14 New Year’s Resolutions for Orthodox Christians

The Altar at Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (From Wikimedia Commons)
The Altar at Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
(From Wikimedia Commons)

Editorial comment: This has gotten republished more times than I can count now, mostly without asking (which, while I won’t be hounding people, should still be noted as illegal in most countries). I don’t mind too much, but I do mind that in some places (like church newsletters), it’s gotten republished either without my name on it or having altered the text and still including my name as though that altered version were written by me.

Anyway, this is the original version. Any other version out there with my name on it is not by me. A handful of republications did indeed get my permission, and I appreciate the courtesy.


Around this time of year, many people start thinking about ways they can change for the better. While New Year’s resolutions are not particularly a feature of the Orthodox faith, change certainly is, and resolving to change based on times and seasons is certainly part of our liturgical tradition. So adapting the cultural custom of New Year’s resolutions to become a better Orthodox Christian seems perfectly fine to me. Anyway, here are some suggestions for Orthodox Christians resolving to change for the better in the New Year, things every Orthodox Christian can do.

(Obviously, adjust as needed according to the direction of your father-confessor and pastor.)

1. Get serious about coming to church (more).

While many who read this are no doubt at least every-Sunday attenders at church, it is statistically true that only 26% of Orthodox Christians in America come to church weekly (the statistic is drawn from people who are actually involved in parish life, not from anyone who was ever baptized Orthodox; that statistic would be much worse). That’s really a horrible percentage. If you’re not coming to church weekly, why not? There are probably some good reasons out there, but most of those 74% almost certainly do not have good reasons. If you’re not serious about coming to church weekly, it’s time to get serious. This is eternal life we’re talking about, not a religious club.

And if you’re already coming to church weekly, consider adding at least one service per week. Most parishes are doing Vespers and/or Matins at least once a week (usually Saturday night or Sunday morning). What are you normally doing when those services are going on? Your priest and other parishioners are there praying, including praying for you. Why don’t you join them? You won’t regret it.

And while we’re at it…

2. Come to church on time.

It’s kind of an in-joke that Orthodox people are always late to church. But why is that?

We too often accept the excuse that we function on “Greek time” or “Syrian time,” etc., but even Greeks and Syrians (and whoever else; insert your preferred culture here) seem to be able to adapt to show up to nearly everything else on time. Why can we show up on time for work, sporting events, movies, doctor’s appointments, etc., but reserve our tardiness for an encounter with the King of Kings?

There are some kinds of events for which it doesn’t much matter if you come at a particular time—parties, various kinds of social gatherings, etc.—but church services aren’t one of them. There is a definite beginning and a definite ending. If you show up late, you are late. And if you leave early, you are skipping out.

What you show up on time for tells the world what you find important. It’s what you find indispensable. And when you show up late to church, it also tells your fellow parishioners that you don’t consider church very important.

And it also communicates it to your kids. And you can be assured that they will imitate you.

Come at least ten minutes early. That says you are serious. You know what also says you’re serious?

3. Tithe.

Nothing says you’re serious like giving 10% of your income to something.

Giving 10% to God sounds crazy to a lot of people, but the reality is that it’s actually totally normal for many Christians—even for generations. Orthodox people in the US aren’t used to tithing (10%) or even giving some other percentage, mainly because many of their forebears across the sea gave to their churches just by paying their taxes. That doesn’t work anywhere in the English-speaking Orthodox world. Your taxes do not go to support your church. (I know of one church where a parishioner was shocked to discover that the electric company would turn off the electricity if the church didn’t pay its bill. Who would do that to a church?)

And other parishioners inherited a system based on union dues. So many may think that giving $500 a year (less than $10/week) is a lot. But if you have a parish of 100 families and each family only gives $500 a year, then you only have an annual income of $50,000. With that, you cannot support your priest, and you certainly cannot pay for a building and its maintenance. Other people are picking up the slack for you. If they’re not, your priest may be on food stamps or welfare. I know some who are.

But if those 100 families each made the median household income for the US (about $52,000), and they all tithed, that same 100-family parish would have $520,000 to work with. If they even gave just 5%, they’d have $260,000.

