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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bubble theology

Commenter Ingemar shared some thoughts via e-mail on Church growth. The historic cycle of artificial expansion of national economies and their subsequent busts strikes him as similar to historic booms and busts in Church growth. All Christians enjoy the peak times of State imprimatur and social peace, but the troughs of persecution and civil unrest are the crucibles for our Saints and sharpen our focus on our spiritual center. State sponsorship and economic prosperity, it strikes Ingemar, operate in the Church the same way as the central bank's artificial savings, displacing the organic 'savings' of Christ-centered spirituality and faithful praxis.

The US Protestant church presents the clearest example of this, with its mega-churches, evangelists in Lear jets, and rock-concert 'worship' services. Protestantism, like a bubble economy, seemingly thrives on an artificial and ultimately negative energy. Its entire history is of groups splintering off to practice their 'pure' Christianity, the accretion into a rival institution that enjoys great success, which then spawns a generation of dissenters who splinter off in their turn. This is the negative energy of decomposition, as each successive group follows the same pattern. Protestantism, as others have put it, is schismism. And now we have the absurd and logical conclusion of this process with the home church movement and messianic judaism. Words fail me.

'Growth' has a lot of appeal to US Orthodox, an understandable reaction to strained parish budgets, financially struggling clergy, and remote bishops unable to tend their flocks.

Orthodoxy in America enjoys the luxury of religious tolerance and economic good times but we are soft, like all other nominal Christians in the US. I don't know the numbers, but I doubt a majority of the children of converts (the only new growth at this point) are staying. To the larger American population, Orthodoxy remains one particularly idiosyncratic option among many. God forbid, we disappear in the next few generations.

A big part of the problem is that Orthodoxy is so alien to the entire American outlook. A highly mobile, progressivist and propositional people are frankly repulsed by the idea of a geographically-based Church with an ecclesiology which deliberately retards change.

Discussion of growth in Orthodoxy must begin from an understanding of how the Church grew historically. Missionary Churches slowly built through first, then second, then third generations of families who, past a certain point, knew no other 'church.' To a Greek or Russian of that era, the question would simply never have entered their minds. No matter what scandals or power struggles or the congregants' own sporadic attendance, when you "went to church," you went to The Church. The institution was inextricably intertwined with your locale, family history and your larger ethnicity and culture. At that point, you declared autocephaly and joined the universal family of the Church Militant. How does such a process even get started in a society like the US? And did I mention the jurisdictional issues? Best not.

The Church in America is only just now moving from her diaspora phase to her missionary phase, notwithstanding the OCA's press releases and Antiochian declarations of 'self-rule.' It will take a critical mass of successive grandparents, parents and children, baptized, married and buried, who do not think of the Church as anything other than their local Orthodox diocese before we can honestly regard ourselves as a viable, non-missionary Church.

Then we can talk about growth.

6 comments:

Ingemar said...

If there is one thing I can say to counter my and your negative appraisal of the situation:

Christianity is the religion that preaches (and practices) Resurrection.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

One rather grim thought, depending on one's perspective:

Given the impediments of US political and social culture to Orthodoxy, the US must disappear or the Church must change.

And as we all know, the Church does not change.

Visibilium said...

The Church exists in the world and therefore cannot avoid being substantially affected by economic phenomena, since economics underlies all purely human intercourse (including intercourse, if we take the Mystery out of it). One need only look around at the formerly marginal, but newly financially endangered parishes since 2008. It doesn't matter whether the growth was "artificial" or "real"--other than from an economic policy perspective--since this distinction is conceptual and not empirically observable.

Recognizing the critical effect that economics has on Church growth could cause us to less intent on banging our heads against the wall trying to increase our numbers. Further, whether the American Church is in the missionary or diasporal or whatever phase simply doesn't matter. We have one jurisdiction with the trappings and structure (and Tomos) accordant with autocephaly whether we like it or not. Premature autocephaly? Perhaps, but historical accidents (and God's providence) are like that. In any event we need to run with this bone and figure out how we can grow into our responsibilities. I mean, really, who gives a shit about how the Church used to handle things like this? There isn't any historical precedent that covers the American situation, except the usual bickering by Constantinople and Moscow about who owns the diaspora, or more precisely, who owns the moola that the diaspora coughs up.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

That is a very good thought. Focus on getting our jurisdictional house in order and, like autocephaly, don't count on the mother Churches to tell you when to do it.

Ingemar said...

All very good thoughts gentlemen; but the scope of my email was far broader and includes all flavours of Christianity, including the Papists.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

I have some thoughts on Rome's situation but prefer not to post them on the blog at this point.