Since the very beginning, the apostolic, Orthodox Church has maintained focus on preaching the Gospel to every tribe, nation, and language. Translation of the faith for every culture was a concern even in the first century, and the Orthodox tradition is replete with examples of this well-placed zeal.
And yet, for many Orthodox Christians in the so-called “diaspora” today, this zeal is all but lost. Replaced with an unhealthy focus on ethnicity, transitory nationalism, and even nostalgia, the Gospel is at risk; parishes are at risk. Something must be done.
The Apostles to the Slavs
In ninth century Thessaloniki, two brothers named Constantine and Michael were born to a family of relative nobility. Later in life, these brothers’ efforts would reshape the destiny of an entire people.
Constantine and Michael were raised in a region where both Greek and Slavic were common tongues. Having the privilege of an extensive, formal education, these men would later use their knowledge to craft the first translations of the holy Scriptures (and our divine services) into the Slavic language. After his ordination to the diaconate in Constantinople, Constantine used his prowess with Semitic languages to engage in a dialogue with theologians of the Abbasid Caliphate on the topic of the holy Trinity. In 860, St. Photios the Great sent Constantine and Michael to the Khazars in an attempt to thwart their adoption of Judaism, in favor of Christianity. And finally, in a mission that would occupy the rest of their lives, Prince Ratislav recruited the two brothers to educate the Moravian people in the doctrines of Orthodox Christianity, in stead of the Germanic missionaries already spending time there.
The German Christians were of course using Latin as a liturgical language as they engaged with the Moravian people. But in this, they kept them in the dark, ultimately leading to their rejection of that faith. Instead of bringing the good news to the people of Moravia in a language they could understand, the Germans were attempting to convert the Moravian people to being German or Latin. The message was simple: to become a Christian required Christ plus something else (in this case, learning a new language, or being cursed to remain in darkness). And as we know from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Christ plus anything is a doctrine of demons, and not the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Thankfully, this was not the approach of Constantine and Michael. They developed an entirely new alphabet—the Glagolitic (a precursor to Cyrillic)—so the Slavic people could both read and understand the Gospel and liturgical services of the Orthodox East. Bringing not only the Gospel but also literacy and cultural progress as a result, Constantine and Michael—now Saints Cyril and Methodius—were apostolic missionaries for an entire nation.
Through Prince Vladimir, practically the entire Slavic people would eventually become Christian, accepting this Gospel that was brought to them in a language they could both read and comprehend. In fact, they are so important to the Slavic people, the recent Winter Olympics in Russia featured their iconographic representations prominently during the opening ceremonies—over a thousand years later.
The Gospel and the Eskimos
In 1741, two Russian explorers Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov discovered what is now known as Alaska. As Russian commerce soon arrived in the region, a fur-trader named Grigory Shelikhov established a school for the native Aleutians. Many of them converted to Orthodox Christianity, and so a need arose for spiritual oversight. But Catherine the Great decided to send an entire missionary initiative to the region, including nearly a dozen monks from the Valaam monastery. Even in the face of much corruption and difficulty, several thousand Aleuts converted to Christianity (under the primary spiritual care of St. Herman of Alaska, a former monk at Valaam).
Communicating with these natives was of utmost concern. Several Russian linguists studied their language families, but in 1824, a Russian priest named Ioann Veniaminov developed an alphabet for the Aleutian people based on Cyrillic. The language first derived for the preaching of the Gospel to a new nation was now being adapted anew to serve another—in their own language. Veniaminov translated one of the canonical Gospels as well as a number of other Christian texts into the newly developed written language of the Aleuts, even publishing a grammar of Eastern Aleut in 1846.
Veniaminov is now known to Orthodox Christians as St. Innocent of Alaska, the “Enlightener of the Aleuts” and “Apostle to America.” Once again, Orthodox Christians paved the way for the spread of the Gospel by speaking good news to a people in their own tongue. Rather than forcing a culture to convert to another, they pointed them to Christ and his universal Church. Through the beauty of our faith, the love displayed by their mission, and the efforts of linguists like St. Innocent, an entire people were grafted into the family of God. They were drawn not by the appeals of becoming Russian, but rather the appeals of Jesus Christ and the work of his apostles.
