Can Orthodoxy Connect?

[To understand what this blog is, read this first.]

Christ is Risen!

[Oldest sister],

I’ve been whittling down my to-do list.  It seems to have grown up a bit, and that slowed me down in responding.  It seems like I’m saying that a lot.  Maybe my next New Years resolution will be not to keep apologizing for being a slow emailer. 🙂  This also got long, which slowed me down too.  I just can’t do small emails.

You brought up a lot of different points in a short space, so I’ll work down them and try to unpack my thoughts as I go…

When others are first experiencing worship with this denomination, it would not be easy to integrate without great effort…for a long while. I understand the Orthodox view of liturgy and the corporate gathering as service to God, but there’s a real need to people to feel a part quickly. I wonder how much of your (and my) church background allows us to make that jump more readily to the “what’s next?” in our worship experience. A deepening. But, if someone was coming from an irreligious background, I’m not sure they’d connect. Especially with the sound of the music and the feel of the worship facility and experience which are strongly nationalistic. Which makes me wonder why Orthodox churches in America don’t make some cultural adaptations to remove potential barriers to a Western audience. Thoughts on that?

I don’t really think that much in my background prepared me for the jump to high church, liturgical worship.  Low-church charismatic to high-church liturgy lover!  I had to work at it, but it has been worth it!  🙂

Here’s a couple thoughts…

The inside of an Orthodox church. Greek Orthod...

First, connection comes from receptivity not similarity.  I’ve read (and listened) to quite a bit on both sides of the conversion process, from those that made it to those who dropped it, or have no interest or are active opponents.  The pattern I’ve seen is that what makes a person connect or not connect to Orthodoxy seems to have little to do with how similar Orthodoxy is to the culture around it (assuming more similarity equals a lower barrier to entry).  The thing that makes a person persist in pursuing Orthodoxy is having a mental state of receptivity.  A receptive person will look past the obstacles, or even embrace the differences, and continue pursuing understanding, whereas a non-receptive person will walk away no matter how closely a church matches their culture and conventions.

It seems to me that it is actually an advantage to have the Church be quite obviously different than the surrounding culture (a perceived high barrier) while being very welcoming (actually a low barrier).  This puts a person immediately on notice that this is something different, perhaps even something not of this world, and yet open to outsiders.  While it does require more effort to assimilate a different culture it helps a person to see the church as something peculiar, and sacred.  Being a peculiar people may just be what this society needs.

So I’d say the key is that a receptive person needs to meet a receptive group of people who welcome outsiders.  The culture in that group may be very dissimilar from the seeker but connection is still very possible.  This has been our experience here.  The culture differences are formidable, but the people are so welcoming that it has made little difference.

Now certainly you are dead on right that there are adjustments that continue to need to be made to lower the barrier, removing artificial differences.  Orthodoxy has historically been a church of the people.  It has always been very good about bringing worship to the language of the people.  This may seem odd since what you see of Orthodoxy seems very ethnic, but historically it has been the norm that the Church takes on local characteristics aggressively (in a good way).  The Orthodox in America have been in a bit of a non-standard situation, but things are changing rapidly.  Sermons are almost universally in English.  The liturgy is about 70% in English in the average parish.  The music is about halfsies English/whatever.  That’s good, but there’s room for improvement.  I’d like to see the sermon and liturgy be all in English everywhere, and the music be mostly in English.  This would remove an artificial barrier that you sensed in your visit, and significantly aid in comprehension by the members of the church.

The OCA church we went to is a metro cathedral, which is at the end of the spectrum most likely to continue incorporating more ethnic elements.  Smaller parishes are the least likely to have strongly ethnic worship experiences (which might seem counter intuitive).  Most of the people in them are converts or descendants of immigrants, rather than immigrants themselves.  This is the case in my Greek parish, where the number of people who actually speak Greek natively is very low, and apparently most of those people strongly support moving even more of the service into English according to the priest.

The other thing that could be changed for sure is the music.  There are a variety of musical styles in use in Orthodox churches, but many people strongly identify with the byzantine chant.  These are the oldies but goodies, and in Orthodoxy old = good.  🙂  However, there is nothing stopping Americans from developing a liturgical musical style that is both informed by tradition and yet with a modern sensibility.  I know that certain American Orthodox composers are doing this sort of work already, to good effect.  I would enjoy seeing that music tradition develop, but I have found that I’ve come to very much enjoy byzantine chant done well too.  I’ll send you some good music that I think you will enjoy soon that demonstrates what Americans are already doing.

