Everything Must Change

If we start with the premise that we cannot change anything about the Liturgy in the Orthodox Church, then what else can we change to keep religion relevant in the minds and hearts of the people?

I am asking this as pastor of a parish that is loosing members left and right and has no youth in the parish save two. We have many members but most do not come to church on a regular basis. I think everyone is dealing with the same thing.

I mentioned in an earlier post the Emmanuel Orthodox Church. How is it they can attract 100’s of people to worship and the rest of us struggle to get 30 on Sunday. Is it location? Is it the music, or lack there of? Is it the preaching, or lack there of? Is it the people and the way they act when visitors come? Do our members invite people to come to church or do we like to keep things a secret?

What can we change about how we do church to change all of this? How do we make Orthodoxy more than an ethnic church and a church that is available to the masses? Let’s try and have a civil discussion about all of this. I will start by saying the language issue is dead so let us not even speak of that.


  1. I accept (for the purpose of this conversation) the a priori statement that the liturgy can’t cange – although I admit I disagree with you. But, rather than discuss that,

    Let’s start with a definition of “relevant”.

    Tell me what you mean by that and why it is you think in order to be “relevant” something must change. I think that’s the first issue: a discussion of our terms.

  2. Fr. P.: Everything must change. You said it yourself. The difference with the other church and the church that you serve, is that they are “converts”. They are all on the same page, so to speak. On fire for the Lord.
    When born into that faith, like other churches, they sometimes lose their salt, or they never had it in the first place. At times, its ethnetic association, (social). But, “its their church” and outsiders coming in are made to feel and know that they are just that, outsiders exclusions from their circles.

  3. I’d like to address this by way of my own experience.

    When I first began inquiring into EO, I went to the closest parish. Although the faith attracted me, the level of spirituality in this particular church seemed rather dull. It was very ethnic and filled with mostly older people. There was only one convert family. The priest had only been there about four years, but he was following a priest who had been there for over 40 years.

    I moved to another area before being chrismated and attended the closest OCA. Again, a priest who had been there for over 40 years and an ethnic congregation. People were not so welcoming.

    But, around the time I moved, there was a group that left this church to form a “daughter” church in an up and coming area where there was no OCA presence. In came a bright, energetic young priest who seemed determined to not allow this church to be an ethnic social club. His emphasis is always on spiritual things, yet he makes his homilies very relevant. His other great emphasis is on the parish members as family; he really tries to get his people to think like that, and he has accomplished it to a great degree. Most of the people attending are converts who have seriously studied the faith and know why and what they believe. This is where I have been attending, despite it being a little longer drive.

    The level of participation from the teens and pre-teens is nothing short of amazing. All of them are involved either in reading, singing in the choir or altar servers. I can only think of one that is not doing something, but she faithfully attends each week.

    Another difference is the choir. The director came from California where, she says, music was done in at a faster pace than here in the east. She does not let it drag and therefore, it is much more beautiful and inspiring than what I have experienced elsewhere.

    Don’t know if any of this is relevant or helpful to you, but here it is, albeit, rather long.

  4. I don’t know your parish, Father, so I cannot speak directly to your situation. (My general impression, FWIW, is that St. Mike’s is pretty much an ethnic enclave.)

    In general, however, it looks to me like two Byzantine jurisdictions in the United States, the Antiochian Archdiocese and the OCA (in that order), are leading the way in growing Orthodoxy on these shores. What are they doing? Who are they attracting? In terms of Emmanuel, I wonder how many people it lost when it became Orthodox. Why did those who stayed, stay, and vice-versa?

    More generalities: I see members of three disctinct groups becoming Orthodox these days: the first group consists of Evangelicals/Charismatics who are asking questions that Evangelicalism cannot answer, and are seeking solutions to problems that Evangelicalism cannot provide. Fr. Gillquist and company is the best known example, and Fr. Braun’s “Divine Energy” provides an informative narrative of the dynamic that motivates such converts. (Fr. Gillquist’s books are certainly informative in this regard as well.)

    The second group is coming out of mainstream Protestantism, led by Episcopalians. These folks are usually motivated by perceived apostacy in their former Churches (although many of them, also, are coming out of the dynamic mentioned above, and there is some overlap between these two groups). Also, this group is not totally homogenous (especially the Anglicans), and many of these folks, especially former Anglo-Catholics, end up swimming the Tiber.

    Finally, there are Roman Catholics, often traditionalists, who are disillusioned by what the RCC has become since Vatican II. Other RC’s, rather fewer in number, are coming to Orthodoxy for exactly the opposite reason: it’s perceived “liberalism” on such questions as divorce and contraception.

    But then, you probably knew all that. 😉

  5. Huw, I think for this purpose I am speaking about how we can grow the church the way the others, Evangelicals, seem to be growing. Perhaps I am just in a dead area and we need to move the church or plant a church in another location and see what happens. We have lost the young people, how do we get them back?

  6. Fr. Greg, I am not so much concerned with the people who are churched how do we reach the uncheched is my question? Although I am Scottish I am not so much interested in sheep stealing, well unless I can make a profit anyway.

    Orthodoxy should be working to reach those who have no church, not trying to take people away from another church.

  7. i have been discussing this topic on a few blogs and lists that i belong to.

    there have been many discussions among protestants on these lists about why some of their “best and brightest” as they call them are leaving for liturgical churches. as i see it in my own church, many of the young people that come are well educated and looking for a church that wasn’t started six months ago. i think the steadfastness of the church is what draws them.

    my church is a growing parish, full of young people and older folks as well. we have a women’s group, book fellowships, sunday school and the like but what i think has been key to our growth has been my priest’s determination to provide as many opportunities to worship as he can provide. we have at least 4 services a week not counting feastdays or paraklesis/akathist services at different times during the year. he definately has a “protestant work ethic” when it comes to orthodox worship.

