Posts Tagged 'Essays'

Essay: Like a Jesus fish out of water

A series of events inspired this piece, which I wrote last fall and for which I presently find myself without a publisher. Enjoy.

A couple of years ago I was invited to a friend’s wedding across the country. It was somebody who I had known since the third grade, and it was important to me to be there. Nonetheless, I had a little bit of a scheduling issue of which I needed to make her aware: it was Easter on my church’s calendar.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Easter is the month before.”

“Not for us.”

“Oh,” she said. “I understand—you’re pagan, right? It’s the solstice?”

“Er, no. I’m Orthodox,” I explained.

“I don’t even know what that is,” she said, “but as long as you’re there, that’s cool.”

The day of her wedding, I was lucky to be awake for the food, let alone the ceremony. Talking to the mother of the bride, I explained that I had been at church at four in the morning for an Easter service.

“How does that work?” She was clearly confused. “Wasn’t that a while ago?”

“Not for me,” I said. “I’m Orthodox.”

“Orthodox?” she asked. “Orthodox what? Jewish?”

Right, I thought. Because Easter is a Jewish holiday. “No,” I told her, “Orthodox Christian.” She stared at me. I might as well have been speaking Uyghur. “You know, like Greek Orthodox? Russian Orthodox?”

“Oh, I didn’t realize your wife was Greek! I guess she’s got dark hair—”

“She’s not. We converted.”

Mother of the Bride narrowed her eyes, started to say something, then changed her mind. “Well, I just hope that doesn’t mean you’re one of those fundamentalists the Republicans have sold out to,” she said, and moved on to the next guest.

Orthodoxy is a tough thing to explain to most Americans. It’s the world’s second largest discrete body of Christians after Roman Catholics, but it is largely unknown west of Greece. If people are aware of what it is at all, it is knowledge likely derived from passive contact—maybe they’ve been to an Arabic church festival and seen icons while munching on baklava. Possibly they’ve got a Russian friend who wears their wedding ring on their right hand. Maybe somebody’s been to a friend’s wedding or a baptism, and came away from the ceremony thinking that the whole thing felt weird and old. Beautiful, maybe, but still pretty alien and ancient compared to our own prefabricated, whitewashed, auditorium-style church culture.

Most likely, they saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding where that guy from Northern Exposure was baptized in a plastic kiddie pool.

What’s even tougher is trying to explain to your average White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, or whatever else they might be, that you’re Orthodox when your last name doesn’t end in “-opoulos” or “-evsky.” As with my friend’s mother, there’s often an assumption that there must be an external cultural force operating on you—you had to convert to get married, or your dad did, right? Or your grandparents had to change their names when they came to this country? Don’t you have to be born or get married into Orthodoxy, like Judaism? One or two people might have read something in Christianity Today about a group of a couple of thousand Evangelicals converting to Orthodoxy back in the 1980s—and also might have read something in the same magazine about a convert or two having buyer’s remorse sometime later.

As well, any sense of what Orthodox Christians actually believe is in all probability a bit murky. When I was involved in an Orthodox college ministry, we were often asked by people from other groups—“Do you guys believe in Jesus Christ?” Or, “Are the Orthodox saved?” There was one friend with whom I was discussing this who became visibly uncomfortable when he heard the words “Eastern Orthodox.” He stopped chewing his hashbrowns, squirmed a bit in his seat and said, “I’m not really sure what that even is.” Well, no. Most aren’t. I often get asked—it’s Roman Catholicism without the pope and in Greek instead of Latin? Something like that? More often than not, I know they just want the short version of the story, the bumper sticker rather than the divinity degree, so I smile, shrug, and say, “Something like that.” I’m bad at telling short versions in the first place, and any short version I come up with for this is going to make people more confused, not less.

