Closing Orthodoxy’s Back Door

2007 © Robert K. Arakaki
Recently Christianity Today published an article, "Will the Twenty First Century be the Orthodox Century?"  In it Bradley Nassif argues that Orthodoxy will indeed grow and expand in this coming century.  But in a recent Again Magazine article, "The Orthodox Christian Opportunity," Nassif notes that although many people are converting to Orthodoxy, significant numbers of these converts are also leaving through the backdoor discouraged and disenchanted.  Much of the reasons for their disenchantment lies not with Orthodoxy per se, but with the realities of Orthodox parishes.  Nassif refers to this problem as Orthodoxy's backdoor.
One of the major obstacles to the twenty first century becoming the Orthodox century is the language used in Sunday worship.  In many American Orthodox parishes, the Sunday Liturgy is either in a foreign language or is a mixture of English and non-English.  Orthodox parishes with all-English Liturgy tend to be in the minority.  This article addresses why we need all-English worship services, what can be done about the present problem of people exiting through the backdoor, and how we can help make the twenty first century the Orthodox century.
The Liturgy as the Front Door
The Liturgy is Orthodoxy's front door.  It is often the first place where people encounter Orthodoxy.  It is there they see Orthodoxy in action: people worshipping the Holy Trinity.  The Liturgy is also essential for becoming Orthodox.  One cannot become Orthodox just by reading Orthodox books, one becomes Orthodox through participation in the right worship of the Holy Trinity.
However, people sometimes find Orthodoxy's front door blocked when they attend a Sunday worship where the Liturgy is done in a foreign language.  Many visitors walk out after hearing nothing but Greek for the first few minutes of the Liturgy.  It is like walking straight into a stone wall.  It can be a painful experience.  Many feel excluded, bewildered, and lost.
Linguistic zigzags -- where the priest prays in English and the choir responds in non-English -- are not uncommon in many ethnic parishes.  For the unwary worshipper, it is like driving along on a smooth asphalt road then all of a sudden hitting a patch of rough gravel.  This can lead to a frustrating and tiring worship experience.  What should be a meaningful worship encounter with God becomes more like a tutorial in Greek, Slavonic, Serbian, Arabic, etc.  Even several years after becoming Orthodox, many converts find themselves struggling with Liturgy in a foreign language.  People lose their place in the order of the Liturgy.  It is not realistic to expect all converts to adjust to the Liturgy not being completely in English; some can make the adjustment, but many cannot.  Continuous exposure to the Liturgy in a foreign language does not necessarily make it easier over time.  As a result converts can find the Liturgy to be more a burden than a delight.  And so converts are becoming frustrated or dropping out.  These are not conditions conducive for spiritual growth.
Worship in the vernacular is the long-standing practice of Orthodoxy.  This liturgical principle is rooted in the miracle of Pentecost.  On that day the Christians spoke in tongues to an international gathering who were astonished to "hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!"  (Acts 2:11; italics added)  The history of Orthodox missions is full of examples of the use of the vernacular.  A prominent example is Saints Kyril and Methodios who translated the Liturgy into Slavonic.  Another example is Saint Nicholas of Japan who labored many years to master the Japanese language before translating the Liturgy into Japanese.  A third example is Saint Innocent of Alaska who translated the Gospels into the Aleut language.  Non-vernacular worship -- so widespread in America -- represents a departure from historic Orthodoxy.  It is an innovation inconsistent with Holy Tradition.
Let Us Be Attentive!
One reason why the Liturgy should be entirely in English is Orthodoxy expects its members to be fully attentive in their worship.  On several occasions during the Liturgy, the priest will call out to the congregation: "Let us be attentive!"  But if peoples' minds start to drift when the priest switches to Greek (or some other foreign language), they are not really being attentive to the Liturgy.  The problem is not with the worshiper, but the fact most people find it difficult to worship in an unfamiliar language.
Another reason for an all-English Liturgy is the Apostle Paul's insistence that worship be in a language understandable to the listener.  He wrote: "Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?  You will just be speaking into the air." (I Corinthians 14:9)  The danger here is that the Divine Liturgy will turn into empty worship -- something that the Old Testament prophets and Jesus denounced in no uncertain terms, "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9)
Effective Catechism
The Divine Liturgy constitutes an ongoing catechism for Orthodox Christians.  It continually reminds us of the fundamental doctrines of Orthodoxy.  When understood, the Liturgy has a profound impact on our faith and worship.  However, the power of the Liturgy to shape our thinking can be weakened by it being sung in an incomprehensible tongue.  A danger of non-vernacular worship is that many parishioners become so focused on phonetically reproducing the Liturgy, that they are barely paying attention to the great truths being proclaimed in the Liturgy.  If it is shrouded in language that is not comprehended, then the Liturgy will become an ethnic rite that has little power to challenge us to live holy lives for God.
