Monday, December 5, 2016

Is the Church Behind the Times?

Recently, I ran across this post on Facebook: "If you say the Church is behind the times, the TIMES must change, not the Church!" While I understand the truth in this statement, as the TIMES do need to change and the Church does protect unchangeable truths, there is also a hidden untruth in this statement. The Church needs get ahead of the TIMES and become a more effective agent for change. The Orthodox Church is also bound by ancient traditions and practices that can make it appear to be out of step with the times and irrelevant. Some of these traditions have become no more than rituals and practices without the deeper meaning they once had. 

When you ask many why they baptize their child they have no answer other than its tradition, often putting more emphasis on the party that follows the sacrament itself. When you ask a couple about marriage they rarely will give you a spiritual answer, but yet insist that the wedding be held in the Church out of tradition, and focus most on planning a huge party, often with a professional planner. The celebrations that come with some of the major feast days are also bound by tradition. For example in Crete there is a huge celebration on the night before the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. The life and meaning of her life is lost in the traditional music and abundance of food that is offered before the Church even celebrates the event with a Divine Liturgy the following morning. The party or meal becomes more significant than the event being celebrated. The platia around the Church is overflowing with people at such an event but on a Sunday there will be only a few inside to participate in the Sacrament. The True food of the Sacrament is secondary to the food and music of the celebration.

When the church still uses ancient Greek, requires its clergy to dress as in ancient times, allows clergy and hierarchs to stand above those they serve wearing crowns, sitting on thrones, holding staffs, acting like emperors of Byzantine times with their attendants, its services are seen no longer by many as a beacon of the Holy Spirit and no longer exuding the feeling of love. This is reinforced when continues with its rituals encouraging old traditions and practices no longer relevant, no longer communicating the message of Christ. Christ becomes lost in the secularized traditions and outdated practices. Instead of leading people to a deeper spirituality the Church can be perceived as preserving an ancient set of rituals and associated traditions that were maybe appropriate for the time and way of life in the Byzantine empire but out of touch today. The issue is that the central message of our Savior who came from heaven to transform and lead us to an eternal life in His kingdom becomes blocked, overtaken by outdated tradition. The Church is no longer seen by many as a spiritual hospital were we all can seek the healing of our souls that are troubled by the TIMES.

When you examine the current situation there is much in the modern Orthodox Church traditions and practices that have nothing to do with the Gospel teachings or with the sacramental duties of the church. I was in Crete for an extended stay and I saw this problem acutely. Talking with younger members there who have been brought up in the faith, seeing the many churches and villages built around the church building, where 90% or more profess to be Orthodox Christians, and serving as a clergyman in the services of a local church, I have became aware how distant the work of the church appears to many people, good people who have pure hearts and who should be the current workers in the church. Basically, it's mainly the old people (mostly women) who come to the churches there now. The younger generation tends to reject the Church as dead, lifeless. They seem to have little respect for the clergy who perpetuate the status quo. They see the Church as perpetuating cultural traditions and not a source for spiritual healing. 

One young lady in her twenties who lives in a small village and has a college degree, said to me, "why is the church so distant, separated from the people." At first I was surprised at her comment. It woke me up to think about this issue. I was encouraging her to talk with a priest about confession and spritual growth. She gently held her hand to her heart and humbly said this is what is important. God is here and not in the church. I try to live according to Christian principles but the Church does not seem to be an example for me. She said she had never been to confession and that the priests did not relate to the people. She did not feel they set an example that is any different than the TIMES. She saw them busily going from church to church in the villages doing services tied to local traditions, doing their job. She further said that when she goes into the church she does not have any feeling of the spirit, (again holding her hand to her heart), but she sees priests and chanters going through rituals, rambling in a language is not easily understood as it is an ancient form of Greek, and dressed in elaborate uniforms. She did not feel the services were helpful for her and that she attended only because of her family tradition. When I tried again to encourage her to talk with a priest, she said, "why don't they do something about changing the environment in the church and so it is a beacon of Spirit and try to better relate to the people so they will want to seek them out for guidance. They are too busy to talk with us." 

The Church does have and protects the Truth, but it is also is bound up in rituals and traditions, many of which may no longer communicate what Christ teaches. In fact, its clinging to the past may block many from learning the true Gospel message. Rather than being a source of Wisdom it can become a hinderance to learning the Wisdom She has.