Second, attraction is much less important than maturity.  There is a group of people who, regarding how church worship should be properly formed, have come to the conclusion that assimilation of others is paramount and most easily accomplished by making for a painless entry into the life of the church.

I have come to view this thinking with some hesitation, and disagreement.  It seems to me that this seeker-sensitive model assumes that the most important function of the Sunday service is in how it attracts others to the church.  I can understand the drive to get people in and worry about the rest later.  I believe though that this merely attracts those who are marginally interested, presents them with a Christianity that looks like the culture around it and requires little to nothing from them, and removes the “heavy theology” from Sunday morning.  To me this seems like it misses the point of what Jesus asked us to do.  How do we produce disciples in this environment?   I believe this approach is counter-productive.

I’ve watched with some interest as Willow Creek has been coming to terms with the results of this in their church.  You probably heard about their Reveal study.  Finding that being seeker-sensitive has led to a lack of depth and maturity in their attenders has caused them no shortage of problems.  To fix the problem they are reversing course and moving back to providing weekend services that are geared to mature believers, or rather to maturing their believers.  I think this is a good thing.  Will their attraction rates diminish?  I don’t know.

Considering that the Church is a separate Kingdom, or the Body of Christ, or the Vine/Tree, or (fill in the blank with the appropriate metaphor) a necessary function of the Kingdom is to impart a culture.  The necessary function of the Body is to share DNA.  The necessary function of the Tree is to produce fruit.  So the Church imparts its culture, copies its DNA, and produces fruit.  I’d say that function of the Church is more important than its means of attraction.  To accomplish those functions the Church doesn’t need to adjust itself for the purpose of attraction, but rather call people to enter in to the life that is already present.  That requires a person to submit themselves to a different culture, true, but don’t think of that culture as Russian or Greek.  That is merely the external trappings.  The core of Orthodox culture is the 2,000 year old Church, that has some peripheral expression in a local ethnicity, and adjusting to that historic culture is the much more daunting task than adjusting to some Greek or Russian.  BUT, ultimately that is MUCH more intriguing. I’d still be attracted whether the local parish was Greek or Russian or Romanian or European or African or American, as long as the core culture was the historic faith.

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

That being said, I do think it’s an important question to ask how people will be attracted to the Orthodox Church here in North America.  I don’t know those answers, but I’m interested in finding out how I can be a part of that attraction with the skills I have available.

I do know that the growth rate of Orthodoxy is very high.  And they are the second largest group of Christians on the planet.  It must be working for many.  🙂

The other question I had is how the Orthodox address the working gifts of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. I don’t just mean tongues, but rather the spiritual gifts which are to be in operation for the edification of the Body. These were corporate gifts given to the Body as outlined in the New Testament. With the high structure and lack of participation from the congregation, I see that this could potentially be overlooked.

I’m not sure there’s really a lack of participation, but I suppose it depends on what you mean.  If you mean people engaging with the worship of the Church then I’d say the Orthodox are highly participant in many ways.  The liturgy provides many different ways to engage in worship, more so than Protestant worship I’d say.  From discussion with you, and similar questions from mom, I believe that what you mean by participation is for individual members to use gifts from the Holy Spirit to edify the Body.  I think your issue here stems from a perception that the worship of the Church is “locked down and top down”.  Members don’t get input into it, and they are expected to just do what they are told by the leadership.  You see a lack of creativity and a consequent lack of engagement by the laity.  I hope to demonstrate why this is an incorrect perception of what’s going on, and that rather than being a non-creative and non-engaging worship that it is creative in the best ways and very beneficial for members.  I’ll also show how and where the gifts of the Holy Spirit are present in the Church and how they edify the Body.

What is Orthodox worship?
I’m really inadequate to even begin to lay out the theology and reality of Orthodox worship in the divine liturgy.  As you might imagine after 2,000 years of history the understanding of worship is very developed.  Any attempt on my part to explain it would be futile and misleading.  I’ll limit myself as much as I can in the hopes that I’ll stay on sure footing.

Instead of trying to write out an exhaustive explanation of what the liturgy is, let me just mention of few important characteristics.  The liturgy is a time of intense prayer and worship, but primarily it’s a vehicle for the Eucharist, if you will.  I think I’m ok in saying that.  The central aspect of the liturgy is the Eucharist, and all that prayer and worship is part of the process leading up to the Eucharist and preparing for it.  For a service that typically lasts around an hour and a half I’d say it has a very strong focus, and that focus is the corporate act of becoming the Body by ingesting the Body, if you get what I mean.

