Monday, July 10, 2006

Guide for the Cineplexed

found online at:

John Parker on Churches That Give You What You Want, But Not What You Need

With fifteen movies playing at the local multiplex cinema, each playing six times during the day, I have ninety options. One chosen, ticket purchased, I enter the building and am directed to Theater 14, on the right past the concession stand. The concession stand is like a food court; I might as well have arrived an hour earlier and eaten dinner here. Gone are the days when popcorn, soda, and Mike-and-Ikes were about the only options.

Every conceivable genre of movie, every conceivable type of food. Every hour of the day and evening. Who would ever have thought that churches might take this as their model for operation?

I once served at a church that wanted to buy an old theater, positioned perfectly along the main thoroughfare in our town. The rector was a keen student of pop culture. He had read every George Barna book published. He went to conferences on church growth. He even loaded up our staff of nine in a rental van early one weekday morning for a road trip to a distant city for a Barna church growth conference.

The cinema concept was already in place at the church on Sundays: early-morning “traditional” Communion service with no music in the neo-gothic historic chapel, with the celebrant in cassock and surplice; a 9:00 “contemporary” Communion service in the parish hall, complete with praise band and torchiere lighting to set the mood, and the service projected on the wall; a concurrent 9:30 prayer service for children and their families in the old church, with the celebrant only in an alb; an 11:00 traditional Eucharist with full, vested choir in the chapel, with the celebrant in chasuble; and a concurrent free-flowing 11:15 service, which went beyond contemporary, with bands, skits, and so forth, and definitely no vestments. The concept was this: We’ve got something for everyone, and at every standard Sunday morning hour.

So it was a natural conclusion that our parish should pursue buying the old Cineplex. It would give us more space and more options. It would give us more visibility. It would give us a space that “didn’t look like church,” so those who were not comfortable with “organized religion” would feel comfortable coming through the doors.

Add to this picture another local church, which purchased and refurbished a dilapidated old restaurant and opened its doors to the town. This church spent thousands of dollars direct-mailing local residents three or four times. Their most common mailer listed the top ten reasons why someone should attend their church.

Among them were the standard church-growth enticements: You can dress however you want; we won’t ask you for money, because giving is for members, not for visitors; we will treat you like family. Near the top was this surprise: “We serve great coffee at the coffee bar, which opens fifteen minutes before the service. Come a bit early, get a cup o’ joe, find a seat, and enjoy the music and the message.”

No Suitable Place
Consider a third local church. For years, they have worshipped in their gigantic auditorium. It is already a theater, though not a multiplex (though it has multiple local “campuses” where a variety of different demographics—youth, gen-x, etc.—have their services). They pop popcorn in the lobby. This is not surprising, given the genre of church. But the reason is shocking: because studies show that the smell of popcorn pleases people—it puts them in a good mood.

Until now, this church has never had a place “suitable” for “that special day.” Who wants to get married on a stage? In a warehouse? In a theater? So few, if any, that even secular wedding chapels are shaped like neo-gothic churches, only without the hindrances, “baggage,” and “trappings” (like a pastor or priest) of a church. Folks are willing to worship in a big metal building, but for that special day, they want a church.

Thus, this church is building a “traditional wedding chapel” next to their auditorium. It is described in the online video update as having “a center aisle,” “traditional architecture” and seating for 250—“perfect for that special day.” The video update concludes with chamber music and the gonging of church bells, two sounds never heard in the history of that place.

This church also has a Sunday evening service at 5:00, “for families.” Presumably, these folks have soccer, baseball, or football games that preclude Sunday morning attendance. Another local congregation holds a Sunday evening service of Communion marketed towards twenty- and thirty-somethings. One wonders about the reason: Is Sunday “my only day to sleep in”? Or is it that late night partying has taken its toll on the Lord’s morning? Other local churches offer Saturday night services to give their congregants the option of having all of Sunday free.

