We Need to Serve the Spiritual Seeker in Our Midst

This morning I served at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh.

Attendance was probably twice what it was the week before. This was due to the fact that the church school program started this morning as well as a memorial service and breakfast after Liturgy for a member of the Cathedral parish who died last month.

After Liturgy I spoke with a couple who have left the Orthodox Church for an evangelical church. While I disagree with their decision, I do understand it. The sad fact of the matter is that Orthodox parish, especially those with a strong or dominate ethnic identity, tend not to preach the need for repentance and a vibrant spiritual life. Or if they preach this they are usually ineffectual in actual guiding people in the process. The reason this is so is that we naively assume that formation simply happens apart from any decision on the part of the individual Christian or the community.

This lack of effective spiritual guidance means that people tend to be rather mediocre in their commitment to Christ and His Church. The sad irony in all of this is that while priests and bishops and seminary faculty have all complained to me about the results of our lack of any intentional spiritual formation of the laity (and this includes our neglect of spiritual formation for seminarians), no one seems willing to actually take up the task of preaching repentance and implementing a program of spiritual formation.

We are often very anxious not to offend, or drive people away. While I understand this concern, the question needs to be asked how attached are the people really to Christ and His Church who we are afraid of driving away?

Absent repentance and spiritual formation how deep is the person connection to Christ and the Church?

And, absent our willingness to preach repentance and offer intentional spiritual formation, what does this say about us that people leave the Orthodox Church for other Christian traditions (typically Evangelical Christian communities)?

Who exactly are we afraid of offending or driving away? The lukewarm or those who desire for a deep relationship with Christ? This desire is so strong, their need for a relationship with a community of faith, with at least some sort of church, that they vote with their feet and walk across the road to the local megachurch.

So the question is really this: Why is it that we are willing to keep the lukewarm Christian at the expense of the baptized spiritual seeker in our midst?

The couple I spoke with after Liturgy had a list of reasons why they have joined a Bible church. I had to agree with their negative reasons–the reasons why they left Orthodoxy are simply true–or at least true enough for government work as my grandparents used to say.

But even their positive reasons attending a Bible church–to learn the Word of God, to develop a relationship with Christ, and to grow spiritually I also agreed with, even if I doubt they’ll find what they want in a Bible church. In any event, what they are looking for, and didn’t find in the Orthodox Church, all reflect rather poorly on their experiences as Orthodox Christians (and it is worth noting that they were both baptized and raised in the Orthodox Church, but in different ethnic traditions. The problem that they brought to my attention is not limited to one ethnic tradition or another.)

Thinking about their experiences, I wonder if it isn’t the case that the Orthodox Church planted in them a spiritual hunger that we then never feed? In effect, we pointed them down a road, but then said, that they (we, and more to the point, I) didn’t need to actually travel down.

In conversation after conversation, in sermon after sermon, in Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian, Ukrainian and Carpatho-Russian parishes, from cradle Orthodox and converts, I have gotten a positive, even zealous, response to the possibility of new Life that comes to us through repentance and the sacraments.

But somehow, and again and again this has been my experience, at just the last moment, people falter. They see the prize, reach for it and then lose their desire and turn away.

And I’ve seen this as well not only with lay people, but also clergy and bishops. We know what we need to do, but we are afraid. And mostly what we are afraid of losing our relationship with those who will not follow Christ with us.

The time has come for God to renew the Orthodox Church. We’ve made little steps forward here and there, but these are not sufficient. We are still too attached to our wealth, our glorious history (as if any of us had anything to do with Byzantium or the “Third Rome”), our different ethnic customs, and above all our “True Churchiness.”

Ain’t none of this going to give us the “good defense before the fearsome Judgment Seat of Christ” that we pray for at every Liturgy. In fact, if we do not repent, if we do not value a deeper life in Christ more than our relationship with lukewarm Christian in our midsts, then all of these things–these real blessings from God that we have come to value more than God Hmself–will stand in judgment of us at the end of our life.

There are in every Orthodox parish lukewarm Christians who are dead set to remain lukewarm (It is odd if you think about it. The only way to stay lukewarm is to decide to be lukewarm. This is the only way I can imagine standing in the Divine Liturgy and NOT responding to Christ’s call to repentance.) Our willingness to cater, and yes it is a catering, to the lukewarm is costing us presence and the gifts of the baptized spiritual seeker in our midst.

