The decline of our church requires an outreach revolution

Posted on May. 20. 2022

When it comes to the challenges that our church faces in the United States, it is clear that a common thread exists. It doesn’t matter where the church is located, the size of the parish or whether it is affiliated with the Holy See of Etchmiadzin (Diocese) or Great House of Cilicia (Prelacy). This is not a discussion about unity or history, but rather a plea for our church leaders to reverse this path of decline. There is a tendency within the walls of our churches to make “safe” attempts at solving our problems. The Armenian community, graced with traditions, has never been a place for major change. We tend to evolve the foundation we have built and limit ourselves to defensive change—defensive in the sense that there is no alternative given the circumstances of a crisis. Why don’t we view the church in crisis? Perhaps because the decline of our church here in America has been in progress for several decades. Most of our dialogue within in the church has been focused on external causes such as the increasing secularization of our society, intermarriage and a world that no longer respects the sanctity of worship time. It almost sounds like a rationalization. We engage in focus groups or seminars, but little effective change takes place.
One reason why the decline has continued despite our efforts has been an inability to look at the church from the outside perspective. Our churches are filled with many dedicated, faithful and committed individuals. It is the reason why our parishes are still here. Despite their inspiring behavior, we can’t ignore that by almost every metric today, we are attracting less of the population. Where there were 100 students in Sunday School, there are now maybe 40 to 50. Worship attendance has declined. Many churches operate with financial concerns and require Herculean efforts to stay afloat. It’s not just the small parishes, where the infrastructure needed can be difficult, but also in our larger parishes where the participation has declined. Published membership figures are flattening, but when normalized for new parishes paints a very troubling picture. Sunday School attendance is embarrassing for an institution that utilizes the school as a preparatory stage for the emerging generations. It is a fact that if the Sunday Schools are weak, it will have a direct impact on the participation of the older vehicles such as the ACYOA or other church-affiliated groups. I have traveled to many parishes in both the Diocese and the Prelacy and see the same expression: fear for the future. Enough of describing the problem.
What can be done? We are fighting an uphill battle for an ethnic church which insists on maintaining the classical language while intermarriages are the majority. I love our church, but it has maintained a stubborn arrogance when it comes to attracting the wandering flock. We have been an institution that welcomes people on our terms, but spends little time understanding how to engage the potential. Here is a case in point. An Armenian woman marries a non-Armenian man. During their pre-marriage window, they connect with the church to be married. After their marriage, the identity of the non-Armenian spouse is very limited. Why wouldn’t it be? The service is in a language he doesn’t understand and most Armenians don’t comprehend. There is no process for integrating individuals like this with knowledge on the history, theology and structure of the church other than perhaps some pre-marital counseling. Welcoming people to our church requires offering them knowledge so they can be functional equals. It is absurd to expect people to simply participate because we tell them how wonderful our church is. This, of course, is an example of those who begin their union in the church. An increasing number of weddings are held outside of a sanctuary. With this reality, the children that their marriage is blessed with attend primarily through the efforts of the Armenian spouse. If the Armenian spouse is the husband, the participation level is generally even less. It becomes a challenge to their family life rather than a blessing. I understand there are many exceptions to this, but focusing on exceptions only tends to rationalize our crisis. All the data, whether experiential, anecdotal or data-driven, arrive at the same conclusion. We are in decline and must make dramatic changes to reverse the course.

