America and the Church – More Thoughts

choir.jpg recently drew attention to a New York Times article on modern evangelicalism and the role that various forms of music are playing in their current configuration. The article contained this striking quote and observation from an interview with Tom Mercer, senior pastor of the evangelical church featured in the article:

“When you start a church,” said Tom Mercer, 52, the senior pastor, “you don’t decide who you’re going to reach and then pick a music style. You pick a music style, and that determines who’s going to come.”

High Desert Church has a sprawling concrete campus that includes a lavish auditorium, a gym, classrooms and office space for its 70 employees. Once a traditional Baptist church, it moved toward nondenominational and evangelical Christianity in the mid-1990s and experienced steep growth. Now more than 8,000 people attend services here at least twice a month.

This very frank quote points to a growing trend in modern American Christianity: marketing. The problem with this marketing approach is only beginning to reveal its flaws (apart from the theology behind it): America is becoming increasingly fragmented in its music styles. Thus Churches, or at least services, are having to be multiplied to meet the growing diversity of the market. Instead of a religion that unifies, the Church becomes the highly segmented, market-driven organization that ministers and feeds the fragmentation of Christianity. It is “enculturation” run mad.

At the same time this phenomenon is occurring, Orthodoxy in America (despite its jurisdictions), bumbles forward and continues to grow, using everything from Byzantine music (quite foreign to the modern ear) to Russian Obikhod (a rich harmony but somewhat repetitive) which does not sound foreign to the American ear, but does not sound like the hymns your mother grew up with. And yet it grows.

Someone asked me once (actually more than once) what St. Anne (my parish) does to grow. I answered simply: “We answer the phone.” I cannot explain where the converts come from, though there is a slow but steady stream. Frequently they have to be patient and become accustomed to the music. On the other hand, a recent delegation from Obninsk, Russia, visited, and though the service was (with but one or two exceptions) completely in English, they felt completely at home. The music, as least as far as “tunes” go, was the same as used at home.

There is no way to say to someone, “Our music is superior to yours.” That’s a very arguable statement. I do prefer the theological substance and meat of an Orthodox hymn when compared to the average American “praise song,” but I will not claim musical superiority. What I can observe is that Orthodox music (indeed Orthodox everything) is not market driven. It is what it is and you learn it as it is. The same is true for the faith. We teach what was given us and what has been “organically” part of the Orthodox Tradition. The faith remains the same whether the “market” is a village in Africa or a suburb of Los Angeles. It is thus truly “inclusive” and “universal” in the extreme.

There is today a great gulf fixed between the organic life of Orthodox Tradition and the ephemeral comings and goings of market-driven American religion. How can we compare such things? These are apples and oranges.

I receive comments and questions here at the blog, asking for comparisons or to offer an answer of “how do you know you are right and others are wrong?” I can never answer such questions sufficiently. But one observation can me made in the light of this posting. What I can say of Orthodoxy could have been said a week ago, a century ago, five centuries ago, etc. With the movements in the market I cannot be sure of what this changing American market-driven Church will say of itself even tomorrow.

Tragically, I’ve heard of some market-driven Churches seeking to put together services that would feel more “ancient,” with a bit of ritual, incense and chant. It is tragic because these things are not organically part of who they are but simply another stab at the American market. As such it cannot save because it itself is captive to mammon and the culture of the market.

Whether these current phenomena will continue in Evangelicalism is anybody’s guess. I have no idea. What Orthodoxy will continue to do I can describe with a fair assurance of being right. We’ll be doing what we’ve always done, with occasional new hymns written (we do still write music) – but it will be much like what has gone before. For some that is a comfort.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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37 responses to “America and the Church – More Thoughts”

  1. pistolpete Avatar

    I appreciate your commitment to orthodoxy. I would say, however, that the core content of orthodoxy (the Gospel) can be packaged in many forms. The unique thing about the teaching of Jesus (apart from his teaching “with authority”) was that he spoke in the language of the people (sharing simple stories). A good bit of contemporary Christian music conveys the Gospel message in the language of many people today. It’s not for everyone, but a good many.

  2. The Scylding Avatar

    The whole marketing thing, formulated (although it is older) by folks such as Hybels and co., is just terrible. It is an outgrowth of unchecked capitalism, with faith becoming a commodity. These people might talk about the Holy spirit, but they certainly do not believe in Him. OTH, growth such as what you describe is obviously Spirit driven.

    I’m not Orthodox, but I rejoice daily in the good news from ‘that quarter’. God’s riches blessing on you and your parish.

  3. Canadian Avatar

    It’s funny what happens in evangelicalism, though. Once you have decided you are against “market” Christianity, the next step is often to “market” yourself as such! We will then promote or sell ourselves as “New Testament Christianity” or “biblical Christianity”. It is one thing to exist or define yourself because you are against something, it is another to just “be”…..for the glory of God. That is one thing that is appealing about Orthodoxy. Nearly everything about it grates against my cold Protestant skin (no marketability), but yet I sense Christ there and He only allows one to “market” him….the Spirit of truth, active through those living epistles who are written with the Spirit of God.

  4. T Avatar

    This “marketing through music” thing is not only happening in the big non-denom churches like Willow Creek or Saddleback; it’s also taking place in small, more reformed churches like those in the pca denomination. You would think a PCA church wouldn’t be obsessed with worship style and the music we play, but sure enough, it happens. Idolatry can happen on either end. It can happen with the big non-denom church and it can happen with the more reformed types. When Willow Creek says, “Boy, our worship sure is top-notch, cutting-edge, and professional,” and they idolize that, they’re worshipping their worship. Likewise, when the small pca pastor says, “Boy, atleast we’re not like that baby-boomer church Willow Creek. Atleast we put new tunes to old hymns and have professionally trained jazz musicians in our band,” it is the same idolatry that the bigger church is committing.

    I’m 29, and by the looks of things you’d think I prefer a rock-praise band. But I don’t. I like the chanted prayers at my local St. Herman’s Orthodox church.

  5. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar
    Nathaniel McCallum

    Of course the greatest tragedy is what such chaos does on the ability to truely enter into the depths of one’s own heart. If the music is something which we just enjoy, we are merely feeding our passions, rather than subverting them.

  6. T Avatar

    I couldn’t have said it better, Canadian.

    And yes, Nathaniel. I agree.

  7. Stephen Avatar

    Father Bless,

    Thank you for a timely article, I just finished the US News and World Report mag about sacred places, quite interesting. The holiday season the world has begun entering into ( and we have started with Nativity fast) is a great comparison of dynamics and values. Being an orthodox christian in a family and culture of weatern christianity can be difficult in regards to trying to meet the greater family needs and respect the faith which I have embraced. Throw in the attempt to be true to the fast while remaining descreet and non-triumphant in appearance is a great difficulty some days. I am grateful that this year we are having Divine Liturgy for the 40 days-what a blessing! The strength I have received from the regular attendance (that I am able to go about half the time is amazing! ) has drawn me closer and gives me the ability to stand strong. I am afraid of the let down that will come when it is over ( much like the let down that can happen after Great Lent). But for now, I encourage all who can attend as many services as their time will let them, you will never be sorry!

  8. AR Avatar

    With apologies to Scylding, I’m wary of blaming this problem on an economic system such as capitalism. In fact I pretty much believe that religion creates culture rather than the other way around. (My husband points out that capitalism replaced feudalism just as protestantism came in, so there’s probably something to Scylding’s assessment. I just don’t feel it’s the whole story.)

    If we are particularly looking at the feeder-frenzy religion of the past fifty years of evangelicalism, then I think we should assume that there were religious motivations. Listen to what an evangelical prophet has to say about the mindset that created this situation:

    “Evangelicals are antimodern only across a narrow front; I write from a position that is antimodern across the entire front. It is only where assumptions in culture directly and obviously contradict articles of faith that most evangelicals become aroused and rise up to battle “secular humanism”; aside from these specific matters, they tend to view culture as neutral and harmless. More than that, they often view culture as a partner amenable to being co-opted in the cause of celebrating Christian truth. I cannot share that naïveté; indeed, I consider it dangerous. Culture is laden with values, many of which work to rearrange the substance of faith, even when they are mediated to us through the benefits that the modern world also bestows upon us.”

    – David Wells in “No Place for Truth” (Thanks to for supplying me with the quote.)

    (I was particularly impressed, by way of contrast, with Vladimir Lossky’s description of the early Fathers’ struggle to use the language of Greek philosophy without importing its assumptions…as a result they developed new, diverging definitions for two Greek synonyms they needed to describe the persons/substance of the Holy Trinity.)

    So what is evangelicalism’s story? When fundamentalism shifted to “the new evangelicalism” in the 1950’s, there was a lot of talk going around about using cultural forms to reach the culture. Fundamentalism was viewed as having been in a defensive, reclusive position and the new evangelicalism was going to fearlessly engage the culture to reach the world for Christ. In other words, the motivation was 1) to be taken seriously by the society again, and 2) evangelism and mission. But as Wells says here, the forms that evangelicals adopted from the culture were chosen without discrimination. They were viewed as neutral tools. In the case of music this meant using the musical styles of the fifties…which happened to be vapid, increasingly sex-charged entertainment tunes. Within a generation an already floundering religious community had been unintentionally subverted to entertainment-oriented religion. Once that happened the leadership found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to keep up with the trends in order to feed the changing demands of the constituency. (Ironically, now that this situation has reached its present extremes, my generation is fleeing churches that are hardly recognizable as such any longer.)

    But why was that community already floundering? You can trace it on back to similar practices in earlier fundamentalism – e.g. William Jennings Bryan and his use of the political machine, culminating in the infamous Scopes Trial.

    Going further back, you’ve got American Christianity’s growing preoccupation with innovation in the 1830’s or so. Motive: keep the revivals going.

    Why were revivals needed? The puritan and post-puritan churches were dependant on unpredictable visitations of the Spirit to keep the churches alive…perhaps because they were puritans, that is to say spiritual minimalists. Also, Germany, birthplace of the Reformation, had burned out religiously and was producing a new, liberal “theology” that denied the supernatural nature of Christianity altogether. Threatened, an increasingly miracle-less religion deeply felt the need for continual revivals to assure itself of “the second story” to use Fr. Stephen’s analogy.

    Trace that minimalist mindset back to the English reformation, with all its sins and strife, and trace the reformation (and the second story) back to the failures of the Western medieaval church…

    My Point: how we got here is a complicated process and I believe it’s important not to take a political view of it, that is to say, subject religious dilemmas to a political viewpoint, which is another American tendency.

    But I think there’s another really important lesson here for the Orthodox Church in the U.S. Thank God, the liturgy appears to be safe. But everywhere I look I see Orthodox churches happily adapting other American practices into the peripheral life of the church (and even tacking it onto the end of the Liturgy) and I wonder if many have thought about how these practices could infect the religious spirit of the faithful. I refer to the Vacation Bible Schools, the ego-trip fund raisers, the stewardship programs…all the programs really. Teaching kids and giving our money to God are good and proper things to do, but we really have to think about the forms we adopt to get those things done (or more often, to get other people to do these things.)

    Programs are a really good example. I believe American churches originally borrowed the concept from secularist governments. Programs are, by definition, a replacement for persons (whether Divine or human) and that is directly opposed to Orthodox thinking as I understand it. In a religious program, the growth of some personal spiritual discipline is being coached by a course of mass-generated motivational events instead of a live human being. In the case of Orthodoxy the human being is still available so the effect is buffered. In the case of a church given over largely to programs, I can testify that the effect is a tough conscience, resentment against church leadership, de-personalization, unmet needs, spiritual immaturity… in other words, you feel like one of Pavlov’s dogs. The bell rings, you salivate. But then you remember you’re a human, not a dog, and you start to resent whoever is ringing the bell (this gets really bad if you believe the tale that it’s God.)

    Since Orthodoxy is typically friendly to indiginous cultures, and is currently adopting a very gracious, dialogue-ready attitude toward other forms of religion, I feel there is a real degree of danger in its contact with American evangelical practices. (The danger, to be precise, is that once you are comfortable expressing religious duties in terms of programs, you might start to view religion as a program…and even programs as religious. It’s happened before now.) As a mere chatecumen, I don’t know all that much about Orthodoxy yet but as a ‘cradle evangelical’ I do know a lot about American Christianity. Sadly, its trends, practices, forms, and approaches are not the friend of true religion.

  9. Aserb Avatar

    Although I loved the article and even agree with it, the number of Americans are legion who could care less about correct theology or the continuity of the one true holy catholic and apostolic church. your article is preaching to the choir to use a phrase. Most “religious” Americans are out looking for the next music genre to tickle their ears.

  10. inWorship Avatar

    Why is the church choosing to consistently attack it’s own? I am so confused by this?

    If you want to know my opinion of why the church is becoming “increasingly fragmented”, it’s because it continues to fragment itself by picking itself apart.

    If Orthodoxy is showing people Jesus then practice it. If evangelicals are showing people Jesus then keep it up.

    It’s not about music and marketing! It’s about intent. And criticism intends on fragmenting the church…

  11. Richard Barrett Avatar

    There is today a great gulf fixed between the organic life of Orthodox Tradition and the ephemeral comings and goings of market-driven American religion. How can we compare such things? These are apples and oranges.

    Let me ask this, however–how much more likely is it that a Greek person, moving to a given area, will look up in the phonebook the nearest Greek Orthodox parish, rather than the nearest Orthodox parish, period? Or how about a Russian? Or an American convert (who, for the sake of argument, was probably chrismated in an Antiochian parish)?

    To some extent, I humbly suggest that until more people, cradles and converts alike, are willing to go to the closest parish to them rather than looking for the parish that has the kind of people they’re used to seeing, Orthodoxy finds itself in the “market-driven” boat as well, at least to some extent. As a convert, I put that burden on myself–if, for example, I’m driving past a Greek and/or a Serbian church to get to a parish where there are more Anglo-American converts, then it seems to me something is wrong.


  12. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth

    Richard, you wrote: “To some extent, I humbly suggest that until more people, cradles and converts alike, are willing to go to the closest parish to them rather than looking for the parish that has the kind of people they’re used to seeing, Orthodoxy finds itself in the “market-driven” boat as well, at least to some extent. As a convert, I put that burden on myself–if, for example, I’m driving past a Greek and/or a Serbian church to get to a parish where there are more Anglo-American converts, then it seems to me something is wrong.”

    In my opinion, it’s a matter of language, rather than “wanting people who look like you.” In my six-county metropolitan area, most of the Greek parishes have services more than 50% in Greek, same with the Serbian and other ethnic parishes, I am told by my priest. One local Greek parish threw out a priest who tried to introduce more English into services. There’s a substantial Greek population locally.

    In my large city if you want English, you come to my parish (Antiochian) or one of three OCA non-ethnic parishes (which includes the cathedral). An OCA Romanian Episcopate parish is closer to me than my parish (mine is only three miles away), but the Romanian parish has all Romanian services. Two miles further, I get English services. There are more English-language parishes in the suburbs.

    My parish is now attracting ethnic folks who are tired of the emphasis on ethnicity. Part of the reason is that they want services their children can understand.

    Why should I, as a convert, be forced to attend services that are not in my native language, if when I driive a bit farther, I can get English ones? I suspect that is a very large reason why Anglo-American converts drive to English-language parishes.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Variety of thoughts – more than I want to respond to. Inworship – I do not share your definition of Church. But that’s a longer story. Writing an article is not the whole of my life. If I write and article critical of something that doesn’t mean that I’m doing nothing else. But…nevermind.

  14. Mary Lowell Avatar
    Mary Lowell


    “… I feel there is a real degree of danger in its contact with American evangelical practices. (The danger, to be precise, is that once you are comfortable expressing religious duties in terms of programs, you might start to view religion as a program…and even programs as religious.”

    I find your commentary chilling, especially in light of what I am seeing happening to the second generation removed from the convert experience, i.e. the grandchildren. Several young parents in my parish have pressured the priest to start a “children’s church” program (so far, thank God, he has resisted!). Let me quote one parent who wants Children’s Church “so we can enjoy the service.” Enjoy? I thought it was work … though “my yoke is easy and my burden light.”

    At the opposite end, there’s the Sunday School/Vacation Bible School program parents who drop off the kids to color and paste while they go for coffee and return to chauffeur them home, believing they have performed their duty to have the little ones in Church. Put this together with the constant whining for “Bible Study” programs that mimic the formula of sitting in a circle taking turns reading a verse and talking about “what it means to me,” or led by some “in residence” Bible expert through a crash course in exegesis. Yes, I am talking about an Orthodox parish, not Vapid Road Praise Center, USA.

    Perhaps, God forbid, the Liturgy is in trouble when folks find the presence of Angels, Apostles, Martyrs, Saints, the Theotokos and Christ Enthroned something to be supplemented, something their children interrupt with their coos and shuffling. Why would you want your children sequestered elsewhere when “the King of Glory enters in”? I don’t get it! And obviously these parents don’t either. When the words of the Gospel and spiritual poetry of Kontokian and Troparian need “feeliness” injected with Bible relevance outside of Liturgy, what’s going on? Where are “the ears to hear” the greatest Bible study in the entire universe delivered every Vespers, Matins, Feast Day and Divine Liturgy?

    Being a crotchety old convert, I oppose all these “programs,” not to mention the theater style arrangement of pews breaking up the freedom of movement in worship and the joy of standing with the angels in awe of heavenly things present. However, I am seeing, with grief, the exodus of 30-somthings chasing smarter-run programs in the wealthier, Anglo-Teutonic flavors offered up and down Vapid Road row. Is this just an anomaly here in my parish or are other old fogies like me concerned about “the degree of danger” in Orthodox people wanting to ape the surrounding Protestant culture and their market-driven religion?

    Can’t blame it on the language issue or ethnic ghetto, ours is an English only parish.

  15. Richard Barrett Avatar


    In my opinion, it’s a matter of language, rather than “wanting people who look like you.”

    Perhaps. I’m not sure these are unrelated issues. I have a convert friend for whom the closest parish is a somewhat ethnic Antiochian parish; there’s a decent amount of English, but nonetheless, he drives half an hour to an OCA parish so that he won’t be, as I recall him putting it when he was struggling with this question, “the red-haired boy in the corner in a room full of Arabs.”

    In my large city if you want English, you come to my parish (Antiochian) or one of three OCA non-ethnic parishes (which includes the cathedral).

    Well, okay, but do I want the Christian faith more than I want to hear something in my own language? I’m not going to pretend that those are totally unrelated issues, or that there aren’t pastoral issues there to which one needs to be sensitive, but the whole problem with the “I want my native language” mentality (be it English, Greek, or otherwise) is that it segregates us rather than brings us together. It seems to me, if we make the faith the most important thing, than even us native English speakers need to lay the language issue aside in humility rather than walking into a church with expectations that are all about “me.”

    This isn’t an abstract issue for me, either. On vacation in Germany this last summer, the only parish where I was staying was a heavily ethnic Greek parish. The services were 100% in Greek, including the homily, and at coffee hour if people weren’t speaking Greek they were speaking German. My German is passable; my modern Greek is non-existent, so it would have been really easy for me to just not go, but I went both Sundays I was in that town, and I was glad I did. Even if I didn’t understand every single word, the priest was a dear man who appeared to understand (even if his congregation didn’t) that there’s such a beast as an American convert, and was more than happy to receive my wife and I at the chalice. The Body and Blood are still the Body and Blood, whether or not the priest says “Let us give thanks unto the Lord” or “Evcharistomen to Kyrio”.

    We’re potentially moving someplace relatively soon where our in-town options would be a heavily ethnic Greek parish or a heavily ethnic Serbian parish, with the “convert parish” about 45 minutes away. I have a hard time using English to justify why I might not support the parish that’s actually local to me–in no small part because I’d hate to have a Greek or a Russian use that argument as to why they’d bypass the English-language parish I’m at now. If that makes me the blond boy in a room full of Greeks, well, they’ll adjust and so will I, in time.

    Point being, once again, that until we can get past this, we’re “market-driven” in our own way; we’re just marketing to ethnicities (including American!), not “worship styles”.


  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary Lowell, I would say that the “parents” who want to absent their children from the service are neither fullfilling their reponsibility as parents nor as Christians. I also fear that the priest is is just “resisting” the remonstrances instead of actively preaching the truth of the Eucharistic gathering from the pulpit and in his conversations with these deluded folk is being too nice.

  17. inWorship Avatar

    fatherstephen – I think it’s interesting that you know what my idea of church is…

    I haven’t really said, but I am sure you have your opinions. Maybe you could point me to some of your writings on what “your” idea of church is.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    In worship: in brief, I only meant that your statement was Protestant, not that I have any idea of what flavor or twist you may have of it.

    Look at my series on Pillar and Ground of Truth (it’s fairly early on) it may say something of what I believe. But I don’t have an idea of Church, I simply belong to the Orthodox Church and seek to be obedient to its teachings. People can’t invent Churches anymore than they can invent a tree. The Church is the body of Christ and thus Divine. Christ established it, and though many have created things they call Churches they are not the Church. Not that they are not Christians. But their relationship with the Church is quite ambiguous at best.

    I’m not giving my particiular opinion. This is simply the teaching of the faith. The same faith that is expressed in the Council of Nicaea and the other seven councils. For a thousand years there was only this Church (prior to the schism with Rome).

    My observation is that some of the American habits that have come to mark part of evangelical Christianity are ultimately deadly to the evangelical movement itself. They have little to do with Orthodoxy, other than sending us more people who are hungry for the Church.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    To the Orthodox,

    There has been barely one generation of English-speaking Orthodoxy in America, for a variety of reasons. Don’t be impatient with what will be a very long process. Many things would be better if…

    Thus we pray, we wait, we’re patient. Being patient won’t hurt any of us. When the day of such good things dawns, it will be like a woman in childbirth.

  20. inWorship Avatar

    fatherstephen – Thank you for your response and clarification. I will take some time to read through your series.

  21. brianglass Avatar

    I (an evangelical) have always believed 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to advocate reaching people of different cultures by adopting their cultural norms and becoming more like them in order to “speak their language.”

    Father Stephen, how should this passage be interpreted in light of what you are saying?

  22. fatherstephen Avatar


    This has always been the method of Orthodox mission – whether in antiquity or in modern times. The Russian mission to Alaska in the 1700’s and early 1800’s immediately developed native alphabets, translated texts and trained and ordained native clergy. To a large extent this continues today. The American experience is slightly different. Here, much of the Orthodox population did not arrive as missionaries but as economically oppressed peoples who then went to work in mines and factories. They were not trained as missionaries. There is an “ethnic” portion of Orthodox in America who have, to some extent, maintained ties with their native cultures. There is also a strong Orthodox mission component in America. But we should not confuse American culture with the music, etc., being marketed by mass media. It is not folk culture – it is not necessarily American culture – it is mass culture – produced and marketed to people’s passions to exploit the very lowest elements of their nature. Much American music is to music what pornography is to art. St. Paul did not adopt the pornographic culture of Corinth for the purposes of the Church but rebuked it.

    The Church is speaking English (increasingly) and simply is American (if there are Orthodox who think the Church is not enough American yet, go overseas and you’ll see just how American we are already). We are engaging the main issues of this culture as clearly as anyone if not more clearly than most. No one says that mainline Episcopalians are not American, but they fund abortion, and endorse the revisionism of Hollywood culture. They have only a distortion of the gospel, which is mostly American Democratic party rhetoric wrapped in theological jargon (not to put too fine a point on things). Orthodoxy speaks English and says abortion is wrong and destruction to both mother and child. It speaks to our consumerist economy and says that it has no place in the spiritual life of the Church but is instead destructive of the human spirit. Worshipping God primarily in a manner that you find pleasing isn’t spiritual, it’s just more consumer nonsense. The Scriptures tell us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

    Of course the Church has to be able to speak to a culture. My Orthodox parish is full of converts, from those with a high school diploma only to PhD physicists – from every background – atheist, wiccan, protestant, catholic, evangelical, you name it. We have probably 8 or more nationalities (out of 150 people). They have not had to embrace a culture foreign to America in order to be Orthodox, but have to embrace God who will transform this and every culture that it might become the Kingdom of God.

    But buying into the notion that we have to cater to the market whims of American music in order to reach people is just nonsense (forgive me but it’s true). And such ideas are destroying the very evangelical movement that gave it birth. Finney was wrong about a number of things – but the modern translation of his evangelical mandate into the culture morphing of the Church is simply wrong. “Praise” is used as a very large metaphor to cover much that is simply an indulgence of the flesh.

    I have spent plenty of time with youth of both highschool and college years, who have been nurtured in Orthodox life. They’re not anti-music, etc. (indeed I like a lot of contemporary music and appreciate my children sharing it with me), but these same youth know what it is to worship God and when it is time to lay aside “all earthly cares” and offer God praise that is worthy (if any praise can be worthy) and in a spirit that is yielded to God and not something else.

    Sorry for so a long answer. I probably had too much time this afternoon to think about this.

    So, I agree that we have to minister to a culture, but I do not think that each age group’s niche music is the same thing as culture – nor many other facets of American life. Having drive-through communion, for instance, (which is done in some few Protestant places), certainly incorporates an element of American culture – but it borders on blasphemy. Where do you draw the line? I draw the line at accepting the received Tradition of the Church and translating that into our culture. That certainly means that worship will be liturgical (which is not foreign to American culture) and according to the form given us from the Fathers, though it will be in English and in music that is accessible to Americans (thus far, the range of music within Orthodoxy has been sufficient for American evangelism, though we continue to write more). But our lives will be focused on the Gospel, and the Traditions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving as given to us by the Fathers. This is the saving work given to the Church rather than creating niche music.

  23. Ezekiel Avatar

    What an interesting conversation!

    One of the beauties of Orthodoxy is that in the liturgical life, the faith is proclaimed and prayed! This morning, on the feast of St Catherine, I thought of that as troparia and kontakia were sung proclaiming (and teaching) the Entrance of the Theotokos, the Resurrection, St. Catherine, and our patron saints, Sts Constantine and Helen. For the most part, those same hymns were sung across Orthodoxy. The Divine Liturgy, as well as the other services, “guard the deposit of truth” throughout the ages and in every place and culture!

    I also believe that Father is correct when he talks about our ethnic roots and exercising patience (not always an easy thing to do). In fact, I think we may have chatted about this very thing briefly when we met not so long ago.


  24. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth


    If one can’t understand a word of the language in which the Gospel is proclaimed at a given parish, do you actually think many Americans will give that parish a second thought? To be able to fully accept the faith, you have to be able to understand what’s being preached. And if a parish has the Scripture readings, Creed, and sermon all in a language I don’t speak (in addition to the rest of the service), you can be sure I won’t set foot in the door. You come to faith through hearing, and not understanding the language spoken is a huge barrier.

    A friend of mine attends (and is being chrismated soon) at the only parish around for miles. Turns out it’s a Greek parish, but since folks of many different backgrounds attend this church, English is the pan-Orthodox language. St. Tikhon said the same thing.

    For some convert families, finding an English-speaking parish is a pastoral necessity. I’ve known not a few families where the spouses were in agreement to investigate Orthodoxy and eventually convert, but one spouse stipulated services had to be in English – didn’t see any point in attending services he/she couldn’t understand, let alone their children. Ethnic parishes are losing their young people, in part due to the language issue. Why should American children have to go to services they can’t understand the language of?

    You mention your acquaintance who passes by an Antiochian parish to go to an OCA one. For many of us, we have lots of choices in parishes. Driving 30 minutes instead of 15 is still considered local.

    But I daresay that some priests exacerbate the situation. I have friends who met a priest at some event. They mentioned they wanted to attend an Orthodox parish, but there was one closer to them than his (both English-speaking). The priest said, “No, come to mine!”

    My priest has a phrase he repeats often, “There is a special place reserved in hell for those who insist on services in a language the people can’t understand.”

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is doubtless the case that our American situation has presented many challenges to Orthodoxy (not for its first time). St. John Chrysostom, when he was Archbishop of Constantinople, had a parish established there in which the services were in Goth, because of a sizable Goth population in the capital. But we have our unique situations and challenges here. Most of all, it requires patience, both with the situation and with other Christians (including priests). There are many weaknesses in us all – but God hears our prayers and will never abandon us.

    Archbishop Dmitri (OCA), converted to Orthodoxy under the Greek Church in Dallas in 1940 when there wasn’t even a book in English on the topic. He and his sister came to Orthodoxy largely through articles in encyclopedias. He was over 20 before he ever knew what was in words of the liturgy. Men of his generation (such as Met. Kallistos Ware) were pioneers of a sort – converts beyond all odds. Such giants have paved the way for others (Met. Kallistos’ magisterial work The Orthodox Church was published in 1963). When I first explored Orthodoxy in the early 70’s, it was fairly easy to own almost everything on the subject in English. I think I had everything St. Vlad’s published (not a shelf’s worth). Today there are tons of books (although some of the most important remain either untranslated or out of print). We are a missionary land with several distinct realities operating side-by-side – some influenced by American history, others by events in Eastern Europe and Asia completely unknown to the average American. I might add that the context of the New Testament is nearly unknown or largely misunderstood by most Americans as well. I say this as a trained Classicist who has taught adult classes for nearly 30 years (to educated adults) most of whom are regularly surprised by even the most mundane information about the Roman world at the time of Christ.

    All of that is to say that we should be patient with each other – with the Orthodox Church and its leadership – and believe in God above all. Whatever our individual challenges – it’s not as if we’re living in one of Stalin’s Gulags. There are saints who dwelled there who would look with pity on the state of our souls. May they pray for us to the all-merciful God.

  26. Ezekiel Avatar

    Father, Bless!

    Your last paragraph is very, very important. Earlier this afternoon, in a rambling conversation, a younger brother in Christ and I mentioned such things.

    Reading Father Arseny, or meeting Father Roman Braga really puts things in perspective. A look at St Catherine’s story brings into sharp focus the cost of discipleship – and causes one not to take for granted the freedom and relative peace we enjoy in this country.

    May the Saints pray for our eternal welfare, and would that the Holy Spirit would keep us from spiritual complacency, which ultimately leads to spiritual death!

    Be sober! Be vigilant! For your adversary the devil prowls as a roaring lion (remember that lions seeking prey do not roar, but patiently wait until the prey is singled out, alone, cut off …)

    Christ is in our midst!


  27. Theodora Elizabeth Avatar
    Theodora Elizabeth

    Fr. Stephen,

    My apologies for being a little emphatic on the English issue. I’m currently mentoring a young woman in her 20s who is seriously looking at the Church. She had previously almost become Orthodox in a Greek parish due to her then-fiance (more so to pacify his family with a Church wedding, there was no catechesis, she’s come to a more substantial faith in the years since) but had great difficulties due to the language issue (nothing was in English, including the sermon). She had a hard time believing there were parishes (and a great number of them!) where everything is done in English. We’re having to start from scratch, which is also beneficial for me. It’s always good to review the basics.

    My parish is also getting an increasingly large number of “refugees” (as they describe themselves) from non-English parishes, so this is something discussed often at coffee hour, etc.

  28. Richard Barrett Avatar


    If you live in an area where you have so many choices of parishes that a half hour drive is still considered local, consider yourself lucky. I am nonetheless remembering having heard a joke at some point that “You’re not really Orthodox unless you drive past two or three Orthodox parishes to get to your own.” Living in a town where there’s only one parish for at least an hour in any direction (four depending on which direction), and it’s still fifteen minutes away, I guess my perspective on that is a little different. I live within a minute’s drive of some number of fellow parishioners; I’m pretty sure I couldn’t say that if I were commuting to a parish farther away. I suppose it can also depend on how one defines community. We’re very much a local community by virtue of being the only parish in a town small enough that many of us are neighbors, or at least within a few blocks of each other and/or run into each other at the grocery store.

    With respect to language, I’m not insisting on anything; don’t misunderstand me. Let me put it a different way. What, ultimately is going to be a more organic (and thereby, for the Orthodox mind, more effective) way of adopting English as a liturgical language–a top-down imposition to accommodate people who aren’t necessarily part of the parish yet, which amounts to trying to “complete” with other parishes for English speakers (since what we’re talking about is a “market-driven” approach), or a bottom-up accommodation of what has become a growing number of English speakers? Yes, this way would mean change will take a lot longer, but don’t we pride ourselves on change taking a long time?

    Keep in mind that there are ROCOR bishops who still have a stated objection to English translation, regardless of what St. Tikhon might have thought; this is clearly not a settled issue by any means, and as Fr. Stephen said, it’s going to take a long time to be a settled issue. I guess for my part, I’ve seen a decent number of ethnic groups, including Americans, make enough demands about how they want their culture to be accommodated (or what they think accommodation means) , that I’m just very much at the point where I think we all need to bring a lot more humility to the table. Orthodox churches shouldn’t be in the business of advertising an ethnicity or a culture that gets to be affirmed during the Liturgy, the American ethnicity included. I as an American convert to Orthodox Christianity shouldn’t be in the business, either, of going to church expecting my American-ness to be affirmed.

    I acknowledged earlier that this isn’t intended to dismiss legitimate pastoral and practical issues, and I still acknowledge that–but I’m talking in ideals here. I’m also talking somewhat in terms of “do unto others”–there are people in town of particular ethnicities for whom the local parish isn’t Greek/Russian/Bulgarian/Serbian/American enough and who commute up to an hour and a half to attend a parish that is. Doesn’t sit right with me that they do this (or that clergy at some of those parishes actively fundraise down here), so applying that same standard to myself, I don’t think I can use language/ethnicity as an excuse, at least for myself, to drive such distances in the future to get to a church that has “my” people when there’s one closer.

    Where practical and pastoral reality intrudes on this perfect little world I’ve described, so be it. I guess I just see a danger in Orthodoxy being presented to Americans as a menu of options (pick and choose from various cultural traditions, pick and choose from the collection of parishes within driving distance, etc.). That’s being “market-driven,” too, and it has the potential to allow people to dismiss anything they don’t like as “ethnic custom” or “little-t tradition” or whatever somebody wants to call it. We like to say as converts that in the first millennium, you couldn’t just walk down the street to the next church if you didn’t like what was going on in your own, since there only was one church, but we need to figure out how to manifest that as a present-day reality, too.

    If that means a certain amount of humility on the part of us converts when it comes to our expectations, well, that may not be what we want to hear, but it may very well be what is needed in the long run.


  29. Richard Barrett Avatar

    er… paragraph #2, line 6: “complete” should be “compete”.

  30. Michael O. Avatar

    In Worship,

    Some people do criticize because they want to appear astute, or because they are grouchy, or possibly because they intend to fragment the church. However, many criticize some thing in the hopes that the hearer will reconsider their position and improve it or avoid its pitfalls. Do you realize that’s exactly what you did? You criticized Fr. Stephen’s criticism in the hopes that he (or at least someone reading) would cease to
    do something you perceived as damaging; you didn’t criticize because you thought your criticism would bring about fragmentation.

    It seems odd to me that a Protestant would say not to criticize and pick apart the Church, but let it be as long as it shows people Jesus rather than REFORM it. Why break from Rome then? Why not go back to being Catholic (or further back and be Orthodox)?

    Your criticism assumes every strain of Christianity “shows” the same Christ (or at least that Orthodox and Evangelicals do) and that all Christians are the Church (at least that both Orthodox and Protestants equally are). Whatever form of Protestant ecclessiology you subscribe to I can say with certainty, along with Fr. Stephen, Orthodox simply do not share it. Your desire for Christ to be shown and for peace among Christians is admirable (I hope I share such desire with as much zeal), but peace isn’t always about ignoring differences. I hope your readings here will be profitable.

    In Xp,

  31. Michael O. Avatar

    Pistol Pete,
    Christ’s parables are not a good example of “simple stories” catering to a particular audience. Jesus typically told a parable and was met with, “What does this mean?” And once after the disciples asked Him the meaning of a parable, He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, ‘though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand,’” Luke 8:10.
    I agree the gospel can be presented in a multiplicity of styles (musical or otherwise), but the role a Christian band plays in a club or elsewhere is not the same role music plays in church. As you say, certain Christian music is not for everyone, but for a good many. The Church, on the other hand, is for everyone (that’s in part what it means to be catholic), and the Church’s music bears this “catholicism.” This doesn’t mean we don’t speak the language of the people (literally, we work in the vernacular), or that you will hear note-for-note uniformity across parishes (not with Russian, Georgian, Serbian chant, etc), and it certainly doesn’t mean we are at all aesthetically inconsiderate. It does mean, our church does not rally around something so ephemeral as a presently popular musical style so as to attract a certain large chunk of the target audience, and that when styles and tastes change so does the church have to determine how to retain its loyal -though dwindling- consumers with tastes for style A without failing to capitalize on the burgeoning market of those with tastes for style B (or perhaps the original group with tastes for style A now how tastes for style X and Y and . . .). When you start with marketing you continue playing the marketing game.

    Fellow Orthodox,
    Might Christ say, “To you has been given the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God, but to others I sing in Byzantine chant”??? (I mean this in the sense that our liturgical music, like parables, is clearer to those initiated in the tradition and remains rather misunderstood outside of it. I’m certainly not saying those outside are incapable of “getting it,” but getting it usually doesn’t follow simply having it explained to you -it’s more organic).

  32. Ezekiel Avatar

    The beauty of chant, and of the use of the ancient hymnody of the Church (Byzantine or Slavonic) is that it supports the text and conveys the truth. In the Divine Liturgy and in Orthros (Matins), Vespers, Compline, the Hours and other services the Word is sung in order that Christ be glorified and that the Spirit works within us.

    ‘Tis true that it takes time to learn it, but I still remark that the first time that I was actually involved in the fullness of Orthodox prayer was at a monastery in Michigan. Joining the nuns at 5 am as they prayed the hours through the sixth hour was truly overwhelming (and the point at which my journey to Orthodoxy was no longer “if,” but when.

    In Christ’s Church, we are formed at shaped to that which is Christlike — it isn’t a matter of “what I like”. Or as someone said, half in jest: the Church is like the Marines — they shape Marines, “a few good men.” Now, don’t go crazy with that, for the Lover of Mankind would have all come to the fullness of their humanity in Him!

    A few Monday thoughts.

  33. pistolpete Avatar

    I still contend, though, that each worship “style” is a package. Chanting (which I agree is beautiful) is simply a vehicle to convey the Gospel truth. Many (not all) contemporary praise songs do this as well (often with direct Scripture quotes).

    It is challenging to shape worship in a Christ-like way because Scripture gives us few glimpses of Jesus at worship. We see him reading from a scroll and giving what must be the shortest sermon on record. We see him watching people give offerings and commenting on the sacrificial giving of a widow. And we see him cleansing the temple so people can better worship. Apart from these, I can think of no other worship scenes.

    Jesus doesn’t prescribe a particular liturgy form. He simply says to worship “in spirit and in truth.”

  34. fatherstephen Avatar


    Your use of St. John’s gospel illustrates a problem with “invented” Christianity, that is, reading Scripture and imagining what it must mean, without reference to the Tradition of the Church or the Fathers. The reference, according to the Fathers, to worship in “Spirit and in Truth,” is a reference to Trinitarian worship. Indeed, in the context of the New Testament, it cannot mean what modern evangelicals typically take it to mean. Worship, by every historical means known, never had a “first century” version of evangelicalism. There was only liturgical worship and there is only evidence for liturgical worship for 1500 years of the Church.

    It is indeed, challenging to shape worship in a Christ-like way, but we are not given a commandment to invent Church services. They are something God has given to us. The rejection of the worship tradition of the Church (which was always also a safeguard against heresy – lex orandi, lex credendi) has also opened the floodgates to heretical teachings and practices. The Bible alone is simply ineffective as a safeguard and has always been so. Christ, in His Church, has indeed prescribed a particular liturgical form and particular liturgical content. To deny this is to assume that Christ in the Holy Spirit has had nothing to do with His Church in its first 1000 years. By what authority is this rejected?

  35. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Father Bless,
    His Eminence Dmitri is coming to our small town tomorrow to discuss the possibility of forming a mission here. We are a newly converted family who has been driving 3 1/2 hours every other Sunday to our closest Orthodox Church. Please pray for our mission.
    In His mercy,

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    May God bless you and your town and establish His Church!

  37. AR Avatar

    Mary Lowell,

    I’m sorry I never responded to your thoughtful and concerned comment to me. I’ve been thinking about this for the past week, trying to imagine what place the Orthodox Church holds for me and my concerns. What you are seeing is a grief. I’ve seen it, too.

    On the other hand, we have the witness of Fr. Stephen’s magnificent trust in the Church’s ability to work all this out. Apparently there is a principle of life, or something, there which inspires that trust. Where you and I come from we know full well that once something goes, it’s gone. The evangelical churches, American society…it’s powerless to fix itself and we’ve lived with that despair for a long time.

    Could Orthodoxy be different in this as well?

    Last night in our chatecumen’s class Fr. B— (my beloved priest) had in a “cradle Orthodox” to talk about her experience growing up Orthodox. I guess I expected a plug for the church, but her experience was that of growing up taking communion without understanding the words spoken in the Liturgy, and attending a Catholic school. When her life fell apart she called her brother and asked him to send her a rosary! He had just discovered prayer ropes and sent one of those instead. This began the lady’s long journey back to the Orthodoxy she had never left…but never understood.

    Afterward Fr. B— talked about how the Church in America has largely been immigrant from Orthodox countries where the Church is in the air, so to speak, and because of that, much of it is just now realizing the necessity for extra-curricular Orthodox education. Time is needed to put the machinery and the customs in place for this, or to rediscover them or whatever. This is not the exact situation you were talking about, but I think it illustrates how the Church is able to adjust in order fix its problems. Anyway, maybe that can be hope for both of us.

    To be honest it’s my worst nightmare that I’ve found the only thing left and by the time my kid is in college that’s gone, too. I think Fr. Stephen is telling us to have more hope and faith than that.

    On our way home my husband mused that everyone always told us to stay put because we’d never find the perfect church. Now in our Orthodox Church people like to start sentences with “Orthodoxy’s not perfect…” then end them telling us how it nevertheless has everything it needs. I really want to believe that’s true. I think I do believe it.

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