Becoming a More Welcoming Church

Posted on March. 3. 2023

BY Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

While we struggle with the anxiety of our oppressed brethren in Artsakh, there are also a number of issues pertaining to the continued vibrancy of the diaspora. The “diaspora” is a singular convenient term for a scattered and diverse segment of the Armenian nation. Scattered in the sense that our communities populate all corners of the world and diverse in that each has taken on some elements of their host nation. Still, there are enough common denominators to sustain a universal identity regardless of where you reside. Diasporan communities are always under the threat of assimilation which occurs when the host country culture becomes a dominant influence, and ethnic/religious culture is subordinated. Assimilation has been impacting the Armenian community in the United States for decades. The sociological evidence is clear, but we have masked it with an influx of Armenian immigrants who are deeply committed to our culture. Professionals who study this will call it a natural phenomenon, but for the Armenian community, it is painful and worthy of resistance. This usually takes the form of identity building within a family starting in their home life and continuing in institutions such as the Armenian church. There are certainly other vehicles, but most observers would agree that the church, as a spiritual and cultural institution, is one of the most dominant and critical factors in preserving our national identity. The presence of the Republic of Armenia has also contributed to identity building for the diaspora as visitations and repatriation have occurred. The focus of this column will be on how the church can improve its role with a more welcoming approach to our scattered brethren.
I believe that the future of the diaspora is linked to a vibrant strong Armenian church. It is the only institution that brings together the two elements vital to our identity: our faith and our ethnicity. This sacred responsibility has remained clear in the eyes of the Armenian people for centuries and has continued in the post-genocide diaspora. It is because of this indispensable role that we must take decisive action to sustain a leadership position. For the first two generations in the American diaspora, the church was able to retain its traditional position with minimal change. The first generation straddled the line between historic Armenia and the establishment of the diaspora. They were obviously fluent in our native tongue, understood our customs, including the church, and for the most part, married other Armenians. This created an opportunity to essentially transfer the church to the new world and maintain its role with limited disruption. The first generation born in this country (my parents’ generation) continued and expanded this role. They were “Americanized” but had the language skills and cultural identity from their parents. Families were more intact, and life had fewer distractions. The church introduced some changes but was still able to maintain a leadership role without dramatic change.
The first signs of distress occurred with my generation—the so-called baby boomers. The attrition of my peers in the church in my youth when considering today’s participation is significant. A 40- to 50-percent retention rate might be generous. One would think that the impact of this from the 1960s to the 1980s would have been motivation to understand cause and effect, but it wasn’t. Yes, there was change, of course, but not nearly enough to keep pace with the secularization advancing in our society and the intermarriage of the next generation. For example, a seminary in the United States began in the early sixties to supply American born and educated clergy to churches in America. This was the contribution of a man of unique vision, Archbishop Tiran Nersoyan. One of the main reasons for limited strategic action has to do with how we measure communal success. We usually view our communities and parishes by the numbers—membership or the level of participation in church organizations. During the critical period from the 70s to the 90s, our communities replenished the attrition of others with waves of immigration from the Middle East and the homeland. The demographic changes were evident, and in some cases, the decline of Sunday and Armenian school began. But as long as people were participating, the motivation for change was limited. In fact, the demographic changes reduced the need for change. Thousands simply walked away from the Mother Church. Well, the migrations have slowed, and our decline “by the numbers” has continued. The truth is there are fewer participants in Badarak attendance, schools and organizations across the board.
Thankfully, there are exceptions where leadership and unique demographics have carved out an oasis. Some of our leaders have rationalized this decline in population shifts in our traditional communities and the emergence of newer communities. There is some truth to this, but the assimilation impact in the larger communities is significant and the newer communities have a smaller resource base. An Armenian church will never close for financial causes. Parishes decline because of the absence of the faithful, yet we seem to worry more about money than participants. If we continue to deny the facts, then we are simply shortening the runway for recovery.
The urgent need for change has been thwarted by the superficial assessment of participants and the fear that change will result in the loss of our identity. Actually, the reverse is true. For a diaspora community to avoid aligning with succeeding generations is almost a guarantee for irrelevance and decline. Our approach to date has been essentially binary; either participants connect with what we offer, or they quietly fade into an assimilated state. The answer lies in the type of change proposed. Our theology and protocols are not the problem. Many Armenians and non-Armenians do not connect with our traditions and etiquettes and therefore find the church difficult to relate to. This goes beyond the language debate and how we greet people when we see new faces.
I was in church this past week and read in the weekly bulletin that there were three family groups requesting hokehankist (requiem) prayers for departed family members. Increasingly in our church, large family groups for hokehankist are attended by members who are there out of respect but are not currently communicants of the church. They may have attended in their youth but have either drifted or intermarried and remain aloof from the church. This is an excellent example to illustrate my point. One of the families was sitting near me, and I noticed they were struggling with following along. I pointed out where in the Badarak book we were, careful not to embarrass them in any way. They didn’t understand standing and sitting, when to cross yourself, bowing to God at designated times or any of the communion protocol. I empathized with them as this must have been an awkward experience. The Kiss of Peace is a beautiful Christian exchange, but it can be intimidating if not understood. We all know people who will seat themselves between family members for fear that they will not know the response to the “Vokhchouyn” greeter.
When we speak about being a welcoming church, it should be viewed not only in the warmth of our personalities, but rather in how participants can connect with the worship service and, for that matter, the history, protocols and functions of our church. We have no formal programs to ensure this type of integration. Of course, some churches have video page turners and Badarak video displays, but it is not universal or mandated. The problem runs along the deep lines of inherent knowledge and unintentional ignorance. How can we expect to engage succeeding generations when inherent knowledge is declining and unintentional ignorance is increasing? Rather than shun those who are on the periphery as “gorsehvatz” (lost), we must display our empathy by doing something formal and sustainable to replace discomfort with empowering knowledge. It starts with the worship experience and continues with having enough functional knowledge to become contributing members. I recall a respected member of the church speaking at a National Assembly warning about the increase of “functionally illiterate” participants. How can we expect to build a commitment to a church that does little to close the knowledge gap? Compounding the challenge are those who choose to walk away, which has become almost epidemic. This can be prevented.
It is a far different world than that of my grandparents or parents. As a people in the diaspora, we must always be mindful that the retention of one’s faith and heritage is a choice. We seek to influence that choice with organizations, programs and peer groups. It is a choice that individuals will make at some point in their life. The impact of secularism, material distraction and self-interest has dominated our society particularly in the last 50 years. The church can no longer wait for the people to come to that institution. We are competing with shallow but powerful forces which actually illustrate the importance of the church in our lives. In a world that tries to teach us that we alone can do anything, it is only the church that teaches us that all things are possible through Our Savior Jesus Christ. This message taught through the traditions of the Armenian church is powerful but limited if the church declines. The burden on the church has become more important as the family unit, the foundation of life, struggles. Our church in America need not worry about losing the beauty of our faith. We should focus on gathering the wandering sheep of the diaspora with mechanisms that enable the joy of our church with knowledge, comfort and identity. We must be willing to engage individuals with different methods so that they will experience the beauty of our church. From simple Badarak etiquette packages to formal educational programs for Armenian and non-Armenian participants, we must begin to assume the absence of knowledge. We must welcome all with the opportunity to function equally. It is natural but unfortunate that our offerings are geared toward those who participate and have identity. Those of us on the inside need to find the joy in reaching out to those on the outside. In this way, the church will prosper, and the Good News will reach new heights.

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