I find myself recently pondering the perception of success and progress within the Orthodox Church. What do we, priests and future priests, consider as a successful church? What is progress in regards to the faithful? In short, what is our goal?
Now, I know that this sounds like a very simple and even somewhat base question. However, observing our parishes and hearing many priests of today speak, it seems to me that the overall goal has been lost in a sea of cares and worries about other, more apparently important things. When a priest is asked why he is a priest, he usually gives the customary answer; to spread the Gospel. However, of we are to look more closely at their, and our, allocation of time and resources, one would perhaps find that there is much more time spent on all those things which seem necessary to preach the Gospel, but not the actual preaching itself.
For example, such things are fundraising for the new church, new books for the choir, luncheons and gala dinners and festivals to raise funds for different purposes. The building of community centres, the organization of golf tournaments, etc etc etc etc. And if we have time, we'll throw in a catechism class once a year.
While youth attendance, chritable works, and general adult religious education and understanding is at an all time low, we seem to think that we are progressing quite well. This is because most Greek churches are full on Sundays and for most of us, numbers equal success. If the church is full, then we are getting maximum return on our spiritual investment. If the churches are full, it means that more people are listening to the Word of God and applying it. Isn't that right?
I think not.
I think that most of our churches are full because Greeks keep getting married, have babies, and and hence re-populate the local GreekTown. They need a place to socialize and pay their cultural dues, and the church is happy to provide such a place. I have trouble believing that all these people show up to church right before Communion because they truly understand their worship service and find fulfillment in it. I actually refuse to believe that these people are actually hearing the Gospel. If they were hearing it, then I am convinced that our numbers would significantly drop. This is because Jesus' message is not an easy one to hear, or to put into practice. And if our masses truly understood what was expected of them, I think that most of us, including myself, would turn and run.
Is this not the reason why we, as leaders of the church, often sugar-coat most issues? I mean, lets face it, we rarely hear any fire and brimstone from the pulpit these days, as in the days of St. John Chrysostom. It's not in style to preach social responsability. It's not in style to say things that are divine and yet are not politically correct. We are not allowed to offend our modern sensabilities or to rub people the wrong way, because they will not come back next week.
In essence, when it comes to the truth of the Gospel, we are like parents who spoil their children rotten because they do not have the back bone to sometimes be hated by their children for their own good. The difficult issues in people's lives are always hard to address because no one wants to hear that they are wrong. But we keep coddling and sheltering people from the harsh reality of life, sin, and the price of salvation, using the guise of Love as the shield behind which we shirk our parental responsabilities to our spiritual children. We always like to use the excuse that we are sinners as well and so we, as priests, have no right to preach too harshly to the people because we will bring more people in with honey than with vinegar.
But who says that more is necessarily better. It is true that we are called to preach the Gospel to all nations, but didin't Christ also say that "many are called but few are chosen? "And again "Narrow is the gate that leads to salvation?" Who says that we should always be looking for the the bigger better deal. If we build ten new churches does this mean that they will be full in twenty years? I see that that we prefer to have the churches built because we assume that the people will always be there. This is is our mistake as Orthodox leaders in the faith. Especially among the Greeks, where evangelical outreach has not been a necessity until now. We have been soo spoiled by the natural perpetuation of Orthodox numbers due to culture, that we have forgotten our true mission to spread the word. We have become so lax and so conformed to the system, this Burger King parish mentality, that we have even begun to neglect teaching those who are already Baptized.
We have priests treating their ministry as a 9-5 job where they put in only the bare minimum and no more. Services are tailored and cut to become more convenient and easier. Heck, the service of Priestly preparation (Kairo) is all but gone because no one believes that they should be at church at least half an hour before a service to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually. Few go out of their way to offer more than what is barely required of them and even less are truly dynamic and innovating in the way in which they convey the message of God. Priests do not even correct their liturgical mistakes, and in many cases, do not even take time to write their own sermons, usually opting to get them off the net or from a book. As long as they have time for the parish council meeting and the Local Golf tournament, the Sunday preaching can go on the back burner.
A teacher of mine once said that a priest must enter a church with a definite vision of where he wants to go with his congregation and then spend time getting his people as close to that ideal as possible. However, there must be that initial goal, vision, ideal, if anyone expects to grow with his community.
Taking that into consideration, I think it's time to re-examine our initial vision as leaders and future leaders of the church. Is it possible that we have begun to preach the creation and not the creator?