  8. Father Peter, I wasn’t so much speaking of “sheep-stealing” as “sheep attracting”. These folks have, for the most part, themselves sought out Orthodoxy, not vice-versa.

    As far as the unchurched, I think that Orthodoxy can go a long way toward reaching them by continuing to distinguish itself from what, fairly or unfairly, many people perceive as being “Christianity”. This operates on all kinds of levels; perhaps the most basic ones are the rejection of Anselmian soteriology and its attendant distortion of the nature of God as well as the rejection of the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin. Related to this is the very basic point that we are called to focus on our own salvation and not to judge the sins and shortcomings of others. “Acquire the Holy Spirit [yourself] and you will save thousands of those around you.”

    P.S. On a practical level, I think that caldonia sun makes some very good points.

  9. I knew a family that had to keep a candle burning at all times. As a result someone had to be home all the time lest there be a fire. I saw the candle once: sitting in a corner of the living room. Only after I was chrismated did I realise thisethnic family has simply forgot the icons and prayers in their icon corner. They just tended a pointless flame!

    The actual *work* of tending the flame was totally disconnected from the spirituality. SPirituality, or religion was unimportant to them. They never went to LIturgy except to get candles on Pascha.

    I think the first step, then, is to convince them that religion, per se, is relevant. Second is to convince them that a hard religion, like Orthodoxy: one that requires thought and planning and teaching and work – is relevant and worth it.

    After that the rest is easy.

    I don’t think we need to change our religions: we need to change our minds.

    I find this a lot with people in my life: they can handle that I’m religious, but they have no idea why one needs to be so involved. Rarely (one exception) do they understand that the “me” they know is crafted by all of that. They don’t realise there is a connection between the me that they know and the stuff I do for religion’s sake.

    I have one friend who thinks that religion – meditation, prayer, church, etc – matches my mindset and that’s why I go. She fails to understand that I’m just as messed up as anyone and my mind is *made still* by going to church, ritual, meditating, prayer. SHe thinks my church isn’t for her because she is so hyper and internally churning . She fails to see that she’d have to commit to church in order to develop inner stillness. Not the other way around.

    We need to develop the qualities we’re supposed to have: love, hospitality, stillness, etc. People see this and say, “oo, I want some of that”.

    If we develop the same qualities as roller coasters or too much TV, people might as well watch TV or whatall.

  10. Fr. Peter: I’ve been there and I’ve been made to feel very accepted. There was never any talk about money, except if you are a visitor, please do not contribute. Their coffee hour is bustling with active people all helping and their choir is wonderful,(participation is encouraged–as the words appear on a screen, so you can join in. There pastor is quick on his toes to greet newcomers and chat with them. They have many outreach missions, and children who are being educated in the faith. “They attract people,” have lots of programs for various levels.

  11. Not only can the liturgy change, it has changed over the centuries in the Orthodox Church, whether or not modern-day Orthodox Christians like to admit it. But there’s no ignoring that fact if one reads history or liturgics even shallowly.

    There’s no pat formula for parish renewal, which is logically going to vary from one place to another according to geography and demographics, but here’s a few ideas:

    (1) Pray to God for renewal and growth. It’s remarkable how many parishes do everything but that to try to grow.

    (2) Reform or no reform, perform, as a parish, the liturgy we have as best, meticulously and articulately as we can. Sloppy worship is a turn-off.

    (3) Gently, simply and repeatedly teach parishioners our membership in the Church is rooted in baptism, chrismation and the eucharist, and our parish life is meant to focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. If we’re not living by and doing those things from the gospel, why should God bless us?

    (4) Look at the neighborhood around you. How can you become a church that serves it? Your outreach may not be strictly religious, at first: it may be charitable, or related to public safety and health, schooling, etc. first. Work to be a church that meets human needs, not merely “theological” ones.

    (5) Help your parishioners get out of their shell by adopting a local charity, such as a food bank, to which they make donations or volunteer time part of their offering to God each week at the Divine Liturgy.

    (6) Teach your parishioners how to welcome and be open to newcomers.

    (7) Teach both parishioners and newcomers the basics of the gospel in the simplest terms. I think we often assume people know the “kerygma,” “the Christ story” (why the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is important to human beings), but they don’t. Either they’ve never really heard it or never given it any deep thought.

    (8) Advertise wherever, however you can.

    (9) Make sure your parish has a simple website that’s easy to navigate and understand, and tells people what you have to offer and where to find you.

    Just a few thoughts, for what it’s worth…

  12. i think the problem is when you convert over you join the church because of religous feelings a need to be near God and under stand the faith in ways people born into it can not, your realy not that concerned if your liked by the rest of the parish, the picnics are not the reason you attend. most people raised in a faith continue to attend for traditional reasons it brings them back to their childhood to sing certain songs at pasha and do certain rituals because thats what they remember from their past they don’t realy attend to find God and are not all that concerned if the converts are there or not.so where does that leave you? i’m not sure.i guess you need to count on the converts to help with the vision of the future because they have no past to drag them down they see the church for what it could be not what it has always been in the past.linda

  13. Fr. Peter, It has been my experience that most churches are experiencing the same thing from their members the what have you done for me lately? attitude. They were brought up to think of chuirch as a social event and a liturgy would be served, not that you went to thank God for what He gave you this week.
    Today most look for that one excuse to stay away on Sunday morning, kids events, had to work Saturday, that so and so of a priest said something in his homily last week, anything to get a few extra winks.
    We must change the attitude to
    What have I done for God lately? Unfortunately I think that is almost impossible, but all is possible with God through prayer.

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