A Wanting Church
What force is driving these four churches? It is the market. They are market-driven churches. Now, a good pastor must know “the market.” Indeed, St. Paul taught that we should become all things to all people, that by all means we may save some. To the Jews as a Jew in order to save the Jews, to the Gentiles as a Gentile to save the Gentiles, to the Romans as a Roman . . . (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20–22).

But he was speaking of evangelism, not catechism, and certainly not worship. In these churches, Sunday morning has at once a very distinct audience and none at all. The gathered are at once considered faithful and seeker, saved and lost. It is evident in the preaching, and more evident in the growing numbers of churches that invite “anyone who loves God and is drawn to Jesus” to Communion—baptized or not, believer or not.

The marketed church offers just what everyone wants: the music I want (or don’t), the time I want, the length of service I want, the type of language I want, the style of music I want, the amount of intimacy and responsibility I want, and in some cases, even the pastor I want. But is the gospel a message about the satisfaction of wants?

The marketed church confuses Sunday worship and catechism with evangelism and outreach. What is the difference? Mere Christian Sunday worship has always been for the Christian community (the baptized) to offer thanks to God, to sing his praise, and to feed on the Word. Evangelism has been done by conversation in the marketplace, preaching in the public square, but even more, simply by the witness of increasingly holy lives.

In the Orthodox tradition in some parts of the world, even the catechumens preparing to be baptized are still dismissed before the Nicene Creed is said. As it was in the early Church, they are not permitted to be in the church during the Eucharist. This may be seen as extreme today (and is, even within the Orthodox tradition), but it makes clear who is the “audience” of Sunday morning services: God, not the gathered. The baptized faithful come to offer their thanks to him, to be transformed by him, not to be convinced that he is Lord.

The market-driven theater church can ultimately pit Christians against Christians and Christians against seekers. It pits Christians against Christians by dividing the body on Sundays. Rather than worshipping one Lord, in one Faith, by one Baptism at one Table, they choose based on desires: Do I want loud music today or a quiet meditative atmosphere? Do I want to hear pastor A or pastor B preach today? Or they choose according to schedules: What time is the soccer tournament Sunday morning? Am I going golfing or surfing early—or should I attend at eight o’clock so I can hit the beach at 11, nearer to high tide?

Likewise, which group of the many “wins” on a church retreat where there will be just one service? Whose desires get served and whose do not when the reduced summer schedule is introduced? Whenever a decision has to be made, who gets what they want and who doesn’t?
Resentment builds when services are perpetually dumbed down—when many services, even the most common and regular, become like talk shows (“Hey, I’m Pastor Mike and I am going to be your celebrant today!”) or instructional videos (“Now we are going to sing. Please open the blue hymnal and turn to 304”). Every moment of every service every Sunday becomes a repetitive catechism, and it is assumed that no one ever learns.

Sunday Outlet
The Church needs, indeed, to have many outlets, ways, and means to share the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But the Church universal, until very, very recently in a small section of Western Christianity, has always distinguished between Sunday worship and welcoming newcomers or visitors.

What may have been an innocent, unstudied effort to “bring in more people” has turned into an institution (and market) of its own. “Baptized believers” now make their desires known about what they do and do not want in churches.

The Church from its inception has never been “market driven.” By divine institution, it cannot change according to the whims of society, the drive of the market, the desires of the people. Indeed, it would be spiritually dangerous to do so. The Church is gathered to worship together as a community of faith, and to go forth into the world to present the gospel to all who will hear, that on the last day, we each may enter and be seated at that Great Heavenly Banquet on the Never-Ending Day of his Kingdom.

John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, a mission parish of the Orthodox Church in America, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. He earned his MDiv (2001) at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and his MTh (2004) at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2006 the Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved.

Man takes steps to embrace ancient faith


The Post and Courier Staff

"Truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." - John 3:3

Thick air forewarns rain as a streak of bicyclists zips through the streets of I'On, that hallmark of Mount Pleasant with its million-dollar takes on Charleston's old carriage houses.

Rock music thumps, a blimp hovers high and a wailing firetruck arrives to help an injured bicyclist. It's Saturday morning in suburbia.

