In his recent Again Magazine interview (Fall '06), Dr. Bradley Nassif stated that the American Orthodox churches should update or change their sacred music to adapt to our culture, for the sake of evangelization. The issue of liturgical experimentation is complex and controversial, as we have discovered from our friends in the Roman and Anglican confessions. Where would we begin? Perhaps we could start by bringing guitars to church and with a little practice, turn "Receive Ye the Body of Christ" into something that might work on a Waylon Jennings album. We could sing the petitions in the style of Jon Bon Jovi, and make the Trisagion sound like hip-hop.
I am no liturgist, and I've only been Orthodox five years. Still, I would ask anyone who wants to make our Liturgy more "American"--what is the difference between Christianizing culture and giving in to it? If we think that the way to get people into our churches is by bringing in Baby Grand pianos and baptizing pop melodies, what's wrong with this picture? Even if these things would bring more people into the Church, both the fallen away and converts, do we realize it would be at the risk of losing our sense of the sacred?
I'm not saying that Dr. Nassif would approve of the extreme innovations mentioned above, but once we've started the process, where will it stop? Let's not forget the mess that our above-mentioned friends, especially Roman Catholics, got themselves into when they began to "update" their services, including the use of inclusive language to appease feminists.
Of course, the Church has changed in some of its practices over the centuries and liturgics is no exception. Few Orthodox, for instance, use the Old Rite as a small number of Russians still do. Perhaps in years to come, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom will be put out of common usage to be replaced by another, as have the Liturgies of Ss. James and Basil. However, whatever alterations are made in the future should be done with the greatest caution.
One might also point out that Islam has failed to modernize its chant and whatever forms of worship it has, yet has no shortage of converts. If the latest statistics I know are still true, it's the fastest growing religion.
I have no problem with Byzantine chant. In fact, its beauty is one of many things that drew me to the Church. I'm 26 and I like pop music, but I don't want to hear it when I'm worshipping the Holy Trinity. Can the Divine Liturgy compete with The Newsboys, or the Gaithers? Maybe not, but our form of worship has been the spiritual food of saints for centuries. Orthodox worship transcends the fads of the world.
Let's keep our Liturgy (even if the time comes for it to be legitimately altered) holy and reverent, so that if St. Isaac of Syria were to visit your church or mine one Sunday, he would recognize the worship as truly God-pleasing and Orthodox.
One Final Piece of the Puzzle
Liturgically, the Western Rite movement presents the Church with another challenge. Some have qualms about the validity and/or completeness of the Liturgies of Ss. Gregory the Great and Tikhon, as used within Western Rite parishes of the Antiochian Archdiocese, the ROCOR, and other Orthodox churches.
I personally support the idea of the Orthodox Western Rite as a much better way of communicating the faith to American society than could be accomplished by westernizing the Byzantine tradition (while at the same time keeping our Western Orthodox liturgies equally reverent and otherworldly). Whether the Western Rite will gain wider acceptance over time--becoming a vital part of the Church's mission to the West--or remain on the fringe, will be interesting to see over time.
Jeffery A. Johnson is member of St. Thomas Orthodox in Sioux City, Iowa and a student at Kilian Community College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.