Three Orthodox Musings on a Universal Definition of Congregational Spiritual Vitality
By Alexei Krindatch, Research Coordinator Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA
Perhaps the most interesting and important conclusion of the recent report by Linda Bobbitt, “Vital Congregations: A Faith Communities Today Special Report,” was “the degree of agreement, across faith traditions, about what it means to be a spiritually vital congregation and what things contribute to promote or damage that vitality. Spiritually vital congregations are those that come together for a divine common purpose in ways that are transformative to the people within them and to their communities.”
Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches were part of this study (11 parishes participated) and, thus, the universal definition of congregational vitality offered by Linda Bobbitt also applies to American Orthodox Christian parishes. While agreeing with this “magic formula of congregational vitality,” I would like to share three thoughts which could further deepen the understanding of vitality in the particular case of Orthodox Christian parishes.
First, unlike other religious groups engaged in the congregational vitality study, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church in the U.S. is not a single denomination. Rather, it is a big family of independent national church bodies1 that share the same theology and basic principles of church polity, but at the same time vary greatly from each other in many respects. Among the most profound differences separating these national church bodies are: a) the presence of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East among church members; b) the overall strength of the ethnic culture and identity (which expresses itself not only and not necessarily in the language of worship, but in many other elements in the life of a parish); c) the percentage of converts to Orthodoxy among church members (i.e. the religious seekers from various religious backgrounds who discovered Orthodox Christianity and joined the Orthodox Church as adults).2 Not only the entire national Orthodox church bodies, but also their individual parishes (congregations) differ significantly from one another on these three variables.
Our belief is that different aspects in the lives of the parishes have different importance for their overall vitality depending on how a particular parish measures on these three variables. For example, a parish that is mainly composed of recent immigrants may see its mission and be truly driven by the goal of building strong social networks of support among its members and helping them with adaptation to the realities of life in America. Differently, a recent study on the evangelization and outreach in U.S. Orthodox parishes3 indicated that the vitality of a parish with a high percentage of converts to Orthodoxy is strongly related to: a) desire of church members to continue to learn about the Orthodox Faith (i.e. member engagement in continuing faith formation); b) desire of church members to make their parishes more visible in and contribute to the lives of their local communities and neighborhoods.
Second, the definition of congregational vitality offered by Bobbitt can be seen as having three components: a) members gather together for a divine common purpose; b) they do so in ways that transform them; c) they do so also in ways that affect and transform the local communities where the congregations are situated. Again, while agreeing with this “three- fold” definition, we believe that the vast majority of Orthodox clergy and lay church members would have a very clear ranking of the importance of these components for overall parish vitality. In descending order of importance:
I. Members gather together for a divine common purpose;
II. They do so also in ways that transform them;
III. They gather also in ways that affect and transform the local communities where the congregations are situated.
Indeed, the Orthodox Christian Church is a sacramental and liturgical Church. The participation of church members in the liturgical life and practices of the Church, and becoming part of the body of the Church and of Christ through the preparation of and sharing in the Holy Communion are seen as by far the most important purpose and mission of each Orthodox parish. Accordingly, the quality of liturgical life in a parish (including having a full schedule of worship services in accordance with the Orthodox Church calendar, quality of choir/chanting, relevance of sermons, etc.) and members’ regular participation in worship services and following other sacramental Church requirements (fasting, confession, preparation and partaking in Holy Communion) would be at the very top among the measures of Orthodox parish vitality.
My third comment is about why “gathering in the ways which affect and transform the local communities where the congregations are situated” would be considered as the least important of the three components of vitality by a typical Orthodox parish. Here is a quote from an Orthodox lay woman who is a convert to the Orthodox Church and who participated in the recent study on evangelization and outreach in U.S. Orthodox parishes. She wrote: “We (Orthodox) see ourselves as different from everyone else and unique in a way, and we seem to celebrate that, and this is somewhat in conflict with being open, welcoming and inclusive.” In this statement, she captured the very essence of what I call “Orthodox particularism” – the engrained notion that the Orthodox are “very different” and that only Orthodox Christianity carries ultimate truth and morality, which should be authoritative for all church members.4 In the past, this notion of distinctiveness and a profound sense of community that is culturally and religiously separated from the wider society were based on the strong ethnic identity and culture of most American Orthodox parishes (originally composed predominantly of immigrants). For many generations, American Orthodox Christians commonly used the word “diaspora” as a way to describe their strong connection to the “Old World” (either through ecclesiastical polity or through emotional and social ties) and the borders that separate them and American society at large. Not as strong as in the past, but to a certain degree, this self- perception of being a part of and, at the same time, apart from mainstream America remains intact among American Orthodox Christians.
Further, there is also a relatively new and increasingly important factor that contributes to this notion of “Orthodox particularism:” the growing presence of converts to the Orthodox Church among many U.S. Orthodox parishes.5 It was found in many recent national studies on U.S. Orthodox Christian Churches that the converts to Orthodoxy are much more deliberate and intentional in professing and living out the Orthodox Faith than the cradle Orthodox church members. This also includes their stronger sense of religious particularism – the sense that the Orthodox are distinct people and the Orthodox Church is the only true Christian church.
All circumstances combined, this results in the fact that “gathering in ways which affect and transform the local communities where the congregations are situated” would be considered an important element in the overall vitality of an Orthodox parish, but definitely not as important as “members gather together for a divine common purpose” and “they do so also in ways that transform them.”
1The list of the twelve national Eastern Orthodox Church bodies that are part of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA can be found here.
2More information on this subject can be found in a study report on “Usage of English Language, Ethnic Identity and Ethnic Culture in American Orthodox Christian Churches” available here.
3Conducted by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA. The report is in the final stages of preparation for being publicly released.
4Those who are interested in more discussion and survey data on this may look at the chapter “Religious particularism, ecumenical attitudes and relation to the outside non-Orthodox community” in: The Orthodox Church Today. Alexei Krindatch, 2008. Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute: Berkeley, CA.
5The converts to Orthodoxy constitute about 50% of the national church membership in the second and third largest national Orthodox church bodies: the Orthodox Church in America and Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese.