Perhaps the most interesting and important conclusion of the recent report by Linda Bobbitt, “Vital Congregations: A Faith Communities Today Special Report,” was “the degree of agreement, across faith traditions, about what it means to be a spiritually vital congregation and what things contribute to promote or damage that vitality.
Spiritually vital congregations are those that come together for a divine common purpose in ways that are transformative to the people within them and to their communities.”
Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches were part of this study (11 parishes participated) and, thus, the universal definition of congregational vitality offered by Linda Bobbitt also applies to American Orthodox Christian parishes. While agreeing with this “magic formula of congregational vitality,” I would like to share three thoughts which could further deepen the understanding of vitality in the particular case of Orthodox Christian parishes.
First, unlike other religious groups engaged in the congregational vitality study, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church in the U.S. is not a single denomination. Rather, it is a big family of independent national church bodies that share the same theology and basic principles of church polity, but at the same time vary greatly from each other in many respects. Among the most profound differences separating these national church bodies are: a) the presence of recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East among church members; b) the overall strength of the ethnic culture and identity (which expresses itself not only and not necessarily in the language of worship, but in many other elements in the life of a parish); c) the percentage of converts to Orthodoxy among church members (i.e. the religious seekers from various religious backgrounds who discovered Orthodox Christianity and joined the Orthodox Church as adults). Not only the entire national Orthodox church bodies, but also their individual parishes (congregations) differ significantly from one another on these three variables.