In addition to teaching us the what the Church believes, the Liturgy also protects us from heresy.  However, if the Liturgy is sung in a language poorly understood, its catechetical function is compromised.  A priest once discovered a parishioner did not really believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  The priest pointed to one of the antiphons that is sung every Sunday, "Only Begotten" (Monogenes), which affirms Mary's perpetual virginity.  However, the parishioner never got the point because the antiphon was normally sung in Greek, not in English.  In the long run, a non-comprehended Liturgy makes Orthodoxy vulnerable to heterodoxy and nominalism among the laity, not to mention people dropping out of Church altogether.  Orthodox laity whose grasp of Orthodox doctrine is weak or hazy will not be able to defend their Orthodox belief, nor will they be able to effectively live out their Orthodox convictions.
Ethnic Orthodox Parishes
Many Orthodox parishes in America today are what can be considered "ethnic parishes."  They were founded by immigrants and continue to be under the care of hierarchs in the old country.  The ethnic parish preserves the old country's culture through the following means: (1) the language used in the Sunday Liturgy, (2) the food served on special occasions, (3) ethnic festivals and holidays, and (4) language classes.
Ethnic parishes are an important part of Orthodoxy in America.  It is in large part because of Orthodox immigrants who founded Orthodox parishes that Orthodoxy has such a widespread presence in American society today.  Yet it is not realistic to expect that ethnic parishes are capable of evangelizing America.  Ethnic parishes are not built that way.  They are suited primarily to preserve the language, customs, and holidays of the old country.  As such, they are designed for the first generation immigrants and their descendants, but not for American converts.1  Many Americans want to become Orthodox, but very few want to assimilate into an ethnic parish and have to learn a foreign language and abide by foreign customs.
Jesus' parable of the need to pour new wine into new wineskins and the foolishness of pouring new wine into old wineskins (Mark 2:22) applies to the present situation.  Ethnic parishes are not well suited to meet the needs of converts from the outside.  They can handle small numbers of converts, but if the number of converts become more than a trickle then the ethnic core can start to feel threatened resulting in a backlash.  They will fear that the new members will undermine the ethnic identity of their parish, especially if the newcomers want more English in the Sunday worship.
There is no question that some individuals have come to Orthodoxy via ethnic parishes, but their numbers are such that the long term impact will be minimal.  If America is to embrace Orthodoxy, this trickle of converts will need to become a broad stream of converts.  But this cannot be done by ethnic parishes for the above reasons.  When it comes to evangelism ethnic parishes are like a bird with a broken wing.  No matter how hard it flaps its wings, that bird ain't gonna fly.  In short, ethnic parishes are not set up for effective evangelism.
If Orthodoxy is to effectively evangelize America, an all-English liturgy is essential.  Orthodoxy's future in America depends on the availability of all-English Liturgy to ordinary Americans.  The vast majority of Americans are monolingual English speakers.  They are not comfortable with worshipping in a foreign language; nor will they be interested in leaving or shedding their American identity at the church entrance on Sunday morning.
Pan-Orthodox Parishes?
Pan-Orthodox parishes represent a different kind of missions strategy.  Where there is not a large enough immigrant community to form an ethnic parish, one finds various ethnic groups cobbled together to form a single parish.  In these parishes one can find the Lord's Prayer in Greek, Slavonic, Serbian, Arabic, as well as English.  The underlying premise of pan-Orthodox parishes seems to be that we should all hold on to the culture and languages of the old country, even though we're all Americans, and our children are Americans, and most of us have no intention of moving back to the old country.  The problem with pan-Orthodox parishes is that they hold little appeal for many Americans.  Pan-Orthodox parishes resemble the synthetic culture of the United Nations than real cultures that people inhabit.  Because the culture of Pan-Orthodox parishes are alien to mainstream American culture they are not capable of effective evangelism.
Pan-Orthodox parishes are like ethnic parishes in their backward focus on the old country.  They therefore share all the problems mentioned above in regards to ethnic parishes.  People without doubt will join these parishes but in the long run such parishes will exert only a minimal influence on the city they live in.
Dual Track Strategy
If we are to bring America to Orthodoxy then we need a dual-track approach.  We need Orthodox parishes with all-English worship services, and we need ethnic Orthodox parishes whose ethos and language reflects that of the old country.