Meanwhile, you are probably spending a lot more just on cable TV. Or Internet access. Or your smartphone. Or eating out. Or coffee. Or a lot of other things.

But the most important thing about pledging and tithing is not about meeting parish budgets or supporting your priest like the hardworking, educated man he is. It’s about worship. Your heart is where your treasure is (Matt. 6:21). Where’s your treasure? Follow the money, find the heart.

If you’re not up for 10% yet, then try 8%. Or 6%. Or whatever. But go on record, and get disciplined about giving. Don’t give until it hurts, but until it actually feels good.

4. Pray at home.

Even if all you do is say the “Our Father” when you wake up (saying it three times a day is the most ancient known prayer rule), you will notice a change in how you think and feel about your faith. It will become more present for you and will define you more.

Oh, and, parents? It will have a huge impact on your kids. Watching parents pray at home and (in time) joining them in that prayer is one of the biggest contributions that kids can receive toward their long-term spiritual viability.

If you don’t bring the faith home, you can forget about it mattering in the long run, either for you or your kids.

5. Sing along at church. And stand more.

The choir and chanters are there to lead you in prayer, not to entertain you or pray instead of you. Yes, it is possible to pray with them silently, but there are few things more spiritually invigorating than singing your prayers. So if you’re able, you should.

And while you’re at it, why don’t you stand up a bit more? It’s certainly easier to sing while standing. And it’s also the 2000-year-old tradition of the Orthodox Church to stand during worship. So there’s that.

Update: I’ve received several comments which include strong opinions on the issue of congregational singing. I know that it’s a subject of some debate. Obviously, this note of encouragement here is meant to be taken in terms of the caveat I originally posted at the top of this piece—check with your father-confessor and/or pastor as to what is appropriate in your community.

Because I’m not interested in hosting a debate about congregational singing, I won’t be publishing any further comments about it.

6. Memorize a psalm.

Memorizing Scripture is a great thing for many reasons, but psalms are especially powerful, because they are all prayers. Pick your favorite one to memorize. Lots of Orthodox love Psalm 50 (“Have mercy on me, O God…”). But there are plenty to choose from. Pick a short one or a long one. Just make it your own. Try praying it every day.

7. Encourage your priest.

Yes, he should be willing to do his job without getting any encouraging words. And many priests do. That wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t get so many complaints. While some priests (like me!) aren’t constantly barraged with complaints, some never can seem to escape them, even while they pour their lives out for their people. And I would actually have to say that I probably get more complaints than I do encouraging words. My brother priests mostly say the same thing.

Your priest is a human being just like you are. And while he shouldn’t live for praise, you can help him see that his hard work is appreciated by telling him so. Your job isn’t to tell him that he shouldn’t want praise—he has a father-confessor to tell him that. Your job is to love him. And saying encouraging things to him is part of that love. You don’t have to shower him with compliments. Just tell him that what he’s doing matters to you.

I have some people in my parish who say encouraging things to me. I don’t live for their kind words, but they help to keep me going, because it reminds me that what I’m doing matters.

There is nothing better for a parish’s health than an encouraged priest. If he feels like what he’s doing matters, he will love doing it. And he will also strive to get better at it, too. So even if you do feel like he needs to improve, the best way to help him do that is to inspire him, not to complain at him.

8. Invite someone to church.

Did you know that 82% of the unchurched say that they would come if invited? Did you know that only 2% of church members invite someone to church in a given year? (source)

If your parish is dying (and many Orthodox parishes in the US, especially in the Northeast, are indeed dying), don’t you think it’s time you invited someone to church? If your parish is healthy, don’t you think it’s time it gave birth to another healthy one?

Do you really believe that you’ve found the true faith, seen the true light and received the heavenly Spirit, like you sing near the end of the Liturgy?

Then why are you keeping it to yourself? Think of at least one person you know who isn’t in church. Make him or her a spiritual priority this year. Pray every day for that person. And when the time is right, give the invitation. Statistically speaking, they are probably going to say yes.

And when you make the invitation, don’t say, “You should come to church with me sometime.” “Sometime” is no time. Say, “We’re celebrating the Divine Liturgy this Sunday at 9am at my church. Can I pick you up and bring you with me?”