We must as a Church turn our attention to these people. It will in the short run cost us members, money and even some of the “grace proof” comfort we have come to enjoy. But if we do not change our ways we will lose our salvation–our inaction we leave us with no acceptable answers before the judgment seat of Christ.

And that my friends is scary biscuits indeed as one of my spiritual children would put it.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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12 Responses to “We Need to Serve the Spiritual Seeker in Our Midst”

  1. Chrys Says:

    Amen! Amen! Amen!

    One question that may be on many readers’ minds which I can not shake:
    How can I help?

  2. Maximus Daniel Says:

    Interesting post Fr.
    My experience so far in Orthodoxy (which is a little over a year) is far more evangelicals/protestants/catholics becoming Orthodox and not the other way around… but I am also young and inexperienced…

    let us pray for God’s renewal!

  3. s-p Says:

    Amen. Maximus…Orthodoxy is a deep well but you can lead a horse to water etc. We convert because the possibility for a deeper life is here, not necessarily because we SEE people who ARE living that life in general. The stories of the saints are the vision.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Would you like to preach this on this Sunday? You might even get some verbal “Amens” from some of us.

    Magdalena

  5. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments.

    In order:

    Chrys: My first thought is to suggest you move out west where new communities are starting up (I hear AZ is nice). But seriously, let me think about what you can do to help. What does us in in many parts of the Church in the US is that we are rather attached to the money and prestige we have accrued through compromise.

    Maximus: I how how things appear to you as they do. The reservation I have with your comment is that we don’t really track what happens to people after baptism. Most of the Orthodox jurisdictions are really significantly smaller then the official number that they publish. In addition, many converts will leave the Church after a 3-5 year stay. I have no hard date re: the OC, but among Roman Catholics the number of convert defections is upwards of 75%. So even assuming a good formation for those entering the Church (itself a dubious assumption by the way), the spiritual atmosphere in the average parish is not necessarily conducive to a life long commitment for many new Orthodox Christians.

    s-p: Dude! you are right on target with all you say. But, like I said to Maximus, we should not underestimate the corrosive atmosphere of a parish that is centered around serving the complacent OC. I have seen people I catechized, confessed and received slowly slip away because of my willingness to caterer (and that’s what it is, let there be no questions in anyone’s mind, least of all mind) to the complacent OC in their midst.

    Anonymous: Email me privately please or give me a call in the next day or so. See what we can work out.

  6. Christopher Orr Says:

    What do think the relationship o fluke-warmness is to American Orthodoxy’s easy use of economia? I an tell you that I was in no way actually grabbed by Orthodox parishes that seemed to cater to americanizers – and this can be tagged on ‘ethnic’ parishes who are arbitrariily attached to their pews and organs alongside of pierogies, gyros and incomprehensible (even to them) liturgical languages. I think part of the attraction to Fr. Seraphim Rose is in the fact that he was loving, but uncompromising and maximalist. While we regularly claim that Orthodoxy is a ‘maximalist’ faith, once in Orthodoxy it is easy to see how minimal we (hierarchs, clergy and laity) allow it to be to the point of not only not striving or reaching a high bar but purposefully lowering the bar so everyone can reach it. A similar psychology seems to be behind the attraction to Elder Ephraim’s monasteries. People are attracted because they all so obviously believe what they teach and are willing to strive after that faith. Overuse of economia easily turns into compromise and laziness rather than love, understanding and patience.

  7. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:

    Hey Christopher,

    You make a very good point about the attraction that many have to Fr Seraphim & the monastery’s of Elder Ephrem. I think there is a great, unmet & often unacknowledged, hunger for a deep spiritual life among many Orthodox Christians. I thank God for those who desire a more intimate relationship w/the Most Holy Trinity and who have the moxie to go where they can find the guidance such a relationship requires.

    At the same time, the absence of this guidance in the parish, our preference for complacent Christianity, causes many to confuse the parish and the monastery. This in its own way I think can be just as injurious to our spiritual health as the parish catering to the complacent Christian.

