I have noticed a couple trends in church life as of late. My Roman Catholic friends share with me articles emphasizing the struggle to hang on to traditional Christianity, such as pro-Latin Mass articles, and the efforts of certain Ordinaries to shore up the moral defenses of their dioceses against secular moral antinomianism. [Consider this article from SFGate.] At the same time I see in the media a certain bias that seeks to de-moralize (pun intended) Christianity by propping up half-witted stories about the Crusades [consider: "Inventing the Crusades" from FirstThings.com as fine correction].
This makes me consider my own churches - the ones that I belong to, that are my Orthodox family - I see a related problem emerging: emigrant families are united in a strong faith, but their children raised in America are less so, and their children even less than that. Meanwhile a minority of fiery-minded Protestants (and some Roman Catholics) convert to holy Orthodoxy, but their parishes often remain small or mission-sized, never really attaining to the scope of ethnic community life.
It is community life that I am noticing. I am noticing that Christian community is dwindling in America in general. The most faithful-seeming communities (i.e. traditionally moral, traditionally liturgical) are often small yet intense. In Orthodoxy ethnic communities seem to do better, having greater numbers of families in their communities, but if we compared the religious life of ethnic communities in America to the standard religious life in their home countries the decline is more noticeable. Where are the droves coming to Vespers? Where are the devoted many attending weekday liturgy? In America it is the few or the none.
Christian community is dwindling. It is growing more and more outdated, more and more disengaged from modern life with all our cool inventions, easy transportation, and evolved sensibilities. Through technology and science we have broken with antiquity to forge a new world. How can ancient Christianity be deciphered by the generations of people who believe old is unevolved and backward?
For Christians our challenge is to take the unchangeable revelation of God's interactions with mankind and carry it forward to the generation of people who think they have become gods by their own hands. I have seen a few different solutions to this dilemma:
- Reform the churches to reflect doctrines and morality that make sense to modern people. If Luther could prove the Roman Catholic church wrong, then so can any other person or generation. The Episcopal Church went off the deep end with this method, but most churches in America feel the pressure to go this route in some way, shape, or form.
- Preserve the Church like a time capsule, or repristinate the liturgical (and moral) practices of a by-gone era. Of course the repristinators usually have an overly-idealized and narrow view of what they are repristinating. Orthodox churches can fall into the first trap, and ultra-conservative Protestant groups tend to have people devoted to the second.
- Limit Christianity to its essentials, and insist only on those. Of course this leads to a limited Christianity. Lacking fullness these groups find the gaps are filled in by secular movements.
I will say that the more the Church looks like the secular culture, the more superfluous it is. Secular culture itself intends to be Church-less. No compromise can ever be achieved with it, only a lessening of the Church. I will also say that forcing cultural paralysis and ecclesiastical repristination are both artificial. Some people will be happy living in the past. I might be one of them. Most people don't have the imagination or the luxury, though. They can only live in the present, and those of us enamored with by-gone days of Church life sometimes have to, too. And it is in the present where the challenge lies. It is in the present where the Church in America (if not the modern World) faces its crisis.
The average person who is heroic enough to walk into a traditional church - and here I will directly speak to my own home, the Orthodox Church - will find the fullness of the Church waiting for them. They will encounter beauty, and symbolism, and authentic spirituality, and everything that pertains to our life and salvation in the kingdom of heaven. But they need a key to unlock the mysteries they encounter. What they encounter in the Church is different from what is in the world ruled by horn of secularism. They need to be confronted with the essence of that difference, so they know that what they find in the Church is not another relic of the past that needs reforming or updating, but is that which will itself inevitably conform the entire universe to the schematic of the kingdom of God.
I believe we must confront one another with eschatology, that is, with the future reality of Christ's kingdom that is present in our midst. We hold that Christ is risen from the dead, that He has ascended to the right hand of God, and that He not only rules over everything now, but that He will come again on the clouds with great power and glory to make His rule compulsory and universal over the entire creation, over those alive and those who have died (for He will raise all the dead). This same Jesus Christ - crucified, risen, ascended, ruling, coming again - presides in our midst weekly in the sacrifice of the Eucharist. We partake of a reality that shall endure to the point of overthrowing all other attempts at reality. This is our measuring stick, the enduring fullness of the future kingdom in our midst today. This is our measuring stick, and it is the canon that we must work to impart to one another, to nurture, and to protect. Even if all people in the world should fall away from this truth, it remains truth, and it shall endure beyond the existence of the heavens and earth themselves. In the end we will only find ourselves on the right or the left of it.
Those heroic few who come to our churches must be told. When church is over, they will go home. They will turn on their TVs and watch HBO, CNN, and FoxNews. Even if they never hear a slanderous word against the Church, they will hardly hear or see anything for the Church. There will simply be an empty void, and it will be filled with CNN's coverage of same-sex marriage, of FOXNews' tit-for-tat sensationalism, with TV and movies glorifying fornication, murder, and adultery, with cursing and vulgarity and nudity and gore. It's nearly everywhere by insinuation where it isn't by intention. Then the heroic few who are inundated with the passions of the world and yet still come to church will hear what? That the morality, liturgy, spirituality, and pure faith of the Church endures. That what they see and hear and are called to order their lives around will endure beyond all other choices before them, because the Church belongs to that single enduring reality that trumps all other claims to reality by the resurrection of Jesus Christ in our midst.