Then there are the times where somebody seems genuinely interested in a real answer, and sometimes the outcome of providing that real answer surprises everybody. My wife and I were having Benjamin, a friend from school, over for dinner once when we were still getting to know him, and he asked about what we believed as Orthodox. I handed him a book called The Orthodox Church, written by Timothy Ware, a bishop and a much wiser man than I, saying, “Read this. He says it much better than I’ll ever be able to do.” Three years later, Benjamin is preparing to become a priest.

Truth be told, someone walking into an Orthodox church that’s been around for any length of time will quite possibly feel like they’ve happened upon an archaeological dig. There are icons, candles, and incense everywhere, the liturgy is chanted, the priests wear a lot of vestments and face the altar rather than the people, and so on.

Add to this that many perceive it as a “Greek thing” or a “Russian thing” or a “Lebanese thing” and just in general “not an American thing,” and even if you are successfully able to explain to somebody what Orthodoxy is, you’ve still got the uphill battle of justifying its relevance, how it fits in with a national understanding of Christianity shaped more by various opinions of Jerry Falwell than relative obscurities like the minutiae of the early Ecumenical Councils, and explaining why in the world an American in the twenty-first century with no direct ties to those cultures would care. Talk about feeling like a Jesus fish out of water. Maybe kiddie pools in ethnic-themed comedies are at least a place to start.

Even me—I’m a convert, so somebody had to explain it to me at some point in a way that made sense, right? That’s true. In a nutshell, I met somebody willing to give me a meaningful answer to the question “What is Orthodoxy?” at a time in my life when I was willing to listen to it. I didn’t convert immediately, but it was the right moment for me to start thinking about some things.

See, if I was raised anything, I was raised an Evangelical, but my dad is an atheist. He’s always asked me, “If Christianity’s the real deal, why can’t you all get your story straight?” It’s a legitimate question. Some estimate 26,000 Christian denominations, most of them mutually exclusive in terms of belief and teaching. The New Testament doesn’t make any mention of Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Catholics, or—it can’t be denied—Orthodox. It speaks of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” and a faith “once delivered to the saints.” There was one Church, not thousands of denominations. What happened? Was it really just Martin Luther’s misadventure with a hammer?

Well, I reached a point in my lifelong journey as a Christian where I had to answer my dad’s question once and for all or lose my own faith. In reading Christian history, I found that this organic, single Church that emerged from apostolic times survived for quite a while. Where is it now? I wondered. Christ Himself said that the gates of hades would not prevail against His Church, and surely, if it still existed, as a professed Christian I would want to be part of it.

There was this friend of mine, Mark, who I knew to be Greek Orthodox. I had absolutely no idea what that meant except that he wore his wedding ring on his right hand and celebrated Easter on a different day. We got into a conversation one day where I found myself asking the question, “What is Orthodoxy?” I had to buy him dinner, but he was willing to give me a meaningful answer—basically telling the history from an Orthodox perspective, which I found answered my dad’s question and then some. It was a very compelling case indeed.

And after going our separate ways that evening, I completely forgot about it.

A little over a year later, there was an invitation from Tatiana, a Russian friend, to my wife and me to attend part of an Orthodox Easter service—just the food blessing, really. The priest looked like Rasputin with his long hair and beard and black robes, the Easter eggs were only one color—blood red—and everything was in Old Church Slavonic. I suddenly remembered everything my friend Mark had told me, and I found myself captivated.

The food blessing was in the social hall, and afterward Tatiana asked if we wanted to see the church. Yes, we said, of course. Walking into the church was very much the “archaeological dig” experience I mentioned earlier, and it put all of the pieces together for me—two thousand years of Christian history were brought to life at once. It was a sense of the presence of God I had never encountered before, and all I could do was light a candle and pray.

Then I promptly went back to the social hall and dropped sixty bucks at their book counter. And, while I’m not going to teach a catechism class right this second or go into the full blow-by-blow, two years later, we converted.

