Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

God's Approval Numbers are in Decline

Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

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A sermon delivered before Christmas, 2006.

Why do you pledge to the church? Why do you bring your children to Sunday school? Why do you work the festival? Why do you serve on committees? The answer I hear most often is, "I love my church." Sadly, I seldom hear, "I love my Lord."

"How was your Christmas?" "It was great, we had our whole family over." "We went to visit my parents in New York." "Santa was definitely good to me this year." Sadly, I never hear, "My Christmas was great -- there was a moment I was overwhelmed with joy that the Lord came to live among us." Or, "I looked up at the night-time sky and wondered how bright that star was that the Magi followed," or "I sat out in the yard wondering what a sky filled with angels must have looked like."

What's the best thing about our church? "I love the programs." "I love Greek dancing." "You can't beat the fellowship." "The choir, no doubt about it." Sadly, I seldom hear I need the Church because I need Christ.

In our world we put such focus on things and activities that we overlook people, and most importantly Christ. That's why many of us "do church" but never pray, have elaborate Christmas feasts but never meaningfully contemplate Christ, or attend Church our entire life but still be uncertain what the whole purpose of the Church is.

A recent Harris poll reported that although 73 percent of U.S. adults profess a belief in God, most are riddled with such doubt that they are not certain God actually exists. Some who describe themselves as Christians don't even believe in God. Indeed, only 76 percent of Protestants and 64 percent of Catholics are absolutely certain there is a God. Orthodox Christianity is too small of a religious group in America to show up on the poll but there is no reason to believe that the Orthodox are exempt from these cultural findings.

The purpose of the poll was to discover if belief in God was declining. The pollsters concluded that, "Three years ago, in an identical survey, 79 percent of adults said they believed in God and 66 percent said they were absolutely certain that there is a God. In this new survey, those numbers have declined to 73 percent and 58 percent respectively." It looks like God's approval numbers are in decline.

Given this confused state of spiritual affairs, is it any wonder that people attend Church for the wrong reasons? Should we be surprised that after hours of preaching and teaching so little change is ever seen? Need we question why so many of our parishes exhibit such intractable dysfunction that some are more like war zones rather than peaceful enclaves where Christ is found?

How do we reverse this cycle? Many people take the "macro" view. We think that if we do this or that activity or create this or that program then things will get better. The problem with this approach is that it all too often relies on contrived rhetoric. To the hardened heart, disillusioned soul, or pre-occupied mind, rhetoric bounces off into oblivion. That's why a stirring sermon or moving service seldom converts or changes the congregation. (I wish it did, that would make my job easier.) Change begins slowly; it begins on a "micro" level. We reach Christians and convert them -- and reconvert them -- to God one at a time, with conversation and caring, by setting a good example and not with contrivance and hype.

The dysfunction will change when see the Church as the house of God and not as a fraternal organization or social club. Someone complained to me recently, "How come you are having two services on Christmas Eve? Why not offer one service at 7:00 pm?" The simple answer is, "This is the Typikon (order of worship) of the church regarding Christmas services when Christmas falls on a Monday as it does this year. It's the way we have done it for almost 2,000 years. Besides, the Bishop said we have to do it."

But the more reflective answer is, "When in the church year do you have the opportunity to attend two Liturgies in one day? I know that when I celebrate the Liturgy, I feel different than when I'm watching a football game. My heart is softened, my spirit is soaring, both during Liturgy and in the hours preceding and following the service. This year, on December 24, I have the opportunity to feel like that for an entire day-what a great opportunity!" The complaining Christian sees church as a chore. The sincere Christian sees the opportunity to worship God as a blessing instead of an obligation.

I wouldn't die for a building. I wouldn't die for a youth program. I wouldn't die for a fundraiser. I love the Lord. I love to worship Him. I love caring for His people. I don't mind when large portions of my life go to caring for His people or when hours each week are spent worshiping Him. I don't even mind giving a portion of my income to serving the needs of His Church. This is the attitude to have regarding our relationship with Christ and the Church. It starts with each Christian asking for Christ to come into their heart and to put us back in line with what He calls us to be.

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Priest of St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, Florida, and the director of St. Stephen's Summer Camp for the Metropolis of Atlanta.

Posted: 05-Dec-06

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