"In working with ordinary Christians over the years, I've concluded that most of us have underestimated our spiritual potential. Our existing attitudes and practices in many Orthodox parishes around the world have effectively disempowered common Christians as second-class citizens in the Church. ...
"The most urgent need in world Orthodoxy at this time is the need for an aggressive internal mission of rededicating or converting our priests and people to Jesus Christ. The Great Commission demands it. But we aren't focusing on that. Instead, we're constantly contrasting ourselves with the Catholics or Protestants and letting that dictate the emphases of our ministries. This is very dangerous because it takes our attention off the Lord and onto theological differences. As a theologian, I know very well that differences do matter and it's important for our people to become aware of them -- especially in the Bible belts. But enough is enough. We'll be better off spiritually if we take massive action to help our parishioners simply grow in theosis (divinization)."
AGAIN: In this issue, we're focusing on the different roles members of the Church play. Can you speak to what you've learned about what it is like to engage with people in and out of the Church as a lay professor, historian, and theologian?
BN: One task of a good theologian is to critique the contemporary life and practices of the Church. Theologians must know the tradition well so they can help the Church stay faithful to it. One of the key areas I've been concerned about is the need to empower the laity, and help them redeem the routines of everyday life.
In working with ordinary Christians over the years, I've concluded that most of us have underestimated our spiritual potential. Our existing attitudes and practices in many Orthodox parishes around the world have effectively disempowered common Christians as second-class citizens in the Church. Many -- by no means all -- of those ordained to a hierarchical ministry frequently misinterpret the Ignatian model of ministry along the lines of a dictatorial or "guru" form of leadership, in which the deacon, priest, or bishop thinks and acts as though he is above and beyond accountability to those he serves. All this has led to a widespread systemic illness in the Church from the top down. Church leadership ends up virtually controlling the laity and weakening their ability to fulfill their spiritual gifts.
Fortunately, this crippling state of affairs is gradually beginning to change in some parts of the Orthodox world, such as the Greek Orthodox clergy/laity congress and the Orthodox Christian Laity organization. Still, I'm convinced that it's time for us to unleash the laity! Bishops and priests need to work harder at exercising a Christ-based model of leadership which empowers their flock with the gospel so that the whole body of Christ may function effectively.
Closely related to that is the need to help parishioners integrate their faith with the workaday world of everyday life. I try to do this by offering weekend seminars in our churches entitled "Desert Spirituality for City Dwellers." When I worked as a Honda salesman, I found myself in need of integrating faith with the marketplace. I ended up viewing my job as a spiritual arena where I would die to self and grow through all the various tasks I did throughout the day. Making 20 phone calls a day became an exercise in ascetic discipline; responding to a rude customer became an opportunity to grow in patience; working with a joyful heart gave witness to the Resurrection of Christ in my soul. I began seeing my daily tasks in a new light. I transformed my vision of work into a spiritual cause. That's what I mean when I say we need to help people connect the dots between Scripture and what they do at work and home.
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