The Problem Today
But at present in North America—and elsewhere in the so-called “diaspora”—there are many Orthodox Christians given little chance to hear and believe. Instead, whole generations are apostatizing and leaving the faith, or maintaining a nominal affiliation at best. There is a substantial demographic crisis facing certain portions of Orthodoxy in the West and beyond, and something must be done.
A 2014 report on the official website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America stated that:
In a startling find, statistics disclose over 60% of Greek Orthodox families of the last generation and 90% of Americans with Greek roots are no longer in communion with the Church.
But the report takes a confusing turn, as noted by columnist Rod Dreher. The Archdiocese was seemingly concerned less with apostasy from the faith, and more with the “problem” of “intermarriage” in-and-of-itself (perhaps we’re mistaken?):
It is a concern shared by learned religious leaders who understand the need for a compassionate outreach towards intermarried families with sensitivity to differences among intermarried couples and the problems they face as a family. In the transition, as each population passes into successive generations, growing numbers of families move further from their origins, with the probability that our beloved Greek Orthodox Church in America will become moribund in the very near future.
Is this demographic—and ultimately spiritual—crisis of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America one of mixed marriages?
While I wouldn’t discount the reality that several children raised in Orthodoxy will unfortunately marry outside the faith, a concern with marrying outside “Greekness” is not a Gospel concern. No, the problem is largely one of both catechesis and language—and the two go hand-in-hand, I believe.
Outside of the Gospel, the greatest witness blessed to Orthodoxy are our divine services. Though highly catechetical or instructional—both pragmatically and spiritually—if the services are in a language no one understands, they do little-to-no good. In fact, they can sadly do more harm than good. In these issues, the Gospel and the salvation of the world is at stake. There is little excuse or justification for preaching to God’s people in a language they cannot understand.
As Dreher sadly concludes in his own reflection:
I have two Greek friends who were raised Greek Orthodox but no longer are (one’s Evangelical, one’s Catholic) because, as they put it, Christianity was all Greek to them growing up.
So again, I plead: Something must change.
What Would Saint Paul Do?
In the Corinthian church, Paul deals with an issue similar to ours at present.
From the very beginning, the Church was a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles. As such, translation was a concern even in the first century! While at that first feast of Pentecost, everyone could hear one another in their own language, we are not (often) gifted with that same Grace today.
And to be clear, the miracle at Pentecost in A.D. 33 was related to the languages of various nations, not some indiscernible, ecstatic tongue (Acts 2:4–11, emphasis mine):
Then [the apostles] were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak. At that time, devout Jews from every nation under heaven were staying in Jerusalem. When this sound was heard, a crowd formed and people were bewildered because everyone heard the disciples speaking in his own language. They were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Behold, are not all these who speak Galileans? How is it that we hear everyone speak in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, the parts of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians: we hear them speaking in our languages concerning the deeds of power of God!”
Regrettably, many of us today ignore the Pauline directive to translate for all to understand (1 Cor. 14:1ff, emphasis mine):
Whoever speaks in another language edifies himself only, but the one who prophesies edifies the Church … For the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in other languages, unless the one who speaks in other languages also interprets, so that the Church may be edified …
Consider things without life but giving a voice, such as a pipe or a harp: if they did not give a distinction in the sounds, how would anyone know what is being played? For if the trumpet gave an uncertain sound, who would prepare for war? It is the same with you: if you do not utter words easy to understand, how will people understand what is spoken? For you would be speaking into the air! As it is, there are many kinds of sounds in the world, and none of them is without meaning. But if I do not know the meaning of the sound, I would be as a foreigner to the one speaking, and vice-versa. And so with you, since you are eager for spiritual gifts, try to excel in what edifies the Church. Therefore, the one who speaks in another language should pray that he may also interpret, because if I pray in another language, my spirit prays, but my mind does not bear fruit.
What then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the mind. I will sing with the spirit, and with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless with the spirit, how will the one who is untrained say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, not knowing what are you saying? You give thanks well, no doubt about it, but the other person is not built up. I give thanks to my God: I speak in other languages more than all of you. However, in the Church, I would rather speak five words with my mind than ten thousand words in another language, in order to instruct others.
Paul is rather clear, as I read it.
Those who prefer to speak in other languages—without a full and complete translation—edify only a few, or simply themselves. They are often not seeking not to instruct or involve others in the Church in so doing. When you don’t know what’s being said, you don’t know when to say “Amen”—or make the sign of the Cross. This is regrettable, and can certainly be changed—with pastoral care and compassion, of course.
We are not monergists, believing that God works directly on humanity apart from the will and involvement of free creatures; ordinarily speaking, hearing with understanding is required to be converted by God’s Spirit. If nothing else, refusing to preach and sing to the people in their own tongue is an implicit opposition to our belief of synergism. People need to not only hear, but be able to understand—and this requires preaching and singing in a language of the people.
Some day, we shall all—through the Holy Spirit—understand each other perfectly, no matter our native language. Until then, we must preach in the tongue and manner of the people hearing it, as this spiritual gift has faded away (as Paul said it would). Of this day and age, Isaiah prophesies (28:11–12):
By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers,
I will speak to this people.
Yet, not even thus will they hear me, says the Lord.
Even in a world where the Gospel has been shared with countless people, translated into countless languages, unbelief persists. At how much of a disadvantage are we, then, when we don’t preach the Gospel in a language known to the hearer? “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom. 10:14)
We are simply “speaking into the air,” as Paul puts it.
Answering Some Common Objections
Even with all of the above carefully considered, there are a number of objections to the idea we should always sing and preach the Gospel in the native language of those hearing it.
For the sake of brevity, let’s consider just a few:
Objection: Many parishioners were raised in the “old countries” hearing the services in a dead language (e.g. ancient Greek or Slavonic), and so they are used to it. By changing this, we trouble them. It is therefore a “pastoral concern” to offer worship in a language they’re familiar with, even if they don’t understand every word.
Response: There is little pastoral about not translating the Gospel and services for people to hear it in their own language. Even when the more experienced and faithful have sought out to learn the meaning of various hymns, phrases, and Gospel readings, there is just as much that remains a mystery. The pastoral response in such a situation should be education, not reinforced ignorance. By showing people the beauty and catechetical depth of our hymns and services (once they are understood), we can help encourage those opposed to this change to focus on what’s most important: the Gospel and reaching the non-Orthodox.
Objection: As a follow-up to the above, many parishes would lose a substantial portion of their funding if we changed everything to English, as these “old country” parishioners would revolt or leave altogether. It is for the good of the parish to keep them happy.
Response: The demographic research indicates that many ethnic parishes in the United States and elsewhere will be dwindling in the next generation (or earlier). At least by pulling the trigger now, there is a glimmer of hope for the future—and primarily with the converts and other faithful parishioners who are going to remain in the Church no matter what—so long as the faith itself remains the same. There is at least a hope that by reaching out to the English-speaking world around them today, they can attract new converts and catechumens for the sake of the parish’s tomorrow. The Gospel cannot and should not be held hostage by nostalgia. The Gospel is not nostalgia or cultural pride; it is light and life!
Objection: Praying or singing in ancient Greek or Slavonic seems more “mystical,” and allows a worshiper to focus solely on both God and prayer—not the words being used.
Response: First consider the claim of monergism—a Christological heresy—above. Second, consider that it is both acceptable and wholesome to enjoy our hymns and services in these old languages from an aesthetic and even academic point of view. For example, in our leisure listening, via avenues such as concerts, choir performances, recordings, and Ancient Faith Radio. There is nothing wrong with this, and learning to sing and preserve these hymns in their original tongue is an admirable endeavor, especially within the musical and academic community. However, when it comes to the corporate worship of a parish, dead languages should be pushed to the background being, at most, supplemental (for example, singing the Paschal troparia in various languages during the Paschal season). Finally, while it is an important part of Orthodox prayer and worship to be able to focus on God in our heart and mind, this does not take place “without knowledge.” Getting to know God does involve getting to know about God.
