The theme of the first All-American Sobor of our Church was “How to Expand the Mission”, and this is significant, for the fathers of that Sobor identified their Church as “the Mission”. Our church in North America is thus a missionary church, with the missionary impulse written into our ecclesiastical DNA. Those setting the theme of that first Sobor knew this. We forget this today at our peril. We sometimes act as if our survival in this country is a “given”, and that because Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church, Orthodoxy in North America is somehow immune to decline or eventual obliteration. It is not so. When the church in Ephesus proved unfaithful and disobedient to Christ, He threatened that He would “remove their lampstand from its place” unless they repented (Rev. 2:5). It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Orthodox Church in North America could suffer a similar fate if it embarked and continued on a similar track did as the Church in Ephesus. After all, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)—both in faithfulness and in judgment. So, the question remains now as it did for our forefathers at the first All-American Sobor: How can we expand our mission in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ? I suggest that a list of faithful duties should include four things.
First, we must preach Christ. This may seem too obvious to need stating, as some may ask, “What else would we preach?” Actually, sometimes we preach ourselves. Of course we call it “Orthodoxy” and not “ourselves”, but it is really ourselves that we are preaching. That is, we all to often give the impression that our message is about becoming Orthodox, and joining the true Church. We talk about the glory of our icons, the beauty of our Liturgy, the long pedigree of our history, the richness of our theology. The glory, the beauty, the pedigree, and the richness are all wonderful, but they do not constitute our central message to the world. Our main message is not “join us because we’re so wonderful”, but “come to Christ because He is Lord”. Obviously coming to Christ as Lord involves joining His body the Church, but joining the Orthodox Church is not the Gospel itself, but the way of responding to the Gospel. As St. Paul reminded us, the trumpet must sound a clear note to be heeded (1 Cor. 14:8), and the note our Orthodox Gospel trumpet must sound is about the necessity of living in repentant commitment to Jesus Christ. “We preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5). We must preach Christ so relentlessly that when an outsider hears the words “the Orthodox Church”, he instinctively thinks not of “icons and brocade”, but of “repentance and commitment to Jesus”.
Secondly, we must worship with an eye towards our youth. The Church must evangelize or die, since it always lives its life on the precipice of mortality. That is, we are all going to die after about seventy or eighty years of life, and if we do not convert our children and our grandchildren to the Faith during that time, then the Church will be extinct in about two or three generations. Evangelism is often thought of in terms of outsiders, but it includes us insiders as well. A quick look around at the people in the pews will reveal that not all churches have retained their children, to the point where some churches consist primarily of the elderly. That is what the oft-quoted proverb, “Children are the future of the church” means—we must convert and retain our children for the Kingdom of God, or our churches will eventually close (or, worse yet, be converted into museums). How do we keep our children in the Faith? I don’t know of any sure-fire way to guarantee that our children will remain faithful, but we can at least not make the way more difficult for them by worshipping in a language they do not understand. That is, our liturgical worship should be in a vernacular language, such as one the children speak at school and which comes to them as they watch television. That is the language in which the church should liturgize, though of course using the most elegant and stately version of that language possible.
We sometimes face the temptation to liturgize long-term in a language other than the vernacular, in order to appeal to the immigrant population of Orthodox coming to us from abroad. That will pay immediate dividends in terms of making them feel welcome, but it builds in a longer-term problem when it comes to keeping the youth. The question must be squarely faced: is the church’s survival here ultimately dependent upon evangelization or immigration? Obviously we must utilize both in some way, but a church like ours which aspires to be the indigenous Orthodox church of North America must give priority to one or the other. If we choose to give priority to the former, then we must make the vernacular the main language of our liturgical worship.
Thirdly, we must keep the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3). The perennial temptation is to alter and water down the Faith so that it conforms more closely to ever-changing canons of political correctness—or, in more Scriptural language, to let the world squeeze us into its mould (Romans 12:2 Phillips). Every generation faces its own temptations to become worldly and to conform to the moral fashions of the day. In our generation, this fashion includes acceptance of abortion and of homosexuality/ transgender as normal. Altering the Church’s traditional Faith to conform more closely to the world around us might gather popularity in the world’s eyes, but it is not the scrutiny of the World with which we are ultimately concerned, but the scrutiny of Heaven. A number of denominations in North America have already changed their belief and praxis to conform more closely to the world in the name of being relevant and inclusive, but this seems not to have resulted in the secular masses stampeding into their emptying churches and filling their inclusive pews. Rather, the faith-groups which seem to be growing are precisely the ones which demand the most from their adherents and which differentiate themselves most radically from the secular world around them. Nonetheless, our fidelity to our apostolic Tradition should not be motivated simply from a desire to avoid the numerical decline afflicting the liberal churches, but from a desire to please the Lord and be faithful to the Scriptures.
We should settle it in our minds in advance: if we remain faithful to our apostolic Tradition in our public preaching, a number of people will be very vocally upset with us. They will accuse us of being judgmental and uncompassionate, write angry letters to church websites, and denounce us in their blogs and on Facebook. But we may take comfort in something Dorothy Sayers once said (in her essay The Dogma is the Drama): “It is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.” This remains true even though some men resist being thus adapted. Proclaiming the truth always is divisive and it always upsets certain people. Bearing this with serenity is the cost of our being faithful in a dark age; it is what carrying the cross is all about.
Lastly, our church communities must become islands of welcoming love and mutual support, shining like lights in the world, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Phil. 2:15). The world is a hard and unforgiving place, and the human heart accumulates many knocks and wounds from it in very short order. Our parishes should present an alternative to the way of the world, and be seen as places where everyone may come, and repent, and find a safe home and a loving family. The Lord told us this long ago: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Too often are our parishes are simply gatherings of religious people who are really not that that much different from anyone else. We need to repent, and become communities of acceptance, radiating a love which makes us different from anything found anywhere else in the world. Religiosity is easy to resist. Resisting love is much harder.
All Christians of the traditional sort in North America will face challenging days in the coming decades, and will have to endure a kind of internal exile, increasingly banished from the cultural mainstream. That is fine, and represents a new kind of opportunity. It was difficult to do mission work and convert people to Christ in a day when most equated being a Christian with being nice. Hardly anyone makes that equation any more. The time of Christianity’s cultural ascendency and privilege in North America is over. The time for real mission work has begun.