220. The Decline of Christianity in America: Part Four – The Mission of the Orthodox Church

I said that, were I starting from scratch today seeking not comfort but Truth, Christianity in America is such a perplexing contradictory mess that I might just give up on it. That is, unless by some chance I would find Jesus Christ. As I did. Actually He found me, but that’s another story. 

That’s me, hanging around His neck.      

Image compliments of St Isaac’s Skete: skete.com

Or unless, by some even more unlikely chance, I were to find the Holy Orthodox Church and my way into it. As I did.

How is the Orthodox Church meeting today’s challenges?

In America * (and the whole Western world), Orthodoxy faces a very unfamiliar situation. In most old world Orthodox lands, the Church has just “been there” for a thousand years and in some places far more, fixed and settled in good times and bad, even when diminished by persecution. But in the Western world the Orthodox Church is a new thing under the sun.

  • by which I mean Canada, too, with whom never forget we share this continent. P.S. a day later. My wife just reminded me that Mexico is also part of North America. The Church there is well-represented – Greek, Russian, OCA, Antiochian. I don’t have the total numbers..

Let’s be clear: Our first purpose as Orthodox is not to gain members, but to remain true to the Faith. That we are doing, as we have from the beginning. However our next mission, by command of the Lord, is this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” Matthew 28:19  How are we doing at that?

We are tiny on the American scene, only about one half of one percent of the population. Though we are not as much the “hidden gem” we once were, many still dismiss us as a bunch of irrelevant old world ethnics. We need to find a way to be seen first as American Orthodoxy.

Despite this, we are growing! partly because of immigration and in recent years increasingly because of many conversions. In 2011, the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (whose new title is at right) reported that in the previous decade the number of Orthodox churches in America had increased by 16 percent to total 2,370, and that the Orthodox community here had more than a million active adherents. (Does anyone know more recent figures? We sometimes hear there are 6 million Orthodox in the US. That’s just silly.) Sixty years ago my Antiochian Archdiocese had about 65 churches; today we have more than 230. Many towns where 50 years ago people had never heard of the Orthodox Church now have established Orthodox parishes.

However, we would have grown much faster if, a generation back, we hadn’t lost so many young people. Some call it “the lost generation”. Why? Because as Orthodox people became Americanized, their local churches often did not. Not that we should become Americanized in teaching, in worship. No way. But we have needed to adjust our “style”. Orthodox in America have often neglected our very first missionary responsibility: to convert our youth. From the beginning, Christianity has had to start over from scratch with every new generation.  

Here’s what I mean. In the old country every village has an easily accessible Orthodox church or two, and in towns and cities there are many. Here this is far from the case. In the old country, Orthodoxy is just “in the air”, and people “catch” it. Here it is not. In the old country, the Orthodox Faith is often taught in the schools, even on radio and television. Here it is not. Here our people need to understand the words of the Divine Liturgy – for the Liturgy, more than anything else, “pours” Orthodoxy into peoples’ hearts and minds. Here Orthodox people need to be taught carefully in church and at home. Where else are they going to learn the Faith? This is not the old country.

However, today Orthodoxy in America is adapting, meeting the new situation. Fifty years ago, there was almost no English language Orthodox literature. Now there is an abundance. Also there are many capable people who know how to relate the Orthodox Faith to the American scene online. For example: 1 Look up Father Barnabas Powell, a former Pentecostal minister, now priest at Saints Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene Greek Orthodox Church in Cumming, Georgia. He has many fine videos and podcasts, and a regular series on YouTube called “Faith Encouraged”. Or the videos “Coffee with Sister Vassa”. However, be careful: oniine one can also find people on the “fringe” who delight in being negative and nasty. 2 Likewise, as I suggested last week, check out anything from Ancient Faith Ministries. 3 Or you might want to keep reading this Blog! 

P.S. In the Comments below, Michael adds some other good suggestions.

In the Western world the Orthodox Church is adapting and growing.

My Personal Witness 

Someday maybe I’ll tell you again the story of my journey, what happened. Today let’s talk about  

Why I came to the Orthodox Church

At first, it was because I was exhausted trying to figure out for myself what is the authentic Christian Faith. Me? With my limited knowledge and intelligence and experience and my spiritual shallowness? How could I possibly do that? Nor did I want to just “huddle” with a group of likeminded people till they changed their minds, or until I did. I wanted ancient Christianity and somebody to show me what it was. Or rather still is.

In the end I knew I had to become Orthodox. Here was the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church, which could teach me, change me instead of my trying to change it. And I saw how gently, without forcing me to “submit”, the Orthodox Church could lead me into a wealth and depth of Christian wisdom and knowledge and prayer I never knew existed. I saw the Orthodox Church as the “best of the lot”. 

