Religion in General but Not In Particular

The Church finding herself in the midst of a free marketplace of ideas. Given the range of options available to people, it isn’t surprising that, like other Christian communities, the Orthodox Church has in recent years suffered significant, numerical losses. Thinking about why the Orthodox Church has lost so many of our faithful (both those baptized in infancy and those who joined the Church as adults), I am reminded of a conversation I’ve had several times with different priests and parish councils that were trying to establish a professional stewardship program. The conversation would begin with the kind of thought experiment economists love.

Let’s imagine, I’d begin, someone who has $50 and two free hours on Sunday morning. Why would that person want to spend those two hours at Liturgy in your parish and put his money in the basket rather than use his resources to go to brunch with his wife?

Pretty consistently, my question was met with incomprehension (and occasionally irritation). Probing a bit, it became clear that I was asking the community to do something they had never done before. I was asking them to think why—given all the options available to people—someone would want to participate, and financial support, their parish. Why was their parish the most desirable option for how someone could spend his time and money on Sunday morning?

At best, parish leaders would offer generic reasons for others (and by implication, themselves) to attend and support their community. Again, with just a bit of probing, it became clear that, at best, what people had were reasons why religion in general, was a good thing. What they didn’t have were reasons why people would want to invest in their particular community.

While anecdotal, these conversations illustrate what we see in the data about the self-understanding of American Orthodox Christianity. As we see in other Christian communities, Orthodox Christians seem to be taking guidance for their moral and spiritual life not from the Christian tradition but the larger, secular, culture. This why the parish leaders (both lay and clergy) I spoke with couldn’t think of the unique reasons their community was valuable. Like the larger culture, they spontaneous thinking of religion only in general term. They resist any suggestion that one religion (even their own) might be better than another.[1] Even when asked about their own community—a community in which they had personally invested significant time, treasure and talent—was valuable all they had ready to hand were the generic answers that have to dominate how most Christians in America think about the Gospel and their own community’s contribution to the larger culture.[2]

To see how extensive is “The Triumph of the ‘Cult of Nice’”[3] and come to dominate how Orthodox Christians think about themselves and the world around them, we only need to look at the data.

[1] See, for example, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 and Kendra Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling Us. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

[2] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, pp. xx-xx.

[3] Dean, Almost Christian, pp. 25-42.