Monday, May 28, 2007

Listening While Sitting in a Coffee Shop

I love sitting in coffee shops. When I lived in Redding, CA I built a parish by sitting in coffee shop (Sue's Java) 1-2 hours/day 3-5 days a week. I learn an awful lot about people and the community just listening to people and watching them interact with one another.

Having spent almost 11 years now as a priest serving missions parishes and college students, I guess I've developed what might be called a rather eccentric view of the Orthodox Church. Or maybe more accurately, the ministry of the Orthodox Church here in the good ol' US of A. While I think we serve well the people we serve, I fear that we really do not serve all that many of the men and women who are Orthodox. When I look at the vast majority of people who we do not reach because they are not Orthodox, the amount of work facing us is unbelievable.

Looking at things from my own perspective I think that we have allowed ourselves to become rather passive. We are happy to serve those who come to us and meet our expectations. We seem curiously unwilling to allow ourselves to be challenged, to be changed by the needs of others.

The change that comes from serving others as the come to us is not a change in essentials, but priorities. This doesn't mean, as Roman Catholics and Protestants discovered, allowing the world to set the agenda for the Church. Rather, we need to ask ourselves, what are the unmet needs that I see around me?

For example, a few moments ago I heard someone use the phrase "real money." This struck me as an odd phrase since, well, money isn't real is it? It is a culturally agreed upon medium of exchange. Money is inherently artificial, as clear an example of a culturally conditioned object as we might hope to find. Anyone who has had the opportunity to travel to foreign country knows how odd and "unnatural" it can feel to try and buy things with someone else's currency. It just doesn't quite feel right.

And of course is doesn't feel right because I mistake something purely cultural (US currency) as being universal.

Likewise, I can rather easily confuse the parts of the Gospel that feel natural to me (because of the culture in which I was raised or, somewhat more narrowly, my own preferences) with being the whole of the Gospel, or at least the most important parts of the Gospel.

Having lived now in Pittsburgh for the past 4 years, I have been struck with how important buildings seem to be for many Orthodox Christians. Of course church buildings (and what is really "critical," halls) have their role to play. But often the building drives the agenda. Committing ourselves to large buildings means committing ourselves as well to having a community that can sustain financially our large building.

While this isn't necessarily wrong, it does mean that a parish must place a fairly high value on its own long term stability. The easiest way to stability is uniformity--"our people"--in the rather common phrase of Orthodox Christians here in western Pennsylvania. But uniformity means we either ask people to conform to our agenda or we ask them to leave. Again, within limits, this is appropriate--but these limits are not (or should not be) drawn by the need to maintain a building.

I guess what I'm saying is that while I don't want us to do away with buildings, we need to develop additional, more flexible, forms of ministry if we hope to reach even a small percentage of the large numbers of lapsed Orthodox Christians and unchurched out there. What these ministries might look like is unclear to me, but I think the idea of developing means of service and outreach that is not dependent upon a building is exciting and worth investing in financially and personally.

The Apostles were wandering preachers who established communities and moved on. Especially here in America this has proven to be a successful form of ministry and might be worth incorporating more intentionally in the Church's.

Other areas for service are schools, hospitals and counseling agencies. I have often come to appreciate the value of small groups that meet informally in people's homes, or coffee shops, for prayer, study and mutual support. Yes, all of these forms of ministry have their limitations, chief among them is that we can naively, or proudly, assume that they are REAL ministries and the stuff that happens in the parish is, well, not really real.

But this confusion is not limited to informal or non-parochial forms of ministry. We all of us our tempted to assume that what we do with what we all ought to do. It is rather easy to universalize our own prejudices.

What will the future of Orthodox Christian minstry in America look like? I don't know. But I hope that in addition to the good work that takes place in parishes we might see a growth in non-parochial work as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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