My conversion story isn’t really the point; all of this is just to say—people can and do convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. In fact, I did convert, and there were even good reasons why I wanted to do so. You most definitely do not have to be born into Orthodox Christianity or marry into it. (For that matter, you don’t with Judaism either.) I didn’t marry into a Greek family—my wife is Scotch-Slovak. It’s not likely my grandparents changed our name—Richard Raymond Barrett is about as post-Norman Invasion English as you can get, and there’s no possible permutation of it that could be made to sound Greek or Russian. (Barrettarides? Barrettaninoff? I don’t think so.) In the United States, a lot of converts don’t even go to Greek or Russian churches—they wind up in communities under the Church of Antioch (ethnically Lebanese and/or Syrian), which have made themselves very convert-friendly in the last two or three decades—to the point where a lot of ostensibly Arabic churches are made up mostly of converts.

We’re not exactly Roman Catholics with a Greek Mass and who don’t have a pope, but there are reasons why people might see it that way. We take the Nicene Creed very, very, verrrrrrry seriously, so yeah, it’s safe to say we believe in Jesus Christ. Are we saved? Sure, and that’s not all: we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.

But all of that, even, is just surface stuff. Orthodox Christian spirituality explicitly recasts the entire relationship with God in such a way that seems foreign to many Christian expressions prevalent in America. Rather than either an angry Divine Parent who needs to kill somebody in order to satisfy offended justice and who settles on His Son, or a disinterested Creator who really doesn’t care what we do (to name but two extremes), Orthodoxy Christianity presents the Church as a hospital to treat the diseases of sin and death to which human nature are subject. God, as the Orthodox understand Him, doesn’t need to punish anybody—rather, He seeks to heal everybody.

On the other hand, try explaining that “everybody” part to some Greeks, Russians, and Arabs. Sometimes, explaining to your Presbyterian next-door neighbor that you’re Orthodox is easier than convincing other Orthodox, particularly ones whose last names do end in “-opoulos” and “-evsky.” Plurality of religion in this country means that, for better or for worse, the different Christian communions compete with each other (not to mention everybody else) in a marketplace of ideas, and none of them co-terminate with a mythical, monolithic “American heritage,” much less the state; this can be hard to understand for a person whose religion does run parallel to their ethnicity. As a result, sometimes it feels like some of them have forgotten that even their own people were new converts, once upon a time.

A Ukrainian woman I worked with for awhile saw the three-bar crucifix I wear, a gift from my godfather when I converted. “Hey,” she said. “That’s an Orthodox cross. What are you doing wearing that?”

“I’m Orthodox.”

“I didn’t know you were Russian!”

“I’m not.”

“But you said you were Orthodox!”

“Right. I converted.”

She looked really confused, and pursed her lips. “How?” She swallowed. “Why? What would make you want to… to become part of that faith?” It was as if her mouth wouldn’t cooperate in saying the word “convert.”

“It’s a long story,” I said.

“You’ll have to tell it to me sometime,” she said. The chance never arose to tell her, as I quit and she moved out of state shortly thereafter.

Another time, a Greek gentleman with whom I was having a conversation noticed the crucifix. “You’re wearing an Orthodox cross,” he announced, perhaps thinking he was imparting new information. “Are you Russian?”

“No.”

“Are you Greek?”

“No.”

“Are you Orthodox?”

“Yes.”

He searched my face for a moment, trying to see if there was some chance I was putting him on. Finally he said, “Well, good for you,” and quickly changed conversation topics.

Doubt and curiosity aren’t always what I encounter; at one point I worked as a bank teller, and a Russian truck driver came through my line. “You’ve got an Orthodox cross on,” he said as I was processing his transaction. “It’s a lot like this one.” He pulled out his own from under his coat. Before I could say anything he asked, “Are you Orthodox?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Did you convert?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Why?”

As noted earlier, I’m terrible at short versions of stories, but sometimes time constraints, such as a line of customers looking increasingly impatient, force me to come up with something. The shortest and most factual sentence I could come up with was, “Because I came to the conclusion it was true.”

