[This is the first in a series exploring worship, especially the Divine Liturgy. The posts are designed to increase understanding and, yes, joy in the experience of Orthodox worship. The series is likely to be sporadic and much-interrupted with other topics, because the ecclesiastical calendar waits for no blogger. — LH]
Sunday morning in an Orthodox parish can be a confusing experience of culture shock for newcomers. Even those who have done a bit of homework in theology and history can feel disoriented.
My husband and I experienced this confusion for several years. We found plenty of materials about Orthodoxy, which means “right belief”—the teachings of the ancient Church. But we couldn’t find any resources to help us with Orthopraxy—the right conduct and behavior—or the cultural adjustments of approaching the Faith from a casual Protestant background.
If you’re struggling in the same space, drawn by the beauty of the worship but also a bit put off by the strangeness, this post is for you. In this “Liturgy Survival Guide” series we will explore honestly some roadblocks that inquirers encounter in Orthodox services, especially on Sunday mornings.
Over the years I’ve observed four common difficulties in the journey:
1. Confusion about What’s Happening
The first time newcomers stand in the nave (where the people gather, often called the “sanctuary” in the West), they may be distracted by all the commotion before the Liturgy begins. People come and go, setting candles on the solea (the area between the nave and altar—it looks like a stage) even after the service has started. Some of them walk forward—right in front of the congregation—to kiss an icon on a stand even though the choir has already started singing. (People do this because they’re running late—no deep theological explanations here. But hey, better late than never.)
And the motion isn’t limited to one person, like the pastor prowling the stage. Priests, deacons, and acolytes trot in and out of the altar area. Chanters stand up and sing, then they sit. The congregation stands, then they sit, then they stand again. Who gave the signal?
They kneel, respond in song, repeat prayers, bow, cross themselves, and do all kinds of things for no discernable reason. So the newbies awkwardly try to keep up until they spot an elderly woman in their line of sight and follow her lead. She seems like a pro.
It can all feel very disorganized, but it’s not. The Divine Liturgy follows a pattern, with a distinct purpose to each section of the service. It’s a mini spiritual journey in the larger spiritual journey of the Orthodox life, and like any road trip, smooth traveling requires preparation, signposts, and a few rest stops for checking the engine and refueling.
As in a cross-country trip, the liturgical landscape changes with the seasons. But even with the variations, the route is predictable, filled with familiar landmarks and beautiful scenery. Once we understand that route, we know where we’re going, and we know how the journey ends and how long it will take.
But anyone who is new to this road may feel like the child in the backseat who calls out, “Are we there yet, Daddy? How much longer?”
Later in this occasional series we will map out the various sections of the liturgy. When we understand the rhythm of the worship and the deep intentionality of the Church, we can see the route with spiritual eyes, and the road becomes much easier to travel.
Until that happens—and let’s be honest, familiarity comes only through repetition and attention—the struggle may continue with another common problem:
2. The Disconnect between Internet Orthodoxy and Parish Experience.
I personally know people who came to the Orthodox Faith through their readings at conservative Evangelical Bible schools and even Pentecostal seminaries. Other inquirers, unsatisfied with their religious experiences, hunger for a depth and richness that they can’t find in their casual or legalistic Protestant churches. They discover Orthodoxy through a friend or a book about Eastern Christianity.
And so the search begins. As seekers we find online articles, order recommended books, and listen to podcasts. Intellectually fortified, we think we’re ready, so we locate the nearest Orthodox parish on Google Maps. We enter the narthex, pausing to let our eyes adjust to the dim light, walk past the candle stand, waver uncertainly in front of an icon, then enter the nave.
The space is beautiful—no plain walls here! But the service is so long. Wait, didn’t we just pray that prayer a little while ago? Where’s the freedom in worship? Where’s the band? Everything seems so scripted.
It turns out that simply learning about Orthodoxy was the easy part.
I remember reading theology as I sat in bed, propped up by pillows and thinking deeply spiritual thoughts. While walking and sweating on a treadmill, I listened to podcasts that answered my questions about scary things like confession, the saints, and the Virgin Mary. I ate lunch at my kitchen table with an introductory book next to my plate, awestruck by the vision of God in the ancient Christian Faith—the One who always loves us and respects our free will, neither damning us nor forcing us into His presence if we choose to walk away. I was inspired, challenged, even moved to tears.