The dual track strategy is as old as the book of Acts.  In the beginning of Acts, we read how multitudes of people converted to Christianity.  But what is often overlooked is the fact that this people movement was taking place among the Hebrew speaking Jews of Palestine.  When we come to the sixth chapter, tension was growing between the Hebrew speaking Jews and the Greek speaking Jews.  Communication difficulties led to many Greek speaking widows being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.  Unlike the Jews who were fluent in Hebrew, the Hellenistic Jews' mother tongue was Greek.  The root of the problem lay not in sinful attitudes, but in honest linguistic and cultural differences.  The problem was resolved by the creation of a dual track or bicultural leadership structure (2).  The Apostles who were ethnically Palestinian Jews appointed Greek speaking Jews to the diaconate. The result was that "the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly." (Acts 6:7)
Precedence for the dual track strategy can be found in the Antiochian Archdiocese allowing for both the Byzantine rite and the Western rite.  A parish can elect to use one or the other but not both.  This policy makes much sense and is practical.  It also gives a parish liturgical stability.  I would suggest that each parish be given the option of worshipping either in English or in the language of the old country, but not both.  As noted earlier,  mixed language worship is an innovation that has no precedence in the history of Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy can learn something from the experience of the Japanese American churches.  They encouraged their children to learn English, and they gave strong support for English services.  Where the older isseis (first generation) worshiped in Japanese, the younger nisseis (second generation) and sanseis (third generation) met in a separate service to worship in English.  In other words, what looked from the outside like a single parish, was in actuality a dual-track parish.  This missions strategy allowed the Japanese American churches to preserve church unity in the face of inter generational differences and avoid large numbers of youths dropping out for lack of interest.  I recently learned that this  strategy is currently being used by the Coptic Churches on the west coast.
Under the dual track strategy, Orthodoxy in America will consist of a network of dozens Orthodox parishes in each major city.  Some parishes will worship in the language of the old country, but the majority of the parishes will worship in English.  In this twenty first century diocese, Orthodoxy's ethnic diversity is affirmed without any blurring of ethnic identity.  This arrangement will reflect not just America's growing cultural diversity, but also the catholicity of the Orthodox Church.
The Antiochian Breakthrough
In The Bridges of God, Donald McGavran3 observes that there are two approaches to missions: the mission station approach and the people movement approach.  The mission station approach tends to be static with the mission station serving as the religious and cultural center of a people.  The people movement approach is dynamic with multitudes becoming Christians.  The difference lies in their long term focus.  Where the mission station is content with establishing a beach head presence in society, the people movement approach seeks to move inland to where the vast majority live.  Orthodoxy today is situated in an awkward in-between situation.  Thanks to the immigrants who founded ethnic parishes, Orthodoxy has a beach head presence in every major American city.  At the same time, Orthodoxy has barely moved inland where the vast majority live.
In the book of Acts we see the tension between the mission station approach and the people movement approach.  In the opening chapters of Acts we read how thousands accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  The early Christian movement was largely Jewish in make up and centered in Jerusalem.  This is characteristic of the mission station approach.  Although we read of Gentiles becoming Christians in the early chapters of Acts (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius the Centurion), these conversion represent little pockets of converts that lay on the margins of their culture.  Christianity did not become a broad people movement until the Antiochian breakthrough.
Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.  Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.  The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.  (Acts 11:19-21; italics added)
What is notable about this passage is that some spoke "only to the Jews." Although the persecution dispersed Christians geographically, much of the communication of the Gospel flowed within the confines of the Jewish community.  It was not until Antioch that some spoke the Christian message "to Greeks also," that is, to the non-Jews that the long standing cultural barrier was breached; Christianity became a broad multicultural movement and the evangelization of the Roman Empire began in earnest.
Closing the Back Door
Business as usual cannot continue.  Orthodoxy in America needs to restructure and retool itself if we are to effectively evangelize American society.  One important (if not essential) way of retooling is to encourage and support all-English Orthodox services.  If we have the Divine Liturgy in English, people will come and they will stay.  There's a growing spiritual hunger in America, and we can help these spiritually hungry people discover Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and Life.  By committing ourselves to all-English services, Orthodoxy will be opening the front door and closing the back door.
As we stand at the start of the twenty first century, we need to ask ourselves what our vision is for Orthodoxy in America.  If we maintain the present course, then what would Orthodoxy look like in the year 2100?  Will there be the same small number of ethnic Orthodox parishes (maybe a little bigger) or will there be dozens of Orthodox parishes all over our city and people coming to Orthodoxy by droves?4  If we pass up this challenge, American Orthodoxy could end up an obscure religious curiosity.  The present interest in Orthodoxy represents both an opportunity and a challenge for Orthodox laity, clergy, and hierarchy.  If we rise up to the challenge, we can expect to see unprecedented growth and vitality for American Orthodoxy, and the twenty first century will be on its way to becoming the Orthodox century.

2007 © Robert K. Arakaki  

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