The Gap Between Faith and the Church

Posted on November. 4. 2021

BY STEPAN PILIGIAN | The Armenian Weekly

One often hears of changes in our society referred to as progress. Generally this is a positive term that references social, educational and medical advances. The quality of life has made quantum leaps in recent generations. This is something to be grateful for. Some aspects of the evolution we are experiencing, in my view, are not advancing our society. A country founded by those seeking freedom to worship and express their faith is becoming increasingly secular. We have gone beyond “separation of church and state” with the removal of God from our public life. Some view this as a success of a truly diverse democratic society. Unfortunately, the pendulum has shifted to almost an expulsion of faith, particularly Christianity. The vestiges of a God-based society are everywhere in our country from scripture at the Capitol to monuments across the nation. The secularization of America has contributed to the diminishing impact of Christian institutions, such as the church. Corruption and ethical scandals have created fertile ground for rejecting the church from the generation that played sports on Sunday mornings. 

Parishioners at St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts, June 8, 2015

I would like to draw a distinction between faith and the institutions. There is no doubt that the core belief in our Creator (faith) has diminished with more individuals proclaiming an agnostic, atheist or non-believer status. I have discussed this observation with countless Armenians over several generations, and it seems reasonable to assume that a major contributor to the faith side of the equation is, ironically, the impact of a society where we are encouraged to think we are capable of anything. This thinking with a secular foundation assumes that our Creator is secondary and that we alone are responsible. I have even met many who may have a cursory spiritual base but misinterpret free will as we can do anything without God.

Despite a decline in faith-based thinking, the Armenian family structure has helped to limit the secularization of many Armenian Americans. Our generational families and traditions include God and help to maintain a healthy faith within our families. To the extent that this unit remains intact, faith plays a role. We should not confuse faith with adherence to an institution. Christian institutions such as the Catholic church and other traditional Protestant denominations are struggling to optimize the connection between individual faith and expressing it through a church. Divisions, scandals and corruption have encouraged many to leave the institutions, but not necessarily abandon their faith. They simply express it in a more private manner. Churches are under pressure from an increasingly hostile society and from self-imposed constraints. The result has fueled closures, financial crises and migration to new forms of expression.

A wounded church is not in the best interests of our nation.

The Armenian community in America is no exception to this phenomenon. Our churches, whether they be Apostolic, Protestant or Catholic are struggling to build an identity with succeeding generations. They have inherited the dual challenges of the external societal impact in America as well as ensuring identity with an ethnic-based institution. As assimilation into American society and intermarriage continues, connecting with the traditional church becomes difficult. Staying focused on our common belief in our Lord is confronted by the secular inroads in many young people. There are times when we choose to lull ourselves into denial of the challenge. For example, our churches in Boston combined may hold about 1,000 people. If we fill the churches to 75-percent of capacity on any given Sunday, we feel a sense of relief. We intellectually understand but ignore that 750 is a small fraction of the population base. Spiritually, what happens to the remaining 90-percent? Church attendance is not always a good barometer of health in our community. When I was a kid, the joke was always the “C&E crowd”…short for Christmas and Easter. Churches were packed on those days, so we were convinced all was well. Generally speaking, whether it is attendance at schools or financial metrics, the institutions are stressed. What gives me hope is that I believe the bigger contributor to the current challenge is a lack of identity with the institution rather than a lack of belief in God. This is an easier challenge to overcome…if we choose to.

Unfortunately, the Armenian church lives with a fear that adapting to address this problem will threaten the core traditions of the church. I reject this premise although I love our language, rituals and history. The core mission of the church is to facilitate a relationship between the faithful and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the benefit of our salvation. Everything else we do from fundraising to cultural events is secondary to that mission. The church is an institution chartered to carry out that goal, but there is much discretion in how to do that. Constraints are generally self-imposed. Does anyone believe that our methods of today are the same as the fourth or the tenth centuries? Adaptation to protect the core mission has been the hallmark of our journey. 

In the diaspora, the Armenian church as an ethnic church faces an important dilemma. If the church is focused on the spiritual needs of the community, it is criticized for not emphasizing the heritage nature of our church. We have heard many times individuals say they would not drive 30 to 45 minutes for a general Christian experience. We have also lived with the opposite challenge where the church is heavily focused on the cultural and ethnic content and less focused on Christian spirituality, particularly knowledge of the Bible. Although the badarak is written with Scripture throughout, the perception is that Bible knowledge is lacking. The Armenian Protestant churches are stronger in this area. In a time of increasing intermarriage and assimilation, how does a traditional and ethnic Christian institution continue to serve the needs of its community, especially as the definition of that community evolves? Our fear of becoming a more decentralized church where regions and locales are able to make the changes necessary to serve the needs of their community is a problem. Our church today is extremely centralized which is not compatible with maintaining a strong diaspora. The practice of ‘one size fits all’ is limiting our possibilities. The gap between the faith of an individual and the practice in the institution is enabled by rigid management. Some Christian churches actually alter their programs and methods as they minister to various groups with their faith community. Connecting the faith of an individual to the offerings of the religious institution is a requirement for success and sustainability. The days of unsolicited identity and a completely willing community are in the past. The church will have to earn its place in the nation with succeeding generations.

Despite the clouds surrounding us today, I do believe that many of our challenges are subject to rotating cycles. The time will come when the emerging generations tire of the overload nature of their lives and move away from the spiritually shallow secular behavior. The question remains whether the Armenian church will be in a position to fill this void by connecting with this segment of the community. If our structure and approach only attract a minority of the diaspora, can we consider that the church is fulfilling its mission? From a spiritual and heritage perspective, the diaspora is a place where the “wandering sheep” will reside. If their needs or their current state do not fit our model, what is our response to them? Adaptation without compromising the core mission is essential.

We are on a path to a smaller survival! Is that our vision after surviving a genocide and investing in an infrastructure for our children and their children? Instead of a smaller survival, we should be envisioning an expanded umbrella that is able to encompass the diverse souls of our diaspora. Surviving as a shadow of our past is not a vision. It simply keeps the lights on with an obligatory culture. If the business of the church is salvation through the traditions of the Armenian church, it should fill us with joy, not exhaustion. Whether we like it or not, those of us who are adherents to the church are responsible for this transformation. We are the ambassadors of the institution. Too often, we hear, “Well, Der Hayr or Badveli didn’t do this.” We all can have an impact. At the same time, the demands on our leaders are much greater than in the past. Every inch of sustainability in today’s world must be earned. The forces against us are greater than ever, yet one thing will never change. We will go as far as the depth of our faith. While we strengthen our faith as the foundation of the structure, we must be open to new ways to help the faithful connect with the institution. The Armenian church in whatever denomination you adhere to has always been a core element of civilization for centuries. A wounded church is not in the best interests of our nation. How devastating would it be for the church to play a lesser role in the diaspora! This will only happen if the church and its leaders fail to sustain the connection. Great institutions have failed when, despite noble service to their constituency, they are unable to adapt to a changing environment. The notion that change is a threat to the future of the church must become unacceptable. The brilliance of our church must be adapted so that today’s generation and our future generations can be inspired to connect their faith to our institutions. 

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