Easter has come, and the season of Eastertide has arrived.
For Western Christianity, that is. Eastern Christianity, which operates on a different liturgical calendar, observes Holy Week this week and celebrates Easter this Sunday, a week later than churches in Western Christianity.
The difference in liturgical calendars at this season of the church year provides an opportunity to consider some lessons for American Protestantism from the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christendom.
“Beauty is viewed as essential to all dimensions of Christian spirituality, and this value is reflected in Orthodox places of worship.”
In terms of demographic trends, Orthodox churches in the U.S. share similarities with Protestant denominations, but also reflect interesting contrasts. Orthodox membership is in a decline. Retention rates are low. Marriage rates are also falling. At the same time, the most recent “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” study by Pew Research Center found that Orthodox churches have the highest percentage of members ages 18 to 29 among all Christian groups. Orthodox Christianity is tied with Mormons for the highest percentage of adherents ages 30 to 59. On average, Orthodox are the most highly educated Christians. Interestingly, even though Eastern Orthodoxy is largely the antithesis to the Prosperity Gospel, America’s Orthodox are the wealthiest Christians on a per capita basis.
Here are five things Baptists and other Protestants can learn from Orthodox Christianity:
1. Tailoring worship style to popular culture is overrated.
For many American Protestant churches, it has become almost an article of faith that worship style needs to match popular culture. This is an effort to ensure that unchurched people can “relate” to Christian worship. That may be convincing for many church and denominational leaders, but does experience corroborate this widespread notion? While many Protestant congregations bend over backwards to fit their worship to popular tastes and trends, many of these churches are no longer growing. Orthodox churches do not even use any musical instruments in worship, yet they still have the highest percentage of adults under 30 among their adherents compared to other Christian groups.
2. Life is liturgical.
Liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox term for worship, has Greek origins and literally means “work of the people.” A major purpose is to form habits that facilitate a life of faith that is meaningful and good. One does not need to understand all the fine points of Orthodox liturgy to realize that our daily activities mold us. James Smith, a Calvinist theologian influenced by Eastern Orthodox thought, reminds us that even the most casual or ordinary activities, such as going to a shopping mall, attending a sporting event or just hanging out with friends, contribute to our character formation. A better awareness of this contribution can make us more selective regarding the activities we engage in and more intentional about shaping our character. This awareness can shape our spiritual formation, which, in turn, may make our churches more vital.
3. Images matter.
In its zeal to combat idolatry, much of Western Christianity removed images, statuary and art from its churches. Eastern Orthodox Christians chose a different path. Icons reflect what the Christian life is like, and one does not need to venerate them in order to realize the importance of images for worship and spiritual formation. American Christians are constantly bombarded by secular images of the “good life” on television, in magazines and on social media, not to mention shopping centers. We need to be cognizant of the power of images and look for ways to use art and other imagery in our worship and spiritual formation programs.
4. So does beauty.
Unlike Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Protestants do not have a major female figure to venerate. Although many Protestant churches in the U.S. recognize the importance of art, aesthetics largely remains an acquired language. Often the importance of art is limited to its potential to evangelize, and that seems to lessen the value of Christian art in the eyes of the wider public. Not so in the Orthodox tradition. Beauty is viewed as essential to all dimensions of Christian spirituality, and this value is reflected in Orthodox places of worship. Orthodox Christianity understands that human nature yearns for the beautiful. An appreciation for beauty permeates Eastern cultures as well as Eastern Christianity. Many Protestant churches in the U.S. need to be more purposeful about making our spaces beautiful.
5. It’s not Jesus and me; it’s Jesus and all of us, living and dead.
“Me and Jesus got our own thing going; me and Jesus got it all worked out,” says a popular evangelical song. This individualistic mindset, which seems to reflect much of American Protestantism, relegates the church to secondary importance after individual salvation. If me and Jesus, in this order, have it all worked out, it is not clear why we need our brothers and sisters (or even our pastors and other ministers). The link between this mentality and empty pews on Sunday mornings seems apparent.
In contrast, this individualistic ethos is quite alien to Eastern Orthodox spirituality. According to Orthodox teaching, attending worship is essential for salvation, which has a robust communal dimension. In addition, liturgy is a place where not only the living are present, but the souls of the dead are also there, strengthening worshippers in their journey of faith.
One does not need to share Orthodox dogma to realize that giving due recognition to the communal dimension and other strengths of Christian faith and worship in Orthodox Christianity can have a positive influence on Protestant churches in America. Perhaps more dialogue between leaders of these two traditions could prove fruitful for both.
In the meantime, it seems we Baptists and other Protestants can affirm again the joyous refrain of “Christ is risen!” with our Orthodox sisters and brothers as they celebrate the resurrection this Sunday.