There is a very good book that I encourage anyone who is concerned with church attendance to read, and to read it with an open mind to your own faults. It doesn’t take a scientist to discover our churches have fewer people today (in MOST cases) than fifty years ago, and for those who are attending church on a regular basis, the average age is at or above retirement. Statistics bear this out. The Church celebrates more funerals than baptisms and weddings, and many clergy report rarely if ever seeing parishioners in church after their wedding or baptism. There is a problem.
In his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat outlines how for many years the Church (his book is about Christianity in general, not any particular denomination) has continued to struggle with emptying pews. In an attempt to “keep people in the pews” churches have watered down theology and lowered the expectations of members. The idea has always been, if our expectations and standards are keeping people away, then lowering what we expect will keep people connected. Statistics reveal the opposite has been true. Lower standards rarely produce greater results. Church attendance and faith loyalty are on the decline across our nation, and the Orthodox Church is no exception.
A growing trend in the Church, which has not been immune to this idea of lower expectations to maintain membership levels, has been to increase expectations and encourage members to rise to the challenge and restore their fervor for the faith. Clergy struggle with this concept daily when meeting with young families who desire to schedule a wedding or baptism. I know of one priest who takes a photo of the couple at their first meeting and says, “So I will recognize you next time I see you at the wedding.”
The implication is clear, many couples arrive at the Church for their wedding (or baptism) never to return. As clergy, we don’t make these comments lightly. It is genuinely our desire to inspire couples to think deeply about their relationship with God and His Church. The Sacraments are sacred moments in our life, but without regular and consistent participation in the worship life of the Church, we risk the sacraments being empty rituals. We risk thinking of the sacraments as nothing more than rites of passage and beautiful ceremonies. We forget they are sacred and at one time in history were incorporated into the Divine Liturgy. We forget the sacraments have no meaning without Holy Communion and the worship of the Church.
Then there are those who fight against the clergy. “You are being too strict. You are chasing people away from the Church!” All clergy hear this accusation, and I for one appreciate the challenge. It allows me the opportunity to evaluate how I interact and challenge couples to a greater faith and life in the Church. For me, though, it comes down to free will. I allow couples not to be involved in the life of the Church if they choose. I allow them the free will not to schedule their wedding or baptism if it is nothing more than a ritual to make yiayia and papou happy. I urge couples to make the sacraments part of their daily life rather than a long but beautiful ritual.
In case you think this struggle is new for the Church, from the very beginning the Church has struggled with ways to inspire greater faith and commitment to Christ. Many of the ancient Holy Canons deal with penalties for those who do not take seriously their life in the Church. Those penalties were always designed to create a desire for greater faith, not simply to penalize members. Admittedly, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work, but before you accuse the clergy of chasing people away from the Church, consider the data. Lower expectations and standards have not inspired greater commitment. Maybe its time for increased expectations. It worked for the ancient Church which struggled with a much more sinful world than we have today. Maybe it will work for us today.