Just inside the neighborhood's main entrance, tucked within a strip of shops on a brick-paved sidewalk, sits a church with a bookstore front. Here at Holy Ascension Orthodox, the flock led by Father John Parker traces its faith back to Christianity's earliest fathers.

Inside the glassfront windows, in front of a few dozen worshippers, Rodney Russ has begun his own personal Easter. The Orthodox Rite of Baptism brings a man to God, to Jesus for new life in the forgiveness of his sins.

Russ turns from the altar, faces west, rejects Satan three times and spits at him. Then he turns to face east, toward the altar, and accepts Christ three times. He does this in jean shorts and Birkenstocks.

Russ, a good union-backing, textile-working guy, is committing to his faith at age 47.
He stands alone. He's not married and has no kids. And he just lost the mother he loved and cared for until her final day on Earth. Russ had put off his baptism, hoping she miraculously would heal and join him.

She didn't heal, not in the flesh anyway. But Russ is sure as he stands before his family in faith that she is, in fact, with him at this moment.

The Lord is with him, and he's sure of that, too. Russ thinks back to all the churches he's been to over the years: Baptist, Methodist, Holiness. But it wasn't until 2004, during a trip to the Ukraine after being laid off his textile job of 17 years, that he stepped foot into an orthodox church.

For the first time, Russ felt the presence of God.

He felt it, too, when he came to Holy Ascension a year and a half ago. So did his mother, a faithful Southern Baptist. As cancer marched her toward death, she asked that Father John Parker preside over her funeral. He did.

The glass bookstore doors open, and the group files out and follows a tall cross. Incense wafts as they walk near the bike race. Father Parker steps ahead in a purple and gold robe that flares out behind him. He leads a small flock, as were the flocks in the earliest days of Christianity, when there were no megachurches, no praise music, no Vacation Bible Schools.

They sing softly as they head toward a pond in I'On. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord..."

Their chant continues with centuries-old determination past the pounding rock music. They finally reach a wooded area where songbirds rejoice in the promise of rain and the sidewalk gives way to a damp pine needle carpet.

After the woods, they reach a large pond surrounded by homes that look like Charleston's Battery. They stop at a short, wooden boat ramp.

"Blessed is the kingdom, of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever ?" Parker begins.

It's an ancient rite. But whereas Christ was baptized in the Jordan River, Russ stands inches away from Westlake and a sign that warns "Swim At Your Own Risk." A C-17 cargo jet roars overhead. Across the pond, a row of SUVs and minivans await their next trip.

A man dressed in slacks, a dress shirt and tie, stands beside Russ holding a white towel. The heat builds as Father Parker dips the cross into the blessed water.

"Show this water to be water of redemption," he prays.

A goose honks loudly. A man jogs by, his feet crunching on the gravel. Zhwisk, zhwisk. Zhwisk. A woman in a straw hat stops to watch from a discreet distance.

Russ' face grows flushed with the heat and the attention.

Father Parker turns and rubs oil onto Russ' forehead, onto his hands and feet tucked into sandals as, perhaps, were Jesus Christ's himself.

Russ stands quiet, eyes cast down, hands folded humbly in front of him. He and Chuck Bates, the church's parish council president and the man in the suit, walk to the water's edge. They wade down a boat ramp into dark but clear water.

He breathes deep, ready. The chill laps against Russ' legs, his knees, his waist.

But the ramp, he realizes, is slick with muck. He must yank up his sandals with each sloshy step. He turns worried.

I'm going to slip.

Russ and Bates turn to face Father Parker standing above them.

"The servant of God, Rodney Russ, is baptized in the name of the Father ?" Parker says.
Russ dunks his head once, twice, three times. But he is 6 feet tall, and he's in water only up to his waist. He must lean way over to submerge his head. His feet slide in the sediment. He wobbles.

I'm going to slip in front of God and everyone.

Russ pops up, shaky and disoriented. Bates grabs hold of him and helps him trudge back up the slimy ramp. Back on ground, Russ regains his balance, smiles big, stands straight and looks around for a moment.

