H.G. Bishop Youssef on Coptic Orthodoxy for Americans

“In one of the American “style” parishes, there was a disagreement about whether to get together and sing Evangelical songs in addition to the Liturgy. Did they argue until one side one [sic] and they became divided? No. Did they just pick one or the other for the sake of unity? No, clearly one answer is right. They asked their bishop to arbitrate their dispute. H.G. did not simply impose a decision. He asked each side to explain to him why they feel the way they do. After carefully listening to them and making sure he understood exactly what they were asking for, without quickly jumping to assumptions about what they wanted, H.G. answered them. He said that there are not two kinds of worship, each meeting different people’s needs. Orthodox worship is the Liturgy, and heterodox worship is a lie, an attempt by the evil one to distract people from the true worship in spirit and truth. H.G. did not allow the meetings to sing evangelical songs. Because H.G. is a wise pastor, everyone felt heard, considered, and respected. Because the group chose to submit to H.G. rather than striving for their own will, they remained united, and moved forward towards establishing Orthodoxy here.”
- A second-hand account of the establishment of “mission” parishes in Los Angeles by H.G. Bishop Serapion

“Right now we see youth – you know, people – just make this decision on their own, ‘That’s culture, remove it from the Church’… No… that is the role of the leadership in the Church how to pave the way… to decide what’s culture and what’s not culture.” – H.G. Bishop Youssef (see the above video)

H.G. Bishop Youssef on Coptic Orthodoxy for Americans

The goal… is not to remove “difficult” or “unfamiliar” elements from the Coptic Church and present it to Americans that want a wide-road approach to Christianity.  Instead [the parish] carefully considers how best to take an authentic, undiluted Orthodox faith and make it accessible to Americans…

Missionary work is a main occupation of the Church as a whole, not a unique assignment of a few select parishes.  The [parish] is therefore no more or no less missionary than any other Orthodox Church in the world.  It is simply an Orthodox Church that caters to the spiritual needs of the local community where it exists, namely America.  By this definition, the Coptic Church in Egypt is also a missionary Church since it also meets the spiritual needs of the culture where it exists…

Won’t introducing American culture into the Church dilute the full Orthodox experience?

The goal… is to make Orthodoxy just as alive and accessible to American-raised Copts and other Americans living in the US as it is to Egyptians living in Egypt.  This is accomplished not by changing the dogma or Tradition of the Church, but by focusing on and catering to the unique elements of the American culture.

That being said it is important to differentiate between which elements of the Church can be adapted and which cannot be.  Most American Christians identify as Protestant, and therefore the Protestant tradition is the one most familiar to them.  However this tradition fails to bring the genuine Christian faith, as established by Christ and passed down through the Apostles, to America.  The Protestant Reformation explicitly rejected Orthodox teaching while choosing to establish its own interpretation of Tradition and Scripture.

Orthodoxy and genuine Christianity cannot be made known to Americans by abandoning much of the Orthodox Tradition or diluting it to fit what a modern Protestant or secular mindset would accept at face value.  The Mysteries of the Church, the centrality of the Divine Liturgy, the role of the priesthood, the lives of the saints, monasticism, fasting, depth of prayer, and theological instruction are all essential elements of Orthodox Christianity, and must remain a core foundation of any church that claims to be Orthodox.

It is also important to understand that authentic Orthodoxy is much deeper than simply taking a Protestant church mindset and inserting liturgies and sacraments.  All aspects of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy revolve around the liturgical life of the Church.  Orthodoxy is a worldview that encompasses all of life, and is not simply a mode or style of Sunday worship.

The “protestantization” of the Orthodox Church will produce neither a successful Orthodox Church, nor a familiar Protestant church.  It will instead be a lukewarm church that fails to make the life-giving Tradition of the Orthodox Church accessible to Americans, while at the same time not attracting Protestant Christians due to its many foreign liturgical elements and beliefs.

Instead of looking to the American Protestant church for guidance, we should ask the question: What elements of the Orthodox Church are Biblical, Traditional, and life-giving?  Any element in the Church that meets these criteria should be retained, but presented and taught with an American audience in mind.  For example, catechism programs need to consider how a typical American might perceive certain elements of the Church, and speak at a level they can understand to gradually bring them into the fullness of the faith.  At the same time, any elements that are deemed cultural as opposed to dogmatic, and do not meet the Biblical, Traditional, and life-giving criteria can be evaluated to determine the impact of any proposed changes.

It is critical therefore to understand that an American Orthodox Church will most definitely contain elements unfamiliar to Americans, not because Orthodoxy is intrinsically foreign to American culture, but because most Americans have never been exposed to Orthodoxy.  This fact should not make us afraid of maintaining our Orthodox Traditions, but simply to be creative and mindful of how to integrate Americans into a new, extremely rich spiritual environment…

We are not trying to conform or blend in with the world, and even as we try to be more accessible to Americans, we do not seek to become absorbed or consumed with a worldly culture, but to lift Americans from this corrupted world up to the throne of God in heaven.  We consider American culture only to determine how to raise them, not to accommodate a lax or sinful lifestyle.  As Orthodox we are heaven-focused, and we want America to abandon vain and idle pursuits and to “redeem the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16).