“Well, then.” He smiled at me. “Thank God!” He never once asked me what my heritage was.

My friend Anna was born in Athens and divided her time between America and Greece growing up. She was baptized and raised Orthodox, but by the time she started grad school, she wasn’t involved overly much. I met her at my home church during the last semester of her Masters in Library Science program, and watched her as she decided to take her faith seriously, seize it by the horns, and take ownership of it. When she went back to Greece after graduation, her dad gave her a hard time about going to an Arabic church in the States, but she hasn’t let that get her down. The truth is that by virtue of being Greek but rediscovering her faith among American converts, Anna straddles both worlds. She likes to call herself a “revert.”

It can get interesting sometimes for converts traveling abroad. Maggie, a dear friend of ours, spent a summer in Jerusalem once. She made a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where some Orthodox at the door tried to chase her away—“Exo, exo,” they said in Greek (meaning “out”), making it plain that only Orthodox could be in there. She attempted to explain she was Orthodox, but they really didn’t get it—“You’re not Orthodox, you’re American,” they said. They were completely unaware of the phenomenon of American converts; after a little bit of back and forth they let her stay, but with distinct unease.

Last summer, my wife spent seven weeks in Germany, and found the Church of the Holy Spirit, a Greek church where she was staying. This summer she went on the same trip, and I got to spend the middle third of it with her, it being my very first time abroad. She took me to the Church of the Holy Spirit a couple of times, and all things considered, the service itself was not a much different experience from my usual Sunday morning. The Liturgy was entirely in Greek, including the homily, but that wasn’t really a problem; I’m familiar enough with the services by now that I knew where we were at, and I’ve had enough Greek that I was able to piece it together if I got confused.

Still, what was different were the people. Nobody said “Exo, exo” to us, but really nobody in the congregation said much of anything to us at all. The priest, Father Irodion, was a dear old man who was delighted that we were there, and seemed to have some understanding of why two non-Greek Americans would be seeking out their little church on the Rhineland. It also helped that they had a cantor who had been educated at an American seminary. Still, when we went up to receive Communion—of which only practicing Orthodox Christians may partake—body language and facial expressions of those around me suggested that a lot of them were thinking, What just happened here? At the coffee hour, we tried to introduce ourselves to a woman sitting right across the table from us. She said, “Nice to meet you,” and did not offer her name or say anything further.

It would have been easy to be frustrated or feel alienated, but I was prepared for it. Being ignored stuck in Megan’s craw, however, particularly since she had been there a number of times by now. “Well,” I said, “if you keep going, eventually somebody will make the adjustment and start talking to you of their own accord. Probably by the time that happens they’ll all already think of you as part of the family, you just won’t know it yet.”

I know from the conversations I’ve had with my own “Old Country” friends at church that sometimes they truthfully do not know what to say to us crazy American converts. It’s not a desire to be rude or push us away; in fact, they often don’t say anything because they’re afraid that they’ll come across as rude inadvertently. It’s a cultural miscommunication and nothing more—hardly anything malicious. Besides, the idea of faith and heritage being inextricably linked is hardly limited to the Orthodox; “Scandinavian” and “Lutheran” may no longer be as synonymous in the United States as they once were, but that’s just because they’ve been around longer and we’re used to it, not because it’s any less true. As someone with a lot of Danish on my mother’s side, believe me, I know.

A few days after my first time at the Church of the Holy Spirit, I took a brief trip to London. I happened to find myself at dinner one evening with three people who attended the Greek Orthodox cathedral in London. One gentleman was a native Englishman of Greek heritage, another man was a Greek native, and the third was his Romanian fiancée. They were some of the friendliest fellow Orthodox I have ever encountered, and while it was a surprise to them to run into an American convert, it wasn’t a stumbling block, and we had a lovely time. They insisted that I see the Cathedral during my stay, even though I wasn’t going to be around long enough for a service.

