How We Worship: the Struggle of the American Experience

We live in the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st century. We are a product of a modern secularized society that prides itself on individual rights. There are many wonderful things about being raised in America, but also many problems. As Orthodox Christians living in the West, we are faced with many complex ethical and moral dilemmas.
| 31 December 2008

Source: Holy Cross Orthodox Church


Fr. George Florovsky once said that “Christianity is a liturgical religion” and because of this “worship comes first.” If worship is primary, then how we worship determines and expresses what we believe, and what we believe determines and expresses how we worship. This is summed up in the expression “the rule of faith is the rule of prayer and the rule of prayer is the rule of faith” -lex orandi lex credendi est. The Church has always understood itself as a worshiping community. We are not a “mystery cult” that does liturgical actions on behalf of itself or to remember certain events from the past. Nor is our worship simply one of many things that we do as part of our weekly activities. The word liturgy comes from the word, leitourgia, which literally means “the work of God’s people.” We come together to be what we can never be alone, the body of Christ, the Church. It is in our corporate worship that we become who we truly are – members of one another in God’s Kingdom (Ephesians 4:4,15,16). From early on in the history of the Church, this corporate worship was centered around Christ’s Body and Blood offered and distributed at the Eucharist.

We live in the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st century. We are a product of a modern secularized society that prides itself on individual rights. There are many wonderful things about being raised in America, but also many problems. As Orthodox Christians living in the West, we are faced with many complex ethical and moral dilemmas. The beauty of our Orthodox Tradition is that it has always engaged the cultures it found itself in always trying to find a way for Christ to be incarnated (contextualized) in a particular culture. This being said, how do we properly engage our culture with the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ? How much do we allow our culture to dictate how we worship, live, and conduct ourselves? Where should we draw the line between “relevance” and drawing people to a “higher” standard. What is the proper balance? This can be a hard road to navigate, but I think there are some specific things we can say that can aid us in contemplating this question.

There are no individuals in the Church. We are not autonomous beings who come to Church in order to get our needs met. This is an aspect of our Orthodox self- understanding that sets us apart in our American Christian culture. We are connected to one another. We worship together. We are saved together in the Church. We are members of one another in the body of Christ. Mainline Christianity in America assumes that we are selfsufficient individuals and all we need is “me, God, and the Bible.” This is very different than our historical, Orthodox Christian Faith. The Church is made of persons created in the image and likeness of God that come together to be what they cannot be alone, the body of Christ, which is the one body, confessing the one Christ, celebrating the one Eucharist at the one altar, worshiping with one voice.

What does it mean to be American and Orthodox? Do we have a responsibility to communicate this Faith to an American audience? What does that look like? Yes, we need to be concerned with a uniquely American Orthodox Church that takes the best that this culture has to offer (language, architecture, music, etc.), BUT we need to be very careful to differentiate what in this culture is also at odds with our Orthodox worldview (secularism, individualism, commercialism, materialism, etc.). Our worship should first and foremost reflect this. We are not individuals who come to Church as spectators to be entertained by a talented and aesthetically-pleasing choir (even though we have one). We don’t come to Church to watch a spiritual “professional” do the services for us. We don’t come to Church as “non-spiritual lay people” that just sit and watch a “spiritual” play and performance. We don’t come to hear a skilled orator talk for 45 minutes and give us an inspiring and talented talk. Our worship is quite the opposite. It is communal and corporate. We worship together as the “priesthood of all believers” offering up with one voice our sacrifices of praise, doxology, and thanksgiving, eucharistia. We are all concelebrants in this heavenly worship. We all are participants in this angelic worship around the Throne of God. This is precisely why we stand for worship. We come together to worship with one voice in the presence of God. Scripturally speaking, the two postures for worship are on one’s face in prostration or standing with faces turned towards the great I AM with arms outstretched.

Our worship is corporate, free, and involves the whole community. Everyone, including small children, participates for the Eucharist is our family meal. In the early second century there was a document in the Church called The Shepherd of Hermas, in which the Church is compared to a tower built of stone. From far away it looks as if it is built of one large stone, but on close inspection it is made up of little jagged stones all fit together to build one tower. All perfect round stones were rejected because they would not fit together with the other jagged stones. Round stones could represent in our time rugged individualism, or people that are self-sufficient and do not need others. No tower can be built with these stones. The Church is built of persons, or jagged stones, fit together in order to build a strong tower, a beacon of light in this darkened world. The point here is that the tower is not one stone carved to look like tower, but it is many stones that constitute the one tower.

Let us be attentive enough to understand the subtle ways that our culture can influence even how we think of Church, especially our worship. The Church is to change us and provide a place where we realize our true vocation, which is a priest of creation offering the world back to God in thanksgiving, our participation in Christ. The Church is our life in Christ and should shape and inform every area of our life. We are Orthodox Christians who live in North America and uniquely experience the Orthodox Church in an American context. We are not American Orthodox. We are not hyphenated Orthodox Christians who define ourselves primarily by an ethnic identity and then try to fit our Orthodoxy into that designation. The Church has even condemned as heresy the identification of Christianity primarily in ethnic terms – phyletism. There is nothing wrong with saying “American Orthodox Church”, “Greek Orthodox Church”. etc., as long as one understands that this is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Orthodox Church as found in a particular geographic area (America) and incarnating itself in that area for the sake of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people from that area. Thus an American Orthodox Church should be able to bring in things appropriate from the culture in order to communicate the Gospel in a culturally appropriate way. This also means that, prophetically speaking, it would reject anything from the culture that is inappropriate in communicating the Gospel.

Let us be mindful of the subtle ways that American secularism can creep in and influence even the Church. We are to be a light to the culture, not the other way around. On the other hand, we can bless and name Truth wherever it may be found. Uniting our worship to our beliefs is of the utmost importance for what we believe influences how we worship and how we worship influences what we believe. Lord, help us and guide us.

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