9. Visit a monastery.

You won’t believe how amazing monastic visits are until you go on one. There are few things that underline for us how much is really possible in the Christian life like visiting people who are actually making a go at being 24/7/365 Christians.

And don’t you think that people who practice prayer that much might know a thing or two about it?

Monasteries aren’t just for monks and nuns. They’re for all Christians. They are not only spiritual havens but also spiritual powerhouses. And don’t just visit once and say you did it. Develop a relationship.

And maybe if you’re really blessed, one of your kids will join a monastery and pray for you a whole lot. I hope one of mine does.

10. Read the Old Testament.

Yes, we should read the whole Bible, but the truth is that most Orthodox Christians are crypto-Marcionites—we don’t know almost anything about the Old Testament. Marcion was a 2nd century heretic who taught that the Old Testament was a book for Jews and had nothing to do with Christians. He was really wrong. The Old Testament is about the thousands of years of preparation before the coming of Jesus Christ. It is what sets the stage for His appearance. Jesus is everywhere in the Old Testament, but you have to know how to look for Him.

The Old Testament is filled with all kinds of fascinating stories, prayers, songs, poetry, etc. But most of us have almost no idea that it has much other than Adam and Eve, Noah and Jonah. And we’re probably a little fuzzy on some of those details.

But if God prepared the world for the coming of Jesus by what He did in the Old Testament, how can we think we’ll be prepared for His coming into each of our own lives without any of that same preparation?

Want a plan that will get you through the whole Bible in one year? Here’s one. There are others, too.

If you need help getting through it all (especially because it’s way bigger than the New Testament), why don’t you ask your priest to start a Bible study going over some of the Old Testament books? He’ll probably be smiling so much after he gets up off the floor in shock that he won’t know what to do with himself.

So, that makes me think of something else.

11. Attend an adult education class.

It’s actually kind of crazy how uneducated many Orthodox people are in their own faith. I sometimes hear the excuse that that stuff is just for seminarians and clergy, that it’s too intellectual, too far above the heads of the average parishioner, etc. But the very same people can give you detailed information about what the rules and records in the Super Bowl are, what their least favorite politician has done to wreck the country, and what the latest gossip is on various celebrities, all in remarkable detail. But when it comes to what will last into eternity, we are suddenly the dumbest people on the face of the earth.

Don’t sell yourself short. You are probably pretty smart about many things. Why don’t you use that same talent to get smart about your faith?

It’s also quite frankly true that most Protestants are far more educated about their Protestant faiths than Orthodox are about their own. Are we really supposed to believe that Protestants are just smarter? They’re not. But they’ve developed a culture of education. A culture of education is not a uniquely Protestant thing. It’s Orthodox, too. It’s been part of our tradition for 2000 years. It’s just that some of us have forgotten it. It’s time to bring it back.

12. Volunteer.

Do something in your parish or in your community that benefits other people without giving you any kind of material gain. And do it without expecting recognition. Your recognition will come from God in His Kingdom. You don’t need it from anyone else.

Not only will selfless volunteering help you be grateful for all that God has given to you, but it will set an example of what a Christian is for your kids and your friends, and it will also help you to be humble, something we know is necessary for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.

13. Go to confession.

There are lots of Orthodox Christians who go to confession only once a year—or maybe even never. Like people who never go to the doctor, what that means is that you think everything is perfectly fine and you need no help. Literally, it means that you do not think you need the gift of forgiveness that comes in the sacrament of absolution.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sinner. I mean, I sin every day. I have a problem. I’m a sinner. I need to confront my sins directly in confession. And I want the sacrament of absolution that goes with it.

I try to go once during each of the four fasts (though I will admit that I don’t always keep my rule very well), and I always dread going before I go, because I don’t like thinking about how I am a sinner. And then I always wonder what took me so long after I go. It’s really wonderful, actually.

Thank God for confession.

14. Read a spiritual book.

There are few things that get us into another story, another way of looking at life, like a good book. And a good spiritual book can help to retrain your mind to become like the mind of Christ. Most of us do not have the mind of Christ. We have the mind of something else. Our minds are filled with distractions, necessities and the cares of this world.

