The latest Pew research has shown no abatement in the decline of American church affiliation. This, together with the continuing growth of the “nones,” is inspiring much discussion across the Internet.
Catholic family therapist Dr. Greg Popcak has tied this together with further research in a recent blog post, showing that this decline is closely linked to the breakdown of family structure, and with the failure of the church to be a home to those whose family homes are broken.
Lost in the Orthodox Shuffle
Sadly, this reflects something I’ve seen too often, both in my experience of parish life and in conversations with Orthodox friends across the country: isolation and loneliness. It happens in parishes large and small, primarily ethnic and primarily convert. Many of us can spend years in a parish having pleasant but merely surface-level interactions with our fellow parishioners, feeling never quite part of the parish community—sometimes even despite deep involvement in its ministries.
Why does this happen? And what can be done to help build community in our Orthodox parishes?
Historically, Orthodoxy has usually been practiced in nations with a strong family culture, with generations of aunts, uncles, and cousins growing up together, practicing the same religion, attending the same parish, and living their lives together. Those who may not have been blood relatives still lived in the parish neighborhood, building friendships with fellow parishioners more easily because of their geographical closeness.
Many of those born into established Orthodox families still enjoy the benefits of a large, tight-knit family structure, but for most American converts this is not the case. At present in America, our culture has unraveled to such an extent that we no longer have these natural communities. Extended families have dispersed or disintegrated within the last generation or two, if not before.
This isn’t just the way we are, nor is it the way we want to be. We want better, both for our souls and for our children—and that search for something better has brought us to the Orthodox Church. Many of us had to sacrifice what community we had to become Orthodox, because our family or friends didn’t understand or were even offended by our decision. As converts, we look to our parish to be our community or even family, and it can be painful for us when we fail to find community there.
Rather than being drawn into healing fellowship, too often we come to realize that we’ll have to build our own community within the parish or learn to do without. Being connected sacramentally but isolated socially and drained emotionally, that’s a task most of us find ourselves unequal to.
Godparents and the Parish Family
Traditionally, it seems, this gap would be bridged by godparents; well-established members of the parish who sponsor a convert’s entry into the Church would treat their godchildren as family members, ensuring they were integrated into the parish community. Ideally, we converts would all attend the same parish as our godparents and naturally grow into their community over the course of a lifetime.
But today’s economic realities mean that staying in the same city and parish is sometimes impossible. People will convert in one parish and find themselves a few years later in another. When they arrive at a new parish, everyone may want to help them feel at home, but no one feels particularly responsible. Sometimes a family is able to make a connection and find an adoptive godparent of sorts, but far too many families fall through the cracks. Coffee hour, while better than nothing, is not enough; it can often be loud and overwhelming, less than conducive to deeper conversation, and like a high school lunch room can tend to reinforce cliques rather than overcome them.
There must be a more deliberate action to incorporate these families into their new community, because it simply isn’t happening spontaneously.
Building a Community of Faith
Evangelical and seeker-friendly Protestants have employed the technique of small groups to encourage community to flourish within their churches, with varying levels of success. While this is not something we should simply cut and paste into an Orthodox context, I believe that the role of godparent could be shaped into something similar in a natural way.
A priest could gather several established couples in his parish, the ones he would recommend to sponsor a new convert. When an inquirer or convert individual (or family) begins attending the parish, each of those families would take turn having the new person/family over or taking them out to dinner. Whichever family is able to connect most easily with the new family would become their godparents (adoptive, in the case of families who had already converted) and responsible for including them in the parish community. Each “god-family” could make a point to gather together for fellowship on a regular basis.
In such a way, we can take roles and forms native to “old world” Orthodoxy and use them to knit together the true community Americans desire.
Caring for Our Own
As part of building a parish community, effort should be made to care for those undergoing particular trials within our own parishes.
Our ladies’ and youth organizations do wonderful work in support of the broader community and Orthodox missions on the national level, but too often the needy within our parishes are forced to seek the support they need on the outside. People struggling with serious and chronic illnesses, families with special-needs children, single parents, and others need their parish to be there for them in concrete ways—and yet because of their extra burdens are often even more disconnected than most.
Rather than offering a general “let us know if you need anything!”, individuals and organizations can make a real difference by making specific offers, such as “We should get coffee, when would be a good time for you?” or “The youth would like to come mow your yard, is this Saturday good?”
If in doubt whether something you could offer would be helpful in their situation, or if there are special considerations you should be aware of, it never hurts to ask; but let your asking communicate your desire to be truly helpful, not any sense of burden in accommodating them.
If our local parishes are to be true Christian communities, we must be careful not to let these (of all) people fall through the cracks—people often losing their friends, families, and even livelihoods in a pursuit to join with the Orthodox Christian faith.