It would also be true to say that there’s a strong educational component.  Besides the sermon, the music, Scripture reading, and prayers are just dripping with theology.  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.  Surrounded by the icons you see the sweep of God’s plan through history and are in the presence of the great cloud of witnesses, praying with them.  He who has eyes to see, let him see.

It engages the senses and gives plenty of opportunity to act out your faith, and learn the faith you are acting out.  It’s very complex in many ways, but not in the sense that it is impenetrable.  I find it more complex in the sense that there’s always more to learn, and another level that you can engage it at.

I’ve grown to love the liturgy for what it is.  There are still difficulties in it, but it engages me in worship that doesn’t focus on my thoughts and feelings.  My kids connect with many parts of it too.  The more you do it, the better you like it and the more you get from it!

Where did it come from?
So, that’s a bit of what it is.  Now some history of it.  The liturgy done on a typical day is that of John Chrysostom, who was a bishop in the major Christian and Roman center of Constantinople in the 4th century.  He wrote it and it remains pretty much the same today, minor modifications not-withstanding.  It’s an awesome thought to recognize that when you go through the liturgy you are praying prayers that have been said for 1,600 years.

The Church of the Holy Wisdom, commonly known ...

Importantly though the liturgy of the Church didn’t start with Chrysostom.  It didn’t even start with the apostles.  A highly structured liturgy started with the Jews; a system given them by God.  Judaism was highly structured in its worship practices, and that didn’t stop when the temple was destroyed and Judaism shifted into the synagogue form in use at the time of Jesus and the apostles.

It’s common for Protestants to look back at the primitive church with the idea that it was started as a clean slate in terms of its worship practices.  I thought that way.  However, that’s not the case.  Jesus and the apostles were Jews whose worship was highly structured, and that didn’t change with the advent of Christianity.  Many of those practices bled across into Christianity and are still maintained in the Orthodox church.  The early Christians didn’t do the liturgy the same way the Orthodox do it today, for sure, but you can certainly say that it had structure.  In the writings of Paul and in early extra-Biblical writings like the Didache you can see that they had specific ways of handling the Eucharist and baptism, and you can find early creedal statements and prayers that were likely part of the earliest form of the liturgy, in common use.  By the mid 2nd century you can see in the writings of Justin the Martyr the same skeleton format of the liturgy in use at that time that Chrysostom used in his liturgy two centuries later.  The history of the liturgy has been a building of what was there previously into something more mature, something Paul would find very natural given his metaphors of the church being a temple built on a foundation.

This continuity of practice from the earliest times has served the Church well in many ways, but to give just one example, the uniformity across all the world has served to guide us to true doctrine.  This is extremely important.  Keeping a right worship is key to keeping a right (ortho) belief (doxa).  You can see this in the history of the development of doctrine in the early church as the Fathers fought against heresy.  Often the differentiator between the right belief and the wrong was the common practice of the church that everyone could point to.  Your worship is your belief, and your belief is your worship.  The two are deeply connected.  Athanasius used that very effectively against the Arians by pointing at their worship when it was disconnected from their theology in regards to the divinity of Christ.  St Basil did the same later in regards to the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

All of that preceding to say that the structure of the liturgy is something that grew naturally in the early Church, and far from being constricting it is something that served to protect the faith from doctrinal error and maintained unity for a very long time.  That’s not insignificant.  I particularly contrast that with the current state of Christian worship, where there are so many different ideas of what worship is and how to do it, and the state of unity and doctrinal consistency that is poor at best.  The two seem to go hand in hand.

Do members have creative input?  
Certainly members have creative input.  In worship they have creative input in all the same ways you’ll find in the Protestant church.  They bring their talents to the table in the singing, chanting, preaching, and ministries of the church.  There are as many if not more ways to engage creatively in the Orthodox church as there is in any other group of Christians.

How does that work with “high structure?”
The structure provides a framework for everything else that goes on.  Structure is not the enemy of creativity, and doesn’t hinder the work of God.  Without structure how can anything be done decently and in order?  God insists on structure, and the church has been using this structure for 2,000 years.  It’s been working this long.  If it ain’t broke…

What about the gifts of the Holy Spirit for edification?
Well, you can find Paul discussing how the Holy Spirit provides for the edification of the Body in a few spots in his letters.  Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12, and 1 Corinthians 14 are all spots where he gives lists of various gifts, and of course there’s more discussion in 1 Corinthians on how best to use those gifts.  Allow me to cheat and combine the lists into a single one for easier discussion.