I got to the Cathedral with a bit of a difficulty—the Tube line that serviced that part of town was down that day, so I had to take a bus. Then, after walking up and down the street it was supposed to be on and not finding it, I stopped at a neighborhood library to see if they could give me directions. They had never heard of the place—making the Cathedral the first church I had been to in England where the immediate neighbors couldn’t give me an intimate history of every brick—but were able to print me off a map from the Internet. Once I found it, I was quite happy I did; it’s a beautiful church that was clearly built with a lot of care.

On my way out, a priest seemed to materialize—Father Nectarios, who I later found out had recently arrived from Greece. He was clearly confused by my presence, and asked in somewhat broken English if I was Russian; “No,” I explained, “I’m an American, but I’m Orthodox.”

He apologized for his English, but asked who my bishop was. “I’m under the Patriarch of Antioch,” I said.

“Antioch?” He looked more confused. “I don’t think I know what that is.”

“Patriarch Ignatius IV,” I said, hoping that that would make sense.

He thought about that for a moment, and then his face lit up. “Oh! Ig-nah-tee-os!” he exclaimed, pronouncing the name in Greek fashion. “Yes, we are the same. And you are Orthodox?”

“Yes, Father. My wife and I converted.”

“That’s wonderful! Congratulations and God bless you!” He motioned me back into the church. “Come, come.” I had a plane to catch, but I figured I could always catch the express train to Heathrow if it got too close to the wire.

Father Nectarios showed me around the church, explaining some of their history and distinctive features as best he could. Finally he said once again, “God bless you,” and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. As it happened, I did take the express train, and then my flight was delayed an hour.

I’ve found that self-definition is tricky. It’s can be quite tough to explain what Orthodox Christianity is without having to define ourselves in terms of what it is not; we’re Catholic but not Roman, but not Roman while also being not Protestant. Confusing, isn’t it? Making it a “Greek thing” or a “Russian thing” is one way around that, but if you’re an American convert like me who doesn’t have a drop of Greek blood in his body, that doesn’t work and you have to rely on abstractions that are going to seem obscure to most people. Not only that, without ethnicity as a factor, some Orthodox aren’t going to understand, either.

The Sunday after I returned to the United States, I was back at my home church and Megan was once again at the Church of the Holy Spirit. Father Irodion asked if I had made it home safe. “I love that you Americans look for us when you’re so far away from home,” he said. “There are a lot of Greeks here I can’t convince to come.” Also, out of the blue, a woman named Tepi introduced herself—she was a Greek woman who grew up in Germany, and when she married a German man he converted. She translated a lot of the conversations going on at the table for Megan, and made her feel more at home.

This morning, my doctor noticed my cross. “That’s beautiful,” he said. “Is that an Orthodox cross?”

“Yes.”

“Did you get that while you were in Europe?”

“No, I’m Orthodox.”

“Oh,” he said. “Are you Russian?”

Who’s your religion service provider?

A couple of years there were some pieces in the news which prompted an essay from me which I shopped around a bit to various publications. It was entitled “Who’s your religion service provider: resisting the commoditization of the Christian faith.” I got some interest, but ultimately not a sale, and so it’s been sitting on my hard drive gathering dust. However, Terry Mattingly’s current column tells me the topic is even more relevant than it was when I wrote it. The “service provider” mentality is now assumed by the larger churches, for all intents and purposes; it’s just a question of which features and options you want to have come with the package.

So, without further ado—

* * *

Consider the following:

• A front-page, above-the-fold article in the 20 March 2005 Indianapolis Star called “Daunting mission: finding a church”, which asked the question: “Christians can find a church on almost every street. How to pick the right one?” Amidst photos of gift bags being given to visitors, talk of what’s “effective”, the importance of “the warmth factor”, having “welcome centers” and making sure people have a “growing experience”, there’s a modicum of column inch space devoted to what a given church actually teaches. “[S]ome issues might be non-negotiable for a churchgoer,” the article thoughtfully posits, “such as the authority of the Scriptures… [therefore] people should should think about where they stand on matters up for debate [before visiting a church].” A helpful sidebar called “Advice on finding a place to worship” lists the important factors to keep in mind—and what are the top four? In order—geography, child safety, youth programs, and music. And where do faith and teaching fall on the list? Actually, they don’t. Worship is number five and preaching is number six, but these are both referenced in terms of style.

