The Gap Between Faith and the Church

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

One often hears of changes in our society referred to as progress. Generally this is a positive term that references social, educational and medical advances. The quality of life has made quantum leaps in recent generations. This is something to be grateful for. Some aspects of the evolution we are experiencing, in my view, are not advancing our society. A country founded by those seeking freedom to worship and express their faith is becoming increasingly secular. We have gone beyond “separation of church and state” with the removal of God from our public life. Some view this as a success of a truly diverse democratic society. Unfortunately, the pendulum has shifted to almost an expulsion of faith, particularly Christianity. The vestiges of a God-based society are everywhere in our country from scripture at the Capitol to monuments across the nation. The secularization of America has contributed to the diminishing impact of Christian institutions, such as the church. Corruption and ethical scandals have created fertile ground for rejecting the church from the generation that played sports on Sunday mornings. 

I would like to draw a distinction between faith and the institutions. There is no doubt that the core belief in our Creator (faith) has diminished with more individuals proclaiming an agnostic, atheist or non-believer 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 think we are capable of anything. This thinking with a secular foundation assumes that our Creator is secondary and that we alone are responsible. I have even met many who may have a cursory spiritual base but misinterpret free will as we can do anything without God.

Despite a decline in faith-based thinking, the Armenian family structure has helped to limit the secularization of many Armenian Americans. Our generational families and traditions include God and help to maintain a healthy faith within our families. To the extent that this unit remains intact, faith plays a role. We should not confuse faith with adherence to an institution. Christian institutions such as the Catholic church and other traditional Protestant denominations are struggling to optimize the connection between individual faith and expressing it through a church. Divisions, scandals and corruption have encouraged many to leave the institutions, but not necessarily abandon their faith. They simply express it in a more private manner. Churches are under pressure from an increasingly hostile society and from self-imposed constraints. The result has fueled closures, financial crises and migration to new forms of expression.

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

The Armenian community in America is no exception to this phenomenon. Our churches, whether they be Apostolic, Protestant or Catholic are struggling to build an identity with succeeding generations. They have inherited the dual challenges of the external societal impact in America as well as ensuring identity with an ethnic-based institution. As assimilation into American society and intermarriage continues, connecting with the traditional church becomes difficult. Staying focused on our common belief in our Lord is confronted by the secular inroads in many young people. There are times when we choose to lull ourselves into denial of the challenge. For example, our churches in Boston combined may hold about 1,000 people. If we fill the churches to 75-percent of capacity on any given Sunday, we feel a sense of relief. We intellectually understand but ignore that 750 is a small fraction of the population base. Spiritually, what happens to the remaining 90-percent? Church attendance is not always a good barometer of health in our community. When I was a kid, the joke was always the “C&E crowd”…short for Christmas and Easter. Churches were packed on those days, so we were convinced all was well. Generally speaking, whether it is attendance at schools or financial metrics, the institutions are stressed. What gives me hope is that I believe the bigger contributor to the current challenge is a lack of identity with the institution rather than a lack of belief in God. This is an easier challenge to overcome…if we choose to.

Unfortunately, the Armenian church lives with a fear that adapting to address this problem will threaten the core traditions of the church. I reject this premise although I love our language, rituals and history. The core mission of the church is to facilitate a relationship between the faithful and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for the benefit of our salvation. Everything else we do from fundraising to cultural events is secondary to that mission. The church is an institution chartered to carry out that goal, but there is much discretion in how to do that. Constraints are generally self-imposed. Does anyone believe that our methods of today are the same as the fourth or the tenth centuries? Adaptation to protect the core mission has been the hallmark of our journey. 

In the diaspora, the Armenian church as an ethnic church faces an important dilemma. If the church is focused on the spiritual needs of the community, it is criticized for not emphasizing the heritage nature of our church. We have heard many times individuals say they would not drive 30 to 45 minutes for a general Christian experience. We have also lived with the opposite challenge where the church is heavily focused on the cultural and ethnic content and less focused on Christian spirituality, particularly knowledge of the Bible. Although the badarak is written with Scripture throughout, the perception is that Bible knowledge is lacking. The Armenian Protestant churches are stronger in this area. In a time of increasing intermarriage and assimilation, how does a traditional and ethnic Christian institution continue to serve the needs of its community, especially as the definition of that community evolves? Our fear of becoming a more decentralized church where regions and locales are able to make the changes necessary to serve 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’ is limiting our possibilities. The gap between the faith of an individual and the practice in the institution is enabled by rigid management. Some Christian churches actually alter their programs and methods as they minister to various groups with their faith community. Connecting the faith of an individual to the offerings of the religious institution is a requirement for success and sustainability. The days of unsolicited identity and a completely willing community are in the past. The church will have to earn its place in the nation with succeeding generations.

