Church Participation: a Matter of Leadership

The faithful hold the Holy Light at St. John the Theologian in Tenafly, NJ. Photo: Costas Bej

By Antonis H. Diamataris

Once again, helped by good weather, our churches were filled on the evening of the Resurrection, even as during the rest of Holy Week there were fewer people in the pews than last year.

A sea of people of all ages suddenly gathered in our churches, almost out of nowhere, with lit candles, with reverence and devotion, with a need for the warm feeling of participation, to hear Christos Anesti (Christ has risen) from our priests, to take heart to continue in life.

This year, we were able to cover more communities perhaps than ever before, with exclusive reports even from Montreal, proving again that the Herald does its job properly, and that the Church is the backbone of the Greek-American community. It is where we pray, where we gather, where we see one another, where we drink coffee together after the Liturgy. Moreover, is it is where the “heart” of religion, as well as our distinct identity, beats.

For various reasons, only a small percentage, unfortunately, of Greek-Americans are church members. According to reliable information, a mere 10%. A very small portion indeed. This places a large and unfair financial burden on members, while others reap the services offered by the church, when they need them, without participating except only a few times a year, like at Christmas and Easter.

While no one can expect 100% participation, 10% or even 15% participation is too low. What keeps almost 90% of our people away from the Church?

Some people attribute the reduced participation to the use of the Greek language. Sounds like a lame excuse and, in fact, it is very likely that the opposite holds true, since the use of Greek during Liturgy is limited nowadays,  even in communities in which it shouldn’t be. But trends sweep over everything.

And although we should undoubtedly offer the opportunity to our children that are born here, whose Greek is limited, to hear the sermon and various points of the Liturgy in their native tongue, the disappearance of the Greek language, besides distancing the Greek-born, deprives the Liturgy of its identity, its ritual, its essence.

I would say that Church participation has much to do with the level of our clergy, the example they set, and the caliber of our hierarchy. I have seen churches with little participation be filled every Sunday after a change of priest, but I have also seen the opposite. And I have seen churches fully packed when an archbishop would worship in them, and I have seen churches attract few congregants – to an extent that makes one uncomfortable – when another archbishop attends.

The opportunities given to the Church are huge. To carry out its Christian mission. To unite, inspire, and guide our people. Yet also to take a leading role, certainly without imposing, or to express its discontent to those who react to the preservation of our national identity. As do other religions.

Let us not fool ourselves. It cannot fulfill its mission without it. It is unrealistic to believe that will it lead all the Orthodox, that it will create a Church of all nations.

But as we said: like all things, it is a matter of leadership.


  1. Putting the focus back on Jesus Christ and His great commission, “making disciples of all nations.” Love every person in spite of his falling into sin. Never mind the sins, but remember that the foundation of the person is in the same image of God ( St. John of Kronstadt).
    @Antonis – I agree with you that healthy and true leadership ( or lack thereof in our churches) is one of the key elements, however, since most of the main players in the Greek Orthodox Church are “ego” motivated, agenda driven, and in some cases mean-spirited; it renders leadership at the parish level ineffective and in most cases non-existent.
    Ministry-Ministry-Ministry…If there are no vibrant ministries in our parishes, there will be parishioners.
    And when is everyone going to start singing along in church. The church I attended on Holy Friday had zero participation from the people during the Lamentations…it was heartbreaking!
    Christ is Risen,

  2. Michael,
    The mission of the Church is to teach Christ Crucified and Resurrected. The Creed we recite in Church every Sunday says that we believe that the Church is “Catholic”.. which means it is for ALL people. The mission of TNH is to preserve the Greek American community. To keep “our people” (TNH uses “omogenia” which I believe means of the “same race”) somehow connected into the 3rd, 4th and subsequent generations. TNH and the “diasporists” in America (you know who they are: they are the ones who do not particularly love America; they want “dual citizenship”; the right to vote in Greek elections; etc.) If they have any more connection to the Church in America than their compatriots in Greece (whose Church attendance is probably no greater than the 10% Mr. Diamataris writes about here in the U.S.) it is because they believe that they can impose upon the Church the primary responsibility for preserving the Greek language and culture here in America.