But the extended meditation on what is good and true and beautiful that can come from a good spiritual book can help to change all that. And you know what? That change helps to bring us peace. And that’s something that each of us needs a whole lot more of.


Okay, so those are some of my ideas for ways to change positively in the new year.

What are yours?

28 comments:

    1. I am a member of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Portland Oregon:
      We had a talented Protopsltis John Michael Boyer who did wonders for the Church, he brought people to sing together and how great things were until he was fired from his position, that was a huge loss to our Church and community as whole!!

  1. Strive for inner stillness. I want to spend at least a few minutes every day doing nothing but sitting with my eyes closed, breathing deeply, and saying the Jesus Prayer.

  2. Dear Father,
    Thank you for this,and all you do!
    I am Orthodox and traveling the world. Your podcasts on AFR have been a great help to me as I walk in various countries where I can not attend church. I am inspired and chastised in equal measure.
    One thing I do is to donate small amounts to charities right when I see their appeals.
    As for priests, this is a good saying” don’t play for a better priest; pray to make your priest better!”

  3. Regarding #5, I’ve known several people who have been ordered *not* to sing along audibly — at at least three different parishes, in different jurisdictions, so it’s not a localized problem. The examples I know the best are even pretty good singers; they just couldn’t or didn’t want to join the choir.

  4. As someone else noted in #5, it’s not us. A lot of priests seem to think that the choir isn’t there to lead us, but to sing instead of the rest of us. Congregational singing is the number one thing I miss from my Churches-of-Christ days.

    Still, even without that, there’s plenty else here for me to work on…

      1. Christ is born! Glorify Him!

        One thing that one can certainly appreciate about the Coptic Orthodox Church is that everyone is encouraged to sing and a large number of people do, in fact, join in the chanting. It may not always be polished, but it is certainly glorious to hear an entire congregation (or most of it) chanting.

        In Christ,
        Fr. Pimen Shenoda

        p.s. Thank you for this marvelous list, father! I have shared it with my congregation.

  5. As a chanter, I am very apprehensive about people chanting along with me or other chanters during services, be they Orthros, Vespers, a special service or even Divine Liturgy. Why?. They don’t know the modal system. Byzantine music is complex and its scales and ethos are foreign to most people. Those that try to sing along don’t have the first clue as to how to chant. Even if I were to help them, they would refuse because they insist that they are correct when they don’t have clue one. Those that try to give an ison are the worst because they usually give the wrong one and that throws off the melody. When you point that out, they respond that they are harmonizing which again shows their ignorance since the ison is not a harmonic note. It is, as my teacher taught me, the floor upon which the melody dances. It may have a harmonic quality to it, but it is meant to keep the melos grounded in the correct mode. I can’t tell you how many times I have asked people to not give me an ison for mode 4 (which, generally, is vou). They generally give me Ni which is for plagal mode 4. THey don’t understand or want to understand. I know I come off as rather snobbish (but I don’t care; I’m still right), but the solution is not to dumb down Byzantine chant nor to make it more palatable to western ears by getting rid of the chromaticisms and replacing the intervals between the respective notes with something more western sounding. I’m all for people learning Byzantine chant, but I have no patience with those who think they know what they are doing when they clearly don’t. If you want sing-songey music, Byzantine is not the way to go.

    1. Okay, I’m going to approve this one comment about this just as an illustration of some of the pitfalls that are possible when it comes to the question of who is singing. I don’t want this piece to turn into a forum for the perennial debate on this issue.

      I’m actually quite aware of everything you mention, and I am of the opinion that there is a happy (well, maybe not happy, but at least contented) medium available. I am most certainly not one of those who ideologically insists that absolutely everything must be sung by everyone, which would be impossible, anyway. But I am a big believer in congregational singing, where possible and appropriate.

      As always, adjust as needed. And please keep things charitable. I encourage having patience with everyone, even if they are invincibly ignorant. They’re still God’s children.