Objection: English or other languages are incapable of expressing the full meaning of the Scriptures and our services, as found in the original, dead languages (like Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic). Therefore, in order to preserve the faith, we must preserve the old languages in parish use.
Response: Consider the example of our Gospels and the work of the earliest Christians. By the first century A.D., God’s people had already largely moved past Hebrew, being influenced by Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and other languages of their diaspora or occupying societies. Prior to the Church, God’s people worshipped and gathered in synagogues, using exclusively the language(s) of the people: e.g. Aramaic and Greek. As the Church grew, the Gospel and other spiritual letters of the faith were penned in the language known most by everyone in the Roman Empire: Koine Greek. As time went on, the Gospel and hymns of the faith were translated anew for other cultures: Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, and—as already noted—even Slavonic, Aleutian, and English. This is a standard practice of the Church, and has been so even since the days of second temple Judaism. In all of this, while there might be concerns that certain languages translate better than others, it has never stopped the Church from translating the Gospel for all the world. If we learn nothing else from the example of the Septuagint, it is this simple fact. At the heart of the Orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation is the belief that “translation” does not destroy or detract from the prototype, a truth shown most explicitly in our theology of the icon (as derived from the example of Christ’s Incarnation).
Objection: English is a less-beautiful liturgical language, and/or the hymns and tones we’ve used for centuries do not exactly fit the English translations. If Orthodox worship is supposed to be beautiful, so that we can tell others to “come and see,” English is insufficient and even counter-intuitive.
Response: There are a number of beautiful, accurate, and praiseworthy English translations of our divine services and hymns in circulation. First and foremost, I would point to the work of His Grace Bishop Basil (Essey) and others in the Antiochian Liturgikon (and the accompanying services for Holy Week and Pascha). There is also the work of Archimandrite Ephrem, whose English translations have been sanctioned by the Ecumenical Patriarch, not to mention those of His Eminence Kallistos (Ware). Unfortunately, many churches in the West make use of books that are inferior, adopting fumbling, inclusive language, inaccurate Scriptural readings (especially for the Old Testament), and ignoring whole swaths of hymns and prayers, seemingly without reason (or Episcopal involvement). The real issue here are the books and translations being employed, not English (or other common languages). If we care about the non-Orthodox world around us, we can and will do better. It will take time, no doubt, but it’s an effort worth taking.
Objection: In the “old countries” where old languages are still widely in use, the people are not inhibited from both understanding and practicing the Orthodox faith. As such, neither should we be concerned about using these dead languages in the “diaspora.”
Response: Without wishing to paint with too broad of a brush, in places where a “dead” language is still dominant in liturgical use, nominalism is widespread, the societal and governmental structures are in a state of utter collapse (at least in the case of Greece), or are often opposed to the ambitions of the Orthodox Church, and the faith is, in many places, reduced to a matter of either the family or the nation. These are not easy words, and it is easy to speak in generalizations—please forgive me. While this isn’t the case in all places, it is the case enough for such an objection to be brushed aside. There is no empirical data showing that by preserving a dead language, the people are better-equipped to remain faithful to Christ. In fact, the research in the United States shows the exact opposite. Parishes with English as the primary language are not only growing, they are thriving. Those on the other end of the spectrum are in steep decline.
Objection: By forcing parishes to use English in the United States, you are discriminating against the parishioners not fluent in English.
Response: First, I would imagine the number of active, faithful Orthodox Christians in the United States not fluent (or close enough) in English is rather small. Second, using languages like ancient Greek or Slavonic is not a solution to this concern, but a recapitulation of the same issue at its source. Thirdly, if there are bi-lingual (or more) parishes, they are of course encouraged (even required) to offer the services in full with a translation for each applicable language. But that doesn’t include dead languages like ancient Greek and Slavonic, in my humble opinion. Arabic, Serbian, and other languages would be another matter, and makes far more sense in a few, unique examples. Let’s offer the services in the language of the people, not merely nostalgic ones for the sake of either aesthetics or familiarity. This would take pastoral care, but it could be done. And perhaps by the time it’s complete, it will no longer be a real concern (as everyone in the diaspora becomes accustomed to their new, local language).
