. Krindatch notes that among GOA and OCA parishioners, only one-third are under the age of 45 years. Not good demographics.
Another point that I mentioned last night is we’re not reaching minorities, despite the fact now that over 50% of newborn babies are no longer Caucasian—that trend is going to continue—the Orthodox Church has few African-American priests—one that I know of, Fr. Moses. There’s an inner-city mission in Kansas City in an African-American neighborhood run by Fr. David Altschul, a wonderful man, married to a now-deceased African-American woman, but these are very few and far between.
We have very few Hispanic priests, though we do have several excellent local Hispanic ministries, one in L.A., Dallas, and Florida. But overall, our interactions with minority society and culture in general is negligible, despite the fact that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is indigenous in African Ethiopia and very influential in—where?—Jamaica. Does anybody know who’s the famous reggae… Bob Marley, before he passed away, was converted to the Orthodox Church. His wife—I believe her name is Rita—was Ethiopian Orthodox. So there’s a connection between us and African-American culture that we are not taking advantage of.
I mentioned last night—I won’t go into this in great detail—but we’re also not in financial parity with Protestants or Catholics, and that affects our ability to serve our priests to do missions and evangelism, youth and college ministry, ministry to our community, social service, and Orthodox media, all of which are vital to the growth and success of the Orthodox Church. You say: How do you get more resources? Well, we’re not state-funded, as many traditionally Orthodox countries are. We’ve got to bring in new people, and people that understand tithing, not just doing ethnic festivals. No offense! I go to all of them. I love Greek festivals; I love Arabic festivals. But we’ve got to explain to our people that tithing is biblical, not Greek festivals, not Arabic festivals.
So these are significant challenges we face in developing a healthy Orthodoxy in America, and we need to struggle in humility with all of our hearts to rekindle the fire for God in the Orthodox Church, and not to accommodate the ideology of [the] dying world in our values, attitudes, and mindsets. So the question is: Are we ready to meet the challenges that are being presented to us in this culture by those who are becoming increasingly disaffected with other Christian traditions and by spiritual Christian seekers looking for meaning and purpose missing in the post-modern secular culture? As much as I love the Orthodox Church, my answer to the question is: Sadly, not at this time. We’re not there yet.
As we begin to descend towards the conclusion, I will now shift to the opportunities, as I see them, of the Orthodox Church in America, not to be confused with the OCA, but just in general. I believe our greatest [quality] as the Orthodox Church is simply to be what we are and proclaim to be: the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, in our time and culture, announcing Christ’s lordship to the entire world, and making his kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Western Christianity has been greatly diminished in its credibility for many reasons. As we’ve seen, increasing numbers of people are looking for historic authenticity, stability, and spiritually transforming faith traditions—which we offer. This is who we are.
First and foremost, I believe, and I say this with humility, because, again, our bishops carry a heavy burden: this requires our hierarchs and leaders to have a bigger, bolder, and clearer vision for the Orthodox Church in North America. We cannot simply see ourselves in terms of being a collection of ethnic or religious subcultures. I think this will require, as well, a commitment to this country, to its non-Orthodox, its poor, its neglected, as well as to our faithful, from whatever their ethnic background.
We’re starting to see this, thank God, through the emergence of the excellent social service and philanthropic efforts of FOCUS USA and the International Orthodox Christian Charities, both of which are great ministries, and both started by one man, a cradle Orthodox man, Charles Ajalat, in Southern California. This will require us to have always before us the goal of an aggressive internal mission of spiritual renewal and re-dedication of our—no offense, anybody—our priests and people to Jesus Christ. That, by the way, is a quote from Brad Nassif, so if you want to get angry, get angry at him.
Perhaps our monastic communities could be part of this renewal process, in a more systematic and coherent way, if we had more strategic planning. This means a commitment to evangelizing our American culture, rather than accepting or accommodating secular ideologies, social policies, and lifestyles during the week, and simply showing up on occasion to receive the sacraments. There’s no distinction between the public and the private for true Christians, nor should there be. As Fr. Stephen Freeman, one of our speakers here, put it: We don’t live in a two-storey universe, where God is “up there,” but we really live “down here.” We live in a one-storey universe, where God is everywhere present. As His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew reminds us:
It is crucial that we recall the sacramental or spiritual principle of the whole world, recognizing that nothing in life is ultimately profane or sacred. Everything is created by God, embraced by God, and reconciled by God.
This will require an effective mission strategy for America, including internal and external evangelism, outreach to minorities, a plan for better distribution of churches across the country so people have access to Orthodoxy, and how to reach out to accommodate and integrate the many new immigrants we can expect over the next decade.