To this end, we must then focus on the critical pillars of the Orthodox faith, and make them known in America.  The six sources of teaching in the Orthodox Church are the Holy Bible, Holy Tradition, Liturgies, Ecumenical Councils, the Church Fathers, and Art (Hymnology, Iconography, and Church Architecture).  To succeed in integrating Americans into the true Orthodox faith, we need to maintain and teach these six foundations of the Church in a way that Americans can understand and appreciate.  On this point, there can be no compromise as these pillars are the foundation of Orthodox teaching.

More than teaching alone, we need to preserve and pass on the spirit of Orthodoxy to America.  Humility, obedience, and all the virtues spoken of by Our Lord and expressed in the lives of the saints, stand in stark contrast to what is practiced by modern society.  For this reason discipleship is of utmost importance to guide Americans into Orthodox practice (Orthopraxy) through an example of holiness.

A church that has only classroom education about virtues and dogma, but does not exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of its members is a dead church.  It is incumbent on us, as “living stones” that have been raised in the Coptic church, to exemplify the words of St. Paul, “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.”

What defines American culture, and how can we tailor the Church to meet the needs of Americans?

Defining American culture is critical to determine how to tailor the Orthodox faith to meet the needs of Americans.  Admittedly American culture is difficult to define because there is no actual American ethnicity or common origin among its people.  American is made up of all the individual ethnicities that have migrated to this country over the past two hundred years.  Moreover America is a vast country that contains many subcultures.  There are a variety of dialects, music, dress, entertainments, media, pastimes, etc.

Even in the American Protestant church, it is impossible to find a singular American expression of faith.  Some denominations are very traditional and modest in beliefs, dress, music, reverence, and some even have liturgical worship and sacraments.  Others however are at the polar extreme with very non-traditional beliefs, dress, music, worship, etc.  This is a key point in understanding how the Orthodox Church can thrive in America.  Attempting to change all of our practices to conform to “American society,” is like trying to pin down a cloud.  If Americans cannot agree on a single expression of worship, then how can the [Church in America] somehow embody a singular and universally accepted expression of faith?

Amidst all these religions, denominations, philosophies, and choices, Americans have become weary of the next new fad, the next revolution, or the next reformation.  The constant and unrelenting doctrinal changes battering many Protestant denominations have left them tired for more change.  Instead many Protestants are seeking stability, and are leaving their churches, and church in general, in mass exoduses.  Thankfully the Orthodox Church can provide the stability they need.

So is there even a concept of American culture, or does one not really exist?  While American culture is indeed diverse and varied, the product of mixing all these individual cultures has produced a collective American ethos that is founded in, but unique from all the constituent elements that formed it.  While there is much variation in America, there are also some elements that most Americans have in common.  Without a thought-out study of what it actually means to be American, it is easy to propose broad over-reaching changes to the Church that are not really reflecting of culture, but of other factors.

For example, some suggest that the length of the Divine Liturgy needs to be reduced to accommodate Americans.  While this might seem to make sense initially, the question that should be asked is: Does shortening the Liturgy make it more appealing to American culture?  What about American culture wants shorter liturgies?  Do Egyptians by nature enjoy long services?  Do Americans not participate in any long activities?  Baseball games are over 3 hours long.

Copts that enjoy a long liturgy do so not because they are Egyptian, but because they recognize its value and have become accustomed to the length.  Egyptians that have not been trained by consistent liturgical attendance do not enjoy a long liturgy, while Americans that grow accustomed to the Liturgy can learn to appreciate it just like Copts have.

Therefore the distinction between Egyptian culture vs. American culture does not really play a role in the question of liturgical length.  Long prayers are indeed difficult, however this is not a cultural problem, but a sin problem.  As fallen human beings we have been corrupted through our free choice to live separated from God.  This is not a modern, 21st century condition or one that only affects a certain geographic area.  Psalm 14:3 says, “They have all turned aside, They have together become corrupt; There is none who does good, No, not one.”

The Church offers her children the means by which to approach God and receive the healing they seek.  Standing before God in prayer is one of the means of spiritual healing, and Americans should not be deprived of this simply because it is difficult.  Indeed it is essential and life-giving specifically because it is difficult…

We identify 18 unique elements of American society that should be considered.  We are not making concessions in the Church to accommodate or “approve” each of these elements, but we do need to be aware that this is the “starting point” for many Americans.  Therefore the focus… will be to provide services targeting the following elements.

  1. Relationships and Marriage.  Dating, premarital relationships, and misperceptions about marriage.
  2. Divorce.  Broken and fractured families.
  3. Abuse.  Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
  4. Sexuality.  Sexual “liberation” movement, homosexuality, etc.
  5. Hyper-Rational Mindset.  Opposition to faith, and reliance on science alone.
  6. Tolerance and Post-Modernism.  Relativism, and the abandonment of absolute truth.
  7. Mysticism and Spirituality.  Eastern mysticism, and the abandonment of organized religion.
  8. Individualism.  Self-reliance and individual spirituality outside the Church.
  9. Democracy.  Collective decision making versus submission to authority.
  10. Wealth and Prosperity.  Belief that God rewards Christians materially.
  11. Entitlement.  Constant focus on personal rights.
  12. Volunteerism.  Desire for community service and “making a difference.”
  13. Language.  English is the commonly spoken language.
  14. Organization.  The expectation for a high degree of organization and technology.
  15. Media.  Media addiction, and the pervasive role of TV, movies, music, Internet, etc.
  16. Secularization.  Abandonment of religion and spirituality in society.
  17. Anthropocentric Theology.  Man-centred, as opposed to God-centred, focus in Christianity.
  18. Protestant Influence.  History of American Protestantism.