Monday, January 04, 2010

The only thing I hate about the Orthodox Church

I just read this article about several Orthodox parishes in north Philadelphia that are dying. The reason they are dying is that they are failing to do what Ss. Cyril and Methodius did in the Balkan peninsula, what Ss. Herman and Innocent did in Alaska, what St. Paul did in the Roman Empire. Those famous missionaries preached the Gospel to the people so that the people could hear it. They didn't just put out the welcome mat (though it seems some of the parishes in this article don't even do that) they went out and found people to convert. St. Paul actually walked right into synagogues and said "Hey! Have you heard about Jesus? He's the Christ and he came to give you eternal life." They evangelized because they loved. I have one question. Where's the love?

So, from the other side of the country I have some advice for the bishops and priests Jesus put in charge of those parishes.

1. Do the services in English. This is a no-brainer.
2. Stop inviting people to church. (Some of you aren't even doing that.) The article says several times that people in the neighborhood do not want a religion or to join a church.
3. Offer people what they want as long as you can do it and remain true to the Gospel. They want 'spirituality' and meaning and some kind of higher purpose. So help them find it. Just don't cram the whole Orthodox tradition down their throats yet because, well, they aren't Orthodox yet.
4. Introduce them to Jesus in a form that is familiar to them: The classroom and the self-help industry.

A four part program built around the Jesus Prayer and executed by lay people (because clergy can be scary) to reach their neighbors.

Put a 5" x 7" flyer up on every bulletin board within 8 blocks of the church. The flyer should say something like this:

"Personal Transformation
and Global Change
Ancient Eastern Mysticism

Informal Class starting Saturday 9 a.m.

Basement of Ss. Sascha and Vascha church at the corner of...
Just show up."

Session 1
Have everyone sit in a circle on the floor and and give their names and ask them what they want to change about themselves. When everyone has done this say something like "Good. This is all stuff we can work on. Change is never be easy, and results are not instantaneous, but we'll work on it together."

Now there are several things they will need to be taught:

a. How to make the sign of the cross and say "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost." (explain this as like stepping through a mystical door where interaction between them and the Holy can take place.)

b. How to bow.

c. How to prostrate.

Do not explain any of this. It isn't important that they believe or even understand anything at this point. If they ask, just say "Right now, all I can tell you is this is this is how your body will interact with the Holy. Later, as you progress, I'll be able to tell you more."

You might think that they will object to this, but they probably won't. These are people who spend money to be put in uncomfortable positions by yogis, whacked on the head by Zen masters, and tortured by pilates instructors. They know instinctively that their bodies need this.

Then teach them the Jesus Prayer:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

They might react to the idea of Jesus. If they do, simply say, "this is what we have seen that works, but if you don't believe it, that's okay for now. Just saying the words is useful." They might react to the idea of being a sinner. Say "think of a sinner not as being a bad person, but as a person who has room to improve. That's why we are here, to improve." They might think they have no need of mercy. Say "What mercy is is love given by one person to a second person, even when the second person needs improvement. What we are saying here is 'please, love me even though I am not perfect' but we are saying it in the ancient way, the way we have seen work for thousands of years."

Then, say : "We are ready to move onto the next step. I will light the incense and cense the Icon (there should be an icon of Jesus in the room but no others at this point) and then I'll cense you because you are images of God, too. Then once that is done it will be time for you to put what you've learned into practice."

Then, make the sign of the cross and do a prostration.
Then, cense the icon and the students.
Then, put the censor down and lead them in the forty slowly chanted repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, with a Cross and a bow after each one.

When that is done, invite them to to sit down and drink coffee or mineral water with you you. But don't pressure them to stay and chat. Just make it casual "Well that's the lesson for this week. If you're thirsty and tired after all that bowing and chanting, help yourself to a chair and the san pelegrino and Coffee." And let them know when the next class is. Say something like, "next time we'll build on this, but until then, try to say this prayer several times each day. In time we will see the transformations."

If someone has questions about Orthodoxy don't answer them. Remember, none of these people came to class to to join a church. They are not catechumens. They came to class to find the tools to change their lives. Instead say, "you know, you came here with some specific things about yourself you want to change. I don't you to get short circuited by jumping off into a lot of stuff that at this point would be more of a distraction to you. Let's keep working on that transformation you came here for."

After this first session what will have been accomplished:
1. you will have the names of a few people in your neighborhood to pray for.
2. they will have made a new friend (you).
3. they will have just asked Jesus to come to their aid.
4. they will have seen that the Church gave to them without asking anything in return.
5. they will have been taught how to pray as Orthodox Christians.
6. They will have put themselves under the power of the Cross

Session #2: Before starting praying ask everyone how their week is going. They might or might not have seen any improvement. No matter what they say affirm their efforts. Introduce "O Heavenly King" as the opening prayer for all classes, and hand out prayer ropes for the students to use during the week.

Session #3: Introduce the Icon of Mary holding Jesus and explain that the transformation the students are seeking is really just a way for the Divine to be born into the world through them, and as that occurs they will gain more and more control over the things in their life they want to change, and simultaneously improve the world. Again, it is not important for them to actually believe in Jesus or Mary at this point so don't press them. Every time they see the icons, every time they pray the prayers another copy of them is made in their brains. Eventually, they will believe and begin the struggle for transformation in earnest. But these sessions are not even baby steps. They are a baby trying to lift his head and look around for the first time. And as you pray for them you protect them from demons and help them see Jesus more clearly.

Session #4: For three sessions the students have been very "me" focused. This session is not me focused. It is about giving thanks. Tell them "One of the biggest obstacles to personal transformation is not seeing the good other people bring into our lives. In this session we will thank ever member of the class for something specific. I'll start." Then do it. Once everyone has gone do the Jesus prayer and end with sitting around drinking coffee and mineral water just like all the other sessions. Assign homework: "Every day thank one person for something specific and end the day with this prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, thank you."

During this week call all of the members of the group on the phone and let them know you think they are ready to move on to the next level, and explain that they can keep coming to the Saturday morning group but that you'd like them to meet with a priest to talk about going deeper. By this time they shouldn't be afraid of icons, praying, incense, receiving "spritual" instruction, the name of Jesus, giving thanks, asking for mercy, or being part of a group. That is, they will be acclimated enough to the Orthodox Church to become catechumens and begin walking down the path toward baptism.


Philippa said...

I just sent this to my priest. Thanks for sharing this. Excellent stuff.

Ryan Platte said...


I love your blog and think you've got great insights, but I think you're dead wrong on this one. "Come and see". Our services are wonderful evangelism -- people seeking God will recognize his presence. Of course I agree about holding the services in English for this reason.

Orthopraxis is emphatically not a self-help tool. It's part of a whole given to us by God. Don't slice it apart thinking it will make us more relevant. That will fail every time.