But soon I saw that the Orthodox Church is actually the “only one on the lot”. There are many “denominations” that come and go. But this is the Church I had read about in the Fathers thirty years before. (For example, the writings of Saint Ireneaus who learned the Faith from Saint Polycarp, who personally knew Saint John the Apostle.) Here is the Church that has been genuinely united in Faith and worship from the beginning with nothing added, nothing subtracted – in every nation and diocese and parish from one end of the earth to the other. And visibly continuous in Faith through our Bishops from the Apostles till now. Thirty years before I had concluded that that Church did not exist on earth any more. But it does. Here it is.

Orthodoxy has “the Faith once delivered to the saints” Jude 1:3 which will not change every time we turn around. And most important, here in His Church nobody doubts that Jesus Christ is God and Lord of all, “Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday today and forever”. Hebrews 13

Joining the Orthodox Church

Fifty-five years ago when I first looked, it was almost impossible for an “Anglo-ethnic” like me to find and join an Orthodox church. I thought Orthodoxy had it right, but it was inaccessible – so “old world ethnic”  that “you’ve got to be born into that”. I knew an Episcopalian who was interested in Orthodoxy, so he visited an Orthodox church. After Liturgy the priest said to him, “We are glad to have you visit. Now, you must go back to your own church.” So… he did.

Thirty years ago Orthodoxy was more welcoming in some places, but it was still not easy. At the time, as I was in process, I remember a previous convert said to me “Congratulations! You’ve cracked the code!”

Today things are different. In many places it’s not hard to find an Orthodox church, and a welcoming one. (There are still exceptions.) Those using English, or at least considerable English, are much more common. However it’s still not easy to join. This is intentional. As in the early Church, usually we put people through a catechumenate that takes a while. Once a couple showed up at Saint Nicholas and asked me if they could become Orthodox. I said “Yes”. “How about next Sunday?” I replied “That isn’t exactly how we do it!” I never saw them again. Well, good. People need to know what they’re getting into here. This is not like wherever they’re coming from.

Are there failings among us Orthodox? Yes, of course. Many. The Church is filled with sinful human beings. And as would be expected with any organization 2000 years old, we have too many members who were born into the Church and take it for granted without seriously getting “into it”. As Father Peter Gillquist (“memory eternal”) used to say, “If you’re looking for the perfect Church, it’s not here, it’s up there”.

Nevertheless, the Apostolic Church is still here. I remember going to my first clergy symposium after I became Orthodox. I felt sure the Orthodox Church was what it claimed to be. But still in the back of my mind I kept thinking: What if I’m wrong? (I had been wrong twice before.) The conference was about pastoral issues. Everywhere I had been before, this would have caused all sorts of weird beliefs and practices to emerge. So I waited… … With these Orthodox clergy what emerged, with no exceptions, was the Faith – the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers. I almost cried. I was Home.

And thirty years later, I am ever more sure: The Orthodox Church is the Real Thing. 

Why an Orthodox Mission to America?

It’s because that’s what we Orthodox do. It’s not so we can feel successful, look successful, have larger budgets, build more and bigger churches. It’s because the Orthodox Church has traditionally been a missionary Church. How else do you suppose the Church spread from a tiny community in Jerusalem to Spain, Britain, Egypt, North Africa, Ethiopia,Russia, India and ‘most everywhere else in between. I mean, it didn’t just “happen”.   

We began on this continent because Russia sent missionaries into Alaska. Many Alaskan natives remain Orthodox, despite the U.S. government’s 19th Century attempt to turn them all into Protestants. 

America needs to be Orthodox, so that American Christianity can stop changing its stripes every generation. A Lutheran pastor, who became Orthodox here at Saint Nicholas, speaks of “the Baptistification of American Christianity”. Attend worship in almost any church on America and it’s obvious what he’s talking about. Who knows what the next generation will bring. If American Christianity is ever to achieve stability in the Faith it’s going to have to return to the ancient roots, to Apostolic and Catholic Christianity, the Faith of the Church Fathers. Now, we can find elements of that Apostolicity in all the various denominations, and we should seek this out in them and honor it for it – for they are our children. The Orthodox Church is Mother of them all.

Howver, as our Antiochian Bishop Anthony keeps saying: Small as we are now on this continent, “Orthodoxy is the only hope for America”. Brash? Judgmental? No. Just historically accurate.

The Orthodox Mission to America: Where is it?

It’s coming. It’s happening.

Please understand why it’s taking time for American Orthodoxy to get our missionary work into gear.

