The decline of our church requires an outreach revolution

(Photo: The Armenian Weekly)

When it comes to the challenges that our church faces in the United States, it is clear that a common thread exists. It doesn’t matter where the church is located, the size of the parish or whether it is affiliated with the Holy See of Etchmiadzin (Diocese) or Great House of Cilicia (Prelacy). This is not a discussion about unity or history, but rather a plea for our church leaders to reverse this path of decline. There is a tendency within the walls of our churches to make “safe” attempts at solving our problems. The Armenian community, graced with traditions, has never been a place for major change. We tend to evolve the foundation we have built and limit ourselves to defensive changedefensive in the sense that there is no alternative given the circumstances of a crisis. Why don’t we view the church in crisis? Perhaps because the decline of our church here in America has been in progress for several decades. Most of our dialogue within in the church has been focused on external causes such as the increasing secularization of our society, intermarriage and a world that no longer respects the sanctity of worship time. It almost sounds like a rationalization. We engage in focus groups or seminars, but little effective change takes place.

One reason why the decline has continued despite our efforts has been an inability to look at the church from the outside perspective. Our churches are filled with many dedicated, faithful and committed individuals. It is the reason why our parishes are still here. Despite their inspiring behavior, we can’t ignore that by almost every metric today, we are attracting less of the population. Where there were 100 students in Sunday School, there are now maybe 40 to 50. Worship attendance has declined. Many churches operate with financial concerns and require Herculean efforts to stay afloat. It’s not just the small parishes, where the infrastructure needed can be difficult, but also in our larger parishes where the participation has declined. Published membership figures are flattening, but when normalized for new parishes paints a very troubling picture. Sunday School attendance is embarrassing for an institution that utilizes the school as a preparatory stage for the emerging generations. It is a fact that if the Sunday Schools are weak, it will have a direct impact on the participation of the older vehicles such as the ACYOA or other church-affiliated groups. I have traveled to many parishes in both the Diocese and the Prelacy and see the same expression: fear for the future. Enough of describing the problem.

What can be done? We are fighting an uphill battle for an ethnic church which insists on maintaining the classical language while intermarriages are the majority. I love our church, but it has maintained a stubborn arrogance when it comes to attracting the wandering flock. We have been an institution that welcomes people on our terms, but spends little time understanding how to engage the potential. Here is a case in point. An Armenian woman marries a non-Armenian man. During their pre-marriage window, they connect with the church to be married. After their marriage, the identity of the non-Armenian spouse is very limited. Why wouldn’t it be? The service is in a language he doesn’t understand and most Armenians don’t comprehend. There is no process for integrating individuals like this with knowledge on the history, theology and structure of the church other than perhaps some pre-marital counseling. Welcoming people to our church requires offering them knowledge so they can be functional equals. It is absurd to expect people to simply participate because we tell them how wonderful our church is. This, of course, is an example of those who begin their union in the church. An increasing number of weddings are held outside of a sanctuary. With this reality, the children that their marriage is blessed with attend primarily through the efforts of the Armenian spouse. If the Armenian spouse is the husband, the participation level is generally even less. It becomes a challenge to their family life rather than a blessing. I understand there are many exceptions to this, but focusing on exceptions only tends to rationalize our crisis. All the data, whether experiential, anecdotal or data-driven, arrive at the same conclusion. We are in decline and must make dramatic changes to reverse the course.

Problem solving is a tricky business. Most leaders tend to avoid immersing themselves in the root causes because it can be personally risky. Most Armenians do not want to jeopardize their social standing in the community by being controversial. In addition, there is an inherent tendency not to see the problem clearly because those not participating are not a part of the process. I am convinced that progress can be made universally by employing a revolution of outreach.

Just what is meant by outreach? A simple definition reads: “extending services beyond the current or usual limits.” I find this definition rich in content. It suggests an effort for a particular mission beyond the current standard or what is considered the norm. In a church such as the Armenian branch of Christianity, going outside the walls of the church is not considered the norm. The church has operated for centuries as the center of the Armenian universe and has attracted the core of the community to its spiritual and educational offerings. When the diaspora was created as a result of the Genocide, the initial demographics supported a modest replication of the density of village life with Armenian neighborhoods in American cities. In this environment, the church still enjoyed the magnetic attraction, as churches were located in the midst of these locations. As affluence and general suburban sprawl diluted the density of Armenian neighborhoods, the challenge began as access became more difficult and distractions entered Armenian family life. The decline has continued primarily because, despite some modest attempts and good intentions, the church has not adapted to a changing world. We have clung to our beautiful traditions, but fewer people are graced by them. Adaptation is an interesting term because to many traditional thinking Armenians it is equated to negative change or even assimilation. I would pose a question that is clearly in our reality today. Which path offers our communities the best term option? Refusing to change and experiencing decline or adapting to attract some of our lost flock while retaining the important traditions? Intellectually, the answer is obvious, but in practice, change is difficult. Our leaders are fearful of change, and our democratic process has produced little impact.