Despite the clouds surrounding us today, I do believe that many of our challenges are subject to rotating cycles. The time will come when the emerging generations tire of the overload nature of their lives and move away from the spiritually shallow secular behavior. The question remains whether the Armenian church will be in a position to fill this void by connecting with this segment of the community. If our structure and approach only attract a minority of the diaspora, can we consider that the church is fulfilling its mission? From a spiritual and heritage perspective, 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 to them? Adaptation without compromising the core mission is essential.

We are on a path to a smaller survival! Is that our vision after surviving a genocide and investing in an infrastructure for our children and their children? Instead of a smaller survival, we should be envisioning an expanded umbrella that is able to encompass the diverse souls of our diaspora. Surviving as a shadow of our past is not a vision. It simply keeps the lights on with an obligatory culture. 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 are adherents to 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 this.” We all can have an impact. At the same time, the demands on our leaders are much greater than in the past. Every inch of sustainability in today’s world must be earned. The forces against us are greater than ever, yet one thing will never change. We will go as far as the depth of our faith. While 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 in whatever denomination you adhere to has always been a core element of civilization for centuries. A wounded church is not in the best interests of our nation. How devastating would it be for the church to play a lesser role in the diaspora! This will only happen if the church and its leaders fail to sustain the connection. Great institutions have failed when, despite noble service to their constituency, they are unable to adapt to a changing environment. The notion 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 Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board 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 to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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  1. Things I think about. Why is it that most non-believers usually have an Armenian Christian Church funeral? Why is it that most non-believers usually say their loved ones are looking down on them from Heaven? Why is it that most non-believers NEVER say their loved ones are looking up at them from Hell?

  2. Parev, Stepan – what a thoughtful and incredibly well-written article. I’d love to get your views on an 80-90%-English Badarak. As you know from being here in New England, there’s at least 1 local Hye church that includes significant English in their services, something which I applaud (though my parents never embraced). You touched upon local accommodations in your essay – is an English-centric Badarak here in the States going too far? If so, why? Thank you and keep up the great work!

  3. I found the essay quite alarming but enlightening at the same time.The issues raised are not restricted to only the Armenian church, but throughout nearly all religous institutions. I read somewhere a statment related to The Catholic churches in France. “Our churches are empty on the weekends while the mosques are filled”. I am Greek Orthodox, and believe the Armenian church and values are very similar. Thanks for writing such an informative and eye opening oped.

  4. Thank you for the article. Salvation comes from hearing and hearing God’s word which is the Bible. Church traditions can never ever save us. Salvation doesn’t come from the church traditions or sacraments. The problem is that we claim to be believers when we are not. We claim to be Christians when we do not follow Christ. We go to church and think that is what saves us. Even if we go to church every single week, it doesn’t mean we are saved. It doesn’t mean we have accepted the fact that we can not earn our salvation and that we must surrender to Christ’s finished work and trust in his works instead. We have to see that all of us are sinners and need to repent and turn and put our faith in him. He then forgives us , gives us his spirit, so we can have a new heart to love him and hate sin. After reading the whole bible (God’s word) I understood this and after saying “ok Lord, you take over my life and I want to listen,” was I able to repent and submit. He then gave me the will and heart to say no to sin/continual sin. When we sin we now can hate it and not want to do it again and kill it through obeying the Spirit that dwells in us after this fact. If we live by the Spirit we have life, if we live by the flesh we die. No matter what denomination, churches are suffering because we are DECIDING to not submit. We are DECIDING to reject God. It is a heart issue. Church leaders are not teaching true biblical Christianity. Churches are dead spiritually because we don’t focus on the Biblical Christ, the Biblical teachings and the Holy Spirit who points to the Bible. Just because we say some biblical things in church it doesn’t account for all the rest of the unbiblical teachings that trump the biblical ones. I ask that you and all of us read the bible in full, in its entirety with a willing heart, free of any presuppositions and preconditions that might have mixed in from church traditions. This is where you and I and all of us will be able to actually follow, obey and submit to God out of Love from being Born Again (from the second Adam Christ) which is through faith alone and his grace alone. Thank you again.

  5. I am the daughter of an Armenian mother and a Scandinavian father. My mother’s parents were Armenian Protestants. While I grew up in a church which had a broad range of ethnicies, both my mother and father contributed much to the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth in that church. Hopefully God is using me to be a fruitful worker on behalf of His kingdom in the churches where have been a member. I was pleased to read the following ideas in a book by Leon Arpee which showed that he recognized that Armenian Protestant believers could make enduring contributions to His church even if it was not limited to Armenian members
    The future (as of 1946)
    Terrible blow from genocide, deportation, WWI, but not destroyed
    Armenians are expected to be absorbed into the native populations.
    We will be blended but render an enduring service to our adopted land, and leave behind us a worthy inheritance of character and tradition to our posterity by the following:
    Find in none but Christ alone
    In a supreme and unyielding loyalty to Him
    In the faithful preaching of His Gospel
    In the sacrificial living of His sort of life

  6. Lifting responses to a very well written argument by Mr. Piligian of a very pertinent, I will say hot topic for today’s diaspora Armenians. In my opinion, the basic problem is in the ritual-heavy emphasis, even strict scripture isolation of our church, while remaining aloof from or unable to confront and address the very multitudes of fast evolving moral, societal, emotional-psychological, educational, health and financial challenges individuals and families have to put up with in their life. I will add, one effective way of defeating the short-sighted, not to say blind and childishly naive agnostic positions will simply be to point out the scientifically unexplainable and unarguable miracle that the creation and workings of universe, all aspects and workings of nature on just this little planet and even the wonders of the human body we each live in, are. Remains to answer, who and how many in our churches with the proper training, credentials and dedication will rise to the height of the task.

