Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Thought Experiment: Converts, Reverts and the Need for Pastoral Change (part III)

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it."

(Mt 13:45-46)

Certainly some Orthodox Christians fall away from laziness or indifference. Some are apostates in the proper sense. But in almost all cases the fact that someone falls away from the Church reflects the failure of other Christians--parents, friends, clergy, etc.--to properly evangelize and/or catechizes the person. Even in those cases where someone has been hurt by a priest or fellow Orthodox Christian, the willingness to walk away from the Church reflects poorly on the pastoral care that person received. While certainly not in all cases, the lapsed Orthodox Christian reason for leaving is in fact the Church herself--or maybe more accurately--the people in Church are the reason he or she has left.

Though it is counter-intuitive to say so, the biggest failing I think is that we who are in the Church do not present the Gospel as valuable. What do I mean by this?

In the parable of the pearl of great price (Mt 13.45-46) , and indeed in the parable of the hidden treasure that we read just before (v. 44), we are told that the Kingdom of God is valuable. It is more valuable then money, it is more valuable then our time, it is more valuable then our labor, it is more valuable even then our reputation in the community--after all, who but a "lunatic" would sell everything he owns in order to buy an empty field?

When the Gospel is presented as just another a part of our cultural heritage (whether that culture is Greek, or Russian, or Arab, or American for that matter) something that we are born into if you will, we do not value it. Why? Because it doesn't cost us anything--we got it for "free" and anything we get for "free" is (literally) of no value since it cost us nothing.

Over the years I have wondered why people join cults--or for that matter, non-canonical, pseudo-Orthodox groups. As a matter of social or religious psychology, people look to these groups for the same reasons they look to the Orthodox Church or the Masons or a bowling league--they are looking for a community. While there are many factors for picking this or that group, I think one very big reason for opting for a cult or a pseudo-Orthodox group is that participating in these organizations carries a (relatively) heavy cost.

Cults will make extraordinary demands on people's time, treasure and talent. Pseudo-Orthodox groups will go so far as to point out that "We are on the margin because we take our faith seriously! We have full services, we fast, we welcome the unwashed and unloved! We are not a social club! Join us and you are a True Orthodox Christian who will be persecuted not simply by the world, but the rest of the Orthodox Church!" Say what you will, but if people are willing to put up with all of that, they most value what they have.

If we wish to encourage lapsed Orthodox Christians to return to the Church, we must demonstrate that the Church is valuable. We do that by (1) making demands of people on their time, treasure and talent and (2) giving a return worth people's investment. Far too many Orthodox Christians approach the Church as if they were "renters" rather then "home owners;" they are "customers," rather then "investors."

If we are serious about encouraging lapsed Orthodox Christians to be reconciled with the Church--to say nothing of encourage non-Orthodox Christians to convert--there must be a cost and a benefit to being Orthodox. If we simply assess cost--that is make demands of people--or of we simply offer a benefit--give them something--we will fail. We have to make the argument that yes, it is good to be Orthodox not only because you get something (salvation), but also because it costs you something (time, treasure, talent, and as I am writing this in the season of the Great Fast, a full stomach--I am hungry all through Lent, even if now and then I "cheat.")

Minimal investment means not only a minimal return, but it is also an acknowledgment that what w are asking people to invest in has very little value either in itself or to us. When we look at what Jesus says in the Gospel about the cost of disciplineship we discover that we cannot follow Jesus unless we are willing to sacrifice everything to follow Him.

Parishes that wish to be successful in reconciling lapsed Orthodox Christians would do well I think to look at mission parishes that are successful in attracting--and retaining--coverts. It is by raising, and not by lowering, the bar for admission or participation that we will be successful. The attendance statistics for Orthodox parishes here in the U.S. would suggest that we must act quickly. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is a case in point: We claim 2,000,000 members when in fact we have something more in the neighborhood of 144,000 actual (as distinct from nominal) members--and even this second number would suggest a fairly low level of participation (pledging members, though not necessarily tithing; attendance on some Sundays and major feast days rather then weekly reception of Holy Communion; known to the priest, though not necessarily active in the catechetical, evangelistic or philanthropic life of the Church).

What is called for is raising the cost of participation--while there will always be nominal Christians in the Church (as there must be), to accept nominal Christians as parish council members, Church School teachers, to say nothing of seminarians and candidates for holy orders, is killing us by small cuts. When we hold up as leaders and role models those who invest very little in being Christian we announce to all "who have eyes to see or ears to hear" that the Orthodox Faith is not valuable since it cost so little to be a leader. And again, if it not valuable to those who lead, it won't be valuable to those who are outside the Church.

In my next installment, I hope to flesh out a bit more what I mean that by (1) making demands of people on their time, treasure and talent and (2) giving a return worth people's investment.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

p.s., If you stop by and read this, leave a little note please, it is hard to write without knowing who is reading.


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