With the election of a new primate in the Eastern Diocese, it will be an opportune time to review our current practices and address our challenges. I wish the new Primate Hayr Mesrop Parsamyan God’s blessing in his new ministry. I also pray for Bishop Daniel Findikyan who is a great asset to our church and a spiritual inspiration. Leadership changes are interesting because they rarely change anything until the leadership embraces our challenges and shows the courage to address them. Currently, most of our church resources are focused on the needs of this dwindling population. We still expect, by and large, for people to come to church. What if they don’t as is evident by the data? In one sense, it is comfortable and low risk to work within our “walls” as it ensures that change will be gradual or minimal. If we venture into the world of those who have drifted or left, we may find different needs that challenge us. For example, we always seem to assume that when someone doesn’t connect with our church, then their faith is suffering. In many cases, their faith is intact, but they have difficulty expressing it through the vehicle of our church for any number of reasons. This is a serious reality for our church because we are losing believers who fail to identify with the Armenian church. This is a major problem and also a major opportunity. Unlocking the latter will require investing in resources for what I will call an outreach ministry, where national, regional and local individuals will work to attract those on the periphery or unattached. Of course, the implications of this require the church to introduce new thinking to address those currently outside the “walls.” Do we have the will to address the language issue? Can we offer solutions to integrating non-Armenian spouses? Will we address the geographic issues that impact church attendance with remote learning for children and adults? Unless the church adapts, it will continue to decline.

This is not a foreign concept in Armenian history. Given the amount of invasions, migrations and cultural deprivation, Armenians have become experts at adapting to a new environment and retaining the core. The church is no longer the powerful magnet it was and needs to reposition itself by reaching out. This may seem harsh, but it is intended only to articulate the urgency and love for the institution. It will be a sad day if the church is no longer the center of our diaspora, and we become a collection of secular groups.

We need leadership that understands the essence of community life and individual needs. We have some good examples. In Trumbull, CT, there is a priest who is far too humble to be visible beyond his community and exemplifies the ability to do outreach and help individuals find identity. Fr. Untzag Nalbandian has adjusted to community needs with a great pulse on the local population. He is but one man and works tirelessly, but his approach to community life answers some of the questions about building a sustainable model. What is missing today is substantive dialogue and those in authority building a vision for sustainability in our church. The role of our leaders is to use their authority to protect the interests of the church, which includes threats to its very existence. Despite some innovative programs, it seems to be a “keep the lights on” plan. The Armenian church needs a growth vision that is attained by reaching out to the wandering flock created by the impact of a now fourth generation diaspora. It is tragic because our church is beautiful, and when understood (not just its language but its foundation), it can be inspiring. We can and must prevent this catastrophe. It will take financial resources, professional resources and the will to succeed. Are we willing to display the courage to step into uncharted waters and reverse this trend?

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. Dear Stepan,
    Again, you have written about a topic that asks us to do much thinking. I, too, am agonizing about the future of our Church. Like you,
    you I believe that fundamental changes are needed if the Church is to survive and remain relevant. I believe that like the Catholic Church ages ago, our Church needs a Reformation like the one that shook the Catholic Church to its very core. The church
    needs to be in English and change its liturgy so that is is real and relevant to this day and age. Centuries of tradition will not
    work any more. We need new traditions and forms of worship, ones that speak to us today.

    • The Catholic Church is a very bad example for the point you are trying to make. Ask the Catholic Church what happened when they changed the language of the liturgy and got rid of the traditions. Their church attendance declined. Vatican II was a big disaster. You have at least a minority of the population that are loyal followers. You get rid of the traditions and you will lose them as well. It also seems that the English speaking majority wants to disregard the Armenian speaking minority. We still have Armenians immigrating to the US. They will not recognize or attend the reformed Church you are describing. The ones that complain about not understanding will not turn into devout believers overnight because they can now understand it. The education has to start early. Yes our church leaders let us down. Yes they did not teach and did not care to teach. Yes they are more concerned about money and power and worldly things. Yes a lot do them are not followers of Christ. That’s a leadership problem and our fault for not holding them to account. Also strengthening the Church in Armenian (and Armenia) and not losing touch with them should also be our focus. The traditions of the Church have kept the Church for centuries. It’s up to us to learn those traditions, to learn the liturgy. That starts with you and me.

  2. Right on, Stepan. You have hit the nail on the head again! I admire you because you have one goal – not money, not power, not accolades – the goal to improve the current situation and our very survival. In addition to our active faithful, we must concentrate on the thousands “out there” – those we don’t see and those we have lost. Leadership is crucial – and I implore our leaders to reach out and seek council from a varied group of our priests and lay people whose only intent is to make things better. I believe it’s up to all of us-in the words of Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”

  3. Thank you for your illuminating article. A necessary topic that haunts all of us who have adhered to our traditions and spiritual growth. Raised with Armenian values, our youth amazes me how they are careless in coming forward and making a difference by engaging and pouring their heart and soul in the church. We parents have done and continue to do our share. It’s our adult children’s responsibility and the mission of continuing the legacy forward that lies on their shoulders. We will persevere and keep hammering the premise that the very essence of each and every Armenian soul lies in the commitment, livelihood and loyalty to our church. Take heed younger generation, get involved because you cannot deny your roots. Make it your purpose in life to keep the tradition going.

