The gap between faith and the Church

Parishioners at St. Stephen’s Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown, Massachusetts on June 8, 2015

We often hear of changes in our society under the name of progress. In general, it is a positive term that refers to social, educational and medical advances. The quality of life has taken giant strides in recent generations. This is something to be thankful for. Some aspects of the evolution that we are going through, in my opinion, are not moving our society forward. A country founded by those who seek freedom of worship and expression of their faith is becoming increasingly secular. We have gone beyond the “separation of Church and State” with the withdrawal of God from our public life. Some see it as the success of a truly diverse democratic society. Unfortunately, the pendulum has grown to almost an expulsion from the faith, especially Christianity. The vestiges of a God-based society are everywhere in our country, from scriptures on the Capitol to monuments across the country. The secularization of America has helped diminish the impact of Christian institutions, such as the church. Corruption and ethical scandals created fertile ground to reject the church of the generation that played sports on Sunday mornings.

I would like to make a distinction between faith and institutions. There is no doubt that the fundamental belief in our Creator (faith) has diminished with more and more individuals claiming an agnostic, atheist or unbeliever status. I have discussed this observation with countless Armenians over several generations, and it seems reasonable to assume that a major contributor to the faith side of the equation is, ironically, the impact of a society where we are encouraged to to think that we are capable of anything. This secular-based thought assumes that our Creator is secondary and that we are solely responsible. I have even met many who may have a superficial spiritual basis but who misinterpret free will because we can do anything without God.

Despite a decline in denominational thinking, the Armenian family structure helped limit the secularization of many Armenian Americans. Our families and generational traditions include God and help maintain healthy faith within our families. As long as this unity remains intact, faith plays a role. We must not confuse faith and membership in an institution. Christian institutions such as the Catholic Church and other traditional Protestant denominations struggle to optimize the connection between individual faith and its expression through a church. Divisions, scandals and corruption have encouraged many people to leave institutions, but not necessarily to give up their faith. They just express it in a more private way. Churches are under pressure from an increasingly hostile society and self-imposed constraints. The result fueled closures, financial crises and migration to new forms of expression.

A wounded church is not in the best interest of our nation.

The Armenian community in America is no exception to this phenomenon. Our Churches, whether apostolic, Protestant or Catholic, struggle to build an identity with future generations. They inherited the dual challenge of external societal impact in America as well as ensuring identity with an ethnically based institution. As assimilation into American society and intermarriage continues, connecting with the mainstream church becomes difficult. Staying focused on our common belief in our Lord faces centuries-old forays among many young people. There are times when we choose to fall asleep in denial of the challenge. For example, our churches in Boston put together can hold about 1,000 people. If we fill churches to 75 percent of their capacity on any given Sunday, we feel a sense of relief. We understand intellectually but ignore that 750 is a small fraction of the base population. Spiritually, what happens to the remaining 90%? Church attendance is not always a good barometer of the health of our community. When I was a kid the joke was always the “C&E crowd”… short for Christmas and Easter. The churches were crowded those days, so we were convinced that everything was fine. Generally speaking, whether it is a question of school attendance or financial parameters, institutions are under stress. What gives me hope is that I believe the biggest contributor to the current challenge is a lack of identity with the institution rather than a lack of belief in God. It’s an easier challenge… if we choose to.

Sadly, the Armenian Church lives with fear that adaptation to address this issue threatens the core traditions of the Church. I reject this premise although I love our language, our rituals and our history. The main mission of the church is to facilitate a relationship between the faithful and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the sake of our salvation. Everything else we do, from fundraising to cultural events, is secondary to this mission. The church is an institution established to achieve this goal, but there is a great deal of discretion in how to do it. Constraints are generally self-imposed. Does anyone believe that our methods today are the same as in the 4th or 10th century? Adaptation to protect the main mission was the hallmark of our trip.

In the diaspora, the Armenian church as an ethnic church faces an important dilemma. If the church focuses on the spiritual needs of the community, it is criticized for not emphasizing the heritage nature of our church. We have repeatedly heard people say that they would not drive 30-45 minutes for a general Christian experience. We have also lived with the reverse challenge where the church is strongly focused on cultural and ethnic content and less focused on Christian spirituality, especially knowledge of the Bible. Although the badarak is written with Scripture throughout, the perception is that knowledge of the Bible is lacking. Armenian Protestant churches are stronger in this area. In an era increasingly marked by mixed marriages and assimilation, how does a traditional and ethnic Christian institution continue to respond to the needs of its community, especially as the definition of that community evolves? Our fear of becoming a more decentralized church where regions and localities are able to make the changes necessary to meet the needs of their community is a problem. Our church today is extremely centralized, which is not compatible with maintaining a strong diaspora. The practice of “one size fits all” limits our possibilities. The gap between the faith of an individual and the practice in the institution is made possible by rigid management. Some Christian churches actually change their programs and methods when dealing with various groups with their faith community. Linking the faith of an individual with the offerings of the religious institution is a condition for success and sustainability. Gone are the days of unsolicited identity and a totally voluntary community. The church will have to earn its place in the nation with future generations.

Despite the clouds around us today, I think many of our challenges are subject to rotational cycles. The time will come when the emerging generations will tire of the overload of their lives and move away from spiritually superficial secular behavior. The question remains whether the Armenian Church will be able to fill this void by connecting with this segment of the community. If our structure and approach attracts only a minority of the diaspora, can we consider that the church is fulfilling its mission? From a spiritual and heritage point of view, the diaspora is a place where the “wandering sheep” will reside. If their needs or their current state do not fit our model, what is our response? Adaptation without compromising the core mission is essential.

We are on the road to smaller survival! Is this our vision after surviving genocide and investing in infrastructure for our children and their children? Instead of a smaller survival, we should consider an enlarged umbrella capable of encompassing the diverse souls of our diaspora. To survive as the shadow of our past is not a vision. It just keeps the lights on with obligatory cultivation. If the business of the church is salvation through the traditions of the Armenian church, it should fill us with joy, not exhaustion. Whether we like it or not, those of us who join the church are responsible for this transformation. We are the ambassadors of the institution. Too often we hear, “Well, Der Hayr or Badveli didn’t do that. We can all have an impact. At the same time, the demands on our leaders are much higher than in the past. Every inch of sustainability in today’s world must be earned. The forces against us are stronger than ever, but one thing will never change. We will go to the bottom of our faith. As we strengthen our faith as the foundation of the structure, we must be open to new ways to help the faithful connect with the institution. The Armenian Church, whatever denomination you join, has always been a central part of civilization for centuries. A wounded church is not in the best interest of our nation. How devastating it would be for the church to play a lesser role in the diaspora! This will only happen if the church and its leaders fail to maintain the connection. Great institutions have failed when, despite the noble services rendered to their constituents, they are unable to adapt to a changing environment. The idea that change is a threat to the future of the church must become unacceptable. The brilliance of our church must be adapted so that today’s generation and our future generations can be inspired to connect their faith to our institutions.

Stepan piligian

Stepan grew up in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the central executive of the AYF and of the Executive Council of the Eastern Prelature, he was also for many years a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently, he is a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also sits on the board of directors of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues with the younger generation and adults in schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian Diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.

Stepan piligian

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