• A piece in the 21 March 2005 issue of Newsweek, “The battle for Latino souls”, which speaks of the “marketing savvy… often associated with corporate America” with which Chicago-area Hispanic Catholics are being recruited by Pentecostals. One such congregation is described as having “an inviting sanctuary with amenities for all, like a new youth center stocked with games and computers.” A founder of the community is quoted as saying, “People are looking for service… it’s like a business.” The writer asserts that “Catholicism will never match the aggressive evangelism of rival churches”, and quotes Richard Simon, “Cardinal Francis [sic] George’s liaison for charismatic renewal”, as saying, “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.”

• The 4 June 2005 issue of The Spectator, referring to Pope Benedict XVI as believing that “a smaller Church could be a better Church, offering the world a superior product and therefore eventually increasing its market share”, noting that “Benedict himself does not employ this commercial analogy, but it works surprisingly well—not just for Roman Catholicism, but also for religion in general.”

• The description, from the website of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington, of a brand-new worship service ILLUMINATE: “ILLUMINATE is a dynamic, PASSION-filled, awe-inspiring, movement of God. We’ve combined the elements necessary to create an inviting, exciting, and life-changing atmosphere in our Sunday Morning service. ILLUMINATE values ENCOUNTER, where you will meet the God that loves you through music that moves you, a relevant message that inspires you, and the company of others that touches you. ILLUMINATE welcomes all life stages and ages, and those along every point of their spiritual journey. Illuminate [sic] is light for the road. […] Being a BEACON to the culture with an incarnate message of God’s love, FUSING into loving relationships, ENLIGHTENING the practice of faith, IGNITING the use of gifts for serving others and God, and living on FIRE for Jesus in all areas of life.”

• And finally, economist Laurence Iannaccone’s paper “Why strict churches are strong”, from the March 1994 issue of The American Journal of Sociology, in which he argues that “[i]n the austere but precise language of economics, religion is a ‘commodity’ that people produce collectively… The pleasure and edification that I derive from a Sunday service does not depend solely on what I bring to the service […]; it also depends on how many others attend, how warmly they greet me, how well they sing or recite […], how enthusiastically they read and pray, and how deep their commitments are.”

Assuming that the previous examples represent a pattern of thought and behavior throughout congregations in the United States and even worldwide, it is time to remove Iannaccone’s quotes from the word “commodity” and acknowledge that, in fact, our faith has become one more profitable good to be bought and sold in the popular marketplace. The above items suggest that the churches in question might just as well have Internet access as their “product”, because following this mentality, what is a church but a “religion service provider”?

In all fairness, a very real and concerning question faces Christendom these days, to wit: how does one engage and challenge the prevailing culture in a language they understand without obscuring Christian truth? To put it another way, how do we be “in the world but not of it”? Surely that’s what places like Overlake are trying to do, but they miss the mark by making a false idol out of “relevance”, obscuring the countercultural distinctives of historical Christianity rather than standing fast on them. As such, people come and go from the churches for the wrong reasons. When even the Roman Catholic Church tries to operate like a secular business, like it’s just another “service provider”, the faithful clearly know something’s amiss: “We keep trying to imitate the Protestants, but it doesn’t work.” You don’t say.

