I get in arguments all the time with my friend about churches, many are some form of Protestant. Typically I tell them about how the Orthodox church is the original, whole and unchanged. A common response is that they do not like “formal” type of worship and prefer contemporary worship with drums, guitar, etc. Usually this ends with the question, “Does God care how you praise him if scour heart is in it while they are praising in contemporary style?”
How often do we hear similar questions? We are inundated today with all manner of religious spectacles in the media, one need only explore all the “Gospel hour” programs on cable/satellite TV. It seems each televangelist is trying to “outdo the other guy” by introducing some new gimmick to their show. How does Orthodoxy compete with this?
1. First we must understand the transformative mission of the Orthodox Church and how it differs from the myriad of denominations we see today. We say transformative as the church leads us back to Christ – back to that original godlike image in which we were originally created. The tradition from which these new religious groups/denominations is what we Might call “restorationist”, a term coined by some Protestant and Mormon theologians. They use this term to legitimize their brand of theology and to try to discredit ” the Traditionalists or Conservationist” churches, such as Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The definition is clear – they state that THE CHURCH ceased to exist after the death of the last Apostle, only to be revealed some 1500 years later during the Protestant Reformation.
There is a serious flaw in this theologic system as the Church, which they discredit, gave them the Bible. The Bible is revelation from the Holy Spirit and the Church approved the canon of scripture, using Holy Tradition as the litmus test to determine which books were acceptable and which were spurious and to be rejected. Further, the Bible takes the final form in the late 4th century. It is also important to note that we have historically reliable writings concerning the early Christian community from Fathers who knew the Apostles themselves, such as Saints Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Clement of Rome. It is hard to conceive how Martin Luther, some 1500 years after Saint Ignatius, was closer to understanding the Apostolic preaching. It would be of great interest to see how he understood the phrase from the Epistle to Timothy, ” the church is the pillar of truth”.
2. This leads to the next point. Modern churches, Aka “the church of what’s happening now”, are “man centered.” The focus is on how the church makes me feel, God affects “my life,” what “I get out of worship,” etc. In this mindset, worship must be “appealing to me,” to “fit my needs,” where we change the church to satisfy our tastes. “Personal taste,” rather than the faith, often dictates the need for emotional forms of worship, each “form” appealing to the taste of a specific “group” within a community, yet no one form appealing to the community as a whole.
3. The Orthodox Tradition approaches such things from the exact opposite position, undestanding how one worships is not a matter of “personal taste.” Rather than being “man centered,” Orthodox Christian worship is “God centered.” Worship, as we read in Scripture, must be offered “in Spirit and Truth” and must be “well pleasing unto God,” Who is the only One we strive to “please” by our worship. That worship must be pleasing unto God is depicted clearly in the books of the Old Testament, remember the incident with the incense? Why does it matter or how incense is burnt for The Lord? Clearly, it was not a sweet savor into The Lord
(Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the LordLeviticus 10:1).
We do not gather for worship to be entertained, to be “relevant,” or to “appeal” to this group’s “taste” at the expense of the whole. While humans have the need to worship, worship must offer a glimpse of the divine, not an affirmation of humanity. Worship must always be seen as focused on God, period, and not on “me.”
4. Without a change in another’s outlook from “man centered” to “God centered,” you will probably find that it will be virtually impossible for them to change their attitude toward worship. We’re dealing with two radically different traditions, theologies, ecclesiologies, and soteriologies here, and unless the underlying elements, the internal faith and vision that support their views are changed, their views probably will not change.
5. We are called to worship “in Spirit and Truth,” as we read in Scripture; that we are called to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ “as often as you come together” lest, as we read in the words of Our Lord Himself in the Gospel of Saint John, we have no life in us; that we are to “lay aside all earthly cares” [which is pretty difficult with rock music, and often lousy rock music at that]; that we are called to transform our fallen human existence by bringing it into the very presence of God Himself—in His Kingdom, not ours.” The act of worship is critical for man as he is a spiritual being. The forms we use to worship, “the smells and bells” the chants and prostrations, are not needed by God, we need them! What really can we give to our Lord? What does He need? The greatest gift is our love for Him.
The external form of worship we use must reflect the internal faith of the worshipping community. Orthodox Christian worship reflects the fullness of Truth as preserved and proclaimed by Orthodox Christianity. It is “sacramental”—that is, it strives to “make holy.” It is Eucharistic—that is, all worship flows from the one, essential act of worship and thanksgiving, the “common union” with the Trinity and with God’s People into which the “community” enters through the reception of Holy “Communion.” the word ecclesia is an ancient word referring to a gathering, a community.
Orthodox worship is not “fossilized,” as some non-Orthodox would opine, nor is it true to say that God only accepts this or that ritual action. God accepts worship “in Spirit and Truth;” if the “externals” do not accurately reflect the “internals,” there is a disconnect, just as if the “internals” are not reflected by the “externals,” something is amiss.
In the early Church there were a wide variety of Liturgies, in addition to those of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great, and all were considered “valid,” because they were God-centered and God-focused, sacramental, and consistent with the faith of the community. Over time, the Liturgy took on the external form to which we are accustomed today, but the internal faith that is reflected in worship has remained the same, for as Saint Paul teaches us, Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and inasmuch as our faith is in the “changeless Christ,” the key is to remain faithful to Him and to express that in the externals of our worship, rather than changing the externals to accommodate the “changing world” and its ever changing “tastes.”
6. Concerning the question as to how we can get others interested in Orthodox worship, we have to emphasize again, that unless you can transform or reverse—or, to be more precise, “complete”—the underlying understanding of worship or impart to them the fullness of Truth as proclaimed and preserved by the Orthodox Church at all times and in all places, we will probably not interest them in Orthodox worship. It is essential to understand that the Church’s mission is not to get people “interested” in the externals of our worship.
Our Lord came into the world to proclaim reconciliation between the Creator and His creatures, and this is the very heart of the faith. If we cannot interest others in this, then it is futile, and even dangerous, to try to interest them in how we express the heart of our faith externally, through worship. The Church’s mission is to proclaim the fullness of Truth as revealed by Jesus Christ through the Good News, and then to express this as a community through “liturgy,” the “common work” of God’s People. If one accepts the fullness of Truth, one will naturally worship accordingly.
I might also add that the Liturgy was never meant to be an evangelization tool, a means of interesting or attracting people. While it is true that there have indeed been countless individuals for whom their first contact with the Orthodox Church may have come through an Orthodox worship experience, it is also fact that, in the early Church, those who had yet to fully embrace the faith were dismissed after the Liturgy of the Word, because the Liturgy of the Eucharist was not something that they could participate in until after they had converted.
It is only my opinion, but one of the biggest mistakes we Orthodox Christians make is thinking that by taking a non-Orthodox individual to a Liturgy, he or she will be convinced instantaneously of the fullness of Orthodoxy. Ultimately, those with no understanding of the faith, just as those who define “good worship” by their personal tastes or interests, are not in a position to fully understand the Liturgy, even though they may “enjoy” the experience. [“Enjoyment” is not a goal in worship.]
While there are indeed those who may “enjoy” the incense, chanting, vestments, icons, candles, and the other externals of our worship, it must always be remembered that the externals are a reflection of the “internal” faith of the People of God, at all times and in all palces. For someone to pursue conversion to Orthodoxy simply because he or she likes the externals of the service, with only a secondary concern for the fullness of Truth that the worship expresses, he or she would, in my opinion, be entering into a spiritually dangerous state, since the greater emphasis would be placed on the “form” of worship while placing the “power” of the faith which the worship expresses in a secondary position.