  1. Apostles
  2. Prophets
  3. Evangelists
  4. Pastors
  5. Teachers
  6. Gift of Wisdom
  7. Gift of Faith
  8. Gift of Healing
  9. Miracles
  10. Discernment of Spirits
  11. Tongues
  12. Interpretation of Tongues

I read through that list and I see every one of those gifts actively used in the Orthodox church (the exception being apostles, depending on your understanding of what that means)!  Gifts of healing, prophecy and miraculous powers are an integral part of the Orthodox life.  In that fashion I’d say the Orthodox church is very engaged and open (and expecting) the Holy Spirit to be active.  There are so many stories in the Orthodox church of God performing the miraculous that you wouldn’t believe it.  Well, maybe you would.  You remember Fr James the monk that we talked to in DC?  I can’t remember how many times in that single short conversation he talked about miraculous events happening.  That’s awesome!

Even though those gifts are active, what you won’t see is all of them in the context of the liturgy.  Certainly it’s not fair to expect that in a service that has a clearly defined purpose centered on partaking of the Eucharist that it should be required to accommodate every other edifying event in the Body.  Many of them do occur in the course of the liturgy, but many of them don’t, and that’s fine.  There’s 168 hours in the week.  Only 1.5 are used up on a Sunday morning liturgy.  That leaves plenty of room for edification during other times.  🙂

So, when it comes to the Holy Spirit providing gifts for the edification of the Body I can say that all of the ones that I listed above are in use in the Orthodox Church.  You won’t typically find tongues used in public worship, but I find this to be quite in line with Paul’s admonitions in 1 Corinthians 14.  To my knowledge it’s not commonly emphasized in parish life like it would be as a distinctive of charismatic worship, but I don’t want to focus in on tongues as if that’s the only way the Spirit works.  The Orthodox church is highly engaged with the Holy Spirit.  They don’t equate that so strongly with tongues, though.  Those who have the gift are free to use it, in order and for edification.

Now, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14.  The first part of the chapter Paul spends time demonstrating the proper way of using gifts to edify the Body of Christ.  That aside I want to look down at verses 26-40:

26 When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints. 34 The women are to keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to subject themselves, just as the Law also says. 35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church. 36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? 37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. 40 But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.

What strikes me repeatedly in this discussion of how people should be acting in worship is how often Paul repeats that things must be done in order.  There’s a way to do things, and that denotes a certain structure.  However, a very common and very BIG mistake that is made over and over again when reading this passage is to equate “when you assemble” with “Sunday morning service.”  We know clearly that the early church assembled a LOT, and for very long periods of time.  Some of that was given to the Eucharistic meal, and we know that there was a structure to that.  The rest of the time was given to other things, such as singing psalms and hymns, reading Scripture, sermons, and prayer (according to Justin Martyr).  This would be the natural place for people to bring their edifying gifts to bear on the Body.

It would not be proper to have people exercising those gifts during the Eucharistic observance, any more than you would expect tongues and interpretation during a sermon today.  A time and a place for everything.  Those who have something to bring for edification, again, are free to do so, but properly and in order.  That time is normally not during the Eucharistic gathering, but there’s plenty of other opportunities for that.

I don’t see that this is a misstep for you; I can readily see why you would be attracted to considering this faith. But, admittedly (and understandably) this might be harder for someone else to grab onto…whether [your wife], or your children someday, or your neighbor, or an unsaved friend.

Like I said up above, the important thing is being open to it.  The rest follows in due course.  One nice thing about Orthodoxy is that it has a patience to it.  No one is rushing and pressuring you to join up.  They encourage you to take your time and work through the issues.  I can appreciate that.

I’ve had my issues with it, my doubts, my struggles, and emotional burn out.  [My wife] certainly has as well.  I don’t know if my kids will someday struggle with it, but that’s certainly not unique to Orthodoxy.  You can’t miss noticing the sense of panic in Christian headlines now days when they see the stats on kids leaving the church when they leave home.  I’ve read studies on the phenomenon, and I think the key for that is in the home.  If your kids truly believe the fundamentals of the faith, and especially that salvation is found in Jesus alone, they will remain Christians.  If you make God real and important in your life, your kids will too I believe.  Orthodoxy affords me wonderful opportunities to engage with a very obvious Christianity, and that’s really helpful.  I feel that the best thing I can do for my kids is to engage with Christianity as openly and honestly as I’m able to.  Orthodoxy helps with that.

In the end I think that Orthodoxy being different helps people connect with it.  If a person is seeking then Orthodoxy, once you become aware of it, really sticks out and just begs to be explored.  That’s a great thing.  Now it just needs to be more visible…

Love you,

Can Orthodoxy Connect?