    2. Number 5: My heart & spirit long to join in with the chanters but am woefully incapable. (I tried humming a few times, but that was a mistake. ) So I learned to compromise:
      Silently, no voice at all, I use my mouth and throat to engage the words, giving me a far greater spiritual engagement than hearing alone brings me.
      Chris, the chanter above has my admiration as does our own extraordinarily fine choir director, who has my joyful, heartfelt gratitude.
      The only exception I make is when most of the congregation is singing the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, I break my silence and join in softly.
      It was the music, the chanting which drew me into Orthodoxy from my first visit to Divine Liturgy some years ago. I needed –and still need music, words, scripture.
      There’s an old saying, “He who sings, prays twice.” I need music, but am limited.
      God have mercy on me, the sinner.

  6. Thank you Father. All the things you mentioned are very important but I feel the most important one should be to be kind, compassionate and caring and to reach out and help those less fortunate than us. That is the true essence of being a Christian and Christ like.

  7. Numbers 3 (tithing) and 8 (inviting someone to church) in particular resonated with me. I once saw a stat that claimed Protestants give on average 7-8% of their disposable income to their churches, whereas Orthodox and RC give on average 2-3%. Folks sometimes don’t realize there’s more to pay each month than utilities and the priest’s salary. I don’t know about Orthodoxy since I’m still a newbie inquirer, but in the RC church each parish pays about 6% of their offertory to the diocese in what’s called an assessment (the $ that keeps the diocesan motor running). That’s a sizable chunk of cash. As for #8, what seems to be a deep-seated reluctance to invite someone to church is probably shared by both Orthodoxy and RC. It’s not triumphalism; perhaps it’s the lingering legacy of what used to be the assumed ‘foreigness’ of Orthodoxy and Catholicism in the first century or so of this country’s existence. We just don’t seem willing to proselytize on virtually any level. In any case here’s wishing everyone a blessed Advent and Christmas season!

  8. Thank you, father, for sharing this truly worthy New Year Resolutions!
    For me, personally, there so much to reflect upon every point you raised!
    Wish you all the joy & blessings of the Advent season!

    – Sanjoy Paul, Iowa City

  9. Thank you Fr. Andrew for this list. I know I fall short of most of these areas or simply have never attempted to do them. But you also suggestion some some very tangible ways to go about improving in our faith. I will be printing this list out!

  10. I love singing (worshipping) in congregational chanting, singing, praising God, as we lift up our hearts.
    All Saints Orthodox Church
    Raleigh, NC

  11. For years, I oh-so-pompously made a point of NOT making New Year’s resolutions and telling everyone so lol but this year I am inspired to make some resolutions and these are good places to start. Thank you.

  12. I would have placed Go To Confessiom second after Go To Church, not in 14th place….otherwise an excellent reminder list.

  13. I was dreading reading this, I mean, 14 resolutions, I have a hard enough time with one. But it was very encouraging. Maybe because I’m already doing several, so kicking it up a notch won’t be so hard. Thanks for this reminder!

  14. Thank you Father for this blessing. I am a Coptic Orthodox junior youth servant.
    Our Parish is small & has limited resources. I wanted to talk about renewal for our New year Period as a resolution.

    Your article inspired me as I need to add many of the point to my own list. It has given me many points to talk to the junior youth over a two week period. I pray they take it on.

    Many thanks & God Bless
    Please pray for me
    Michael

  15. Thank you Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick . All of these practices have come to us from the pulpit over the years but by assembling them together, you have presented us with a stunning reminder of what is required to live as an authentic, committed and effectual Orthodox Christian.

    May God Bless us we struggle to fight against our worldly priorities and misguided excuses.

    Thank you,
    michael

  16. Thank you for this worthy list! I needed a kick in the buttocks! As for the singing….it’s part of the experience! I can’t keep my mouth shut in or out of the choir!

  17. Dear Fr Andrew,
    Christ is Born! Glorify Him
    By chance, I stumbled on this page. Picture of Church of the Holy Sepulchre what made me stop and read your list of suggestions for next year. God is willing, in June I’ll be in the Holy Land!! After reading them, I sent you a comment, without knowing anything about all that you’ve been doing. This morning I started my day listening to your Christmas Sermons. I loved them so much that I listened to one three times and shared your sermons with several friends. God bless you, your family and all that you do☦Faithful Tita

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