Friday, March 02, 2007

A Though Experiment: Converts, Reverts and the Need for Pastoral Change (part II)

Reverts set up the same kinds of potential experiences of cognitive dissonances as do the converts. Reverts need to be integrated. And so, like converts, reverts require that the parish as a community change--if for no other reason then because, as with the convert, there is a new person at Liturgy on Sunday morning--and that means all our relationships must change as surely as adding a rock into a stream changes the flow of water.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has approximately 500 parishes and (depending on who you asked) 440,000 to 2,000,000 members. The later number is the official number according to the Archdiocese, the former reflects recent sociological research into the number of Orthodox Christians in America (see "How many Eastern Orthodox are there in the USA?") Using the official number, and assuming an average Sunday attendance at Liturgy 0f 500 faithful/parish what do we see?

On any given Sunday there are roughly 250,000 Greek Orthodox Christians attending Liturgy somewhere in the United States. This means that only 12.5% of the potential Greek Orthodox Christians who could be at Liturgy are actually at Liturgy on any given Sunday. Flip that and we see that some 1.75 MILLION (or 87.5%) of the Greek Orthodox community are, for one reason or another, absent from Sunday Liturgy. If only 10% (175,000) were reconciled with the Church, the Sunday average attendance would increase by 70% (or an average of 350 people added to a Sunday congregation of 500). Drop the number of those reconciled to only 1% and you have 17,500 reverts or 35 new Sunday congregants, or approximately a 7% increase in attendance.

But whether the number is 35 or 350, these new people will make significant demands on the congregation--both clergy and laity. Reverts, like converts, tend to invest significantly more personal resources in the Church--but they also make significantly greater demands for pastoral care (for example, Confession, religious education certainly, but also they have a greater interest in evangelism and philanthropic work). Basically, whether the change is from a non-Orthodox background or from a lapsed background, those who are reconciled what to invest more in the life of the church AND see a greater return on that investment then I suspect is typically the case for the majority of the congregation.

The question that I will address in the next installment is this: Given what I see as the rather middling track record on integrating new members, what would it mean pastoral to reconcile to Christ and His Church even a (relatively) small number of lapsed Orthodox? If the integration of converts represents a pastoral challenge that is often not met (one study of Catholic converts, albeit in Australia, suggest that only one third to one half of Catholic converts remain Catholic. See: Caring for New Catholics), what does it mean to integrate someone who we have failed pastorally or personally?

A Though Experiment: Converts, Reverts and the Need for Pastoral Change (part I)

One of my great concerns as a priest is evangelism. This certainly includes helping people raised outside the Orthodox Church be reconciled to her. But especially since I have left the mission fields of the Pacific Northwest and returned to Western Pennsylvania, I have come to understand how much evangelistic work needs to be done among those who, though baptized as Orthodox Christian, are indifferent and even hostile to the Gospel.

The reconciliation of such lapsed Orthodox Christian presents a number of pastoral challenges. I would ask you to join me in a little pastoral "thought experiment" about one of those challenges: The integration of "reverts" (Orthodox Christians reconciled to the Church) into existing parishes.

My own experience as a convert who came to Orthodox with relatively little emotional baggage relative to the parish or the Church would suggest that the Orthodox Church typically does a rather poor job with integrating new members into existing parishes. In large part I think this is because such integration requires conversion not only on the part of the new Orthodox Christian (whether convert or revert), but also a conversion, or at least change, on the part of the parish.

With converts the challenge is that they embody the idea that the Faith is, legitimately, an object of human decision. Converts become Orthodox because they evaluate the truth claims of Orthodox against their own experience. Granted they may appeal to church history or theological reflection. But this does not take away the fact that, whatever the content, they became Orthodox as an act of reason and will.

But if we can choice Orthodoxy, if we can decide for the Gospel, then we can also choice not to be Orthodox, we can decided to not believe the Gospel. In other words, converts don't simply call into question a taken for granted attitude about being a Orthodox Christian, the flatly contradict such an attitude. To the degree that people understand the faith as simply a part of their cultural or family background, something Eternal and static, this can evoke a fair acute sense of cognitive dissonance: The Orthodox Faith can be evaluated and it can be chosen and affirmed for very human reasons. What was facilely professed is now seen as requiring effort, if for no other reason then because room must be made for the convert who shares the cradle Orthodox faith, but not his or her reasons for believing.

Enough for now about converts. My real concern is with reverts, and I will address these group in part II of this post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory