The Christian Crisis

Any student of Church history should be well aware that there has been no century in which the Christian faith was safe, untroubled and not in crisis. To a certain extent, the Cross will always bring Christians into crisis. However, these are some thoughts on the present and some aspects of the crisis in which we live (at this moment in history).


One of the larger crises facing modern Christians is the disappearance of the Christian Church. Protestant denominations are not the same thing as “the Church” and have never had a self-understanding that could properly be called “Church.” Historically they have been, more or less, Christian organizations with certain “Churchly” aspects. The first crisis of Protestantism was the existence of other Protestants. In England (where the standard Protestant expression was Anglicanism), the question became, “What do we do about presbyters (clergy) ordained outside of the Anglican Church?” Various answers were presented. Some demanded re-ordination – others not. So long as various groups stayed within their own original boundaries (Lutherans in Germany, Calvinists in Switzerland, Holland and Scotland, Zwinglians in their corner of Switzerland, etc.) everyone could pretend that they were the “Protestant Church.” A crisis was born in the realization that Sola Scriptura (and other Reformation principles) created more problems than it solved. Various solutions arose. The American solution became the primary model: let the Church disappear as an important category in theology. Thus the “invisible Church” was born. The Church exists “invisibly” and is only known to God. All ecclesiastical boundaries are simply man-made notions, with no theological significance. Thus, the Church, instituted by Christ and of primary importance in the New Testament (to whom were the Epistles written?), becomes a non-entity, or a Second-Storey entity at best.

Today this crisis has moved past the temporal manifestation of denominations. Mainline Churches are becoming akin to shopping malls – impressive in their time and all the more sad as they stand empty or irrelevant. Why someone might be Anglican or Presbyterian, etc., is now nothing more than a taste preference. The current manifestation of Protestant “Church” is well-represented by so-called mega churches. Driven by the marketing of Christianity, these organizations are self-defined in a manner that embraces the market as never before. They are today’s upscale malls in comparison to earlier years’ empty shells. Their own emptiness is inevitable.

At the same time that the Church has become glaringly obsolete in Protestant circles, authority itself has disappeared. There is no Protestant theological system that can command sufficient loyalty to support a local mega church. There exists an “evangelical consensus” in American society. Like every consensus, such agreement is simply part of the ephemera of popular culture. Its significance is only as a barometer or wind vane.

The tragedy in this crisis is primarily spiritual – for the Church is not an optional Christian reality. There is no authentic Christianity apart from Church. As difficult as it may be for some to accept – the Church is what the Christian life looks like. It is possible to “extract” a form of Christianity from within the New Testament and make of it a private practice – but this is a misuse of Scripture. The New Testament is the Church’s book from beginning to end.

The churchless Christianity of the modern world creates distortions within the spiritual life. These distortions are so wide-spread that they are frequently found within the lives of those within the Church itself. Authentic Christian life is inherently communal, and cannot be lived apart from the “other.” “My brother is my salvation,” in the words of the fathers.

The Jesus of popular salvation narratives is sometimes a stranger to the Church. “To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior,” as part of a private spirituality can be a very serious distortion of the Jesus revealed to us in Scripture. It is not necessarily a conscious rejection of Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. However, the cultural version of the private Jesus frequently has little relation with Christ as classically taught.

The weakness of a Churchless Christianity can also be seen in its inability to engage the culture. Private spirituality is culturally meaningless. Only a community of practice can transform a culture (though this is not necessarily a primary goal of the Church). But with the absence of a transforming Christian practice, an already secular culture will only pass more deeply into the twilight of a secular order.

In short summary: the Christian Crisis is the growing disappearance of the Church as anything more than a loose affiliation of individual believers. It is the triumph of consumerism over ecclesiology. Those communities where Church remains essential (Orthodox, Roman Catholics) will not (and do not) escape the struggle engendered by the crisis. The willingness of Christians to embrace a community of practices – will be the great test of our time.

In the short term, keep Lent like your life depended on it.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





33 responses to “The Christian Crisis”

  1. Julia Avatar

    very good thoughts. Definitely understand what you are saying especially since I used to be Protestant/Evangelical and now my husband and I are catechumens at a Greek Orthodox Church. Looking back I have noticed how easily people chase after the newest fads and when that is not popular they go looking for the next one. When we do that we have no foundation and are easily swayed from one extreme to another. we must cling to the Rock of Christ and to The Church and what she has always taught and believed! blessings Fr. Stephen!

  2. Molly Avatar


    I’ve been having a really hard time with this living in the heavily Orthodox country of Georgia. I keep asking — it seems like I’m always trying to ask — how to be a part of the church community here, and the answer seems to be that I’m asking the wrong question, since my two Orthodox English professor friends, my English speaking nun friend, and my host sister don’t seem to even understand what it is I’m asking. But I don’t know what the right question is to ask. I can find out when a church service is, but I cannot learn how to be part of it, nor part of the church socially. This is extremely discouraging, and the past two weeks I planned to go to Liturgy, wanted to go, set my alarm to go — and then slept through it anyway, and was sad afterwards. I don’t know what to do. Everyone here sort of says “yeah, you can come if you like. It’s nice if you come. Or don’t. It doesn’t matter to anyone but you.” And I don’t have enough self-discipline to deal with that.

  3. Anna Avatar

    Hello Molly,

    I hope you don’t mind if I reply to your comment, although you adress it to Fr. Stephen. I also slept through the alarm this morning and missed the liturgy, so I sympathize. This is a temptation that plagues people when they try to attend the services more thoroughly than before. Our enemy senses that we want to fight against him and fights back.

    I understand that you are not Orthodox, but live temporarily in an Orthodox country. You don’t mention how strong your interest in Orthodoxy is: are you considering being received into the Church, or just want to attend the services while you are in Georgia? Becoming an Orthodox Christian and member of the Church is a lifetime commitment, something that should not be taken lightly and which, of course, requires some serious inquiry first (which for some people takes years). My guess is that your Orthodox friends might be a little unsure of how to react to your interest, wishing neither to discourage a serious interest in Orthodoxy, nor to encourage a casual interest.

    Now, if your interest is serious, you can always pray for the overcoming of obstacles (sleeping in and such) and talk to the local priest and/or the English-speaking nun about your thoughts and intentions, as well as about the Orthodox Church, faith, church life, and so forth. I’m sure Fr. Stephen’s advice can help you as well.

  4. Anna Avatar

    My apologies, Molly: only after posting it occurred to me to check out your blog and I realized that you are already Orthodox. Then you’re experiencing a classic case of lenten temptation. You’re also under increased attack because you are away from your spiritual father at home. Seek his advice if you can, as well as a blessing to go to confession to one of the local priests.

  5. Molly Avatar

    Anna, thanks for replying. When I was in Santa Fe I would usually go to to church every day, and participate as much as possible. In addition to the “it’s Lent and the divil isn’t happy about it” thing, it’s also really that I’m having a hard time with priorities and with preparation. Georgian Orthodox services are simply difficult to attend.

    Something like 85% of Georgia, and basically all of Kartveli Georgians are Orthodox, and have been since the Fourth Century, through oppression and invasion by pretty much every major near-easter empire (Persians, Ottomans, Russians…), and are still more or less unquestioningly Orthodox. In a country of five million people, they have an autocephalous church with a “Catholicos-Patriarch” and 36 bishops. Even when they were communist (I’m living in Stalin’s hometown, which used to have some 15 churches, and currently has three, which are still being re-built), they still usually baptized their children and sometimes went to church.

    This is, objectively, very cool. It’s also kind of confusing for me when I’m trying to figure out how to participate, because the people in church are Orthodox, but the people hanging out at the coffee shop during church are also Orthodox, and the people teaching classes during church at the church-run education center are also Orthodox; they’ve got town traditions, family traditions, regional traditions, and personal traditions. My host family, for instance, walks up a nearby hill to an ancient church on St George’s Day, walks around it three times, lights some candles, and then walks back, without having noticeably prayed. Some other people walk a sheep around the church and then go home to roast it. Some other people do that with a rooster; some of them have feasts, and some watch the patriarchal liturgy on TV after visiting the church; some have an all night vigil, and… there are lots of people who’s traditions I don’t know.

    My Orthodox host family goes to church sometimes, prays sometimes, but I cannot by any means predict when or what. I don’t know if I belong to the church in Santa Fe where my spiritual father is, the church in the village that I love and would be at all the time if I could, the church my host family and friend go to, when they go, or the cathedral I usually visit more often, but the community of which is simply the community of the entire town.

    And it’s Lent.

  6. Molly Avatar

    Oops, I didn’t see: I can’t go to confession with the local priest. I don’t speak Georgian or Russian well enough. (Yes, I did get myself into this mess. I did have a blessing from my priest at home, and I don’t regret it, but sometimes not knowing the local language well is problematic)

  7. hilary Avatar

    I always find it interesting when people who have been in one church or another (or lots of churches, in the case of consumerism Christianity) for most of their lives comment at length on “secular culture,” which is neither secular nor culture. I don’t disagree with any criticism of protestantism, I just think that once we’re talking about -isms, we’re in danger of thinking we have become experts on something and that it is such a legitimate thing that we’ve given it an -ism.

    Much like “churchly” (your word) people expertly commenting on the problems with/ dangers of secular culture (get thee to church! MY church! Sign here you’re saved!), I am not so sure the best critics of society are people who are so insulated from society by fear and/or choice. Society just isn’t that dangerous, is what I posit. Society with its fads and trends and politics and scandals and savory meals and thoughtless megamalls and megachurches and mega tvs? It’s mega-ephemera. A whole lot of loud flashy nothing. I mean, God is everywhere in all things, right? We can choose to say society is the problem (whereby we legitimize society, even just in our thoughts) or we can — for lack of a better metaphor — keep the God goggles on and remember that even *this* new horrible thing is simply more ephemera. We can choose how much power we assign these things. And when I get to that thought, I have to remember that even the most lightweight protestant churches (which I agree are just any other marketable product) can’t be that dangerous, either. They’re just pitstops on the way to what you’ve long called the fullness of the faith. Is that a tragedy? Maybe. If so, is it for me to think I can change? No way. Maybe it’s perfect. I get to embrace a lot of mysteries in my life, and that’s one of them.

    I worry when I hear people making too much out of society/ secular culture because it’s just — the dangers aren’t inherent to the culture but in how we view it or internalize it. I feel like all things are at worst neutral until we start assigning values to them and once we decide “that’s bad!” we just have a hard time calming down about it because we’ve made the problem way too big. I just can’t give secular culture all that much of my time when mostly I just want to giggle at it and pat its head — silly culture, you’ll wear a new costume and try selling me a lot of different things next year but just go away now, I have better things to think about.

  8. Peter Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,


    Subdeacon Peter

  9. scott sanderson Avatar
    scott sanderson

    Yes the church is in crisis. I think of G.K. Chesterton who wrote “in every age the church would perish, if it were perishable.” I think, there is the hope. We are not in control of the church, it is not temporal so it is ultimatly not defeated. It will triumph just as God triumphs.

  10. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 12:17 […]

  11. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I think that it will not be to long before churchless Christianity, that is accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, will become just another dish on the smorgeboard of religious options that a person can choose from to make up teir own personal religion. This “christianity” will become part of the new age movement. God help us!!!

  12. John Avatar

    What is your understanding of the departure from the faith in 1 Timothy 4.1 and the falling away in 2 Thessalonians 2.3 and the root of the falling away being already at work in 2 Thessalonians 2.7? Thank you.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    We live in the last days, and have since the coming of Christ. So that the “mystery of lawlessness” is already at work and has been for 2000 years. This warning of a coming apostasy is a warning of Apostolic origin. There will come a great falling away from the faith – what exactly that will look like will not be apparent until it happens. Prophecy is almost always obvious only after the fact. The mystery of lawlessness is just that, a mystery. This lawlessness is an active rebellion against God – and has a character about it that is baffling. It erupts from time to time with great destruction.
    Though there are certainly fulfillments of these things that are “last of all,” there are many times that “rhyme” with them, to use a metaphor. Thus, though I might not call a historical figure “the” antichrist, there have certainly been historical figures who “rhyme” with him (hitler, stalin, etc.).

  14. John Avatar

    You don’t think the mystery of lawlessness being already happening and what is now restraining being taken away in the future would indicate a soon (from Paul’s point in time) rather than a later consummation? Perhaps in a few years or even decades, but not millennia.

  15. Andrew Avatar

    The one who descended into the “lower, earthly regions” (he became fully man) also ascended (became fully God) meaning that all time and space has in fact been sanctified (or it moves quickly to non-existence).

    (cf Ephesians 4:9-10)

  16. […] just one short paragraph, Fr. Stephen captures the core problem of Protestantism that led me on a quest to discover and […]

  17. Tony Rodolakis Avatar
    Tony Rodolakis

    When the Protestant church adopted the policy of “Sola Scriptura” they in essense threw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Truly a shame. There is so much more to church than just accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. Namely, the Sacraments of the Church and the Holy Traditions which trace back to the Apostles. Surely, these two “things” should not be “thrown out”. They have value. One way that I like to look at it is this right here: The Fathers of the Church fathered me, I did not at all in any way, shape, or form, father them. And, as such, they are deserving of my respect. Another way of looking at it is this right here: The Fathers of the Church are our Ascendants, while we are their descendants. What this means is that they are higher-up on the spiritual mountain, if you will, than we are. May God open the spiritual eyes of Protestants to the light of the truth of Orthodoxy, to the eternal and infinite glorification of the name of Jesus. Amen.

  18. Julia Avatar

    Tony I totally agree with you because I said in a earlier comment I used to be Protestant/Evangelical and now am a Catechumen at a Greek Orthodox Church. it really is sad,i’ve been asking these kinds of questions to my protestant friends and all i get from them is nonsense. All I can do is pray that what I’ve been sharing with will make them think and that the Lord will lead and guide them. blessigns!

  19. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Great post, Father.

  20. Anna Avatar

    Molly, don’t get discouraged. I suffered a cultural shock both when I moved to the US several years ago and when I moved back to my home country in Eastern Europe in 2008. I was missing the sense of community. Some of my friends go to church, some don’t, and those who do go to churches all over the city. I’m guessing it’s the same in Georgia as here: sometimes, if you want to attend the liturgy or vespers, you have to choose between church and friends.

    You say there are only three churches functioning in town. God willing, you will meet a priest who speaks English, if not there, then in another (larger) city, hopefully soon.

  21. Jason Avatar

    “It is possible to extract a form of Christianity from within the New Testament and make of it a private practice – but this is a misuse of Scripture.” I would only add that, sometimes, even this misuse of Scripture can be a lot better than no use at all. Many of us in America have never heard of Eastern Orthodoxy. Before I found Eastern Orthodoxy, I had left my Baptist tradition and worshiped on my own for quite a while. In ignorance, I had no idea if there was a true church anywhere to be found. I knew it wasn’t the Protestant Churches that surrounded me, and I felt in my heart that it wasn’t the Roman Church either. So I tried to “extract a form of Christianity” from the New Testament as much as possible, celebrating communion (sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend), reading Scripture, praying, singing, even anointing with oil. These practices were essential in bringing me to Eastern Orthodoxy and brought me closer to the Truth. When I finally discovered Orthodox Christianity, I was delighted to find that my theology was already very similar to theirs. That is because I had extracted Christianity, by God’s grace, somewhat accurately. In the long run, I was much better off “misusing” Scripture by extracting a private practice from it than I would’ve been if I hadn’t used it at all.

  22. Micah Avatar

    Who were you using it on, Jason, if I may?

  23. Tony Rodolakis Avatar
    Tony Rodolakis

    Julia, your recourse to prayer is the best recourse of them all. Why? Because the Lord hears you and answers you based upon your faith that he does. So if and when you believe that it will become for you, then it will become for you. It is as simple as that. God bless you, and peace.

    P.S.: God be with you in your catechumenism. Amen.

  24. Andrew Avatar

    “In the short term, keep Lent like your life depended on it”

    Now more than ever as we fight to put our faith predominately in the world of chaos in which we “live”?!?!

    Thanks Fr Stephen

  25. Ian Avatar

    Father, thank you for yet another enjoyable blog post. I wanted to post up a comment to say how much I enjoy reading your blog, even though I am not Orthodox myself.

    This blog post especially speaks to my own experiences. I am an Unitarian Christian, but I grew up in a Methodist church. I too have found that the modern evangelist movement becomes a religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus. All too often people “accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour”, then carry on as before – with the smug assurance that they are “saved”. They forget that Jesus asked us to follow and to teach, as he taught. This means doing, not just believing. Paul and James made that same point in their writings.

    The more I see of the Orthodox faith, the more I realise that it differs greatly from the Catholic model that most of the Protestant churches stem from, including my own. There are obviously areas where we disagree, but there are more areas where I find that the Orthodox tradition agrees with my own.

  26. Fr. Jonathan Avatar

    I would agree that modern American Evangelicalism, which dominates the Christian landscape in America and affects every Christian community (including Orthodoxy), has an aversion to ecclesiology that has led to a weak and debased Christianity in our country. I take issue, however, with the idea that this is somehow all the fault of the Reformation. It is highly problematic to lump all Protestants together and to say that since there has never been an entity known as the “Protestant Church,” for whatever that means, all Protestant traditions must be devoid of an understanding of the need for the Church. Protestantism is a category assigned to a number of different Christian movements that have arisen since the sixteenth century. The traditions we commonly call Protestant sometimes have much in common but are not of one whole. There is no Protestant Church because there is no such thing as Protestantism. It’s a label we have invented, nothing more.

    Further, I believe your depiction of Anglicanism in particular is somewhat uneven. One of the primary concerns of classical Anglicanism is ecclesiology, which is part of why Anglicanism retained the three-fold order of ministry that most Protestants abandoned. It is true that there was some question of how to understand the ordination of ministers in other traditions in places where episcopacy was not an option because the episcopate itself had become corrupt. Nevertheless, the preface of the Elizabethan ordinal makes it clear that “from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons” and that no man may assume any of these offices unless he “hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.”

  27. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C


    ‘All too often people “accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour”, then carry on as before – with the smug assurance that they are “saved”’.

    This is a caricature, if you don’t mind my saying so. Certainly the assurance of salvation can lead to a person’s trading on the grace of God: “it matters not a jot that I continue boozing, whoring, swindling, swearing, stuffing donuts into my fat face, dodging hard work – Jesus paid the price!”

    This is what Dallas Willard has described as “bar-code Christianity”: it doesn’t matter what’s in the box as long as the bar code on the outside reads “Christian”.

    The Protestant retorts: those churches who maintain (rightly) the place of confession before a priest and consequent absolution suffer from a similar problem: “it matters not a jot that I continue boozing, whoring, swindling, swearing, stuffing donuts into my fat face, dodging hard work – I’ll confess, say a few ‘Our Fathers’ or ‘Hail Marys’ or repeat the Jesus prayer 15,000 times I shall be absolved on Saturday evening!”

    One princial part of the Protestant reformation was the recovery of the idea that we each need to take seriously our personal standing before Almighty God. We can neither outsource the state of our soul to a talismanic Jesus who is nothing more than a name to be invoked; neither can we outsource it to the empty performance of the colourful rituals of the church.

    We are all quite familiar with Paul’s words in Romans about sinning the more such that grace might abound the more: By No Means!

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Andrew both the stereotypical Protestant and the sterotypical Roman Catholic and Orthodox exist. Unfortunately, we humans tend to take the best in our own groups and compare them to the worst in others.

    However, the reality of repentance and spiritual struggle comes from the deep tradition of the Orthodox. To the extent that it exists anywhere, it is because it exists in the Orthodox Church.

  29. Drewster2000 Avatar

    [trying again to post a comment…]

    I think the issue here is the personal vs. the corporate aspects of the Christian faith. One of the reasons for the existence of Protestants seems to be the lack of a personal faith in the RC church, but it seems that the pendulum swung too far the other way and they have abandoned the corporate aspect of the faith – that also including historicity, hierarchy, and its origins.

    Despite my deep Protestant roots, I think it’s easier to bring the personal aspect into Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches than it is to bring the corporate aspect back into Protestant ones. To use an analogy, it’s easier to bring people into a house than it is to build a house around the people.

    Having said that, I think the best policy is to affirm life wherever you find it – and build it up from there.

  30. handmaid leah Avatar

    For those who struggle to get themselves to Church for Divine Liturgy or other services, I commiserate. As Pres. Clinton said: :I feel your pain.” Am there and in that struggle with you.
    My priest, Fr Anthony said something that made great sense to me: “Jesus Himself invites you to come to each service and when you turn that invitation down by not showing up, you are turning down the Lord Himself.” This got my attention because often I would make an excuse not to attend, what was I saying to my Lord with such an act?
    Molly, I am so sorry that you are having difficulty. Maybe if you go to Liturgy and just keep it basic, just pray and let God take care of the rest.
    In Christ,
    handmaid leah

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Jonathan,
    Your point is well taken – I have a high regard for some things within Anglican tradition. The non-Jurors are perhaps my favorites. Today, those who are trying to find a way forward outside of communion with Canterbury stand, in certain ways, in the mold of the non-Jurors. The main body of Anglicanism, I fear, has lost its way and is “wandering far in a land that is lost.” I certainly grant that ecclesiology has been an Anglican concern, but without a proper or equal regard for apostolic faith and teaching. The toleration for “variety” or “comprehensiveness” has too long been a hallmark of Anglicanism (even in the 16th and 17th century). The result within the main body is an ecclesiastical shell and an emptiness within.

    I have been privileged to participate in conversations, along with Met. Jonah of the OCA, with Anglicans serious about the content of the faith and serious about discussions with the Orthodox. I have a very high regard for them and hold them in my prayers. Having spent nearly 30 years of my life as an Anglican (18 as a priest), I can only pray that God is as kind and merciful to others as He has been to me.

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