    While they do exist, in the main we lack solid, intentional Orthodox Christian parishes committed to the spiritual formation of the laity. Certain monastic life has a role to play in the life of such parishes, but too frequently lay people abandon the parish for the monastery. God knows I am sympathetic to those who try to monastery, but that ain’t the answer.

    Your point about economia and luke-warmness is a good one. Putting on my social scientist cap for a moment, I would say that the relationship is not so much causal but correlative. In effect, the more we our standards are lukewarm, we will be crazy in our desire for economia for, gosh, EVERYTHING. Likewise, the more we practice economia (and gosh, is the a second marriage we don’t bless?) the more we withhold from people a standard of obtainable spiritual excellence (if I may use such an image).

    Bottom line I think is this: We have very limited resources as a Church–where, and in whom, will we make our investment? A parish can’t meet the pastoral expectations of the indifferent Christian AND the baptized seeker. In my experience, and you reference this, we can integrate convert and ethnic Orthodox Christians into one parish, but only if they share the same fundamental approach to the faith; cradle & convert complacent Christians will “work,” but cradle & convert seekers is really where the ministry of the Church needs to be directed.

    Does that last bit make sense?

    Again, thanks for the comment

  8. Christopher Orr Says:

    cradle & convert complacent Christians will “work,”…

    I agree. Makes perfect sense. That is probably why complacent cradle parishes whose sole converts are those who ‘married in’ thus becoming complacent converts work.

    However, most converts that do not simply marry is are, by definition, seekers. Also, it seems that most cradle seekers are seekers specifically into their ethnic tradition of Orthodoxy and its personal and communal preservation in the UE, not to a missionary Orthodoxy seeking to bring Orthodoxy to those not of their Orthodox ethnic group. So, there seems to be some alignment required even on the seeker side of things.

  9. Chrys Says:

    As a convert, I can only concur with what has been said here. It is absolutely true that most of us are here because of the vision transformation provided to us by the saints. Most of us were fairly well grounded in Scripture and SOME form of theology before we began the process. Most often, we were disenchanted by our churches inability to help us enter into and realize the promises of Christ which we and they so firmly believed in. So we came with some fairly well developed (if eccentric) skill sets. We learned how to study on our own and we sought out any who could give us answers. As much as we depended upon those we found, most of us, I would surmise, were proactive in some manner. (I know my various churches reinforced that approach – perhaps to a fault.)
    What you are addressing, it seems to me, is the growing hunger that lies within the hearts of those who do NOT have such a grounding or proactive approach. The resources within reach belie the incredible treasures just beyond that reach. They have been betrayed (not too strong a word) by the collusion of leadership and parish – both trying to find some accommodation that can manage the range of demands of existing parishioners.
    From a business perspective, while this is very understandable it is a terribly unprofitable model. The profitable model (if you will excuse the crass analogy) is to focus and invest your energies on the typically 20% of the parish that is “high profit” – that is, will take up and pursue the calling of their faith. While I appreciate the prophetic purpose of the parable of the Sower, the prudent farmer would do well to cast seed on fertile ground and tend those plants. (A number of parables do speak clearly about the need to profitably “steward” one’s talents and efforts.) That does not mean neglecting the others; it means focusing limited resources on meaningful, profitable opportunities. Ruthless as it sounds, he failure to do this has dire consequences in business. I wouldn’t think life is that much different in the Church.
    Along the same lines, one of the key tasks of client service is to “manage expectations” – directing the client to understand what is required, what is reasonable, what is normal, etc. It seems to me that if the leadership is unable to do this clearly in their parishes, it MAY be because they do not know what the expectations are themselves – or they have swapped the Gospel expectations for the social ones arising from their own experience. Of course, it may be (as you have alluded elsewhere) that they know what this must mean for themselves, and feeling inadequate to the task, they leave it untried. My business has the advantage of market benchmarks, to which every client (and every statement) holds us. In my experience, there is nothing as compelling as the benchmark of a living saint – or someone clearly on the way – to provide that stimulus to faith. No “program” is its equal. One may ask where we are to get such people – but that is a curious thing for the Church. The Church is comprised of Saints. If we do not see some in some form, perhaps we are not as much a part of the Church as we think we are. (Jesus seemed to say as much to the Pharisees who claimed kinship with the Prophets.) As much as I hate to quote a movie (butchering Ghandi), the answer may always come back to BEING the miracle you seek.