  3. I could not agree more with your conclusion, but the matter of leadership is much deeper than portrayed by people in our day. Our Church has been hijacked by monastic male hierarchy from the beginning; and I’m not implying, yet, the role of women. I am strongly believing in married men being considered for the office of the bishop (Archbishop, Metropolitan, etc.). The notion that single men only can handle the affairs of the church is irrational and unrealistic; we have many married priests with higher qualifications and standards than a number of present day bishops. But, unfortunately, the present “system” is so deeply rooted, that it would take a real “Louther” type of revolution to change it!

  4. The image of our church has to change, if we want it to last into the next generation. In our church community, many ministries are active, thanks to the untiring work of all the volunteers. Of course, the priest and his attitude plays a big role. We are blessed that in our parish, we have a priest with a welcoming attitude and friendly personality. Of course, no priest will be perfect. Our priest’s sermons could use some polish and further study, to relate to today’s world and engage the parishioners. I attend church every Sunday and I have come to know what he’s going to say next. We also have to be very careful how we approach people on the stewardship commitment. We also have one of the best choirs in our state
    I brought up the idea in our last assembly, that our priest should not bring up stewardship payments, in his sermon, as it sounds too commercial. People are bombarded daily by demands for their money. let them escape that bombardment on Sundays. The stewardship committee is responsible for keeping up with the finances and solicitation of money. Besides, I believe that a church that has lost parishioners and might be near closing, is not being relevant to people. If the church is not relevant, then, no one will spend his hard earned money to support it.
    Another point that should be strictly adhered to is that no one affiliated with a position in a church should be taking sides in politics, whether in person or on social media. This last election was very strongly contested and people had their own ideas of whom to support. Unfortunately, we had our presvytera make her opinions known on facebook, in a very combative and confrontational way, using very strong language, with personal attacks on anyone who disagreed with her, causing a rift in our community. Myself, along with 4 other families that were related to me, were ready to depart for an OCA church, until our Metropolitan intervened and asked her to refrain from such divisiveness. The bottom line is that for people to support an institution, it has to have relevance to their every day life. If it doesn’t, they will walk away in droves.

  5. Q. How many Greeks does it take to change a lightbulb? A. Change?
    Change is not happening in the Greek Orthodox Church of America….not anytime soon. We worship in a top – down old world authoritarian church. Control is everything, that is the reality.
    The true church is in our hearts (that is where the love of Jesus Christ is) and pushes outward into our communities. It does not happen in reverse.
    Christ is Risen!

  6. What has enabled our Orthodox faith to survive century after century is what attracts its adherents to follow and to dedicate their spiritual life to the faith…..the traditional nature of the faith and of the church. To attempt to cahnge our faith and church as a simple accommodation to the whims of the times will undoubtedly result in it’s destruction. Our faith and our church has survived for century after century under the stewardship and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. For some to believe that our faith and our church is destined for failure in our lifetime is simply a “cop out”. Once we alter our time proven faith to accommodate attacks, based on modern day intolerance , such as attacks against monasticism, celibacy, teh common communion spoon, women as priests, let the dilution of our faith begin toward a path of failure for the sake of accommodation. Faith is just that… either have it in that every fiber of your spiritual and bodily being truly believes that the Holy Spirit will continue to lead the way for our faith’s survival, or you just don’t have it……pray that the Holy Spirit continues to bless our church despite some of the spiritual sores and festering spiritual weaknesses that may inflict some of the ecclesiastical leaders of our church. The future our our “faith” will be assured by the Holy Spirit and NOT by any man of this world whether it be an ecclesiastical leader or a lay person……let’s not lose sight of what faith really is…..what it really means…….HAVE FAITH dear brothers and sisters…….God Bless and Christos Anesti……

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