1 Our missionary tradition was almost beaten out of us by the Saracens and the Mongols and the Turks and the Communists, where Orthodox missionary activity was forbidden, punishable by death. We’re still recovering.

Except in Alaska, Orthodoxy is relatively new on this continent. Except in Alaska, Orthodox came here not as missionaries but to escape poverty and persecution. All people, when they come to a new culture with a language they don’t know, spend at least one generation clinging to the old ways, and another settling into the new culture, and at least one more generation before it occurs to them that maybe they can share what they have. That’s where American Orthodoxy is finally arriving today.

Here is Orthodoxy’s greatest contribution and greatest hindrance to our mission. While Orthodox people have become Americanized, our Faith and worship have not and never will. (Sorry, folks, no guitars here.) Visitors often walk into an Orthodox Church and think “What’s this?!Good question. We don’t fit into any category they know. We are “counter-cultural” –  politically and theologically neither conservative nor liberal, but in some ways we’re both.  We are different. We come from somewhere else. We are Traditional Christians. 

However, our “otherness” is our Gift to America. The Orthodox Way can rescue America from the present religious and cultural chaos.

So, brothers and sisters, how can we bring more American people to see this for themselves? How can we find more and better ways to communicate who we are? what we have to offer? 

You may go from door to door promoting Orthodoxy if you want, but that’s not our usual way. The Orthodox missionary style (unless we have an Emperor Constantine or a Prince Vladimir to do it for us) has usually been slow, a “ministry of presence”. We move in, settle into and get to know a culture, learn the native language, establish our institutions and our worship, ordain native clergy, make ourselves known and (sorry about this) wait for God to act, for people to “come and see”. So don’t expect overnight miracles.

Orthodox missionary work requires “the personal touch”. If you know someone who is genuinely seeking, don’t be shy. Say a prayer and then humbly, gently invite them to “come and see”. But do not ever lay Orthodoxy on someone who is not interested. Never try to argue people into Orthodoxy. Just say a prayer and then humbly, gently invite them to come and see.  Learn from Saint Paul: “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt…” Galatians 4:5-6 

Most important, pray. Pray hard for Americans to come to Jesus Christ our God and Savior, and to His Holy Church. And then hang around. To see the final results, you may have to hang around for a few hundred years.

Just one more word about myself, if I may: As I’ve been writing this article I have just realized that it was the Orthodox missionary style that drew me in. I was searching. The Orthodox Church was here, established, and by then accessible. So  I “came and saw”. And I was one of the “native clergy” whom the Orthodox Church ordained! 

So is this the Happy Ending to this series that some of you were hoping for? Only God knows that. Our job is not to know the future. Our job is to be faithful, and let God do His mysterious work.

Next Week: I’ve changed my mind. We’ll begin a two part series on My First Trip to Greece – which turned my life upside down. This is a revision of two of my earliest Posts. I’d refer you to them instead, but they’re so buried in the old Posts (below right) that I doubt you’d ever find them.

7 thoughts on “220. The Decline of Christianity in America: Part Four – The Mission of the Orthodox Church

    1. Dear Michael: I looked up what you refer to. Sister Vassa has offered a “personal opinion” about homosexual activity which is definitely contrary to Orthodox teaching. The Synod of Bishops of her jurisdiction (ROCOR) issued a statement that “We instruct therefore that the contents of these publicly-posted materials be disregarded by the faithful as contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and pastorally harmful; that they be withdrawn and removed from any web sites or publications that seek authentically to represent Orthodox theological and pastoral teaching; and that in the future such materials be treated with most extreme reticence and caution.” Yes. However, they did not excommunicate her. I still think she’s worth watching, since she is otherwise such an effective communicator. Just be careful if she gets off on this subject again – which I think is pretty doubtful!

      In June 2018 I presented the Orthodox teaching about this in a pastoral way, I think. I just reread them to make sure I still agree with myself. Search “Father Bill’s Blog Orthodoxy and LGBTQ”. There are two parts.

      1. A positive alternative: the books of Nun Katherine Weston, the Mother Superior of a Serbian Monastery in Indianapolis, St Xenia.

  1. This was a wonderful series Father! As a twenty year old American, it’s scary to see where the religious landscape is headed in my generation. Please pray for us.

  2. Respectful Father, thank you so much for your sharing of your personal experiences and thoughts fervently gathering through many decades on your continent and in your specific situations. It makes me arise and be watchful here in Korea as an Orthodox still learning Orthodoxy.

    1. My dear Father: I am honored to have a viewer in Korea. Thank you for your kind words. If you have time, please tell us about what it is like being an Orthodox Christian in Korea.

Leave a Reply