(Photo: The Armenian Weekly)

Problem solving is a tricky business. Most leaders tend to avoid immersing themselves in the root causes because it can be personally risky. Most Armenians do not want to jeopardize their social standing in the community by being controversial. In addition, there is an inherent tendency not to see the problem clearly because those not participating are not a part of the process. I am convinced that progress can be made universally by employing a revolution of outreach.
Just what is meant by outreach? A simple definition reads: “extending services beyond the current or usual limits.” I find this definition rich in content. It suggests an effort for a particular mission beyond the current standard or what is considered the norm. In a church such as the Armenian branch of Christianity, going outside the walls of the church is not considered the norm. The church has operated for centuries as the center of the Armenian universe and has attracted the core of the community to its spiritual and educational offerings. When the diaspora was created as a result of the Genocide, the initial demographics supported a modest replication of the density of village life with Armenian neighborhoods in American cities. In this environment, the church still enjoyed the magnetic attraction, as churches were located in the midst of these locations. As affluence and general suburban sprawl diluted the density of Armenian neighborhoods, the challenge began as access became more difficult and distractions entered Armenian family life. The decline has continued primarily because, despite some modest attempts and good intentions, the church has not adapted to a changing world. We have clung to our beautiful traditions, but fewer people are graced by them. Adaptation is an interesting term because to many traditional thinking Armenians it is equated to negative change or even assimilation. I would pose a question that is clearly in our reality today. Which path offers our communities the best term option? Refusing to change and experiencing decline or adapting to attract some of our lost flock while retaining the important traditions? Intellectually, the answer is obvious, but in practice, change is difficult. Our leaders are fearful of change, and our democratic process has produced little impact.
With the election of a new primate in the Eastern Diocese, it will be an opportune time to review our current practices and address our challenges. I wish the new Primate Hayr Mesrop Parsamyan God’s blessing in his new ministry. I also pray for Bishop Daniel Findikyan who is a great asset to our church and a spiritual inspiration. Leadership changes are interesting because they rarely change anything until the leadership embraces our challenges and shows the courage to address them. Currently, most of our church resources are focused on the needs of this dwindling population. We still expect, by and large, for people to come to church. What if they don’t as is evident by the data? In one sense, it is comfortable and low risk to work within our “walls” as it ensures that change will be gradual or minimal. If we venture into the world of those who have drifted or left, we may find different needs that challenge us. For example, we always seem to assume that when someone doesn’t connect with our church, then their faith is suffering. In many cases, their faith is intact, but they have difficulty expressing it through the vehicle of our church for any number of reasons. This is a serious reality for our church because we are losing believers who fail to identify with the Armenian church. This is a major problem and also a major opportunity. Unlocking the latter will require investing in resources for what I will call an outreach ministry, where national, regional and local individuals will work to attract those on the periphery or unattached. Of course, the implications of this require the church to introduce new thinking to address those currently outside the “walls.” Do we have the will to address the language issue? Can we offer solutions to integrating non-Armenian spouses? Will we address the geographic issues that impact church attendance with remote learning for children and adults? Unless the church adapts, it will continue to decline.
This is not a foreign concept in Armenian history. Given the amount of invasions, migrations and cultural deprivation, Armenians have become experts at adapting to a new environment and retaining the core. The church is no longer the powerful magnet it was and needs to reposition itself by reaching out. This may seem harsh, but it is intended only to articulate the urgency and love for the institution. It will be a sad day if the church is no longer the center of our diaspora, and we become a collection of secular groups.
We need leadership that understands the essence of community life and individual needs. We have some good examples. In Trumbull, CT, there is a priest who is far too humble to be visible beyond his community and exemplifies the ability to do outreach and help individuals find identity. Fr. Untzag Nalbandian has adjusted to community needs with a great pulse on the local population. He is but one man and works tirelessly, but his approach to community life answers some of the questions about building a sustainable model. What is missing today is substantive dialogue and those in authority building a vision for sustainability in our church. The role of our leaders is to use their authority to protect the interests of the church, which includes threats to its very existence. Despite some innovative programs, it seems to be a “keep the lights on” plan. The Armenian church needs a growth vision that is attained by reaching out to the wandering flock created by the impact of a now fourth generation diaspora. It is tragic because our church is beautiful, and when understood (not just its language but its foundation), it can be inspiring. We can and must prevent this catastrophe. It will take financial resources, professional resources and the will to succeed. Are we willing to display the courage to step into uncharted waters and reverse this trend?

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