Can our church attract the emerging generation?

Posted on December. 22. 2022

BY Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

As we age and remain active in the Armenian community, it becomes an increasing source of concern: who will replace us? Our vibrancy as a church requires a generational “baton passing” that is a gradual but necessary transition. I feel it is important, when discussing topics such as this, that we find a balance between optimism and pragmatism. No one should be suggesting the impending doom of our spiritual institution, but some of the trends are alarming. Within the church, we are caught in the dichotomy of maintaining tradition and remaining relevant. Is it possible for both to exist in an ethnic church steeped in tradition operating in a world where the assimilation battle is constant? The facts on the ground somewhat suggest immediate attention.
Church membership has been flat or down for years, and when normalized to the increase in parishes (based on geographic dispersion), the decline is evident. Some will suggest that this is caused by a reluctance to join a parish. Assuming this is true, it certainly impacts the vitality of a parish as membership reflects fundamental commitment. Sunday school attendance has declined dramatically as parents avoid including the Christian education of their children in their daily lives. Some of our parishes operate without Sunday schools or with just a few students. This has a compounding impact on the dedicated staff who suffer with unpredictable attendance and the resulting impact on morale and motivation. Our community in America is subject to the same issues as other groupings. We live in an increasingly secular and material society that erodes the commitment to spiritual development. We are no different because we are Armenians, particularly when our behavior is heavily influenced by societal norms. The church is well aware of these challenges that are both internal and external but has been woefully slow to address the core issues.
Before we delve into these problems and possible solutions, it is important to state that the church has responded with high-quality immersion programs. The camps, summer studies programs (Datev, St. Nersess), retreats and youth organizations are having an impact. The problem is that in many cases they are not reaching enough children and young adults to carry the infrastructure of the church forward. The good news is that they are providing the local parishes with trained acolytes, subdeacons, deacons, choir members and teachers. This “infrastructure” development will pay a handsome return assuming that these young members stay close to the church. The other challenge is in many cases they are attempting to supplement what is not happening in the home. The increasing absence of spirituality in the home is a significant contributor. Families practicing their faith at home becomes a natural extension into the life of the church. Can we teach our children to pray before meals when fewer families are sharing a meal together? How many children have received their spiritual support and nourishment only from the church and not in the home? We need programs that bring “spiritual parenting” into the home. This is where technology-based programming can be effective. We must work with families in their home so they see the work of the church as needed.
Our environment today is even more challenging than in the past for an ethnic church. The data is unclear, but it is not unreasonable to assume that a significant majority of Armenians today are marrying non-Armenians in the United States. This is a challenge for a church that is ill-prepared. When an Armenian marries a non-Armenian, there are a few possible outcomes relative to their participation in the church. They happily participate together, the Armenian spouse attends or they eventually disappear. Unfortunately, the last option seems to be the majority. Why should we be surprised? We have a church in a language they don’t understand (probably the Armenian spouse also) and have no formal integration program to increase their comfort level. Some do well based on their motivation and flexibility. We tend to use those exceptions as a reflection of our success rather than trying to address the majority. This problem has been masked for decades by immigration patterns in our community. I am part of an American-born baby boomer generation. There are precious few of my generation active in churches today. They exist, but in many parishes they are not part of the critical mass. The void in the last 40 to 50 years has been filled (thankfully) by certain waves of immigration from the Middle East, Baku and Armenia. Where did all those American-born peers raised in the church and their children go? It is called assimilation. The American-born children of the immigrants from the Middle East and Armenia are essentially the equivalent of my parents (born in America) or my generation from an assimilation risk perspective. Is there any reason to believe that their children will not also drift from the church? The large migrations caused by instability in the Middle East (Egypt in the 50s and 60s, Lebanese Civil War and Syria) and Armenia’s wave in the 90s are not likely to reoccur. It is time to take these problems seriously and not be lulled into ambivalence because new community members are here. I am thankful for the dedication of our immigrant brethren and saddened by the absence of many others. We can do better.
This generation is subjected to the largest environment of secularism in recent memory. Being a Christian is discounted publicly, and living a worldly life is popular. Many of our children are no longer getting married in churches and prefer to be in a field, a harbor or a grove rather than in a consecrated House of God. Our informality is running rampant. Clothing styles have changed dramatically, and getting “dressed” has a new definition. Our children have been raised in a digital age where information is plentiful and immediate. They have new ways of acquiring knowledge and communicating. These are the facts as our church continues to pass the “generational torch,” yet our methods are behind the curve.
I love the traditions of our church. The problem will not be solved by destroying the traditions. It is a matter of separating traditions that are at the core of our faith and those that are not. Our tragedy is that the Armenian church is a magnificent institution with a beautiful history, theology and spirit, but has great difficulty in helping the faithful understand that beauty. Language is part of the problem. Parishes and dioceses in the diaspora should be free to introduce flexibility into the language of the badarak based on the local demographics. Some parishes will remain traditional and others will adapt accordingly, but it will all be for the Glory of God. For those who feel strongly about the use of our language (I count myself as one of them), let me suggest that our church is an institution where our faith should be our mission. I personally do not fear that introducing more English will contribute to the decline of our culture. In fact, I have seen evidence that once people understand the brilliance of our liturgy, that it has motivated people to learn more, including the language. The church must institute changes that are geared toward the new generation. The older half of the church will not leave by introducing initiatives for the young. My guess is that they will be comforted and inspired that the church is addressing its future. Education of our young is critical. I have advocated digital programming (YouTube/streaming) that introduces age appropriate content (animation, etc.) into the home and connected to church schools. We need to re-introduce education and spirituality back into the home to increase participation in a geographically diverse community. With the technology available, church integration classes for new spouses and satellite Bible studies can be easily managed without the problem of mid-week attendance at our many parishes. We need not fear change; we need to fear irrelevance. Money is not the problem. We should focus more on attracting people, and the funds will follow. A church will never close because of a lack of funds. It will close because of a lack of the faithful.
I also think it is important that we stop assuming that because individuals are not connected to the Armenian church that they have limited faith. They may have a deep faith and a lack of connection to the Armenian church. We have all had this experience, and it is usually connected to the ethnic versus spiritual balance. Our goal should always be to bring all under the loving umbrella of the church for all the services it offers. We must avoid creating an environment where identity with the church is threatened. Leadership that is educated and wise in our church doctrines and interpersonal relationships are requirements. For this reason, our church should be focusing on leadership development programs for parishes and not simply waiting for leaders to emerge. The church is a unique institution based on God’s love and that in and of itself is inviting for participation. Our actions seem to suggest that we are underestimating the challenge.
We are fighting a two front war of assimilation and secularism to bring our people into the Body of Christ according to the Armenian church. This is a unique challenge, and I would humbly request that our diocesan primates/prelates be given the authority and flexibility to introduce changes that will not compromise the spirit of the church but rather engage a remarkably new generation. In a nation that includes a homogenous homeland and a multi-national diaspora, one size does not fit all. There is a core that bonds us, but there must be the ability to adapt locally. Sociologists will advise that this dilemma is predictable. In fact, Armenians have exceeded many of the standard assimilation models based on our clannish nature and post-genocide psyche. The Armenian church in America has a bright future if it chooses to adapt as our ancestors have during the multitude of calamities experienced. The silent war of losing one’s identity or living a life aloof from God are real and worthy of our efforts. The question becomes if it is our vision to praise God through a thriving institution or if we will accept a slow decline. Each of us—leadership, faithful and those currently outside—have a vital role to play in this renaissance.

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