Our church is losing ground. Are we up to the challenge?

Posted on March. 6. 2020

BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly

Last week, our discussion focused on the positive impact of the pan-Armenian spirit emerging in the diaspora. It has brought a new level of energy and effectiveness into our communities. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the church has not reaped its “fair share” of this mini renaissance. Surely, we would expect one of the most important institutions in our nation to ride the wave of collaboration and the resulting benefits. Unfortunately, this has not happened. When we look beyond the photo opportunities and selective public discourse, we find stagnation, decline and a lack of innovation. This deeply saddens me as I am sure it does many who love the church but feel powerless to reverse this current trend. Finding a balance between tradition and pragmatism continues to be a struggle. In fact, serious efforts to find solutions are lacking. Why?

Geghard, Armenia (Photo: Flickr/Ralf Steinberger)

In order to delve into this matter a bit further, it is helpful to draw a distinction between faith and an institution. Have our people lost faith in God? Although secularism is stronger in our world today, it is not the most significant contributor to the crisis in our church. There is a lack of belief in the institution (the church) for a variety of reasons. The church will say that external factors are the major cause, inferring that they are beyond our control. I rarely meet Armenians who claim a lack of faith, but rather have serious identity issues with our church. In the last 50 years in the Armenian Diaspora, language skills, intermarriage and the needs of all the faithful have changed dramatically. This is a natural outcome of a people in the diaspora. It is noble that certain segments have been able to retain core identifiers through the density of demographics, educational institutions and other resources. Unfortunately, that does not apply to half the population and three quarters of the geography. The church must be flexible enough to address the needs of the faithful. If the core mission is to bring us closer to God, then the methods chosen are the means and not an end. There is no precedent for what we are experiencing currently…a fourth generation in the diaspora. To compare that to how our ancestors lived over 100 years ago as an indigenous people is not only wrong but damaging. The problem is even discussing this matter is considered “amot” by many. I view that as selfish. We are a diverse community by definition. We should be instilling flexibility to allow the local needs to be addressed.

I ask you…what is your vision of the diaspora church? Is it an entity that adapts and continues to be a major contributor to the greater Armenian nation? Or is it refusing to address reality and therefore decreasing in size and effectiveness? Let me suggest three core areas where we are falling behind. I am referring to intermarriage, women and leadership. By consistently ignoring these issues, the institution is being viewed as out of touch and unavailable as a source of answers to their needs. Let’s remember it is the church that accepts the greater role of a traditional community leader where faith and heritage meet. More than 50-percent (conservative) of Armenians in the US intermarry. How can a church expect to survive unless it has a way to truly welcome the non-Armenian spouse as part of the Armenian Christian family? We desperately need systemic processes that enable them to become functioning members of the church. In the absence of that, identity will eventually wane, creating an awkward family situation. Most of the time, it leads to an exit. The role of women is much more complex than reciting places where women can serve, which can sound very patronizing. The patriarchal nature of the church creates a bias in the thinking and decision-making. There must be conscious efforts to bring women into important national and international positions. For example, a few women on the Supreme Spiritual Council would alter many dynamics. How can we have a history of women in the diaconate (including a recent ordination in Iran) yet the American diocese has no examples? Why? Our people are aware of this precedent yet have seen no progress on this. Clearly the church can ignore (and has) these issues, but it also pays a price. We cannot dictate participation. The church has to earn the respect of all.

The church has to earn the respect of all.

The matter of leadership is particularly troubling. Our church leaders should be empowering us to find solutions to our unique challenges in the diaspora and not insisting on a centralized model that is failing us. It is tragic not to use the church’s authority to make decisions to move the church forward. But especially devastating is the insistence on micromanagement which prevents others from leading on issues that impact the local faithful. Who can honestly believe that the challenges of an Armenian in America are the same in Europe, the Middle East or even Armenia? A great deal of debate has been devoted to language in the church. While we engage in endless discussions about English (here in the US), we are missing an opportunity. How about conducting the Badarak in modern conversational Armenian (leaving the eastern versus western aside) so all the faithful can have the opportunity to worship and use the language? We don’t even have forums where new ideas can be truly debated. Try and get one of these issues on the agenda of the National Representative Assembly (NRA) or Diocesan Assembly. We have turned these assemblies into friendly reunions with no decision-making or legislative outputs. Elect some officials and rubber stamp a budget…thank you. This is a failing of our leaders. It is not limited to the clergy. Many of our national lay leaders are analogous to a baseball player that likes to draw walks. They didn’t strike out, but officially were never at bat. They are not elected simply to keep the lights on, but to meet the evolving challenges of our church. Why can’t some of our parishes be given the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the congregants based on language, culture and other demographic factors? We must empower the local dioceses to responsibly adapt or we will continue to struggle. That is leadership!

How do we measure the effectiveness of an institution such as our church? Weekly worship attendance? How many additional people are impacted beyond worship? Financial support for the institution? We all complain about the finances of the church, yet we tolerate the financial redundancy of the church division. We are obsessed with finances yet fail to believe that a healthy church will never have money problems. Unless we devote time on these core issues in our decision-making forums, we will drift further. The church will continue in America, but it will be smaller and far less impactful. The void will be filled by secular institutions (already happening), and this is truly tragic as we begin to distance ourselves from our faith as a community. Those of you who are grandparents, ask yourselves this question: how many of your grandchildren are regular church attendees? How many of your children are? Of course, the church will be there for an occasional sacrament or the C&E crowd (Christmas and Easter), but will it be a central part of your life? We are masking the problem today with “replenishment” from immigration, from the Middle East, from Baku, from Armenia. What will happen to their American-born children?

The true tragedy of this crisis is that it is primarily self-inflicted. We have proven the ability to adapt to even more significant calamities. Our people have not lost their faith. They are searching. Some keep their faith in their home, while others explore other denominations. But they all want a relationship with God. Others have not had the opportunity. What do you expect the outcome to be if you take your children to sports every Sunday rather than church? The problem is further exacerbated when families do make an effort and simply say, “It didn’t work out” because, for any number of the aforementioned reasons, they could not connect.

This is a very serious matter that is not being addressed. Our actions and programs are focused on maintaining a smaller core—noble but guaranteed to reduce our impact. The church presents formidable visuals with our incredible architecture, welcoming facilities, the richness of our ceremonies and the mystique of our clergy. But, walk inside and many parishes are suffering: low attendance, barely functioning Sunday Schools and struggling finances. We are limiting the impact of the dedicated efforts of those keeping the church sustainable. We are failing in our generational responsibility in leaving a vibrant legacy. Who is responsible? We all are. Each of us has a role in this decline from not attending with our families to participating in patronizing “leadership” forums. Naturally then, each of us has a role in the revival. If we choose to remain complacent, then we will be known as the generation that stood by and watched. I appeal to the decision makers of the church to become a part of the pan-Armenian renaissance. Cast aside our narrow views, and focus only on how we can bring the Good News to the faithful. We can all be a part of the solution. Do we have the will?

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