  7. Very well written, Mr. Piligian. As a faithful Armenian Apostolic christian person living in the United States since 1980, I have witnessed and lived through the sad situation with our Armenian Apostolic churches and their parishioners both in the greater Boston area, MA, and in Los Angeles county, CA… While I agree to some of the thoughts you expressed regarding “the Wounded Church” situation for Armenians in the U.S., I also call upon ALL ARMENIAN Apostolic Clergy and Prelacy officials and the Armenian Apostolic church members and the Armenian parishioners as well as non-attendees to the Church at large to TAKE URGENT HEED to what I have written down here very articulately in intelligible and simple language:

    1. The biggest reason why our Armenian Apostolic churches are near-empty save for Easter and Christmas is very poignantly clear:
    a. Our Mass (Bataraq) lasts about 2.5 hours, and almost 2 hours of the bataraq consists of listening to various “sharaqans” which are nearly untintelligible to most of U.S. Armenians, as the words are in “Grapar (Old Armenian)” and 2 full hours of singing-listening to sharaqans even if they are in prayer form, is not only redundant but honestly unbearable; HOW are these sharaqans helping us, Armenian Apostolic christian parishioners, learn ANYTHING about faith and the teachings of Our Saviour Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible..?
    b. WHY is it such a problem for our Armenian Apostolic clergy to conduct our Holy Bataraq in English, as well as in Armenian? PLEASE REALIZE that 85-90% of our Armenian youth born here in the US or raised here since childhood has serious difficulties understanding Armenian, let alone having any idea what the “Armenian Grapar” sharaqans or prayers mean or convey. The focus should be on the teachings of Christianity and its values, the message in 100% simple and intelligible language in order for the church attendees to understand WHAT is Christianity all about – this should include at least 2 preachings and 2 readings from the Old Testament and the Holy Gospels (Nor Qtaqaran), preachings, prayers and readings from the Holy Bible both in Armenian and English. Even though our Armenian Apostolic church is the oldest christian church in the world, tradition and old custom rites should transform into 21st century-friendly discourse to REACH CLEARLY ALL ARMENIAN church attendees, old and young, so that the church-goer truly receives christian enlightenment, learns about the faith, and adapts to a christian lifestyle. The sad reality is that 90% of today’s US Armenian youth and middle-aged HAVE NO IDEA what are the Armenian Apostolic teachings of christianity, therefore they attend church much in the same way as going to a social gathering or to an indoors picnic!

    2. Most importantly it is to be mentioned that America’s anti-christian secularization is not a self-evolving phenomenon; there are VERY POWERFUL concerted efforts by secret organisations such as the Freemasonry, the entertainment industry’s elite executive branch members who happen to be mostly non-christian and the Illuminati operatives who have been waging war against Christianity since the 1960’s. So wake up Armenians and don’t fall into the claws of the above-mentioned anti-christian movements who allure many of you with their worldly promises of wealth, fame and fortune.

    3. A DIRE WARNING to the Armenian Apostolic Prelacy of East Coast and West Coast USA, as well as to the Armenian Apostolic christian community at large in the U.S:

    – If progress and improvements are not made and implemented immediately in our Hyastanyayts Arakelaqan Yeqeghetsi rites of Holy Mass and christian preaching, I am afraid within 10-15 years from today our churches will be completely devoid of parishioners and most existing churches, to my grief and tears, might be forced to close. Our Verashnorhk Archbishopry in the U.S. is brutally AWARE of this reality, the clergy servicing the Holy Mass in the hundreds of Armenian Apostolic churches throughout the East and West Coasts of the U.S. see it with their own eyes that our traditional Sunday Bataraq Holy Mass rituals simply are failing to draw the youth and middle-aged parishioners back to church, other than for Easter, Christmas and weddings and baptisms and funerals – do I have to be the ONLY frustrated Armenian-American to spell all of these problems out loud to you? PLEASE take action and save our Gregorian Hayastanyayts Arakelaqan Yeqeghetsi in the 21st century. Time to TAKE ACTION immediately.
    May God and the son, Our Saviour Jesus Christ bless you all. Amen.

    • Thank you Vahe for your passionate and practical contributions. If we love our church so much why do we fear change as we painfully watch its decline? Are we frozen by tradition? Knowing the difference between tradition that is at the core of the mission of the church and tradition because we have always done it that way is critical to our survival. Thank you for everyone who share their views. Keep the faith.

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