Change is needed in my view. The clergy is trapped in tradition and they often argue about the details of the ritual or their dress, or politics of which church higher in rank. The emphasis of the church needs to be redirected toward spiritual healing and growth and not just on ritual and preservation of traditions that consist mainly of parties and no longer have spiritual value. There needs to be more emphasis on the Ten Points of an Orthodox Way of Life that have been presented many times in this blog. The Church needs to seek ways  to encouraged its members to participate in the sacraments as a way to help them in their spiritual struggle, not to fulfill ancient traditions or a family obligation. They need to hear the hymns in their native language and be allowed to express the church's beliefs inside the church in a modern language and not feel called to preserve a language only a few understand. They need to be encouraged to participate. They ought to be engaged to study the Scripture, to better understand the reality of the life of Christ and His teachings, to learn the wisdom of the Church fathers, and learn how to apply this wisdom to their current daily life. The church needs to reach out to those who suffer with anxiety and mild depression and help them see how this is related to a spiritual struggle we all face. As they discover the difficulty of their unchecked passions they should be encouraged to fast as a way to control them, not just to gain peace, but so they can have a personal relationship with God and grow in their ability to do His will instead of Christ's teachings being just another set of ancient obligations. The Church needs the capacity to instruct its members on the necessity to make time for personal prayers, how to pray and seek the joy of a peaceful inner life focused on the Holy Spirit and Christ who lives within each of them. It needs to provide a welcoming loving spiritual community so that when people come into the church service they see and relate to people who are seeking true communion with God. The clergy must be an shining example of persons who strive to live the Truths and who are always available to offer spiritual guidance as true spiritual fathers.

There are many Orthodox Churches who have changed from the traditional church found in the ancient Byzantine village, but there are still many where the spirit is not alive, where it is no longer a beacon of the Spirit, where tradition and ritual continue as part of our secular TIMES. Our younger generation senses this and is not encouraged to become active members.

The younger generations needs an Orthodox Church with its foundation of Wisdom and Truth, but with a way of communicating these truths that is relative to the TIMES. So yes, the Times need to change, but if we are going to change the TIMES, the Church also needs to change.


  1. I agree with the basic premise. Unfortunately, however, such calls for change, and the good energy that results, are hijacked by those who would change the Faith itself in the process.

    Can you elaborate some suggestions for specific, concrete steps we might take? Both on the personal and ecclesial levels? (And everywhere in between.)

    You mention language, for example. Obviously, doing the services in the current version (or close enough to not be a problem) of the local language is a HUGE need. Is that the only thing? Or is there more that could be done in this area? (e.g. Many of the technical terms, for example, really can't be "updated" without entire new Councils -- fat chance, at the moment, unfortunately.)

    What other things might we change, and how, without losing the Faith itself (the acquisition of the Spirit, that is, to use St. Seraphim's maxim)?

  2. (Commenting again because I forgot to check "Notify me" on the first one.)

  3. In our Metropolis of Atlanta we have a planning process taking place that involves a broad range of people throughout the Metropolis. Some of the things identified are better lessons for catechism of our young people, more participation in the Liturgy inclusion of a children's sermon, of course training of clergy in counseling is essential so they are better prepared to deal with all the emotional and mental issues of modern times. On the issue of dress it seems we are going backwards as it has become fashionable for clergy to dress in most traditional ways. Language and wording of hymns and canons remains a big issue in Greek churches. There are so many small traitors that have nothing to do with our confession of faith we can do to bring a greater focus on Christ and the path to union with him. We tend to teach rules for isssues like fasting and participation in sacraments. The Sacraments are essential when approached with sincere faith. In addition to the sacraments are the practices of daily prayer and repentance. The liturgical cycle is also important and we need to adapt it to include modern day events like Thanksgiving and to make the cycle more real in daily life. I am sure everyone can add their own suggestions on how to bring the life and teachings of Christ closer to the daily life of the faithful. In my view the emphasis I needs to,include the development of a quiet inner life as this is the only was the passions can be mastered.

  4. No, The Church does not need to change. It was for then, now, and forever. To quote a past priest "there is only one Church (referring to the Eastern Orthodox), all the rest are organized groups of Christians".

    The title of this article is misleading, and somewhat offensive.

    Yes, some traditions, not to be confused with Holy Traditions, can be looked at. However, they have nothing to do with "The Church".

    As a convert, raised in the Protestant faith, I understand and have seen how churches have changed in order to try to meet the needs of the people. Always with failure.

    The Orthodox Church is the infinite absolute truth. The very last thing it needs is any change. "The Church" has never failed the people but visa versa......

  5. Thank you for this post. I am so glad you are willing to stand in the place of honesty and vulnerability to point out an uncomfortable reality.

    We must abide in this place of availability to not only let the Spirit speak about how we have missed the mark but also to point the way forward. That way is not to "fix" but to repent. The way forward will be a Divine/human work - paradoxical. It is not about "doing better" but rather about "being true."

    It is about form AND content. The Spirit is able to renew both.

  6. So grateful for this post; it is appropriate to look at what seems to keep us from growing into that "image God created", rather than focusing on the outer performance that stunts Spiritual growth and awareness. Humility and mercy to take place in our hearts, so that we may daily walk in His Spirit. Thank you for bearing this responsibility to point our frailties as "humans".

  7. this image of god is very great,I am so glad you are willing to stand in the place of honesty...

    I am so glad you are willing to stand in the place of honesty and vulnerability to point out an uncomfortable reality.


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