And I acquired all of that knowledge, increased understanding, and contemplation at stoplights on my time, according to my schedule, and at my convenience.
No wonder “internet Orthodoxy” is so appealing! We can read the Fathers in our pajamas, pick and choose what we agree with according to our own biases, and feel very spiritual and—dare I say it—spiritually superior to others while we trot to the refrigerator for snacks or a cold beer. We don’t have to submit to authority or extend grace to others in community, and we certainly don’t have to repent. We can cultivate a carefully curated, intellectual “faith” on our own terms.
But when we worship as part of a local parish, the Orthodox Church does not cater to our personal preferences. She asks us to surrender—to stand with others (and sit, kneel, bow, cross ourselves, etc., etc.), to fast in community, to recite prayers with strangers according to the wisdom of the past, and to follow the liturgy. The songs are not hummable pop with a good beat, and I am not invited to raise my hands, sing my own harmonies, or draw attention to myself.
The disconnect is sobering, and especially for those of us from an Evangelical background, it’s often related to the next problem:
3. Spiritual Palate Training
Journeying into Orthodoxy reminds me of the task of training small children to eat wholesome foods. In many parts of the world, kids enthusiastically eat a variety of healthy, flavorful dishes. In Vietnam, the Nguyen toddlers slurp bone broths and soups flavored with fish sauce; in India, Ananya’s mother introduces her to coriander, turmeric, and ginger when she is six months old. In France, three-year-old Jean-Luc eats spinach, blue cheese, and roast duck breast for lunch.
But in America, little Johnny’s mommy struggles because he will only eat applesauce, chicken nuggets, or cut-up frankfurters. Why?
It’s a question of palate training. In other parts of the world, children are introduced to the herbs and spices and ingredients that adults eat. But in America, baby foods do not include rosemary, cumin, or other interesting flavors. Bland, textureless foods affect Johnny’s ability to appreciate any culinary adventure.
The same issue applies to the experience of worship. Let’s be honest: for both children and adults who have been spiritually weaned on church services that consist of pop music with feelings-oriented lyrics, clapping along with the beat, and a lecture about the Christian faith with a “practical” emphasis, the transition to liturgical worship is weird. It feels stiff, formal, and overly serious. It’s boring.
Yet this isn’t true for all newcomers. Some people, spiritually speaking, are tired of hot dogs and long for more nutrition and depth of flavor. Their first encounter with timeless worship captivates them with its beauty and holiness. That was my experience, even though I struggled with the length and repetition in the services.
But for others, like my husband, the liturgy is alienating, marked by sensory overload and rigidity. But regardless of first impressions, continued Sunday morning attendance often involves struggle. And our negative reactions may indicate not just a lack of familiarity but something much more personal:
4. The Need for Soul Healing
The Divine Liturgy and other services of the Orthodox Church force me to confront issues in my own heart that need healing: my impatience, my laziness, my emotionalism, my self-centeredness, and my inattentiveness. It’s painful.
It’s easy to blame the Church for my frustrations, and it’s tempting to dismiss the unfamiliar in worship as unspiritual. We can reject the solemnity as “quenching the Spirit” rather than an expression of reverence for a great and awesome God; we can dismiss the candles, incense, and other aspects of liturgical worship as “smells and bells.” They aren’t as cool as smoke machines and professional lighting systems on a stage. The length of the service—around an hour and a half—is necessary to prepare our hearts for worship, for the ministry of the Word, and for reception of the Eucharist, but it’s inconvenient and cuts into our Sunday free time.
I had—and still have—genuine questions, but in moments of honesty I have discovered that a lot of my struggles start with me. As mentioned above, my spiritual palate had become accustomed to entertainment and emotional expression, not to humility and repentance.
I do not mean to dismiss the hard work of committed Christian worship leaders and pastors of Protestant denominations. I would be lost without the love and faithful prayers of so many Protestant friends over the course of my life. I am merely admitting a hard truth: little was required of me in many of my church experiences, and some of what passed for “worship” at the conferences and gatherings I attended was really mostly self-expression and sentimentality.
Do any of these struggles hit home with you? If so, then read on. As this series progresses in fits and starts—Lent is coming soon, with much to ponder—we will look at the liturgical roadmap, with a bird’s-eye view of our traveling companions and the parts of the Liturgy, their purpose, and where they lead us on the journey.
I hope you’ll travel with me.