  4. Hello there… here are some links you may find helpful if you are interested: with meaningful daily reflections in English and Armenian. They were entertaining and educational.
    A Google search or Google maps will reveal the Armenian Church closest to you, just like a restaurant search.
    During the pandemic, many churches were livestreaming their Badarak right here on Facebook. Some, like St. Sarkis in Dearborn, MI had set up the Badarak book to stream along as well. Check it out and you can view and pray along with the translation
    All just a few clicks away.

  5. This is an interesting and timely article but it is hinting at certain things that I am not at all sure about, and there are some statements of which the validity itself is not obvious to me.

    “The service is in a language he doesn’t understand and most Armenians don’t comprehend.”

    Not sure if this is true, and if it is true in some cases I am not sure that it is a relevant factor. Most Armenians know what Surp Surp and Der voghormya and Orhnyal e Asdvadz and Park kez Der mean. We now have admirable volumes where the original, its transilteration and high-quality English translation are side by side, and may even be found online and perused before attending. There is little evidence that incomprehension is why people do not attend; rather, fewer people are believers these day, and the secularisation of much of the world has had an effect on the Armenian Church also. Beware of misdiagnosing the problem, and spoiling our magnificent liturgy on the grounds that people who do not wish to attend use these excuses when pressed. The views of the faithful are more important than those of people who lack a serious interest.

    “There is no process for integrating individuals like this with knowledge on the history, theology and structure of the church other than perhaps some pre-marital counseling.”

    I am sceptical of “processes”. Faith these days is a matter of individual choice, and rightly so. There are more readily available resources now than ever – printed and online – for those so inclined to explore than ever before.

    Falling attendances are, in my view, part and parcel of a more general trend that is hardly peculiar to the Armenian Church. Reforming the liturgy is in my view even more damaging. There is no evidence that jettisoning the 1662 Book of Common Prayer did the Anglican Church any good, and Vatican II wrought havoc with the Catholic Liturgy. I have Czech Catholic friends who prefer attending the Armenian Badarak, as they recognise more of the traditional fine Latin liturgy that they are now denied – even without understanding Armenian. They warn us to avoid their own errors.

    We also have the problem of lazy clergy who feel psalms are superfluous and Biblical readings ought to be eschewed to shorten the liturgy, and they forbid the singing of hymns as they themselves are unfamiliar with the Hymnal. We have witnessed in recent years various Offices being abolished in one European city after another… Again, such voices ought not to be heeded, in my view.

    I greatly admire the shining example of the Mekhitarist Fathers. They have exemplary liturgical practices, with services unexcised, in the original language, and lasting anything between half an hour and four and a half hours, and moreover they live-stream their services daily – there’s outreach for you! It is surely the masses that need to be raised to the Mysteries and Sacraments of the Church, and not the Church lowered to the level of the mob, just for the sake of putting bums on seats. We ought not to be in the business of attracting masses, trying to sell as many tickets as possible as impresarios. Rather, we ought to preserve and enhance the vital and precious tradition of which we are the unworthy heirs, and rendering it accessible by teaching and explicating in a tireless manner, and without cheapening what we have through sheer incomprehension and lack of interest.

    This is of course just my personal opinion.

    Once we have agreed on the diagnosis, we can discuss the remedies. I do suspect, however, that we may have divergent views on those also.

  6. Of the challenges the Armenian church faces in the U.S., I do not think language factors in. Other than reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian as well, the service of the Armenian Church of the Martyrs, an Evangelical church, is entirely in English and has a superb pastor. But attendance is poor. As to the Apostolic church, it is not that hard to put up with Armenian mass for an hour or two a week. Although I am well versed in Armenian, I also have difficulty following the mass. I wish there was a bilingual visual display of the lyrics of the mass. Should the mass be performed entirely in English, I do not think that will make a dent in the church’s attendance. After all the sermon conveying the Sunday’s message, following the mass, is in English.
    But the Armenian church is in a decline in the U.S. In my view, the church is a barometer that measures the health of the community. The decline of the Armenian church in the U.S. is no less the measure of the Armenian community in decline. Yes, the church must bring its share to reverse the trend, but more importantly it is the secular of the community that needs to bring its share to address and attempt remedy whatever is ailing the community and reverse its decline and hence improve the church attendance.
    More likely than not, you are right Stepan. The crux of the matter is the outreach; a welcoming outreach that permeates all segments or components that make the community and stands above any other consideration to uphold the Armenian Culture in all its aspects and socially coalesce on Sundays, after 6 days of toil helping render the church more vibrant.

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