This time, Russ will lead the procession back. Soaking wet, he holds his head high and strides back along the path, feeling his mother's love and the presence of God guiding the way.

"Therefore if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come." - II Corinthians 5:17

Is Charleston really the Holy City?


By Fr. John Parker

Editor's Note: Last week Faith & Values wrote about different theories for why Charleston has the nickname "The Holy City."

An airplane tour is not necessary to notice the multitudes of churches on the Charleston peninsula. From the tip of Sullivan's Island, one can see the steeples of many, including St. Philip's (the oldest), St. Matthew's and others. Some report "more than 60 religious institutions" on the peninsula - others "over a hundred houses of worship."

No matter how one counts, Charleston has come to be known as the "Holy City" predominantly as a result of the tourism of recent times, specifically connected to the number of spiritual edifices (how is that for PC?) located within the bounds of the city.

But the quantity of churches in a place no more makes it automatically holy than a gathering of 10 random people on asphalt instantly makes a basketball game.

We might even make the argument that the so-called diversity of churches on the peninsula contributes to the opposite of holiness, witnessing to fractured Western Christianity with its increasing "believe whatever you want" spirituality.

It is likely that we will see even more of this "diversity" - possibly as soon as this summer - as a number of national church bodies attempt to change the Christian teachings on who is ordained to oversee his earthly work.

This point is made all the more clear by the existence of two proverbial churches: the church I attend and the one I don't.

What is it that would truly make Charleston "the Holy City"? Well, according to the Scriptures, holiness is directly related to loving God and keeping his Commandments. Holiness is a manifestation of the grace of God in the life of those who most cooperate with this gift. Holiness is living life as God intended it - as he has revealed it to us, supremely through the life and witness of his only-begotten son, Jesus Christ. Holiness is the result of becoming, by grace, what God is by nature.

Holiness requires an ascetical struggle. Ascesis is a fancy Greek word meaning "training" or "practice," as for a contest. The New Testament is filled with examples of the pursuit of holiness described in terms of completing a race. No runner wins a marathon without first running short distances, and then increasing endurance. The runner also needs to train in the heat and the cold, on hills and in valleys, well-nourished as well as thirsty. By this training, there are no surprises or insurmountable obstacles in the race.

The same is true in the spiritual life. No one becomes a saint simply by reading a book or by accepting a dogma. Rather, once baptized, one must learn to fast as well as to feast. In addition to knowing the Scriptures and living the sacraments, one must practice patience and endurance, periods of silence and long periods of various forms of self- denial, all with the aim of accepting God's will as his own.

Holiness can be attributed to a city when, of one mind, its inhabitants share this struggle in a sincere desire to love God and neighbor. A city becomes holy when its churches do not compete with one another for "warm bodies" by clever marketing, brand awareness, or worse - by catering to the temporal desires rather then the spiritual needs of the people. Charleston lives into a name such as "the Holy City" when it seeks, above all else, to honor Christ in every facet of its life: its tourism, its government, its social life, etc. In addition to true worship, this is most excellently demonstrated, as Jesus himself indicated, in the caring for the poor, the needy, the sick, the imprisoned - those whom Christ called "the least of these my brethren."

Charleston becomes the Holy City when its attitude is that of Abba Sisoes, a fourth-century desert-dwelling monk. Considered to be a very holy and venerable man himself, many drew near to Abba Sisoes while he was on his death bed. In his last moments, he saw choirs of angels and archangels, not to mention prophets, Apostles and saints. Wondering what was going on, those gathered around him asked, "With whom are you speaking, Abba?"

"With the angels," he replied, and indicated that he was seeking to do penance before he left this life for the next. Knowing his holiness, one friend said to him, "You have no need for penance, Father." Abba Sisoes replied, "I have not yet begun to repent." When in our city we realize our spiritual state (regardless of how far we think we have progressed), and can say with true humility, "we have not yet begun to repent," then Charleston will have made a beginning toward becoming the Holy City.

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or