In truth, this is a problem that has faced us–that is, all Christians–as far back as the Council of Jerusalem, when the Apostles had to decide if the Law of Moses was a burden that needed to be borne by the Gentile Christians. Nonetheless, it is especially acute in a world where many of us have five hundred cable channels, the Internet, talk radio, and omnipresent advertising competing for our attention and their money, bombarding us and our children with more images and messages than any other society has ever produced. They purport to provide “pleasure and edification” in plenty, and they’re readily available with next to no effort–so is it any wonder that Christian bodies feel compelled to compete for our time and attention on the same level? In order to solve the problem, however, we must first honestly name the source of this fierce, underhanded battle for our souls and tell him to get behind us.

This year, on the first Sunday of Lent according to the Orthodox calendar, Fr. Ambrose (formerly known as Fr. Alexei Young) of the St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Ohio, told the Indianapolis congregation of St. George Orthodox Church that “[s]ecularism…takes over when people start to think that the Church is just one more agency or social organization with some ‘more or less’ good ideas.” Dr. Gerald Bray, Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, echoes this sentiment, writing in the winter 2004 issue of the journal Sobornost that “if the Church is no more than a social welfare agency, it has no particular reason to exist, and its functions might be better performed by others.” The message is clear: churches need to stop thinking and acting like secular businesses and start acting like churches again. If that means smaller buildings with smaller mortgages, less flashy audio-visual equipment, and (dare I say it) less money and a smaller, more local community, so be it. The early Christians, as well as many Russian Christians of the last century, met in catacombs and focused on Christ, not rear-projection screens or “the warmth factor”; how can we with our 16,000-seat (like Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas), air-conditioned buildings and “welcome kits” do any less? If we have to, we should be able to come together in the catacombs again and be overjoyed about it.

Even moreso, we the laypeople must recognize our own contribution to this commoditization of Christianity. “[T]he Church has life itself; indeed, the true life,” Fr. Ambrose also said, “which is man’s communion with and transformation by God through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ Most of us act as though we never heard this.” It is possible to eschew Christ’s transcendent Truth either internally or externally; in either case, we’re placing our own personal preferences ahead of the Gospel, saying that we prefer our own interpretations to those of the Church, or saying that we prefer our own “prayer style”, our own “taste”, to that of the Church–then telling the local and national organizations to compete for our “business”. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Some would argue that it is the job of the Church to meet people at their level, and that particularly today, we need to at least appear to be “keeping with the times” in order to keep people in the pews. However, Christianity teaches that God already met us at our level when He became human, died and was resurrected. Especially in our media-saturated society, we must resist the urge to “keep with the times”, that is to secularize, and now allow God to raise us up to His level.

Christianity is becoming a secular business because we have made an idol out of our own personal, subjective experience, rather than submitting to the communal, sublime union with God that is the Church. In doing so, by seeking “relevance” rather than transcendence, temporal thrill instead of Heaven’s eternal spiritual joy, “service” rather than opportunities to serve, by going where we will be “built up” rather than where we will be crucified to ourselves, by asking for affirmation in who we already are rather than submitting to transforming power of our Lord, we’re really looking for a god made in our own image rather than acknowledging that we were made in God’s image. As a result, we have stunted our own growth in Christ, and reduced our local churches to a set of neighborhood social programs.

Worst of all, we claim (at least on some level) that we do this to reach those in the world, but that’s exactly what we have failed to do, because in doing all of this, we do not challenge them. We present them with a safe, unobtrusive Church that demands nothing outside of their comfort zone, nothing that looks any different from their normal existence, rather than a Church that demands their entire life. “If the early Christians had been just like everyone else,” Fr. Ambrose said, “there would have been no persecutions, no martyrs, and, in the end, no Church, either.” Dr. Bray concurs: “[O]nly by recovering and emphasizing the spiritual dimension have we any hope of making a lasting impression on an unbelieving world.”

The Church is not a faith-based utility, one corporation among many with whom we choose to do business in our everyday lives. Rather, She is the Bride and Body of Christ, the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). As Christians, we need to return to treating Her as such if we truly wish to “make disciples of all nations” and be disciples ourselves.


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