A Church Cannot Just Keep Existing

It has been said that freedom in America is only ever one generation away from extinction. It seems to me that the same could be said of American churches.

Over the past couple of days, a number of the ministry leaders in our parish gathered together to ask a couple sets of questions. The first set was last night following a potluck meal, and they went like this:

Why am I an Orthodox Christian? (If raised Orthodox: Why did I choose to remain Orthodox? If converted to Orthodoxy: Why did I choose to convert?)

Why might someone (else) want to be an Orthodox Christian?

Why do I want to stay Orthodox?

Why might I or someone else leave?

What do I find most meaningful about being an Orthodox Christian?

Why would I or someone else invite a family member to become Orthodox?

What does the good Orthodox Christian life look like?

This morning, we gathered again, first for a short supplication service, then again a potluck meal, and then these questions:

Why do Orthodox parishes exist?

Why should our parish continue to exist?

What is our mission?

What do we hope to accomplish in the near future? The further future?

What is our potential?

What does a good Orthodox parish look like?

If you could design the perfect parish, what would it look like?

The reason why we gathered to ask these questions and explore the answers (for about 2.5 hours each time) is that, as our parish nears its thirtieth anniversary this next year, our leadership has determined that we cannot afford to begin coasting, to just keep existing, to keep doing what we’ve been doing (even if it’s good) without taking stock and asking questions about why we exist to begin with and where we are going.

An American Problem

I will not presume to say that I think that every single parish has to ask these questions, especially since the vast majority of Orthodox parishes exist in places with very different circumstances.

I recall asking my father-in-law once about which church he was a member of in his home neighborhood in Beirut. He didn’t seem to understand the question. He said that they went to multiple Orthodox churches—some days this one, but on other days that one or another.

In a remote Russian mountain town, a parish might literally be the only church of any sort for an entire community. It will likely keep being that community’s church for the foreseeable future no matter what. In more urbane centers such as Beirut or in Greece, an Orthodox community might have multiple church buildings that all represent the same community, more or less, being part of the fabric of life in a way that just makes sense. In both cases, the idea of “church membership” as we conceive of it here in America doesn’t make much sense.

But in America, we have multiple forces to contend with that are perhaps not as pronounced elsewhere or in the same combinations. We are a highly mobile society, so even if our next generation of children remains in the Church (and many do not), they may not be local to us. We are also a religiously pluralistic society where people have a sense that they can vote with their feet or with their dollars if they like this church better than that one. And they have cars to get them there, driving past many other churches (even Orthodox churches) to get to the one they prefer.

For us in America, we are not functioning within the parameters of Christendom, however expressed. We are instead in a context much more like that of the Apostles—we are in a society that is often hostile to us, isn’t going to support us, and gives us all lots of cloying incentives not to be engaged with Christ in His Church.

It Always Worked Before, Right?

I do not think this problem of wanting to Just Keep Existing is unique to Orthodox churches in America, but I have certainly seen plenty of Orthodox churches here that seem to function as though things will be fine if they just keep existing without asking questions about what their purpose is, what their mission is, and most especially what it means to be Orthodox Christians.

And I have seen some that keep doing all this even in the face of clear signs of decline. In some cases, they just can’t imagine what they should be doing to avert decline. Everything they’re doing now always worked before. Someone must be to blame. (It’s probably the new priest!)

I know that these issues are the stuff of motivational speaker bread and butter (“Start with Why”), but there is something to this. Given the forces that American churches experience, a church community without a sense of why it exists and where it is going is one that I believe is headed for decline. Parishes can get into maintenance mode, which feels for a while like keeping things going, which can feel good. But maintenance mode is actually decline. If we do not continually renew our congregations with both new life and new blood, we will die.

The truth of our path here is that we are either growing or we are dying. A given parish may have a long ways to go before it dies, running on the endowments of previous generations of immigration and/or fertility in a less-mobile society. But the entropy that infects everything in America will eventually set in, and the only way to stave off death is to pursue life with vigor.

A Compelling Faith

One of the many things said during our conversations over the past couple of days is that we as a parish have to be dedicated to showing that we have something which is not appealing but rather compelling. This is an important distinction. If we try to be appealing, then we fall into the trap of becoming an engine of consumerist religion. That is an addiction that we cannot nurture, and it’s all too common in American religion. If we fall into the addiction of trying to be appealing, we will always be chasing some innovation, some trend, some fad. And because churches move slower than cultures, we will always be behind. And Orthodox churches are—let’s face it—slower than most.

But if we show that have what is truly compelling—namely, the apostolic Church where the God-man Jesus Christ is found as nowhere else—then we will be both inspiring our own people and drawing in those who have yet to become part of our community.

This isn’t an easy task, and I think there are probably hundreds of ways to show that compelling spiritual life that Orthodoxy has. And not every parish needs to do everything the same way.

One of the ways I’ve talked about summarizing it is with a pair of agricultural metaphors expressed as a kind of vision motto: Planting the Seeds of Orthodoxy, Cultivating Christian Community. My hope is that our focus on these questions and exploring answers together will keep us from settling into familiar patterns and stalling out on a plateau as a community. We’re about to be thirty years old. I don’t want us just to have a big party. I want us to have a big project. Maybe several.

To be sure, there is a lot about Orthodox life that is about continuity. But even in that continuity, there is forward motion. There is vision. There is mission.

To me, the most important thing we’re doing is not coming up with answers to those questions or even setting plans into motion. The most important thing we’re doing is asking the questions, evaluating ourselves, and seeking to be a church community that doesn’t just keep existing but is actually alive.