In matters of morality and the faith that guides our morality, Orthodox Christians seem not overwhelmingly orthodox. We are instead rather more inclined to take guidance in matters of faith and morals from the more secular elements of American society. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a clear majority of Orthodox Christians favor legalized abortion and a plurality are supportive of homosexuality. While we can certainly debate the extent to which these questions were understood by the respondents, my own pastoral experience suggests that the views expressed in the survey accurately reflect the views I encounter in parishes. Sadly, I would have to include clergy among those who hold such opinions.
In the full report on religious beliefs and practices (the PDF of which you can download here) published by the Pew Charitable Trust, 95% of Orthodox Christians surveyed said that they believe in God or a universal spirit. 71% are absolutely certain in their belief, 19% are fair certain and 5% are not certain. Curiously 4% of all Orthodox Christians surveyed don’t even believe in God. Looking a bit more closely, what do we see about the God that Orthodox Christians believe in?
When asked “Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?” we discover that less than half of those who believe in God believe in a personal God (49%) while just over one third (34%) believe that God is an impersonal force. These numbers suggest that relative to both the general American population (60% of whom believe in a personal God) as well as Evangelical Christians (79%) and Catholics (60%), the a fair number of Orthodox are frankly less than orthodox.
One of the points made in the Pew Charitable Trust Survey is that it is “constant movement” that summarizes American religious experience. While Americans are a religious people, we are a promiscuous religious people. Creedal fidelity is not our strong suit. For example, among who join the Orthodox Church as adults, over 50% will eventually leave the Church.
Contrary to what we often say, the primary pastoral challenge facing the Church in American is not evangelization. It is (relatively) easy to “make converts.” The real challenge is not conversion but retention. The regular and habitual participation of the faithful in the sacramental life of the Church (especially Holy Communion and Confession) together with a willing eagerness on the part of laity and clergy to conform one’s life to Christ and the Gospel is the goal. As the number suggest, whether we are looking at the experience of “cradle” or “convert,” this is simply not happening.
And it is not simply a failure in the Orthodox Church. Other Christian communities are also failing in like manner. Whether we are looking at the experience of the Orthodox or Catholic Churches, the historic Black churches, the Evangelical Christian or Mainline Protestant denominations, all are struggling to make disciples of their own members.
That said, let’s return to the Orthodox Church. The numbers suggest (to me at least), that what is lacking among us, is the solid catechetical and spiritual formation of the faithful (laity and clergy) that is required to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This work is often neglected because it is labor intensive. And how can it not be? After making disciples is a highly personal and idiosyncratic work. While catechesis can be more general, formation is always
personal because it is always vocational.
Catechesis, whether in sermons or adult religious education classes, tells me what we believe. Spiritual formation tells me—or better yet, helps me—answer questions such as “Who am I in Christ?” and “What is Christ asking of me?”
What might such an approach to the pastoral life of the Church look like?
To be continued…