Objection: By forcing our churches to shift almost exclusively to English, we will be doing nothing but creating new, “Anglo-Saxon” ghettos in the place of the existing, Eastern European ones.
Response: This would be a valid concern if the end goal was to “Americanize” the Orthodox Church. That is not my goal at all! The goal is to ensure everyone has an equal and fair chance to both hear and understand our beautiful faith in their own, common language. It is a calling to invite the world to “come and see” and to experience God in a transformative way in the Orthodox communities of the West. Since America herself has no inherent culture—America is a melting pot of cultures, after all—there is little risk of a new, dominant culture taking over. Instead, the Orthodox Church, with her long history and variety of cultural expressions represented, is the perfect vessel within which to evangelize the American people.
In these and other common objections, the concerns are largely of this world. We must focus on things eternal, and on the heart of the Gospel, rather than what’s difficult or political. We can, and should, do better—for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of our evangelical witness to the world.
In case it hasn’t been made clear to this point (forgive the length already), I firmly believe this is a Gospel issue.
It is at the heart of evangelizing and preaching the Orthodox faith to the world around us. Truly, our best way to soft-evangelize the non-Orthodox is through our divine services (if done well). But when we don’t offer them in a language people can understand—whether inside or outside of the Church—we are only a noisy gong or clanging symbol, as Paul suggests. Our calls to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 33:9 LXX) fall upon deaf ears.
Thankfully, not everywhere in the present Church is like this. There are probably as many positive examples of reaching out to the American culture as Orthodox Christians than there are negative, to be honest. It’s just an unfortunate reality that the examples most-frequently experienced by the non-Orthodox are negative or, at the very least, misleading.
For example, when a parish focuses practically all of its energies on an annual ethnic festival, what are they telling the world? That our faith is reducible to middle eastern treats and dancing? That our Church really is only for a certain culture or people? And what about the names we choose for our parishes? By leaving “Greek,” “Russian,” or “Antiochian” on our signs and letterheads, are we unintentionally misleading the world around us to think that the Orthodox Church is not a catholic and universal Church, but is rather solely for a particular ethnicity or tongue? These are simple matters, and quite subtle, but I think they add up.
What if a parish devoted all of its efforts to catechizing the inquirers of their community? On smaller groups for fellowship, communication, and instruction? On creating true families with those they share a common faith, rather than simply with whom they share a common blood? (For an example that puts many Orthodox churches to shame, see this presentation from the Copts—a people “being killed all day long” by extremists in Egypt and elsewhere, who yet have the time to focus on the Gospel for English-speaking people.)
What if parishes cancelled their annual ethnic festivals, and instead hosted choral performances that included full translations of the sacred hymns, and a presentation of the Orthodox theology of music and arts at the end? What if those in attendance were then invited to experience an Orthodox Vespers service immediately afterwards? Better yet, what if all of the parish’s efforts were directed towards making worship beautiful and heavenly? The statistics show that the people will come, they will stay, and the money problems will usually take care of themselves. In that case, a festival could just be a fun way of reaching out to the community, rather than a “do or die” requirement for the parish’s livelihood.
What if, instead of focusing on a Sunday School program for children that often comes as a replacement for corporate worship, we focused on the education of the young and seasoned adults, so they can adequately educate their children at home?
What if all of our services—from beginning to end—were done in the common language of our people? What if Slavonic and ancient Greek were replaced with modern Russian and Greek in those nations? What would the effect be on the surrounding culture? On the makeup of the Orthodox Church in those lands?
These are a lot of “What ifs?,” but they all add up to an Orthodox Church and witness that is far more alive and dynamic than at present (in my opinion).
If we truly confess and believe that we are the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, we will rise to the occasion and seek to make a difference in these, and other areas. If we believe in the Gospel—the good news for all nations that our God reigns, and that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death and all other forms of division by his sacrificial death—then we have no other choice. These “What ifs?” should become a reality, not theory.
For there is neither Jew nor Greek, and we are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). And we are not Orthodox by being so by birth or national heritage—Orthodoxy is a matter of the heart. Our praise comes not from human beings, but from God (Rom. 2:28–9).
Faith comes by hearing, but “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Rom. 10:14)