I also believe we have a great opportunity to provide, as I mentioned, a Christian alternative to seekers outside Christianity looking for contemplative and transformative experience, i.e., SBNR [Spiritual But Not Religious], New Agers, Buddhists, and Hindus, many of whom have rejected or do not consider Western Christianity a plausible option. I hate to say this, but we’re currently doing almost nothing in outreach to this segment of our culture. The fact is, we have so much too offer in this area, especially from our hesychasm and monastic traditions. And I believe we have the opportunity to help redefine what Christianity means in a culture that has generally defined Western Christianity negatively.
However, having said all this, I do not believe we can or will achieve these potentialities simply by imposing the old patterns of Orthodox national and religious models to America. Orthodoxy in this country, by the nature of our multinational, multicultural reality, will necessarily be different from what it has been in Greece, Russia, or Serbia. We have to acknowledge and accept this fact. Again, I’m going back to my favorite writer on the subject, Fr. Alexander, who is, as you know, Carpatho-Russian, who wrote:
It is not the task or purpose of Orthodoxy to perpetuate and preserve the Russian tradition or the Greek national identity, but it’s the function of Greek and Russian expressions of Orthodoxy to perpetuate the catholic values of Orthodoxy which would otherwise have been lost.
Very important distinction. So perhaps it’s in God’s will that in America the national isolation of Orthodox churches will be healed, not by abandoning the beauty of Greek, Russian, Arabic, or Serbian orthodoxies, but rather by seeing in them their true catholic and universal significance. Perhaps our vision for Orthodoxy in America is to integrate the best from each national culture rather than be isolated or enslaved to their specific forms.
I was just talking at lunch. I was moved, for example, and, I admit, at first a little bewildered, when I first heard African music, drums and movements and kinesthetics, incorporated into Orthodox Liturgies in Tanzania, but it was explained to me by clergy evangelizing in Africa that since they’re building an organic and indigenous African Orthodoxy, that these cultural norms are baptized and celebrated in native languages and customs. I’ve spoken to Orthodox in this country who still believe that the Liturgy has to be in Slavonic or in Greek, and that Orthodox Church music must be in Byzantine or Russian styles and tones, and that we could never incorporate anything sounding Western and melodic or hymnody. Well, these are things that need to be worked out with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I’m not advocating any particular strategy at the moment.
As Elder Sophrony of Essex, England, said—and I quote him:
In order to be the same, the very same tradition, that is, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, especially when it is in a Western non-Orthodox country, it will look very different and its forms will seem very different than in the traditional Orthodox country—in order to remain the same.
Last, and again I say this with respect, I think it requires becoming a more transparent and open hierarchy. I believe Orthodox leadership models have been greatly influenced over time by many factors, including Islamic domination and Communism. And I think this has tended to shape a circle-the-wagons and somewhat closed-system style and mentality. I was very blessed to see two bishops at this conference, for whom this is obviously not the case, thank God, and I really think that this circle-the-wagons and closed-system, top-down mentality really needs to change some if Orthodox Christianity is going to thrive in the post-modern world. We certainly don’t want to walk down the same road as the Roman Catholic Church in terms of its hierarchic opacity, its lack of translucency, its lack of light.
Orthodox institutions and leaders need to rethink, I believe—I say this, again, humbly—leadership models that are exclusively top-down, because, again, we live in an increasingly fluid religious environment, and people vote with their feet. We have many bright and capable laity, men and women, doctors, lawyers, theologians, writers, accountants, media experts, business people, educators, who in my opinion are underutilized, many not utilized at all. The Church can and must benefit from their talents and gifts, and I’m not speaking here about the ministerial or clerical role at all.
But the laos, the body, comprises the body of the Church, and we’re needed in building it up, to plan, to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We Orthodox need the leadership of our hierarchs. That’s our form of government. However, they and we need to move together. Our bishops and clergy can’t do this alone. We need to hear and listen to each other: hierarchs, clergy, and laity. It’s my hope that even some of our local jurisdictions, synods, and maybe even, God-willing, the great and holy Council, when that occurs, will have lay observers.
So no doubt—and I’m coming to a close—the Orthodox Church has great opportunity in the coming decades in this country and continent, but not without its challenges, and we will probably never be the prominent religious force or voice in this culture, but we can certainly be, as the Gospel tells us to be, salt and leaven in a world that is [in] great and desperate need [of] that [which] the Church, I believe, alone can provide. Most importantly, as I close, it begins with each one of us. In a mysterious way, each one of us is responsible for the future of our beloved and God-protected Church. As St. John Chrysostom tells us—and I’ll close with this: “If but ten among us lead a holy life, we shall kindle a fire which will light up the entire city.”
Thank you for your attention.
"I was baptized and actively raised in the Lutheran Church for 49 years, but my life changed when i converted to the Orthodox Church. Through the podcasts and astounding affirmations God revealed to me through AFR, my mission parish, and my Priest, my mind and—most importantly—my heart were opened to the one true Church. Glory to God! I'm grateful to be home."