  10. Fr. Gregory Jensen Says:

    WOW! This turned out to be a popular thread!

    Christopher, I agree with much of what you say. But I think you might be a bit over hard on the ethnic seekers. Some certainly are not mission minded, but many are mission minded. What happens though is our preference for complacency discourages these folks from stepping up to the plate.

    Likewise, I have met a fair number of converts who came to Orthodoxy not so much seeking the truth, but fleeing their own past. Some of those who did come looking for the truth we not so much interested in truth as acquiring bigger stick–they want to be the one who always wins the argument. In their own, rather fiery way to be sure, these folks are just as complacent as any “Big G” Greek for whom it is MY WAY (the Greek way and in every detail) or the HIGHWAY.

    The psychology of the spiritual life is fascinating–maybe this should be the book I ought to write. But in any event, in the main you are I think right on track This is simply to say I agree w/you and–more importantly–you agree w/ me! 🙂

    Chrys, again good comment. You mentioned what can you do to help right this situation of spiritual complacency as the norm in Orthodox. Might I humbly suggest that you and Christopher get together at least online? You would make a formidable team.

    I do not find your reference to business to be vulgar or crass. Far from it really. It is a matter of using our resources wisely and returning the best profit.

    The fact is a church that caters to the complacent does an injustice not only to the seeker, but also the complacent Christian who gets left in his sin. A seeker church–a church that is actively looking to deepen the spiritual lives of its members–is able not only to be of spiritual value to the seeker, but (in so doing) raises up a cadre of prophets who can reach the complacent.

    As a priest I simply don’t have time or energy or resources to light a fire under the complacent. But give me 10 committed Orthodox Christians who can each effective call to repentance even just 1 complacent Christian–well then the parish has something: 20 committed Christians who want to deepen their spiritual lives and who are then able to reach 20 more–giving the community now 40 and so on.

    Imagine it, a cadre of lay witnesses who call their Orthodox brothers and sisters to a deeper relationship with the Holy Trinity and Christ’s Body the Church. Is it so unrealistic to think that this group–however small–could double in size every year by effectively re-energize the complacent among us?

    Chrys, Christopher, please email each other. What I know about both of you leads me to believe you have the abilities, the charisms, from Christ to do this work.

    In Christ,

    +FrG

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I’d like to email you, Father, but I cannot find an email address here on your site. However, I still hope to hear this on Sunday morning in your sermon.

    Magdalena of Holy Assumption

  12. handmaidmary-leah Says:

    Yes, very interesting thread you have going here Father…

    A couple of thoughts if I may, as to “convert” and “cradle”, these are terms that are popular and distinguishing, however, everyone converted at one point in their lives; whether it was in their God-parents arms or on their own two feet. We are all converts, non of us are born that way, the term “cradle” gives that impression. Those raised in the raised in the faith have nothing up on those who are a little newer to it. Either one is an Orthodox Christian or one is not, it is that simple.
    Is this semanitics? I don’t thinks so, some may argue the point, I just think it is one line of division that can be erased easily.

    AS to the “lukewarm”, God bless them for coming and trying, for whatever reason, God knows and it isn’t for me to judge. You Father would know them better than I do.

    Our priest, Fr. Anthony, has a difficult time with our parish members, he cannot get them to slow down and just live their faith. Holy Orthodoxy is this marathon of the life “lived” in Christ. Not a sprint, one might say, but the long hard slog at the end of the ten mile or even four lap run (if one is out of shape). There is something about the Kingdom and the violent taking it by force? I think I have heard that once or twice…

    It is so difficult to slow down, let God work in our lives when as an American of Protestant descent I want to get my “blessed assurance” right now, and not have to put myself out too much to have it. Soemtimes I can only do so much, I can just get myself to Church, maybe just make myself pray only once in a day to get that connection, but I am trying, it is barely an ember, this Orthodox life of mine, but it is what I can offer to God.

    This is too long as it is, please forgive me, I just wan t yo to know that, embers fan into flames, I have those days too.

    In Christ,
    the handmaid,
    Mary-Leah


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