By: Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick
Many people have discovered Orthodox Christianity via the Internet – I am myself one of those (though it was 1997 and a very, very different atmosphere online than now). Almost all of the people who now come for the first time to our parish in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, have had some contact with our faith on the Internet first. Living in the Twenty-First Century, we should expect this to be the norm for the foreseeable future, especially here in North America. I have been noticing a related phenomenon, though, that concerns me. I have known of people who have read about the faith and even interacted with Orthodox Christians online for years, without ever actually visiting an Orthodox church or perhaps only visiting a few times. In many cases, they present themselves as knowing a lot about what it means to be Orthodox, or knowing enough to make decisions about being Orthodox. I've also seen a more extreme phenomenon: there are people who call themselves "Orthodox" or "catechumens" who have never been to an Orthodox church or, again, only a handful of times. And no priest ever baptized or chrismated them, and no priest ever made them catechumens.
It's something they just decided for themselves. Likewise, there are also people who really have become formally part of the Church through its sacraments, yet do not actually participate in its life with any regularity and faithfulness. For those of us who have been Orthodox for a while, we probably are most familiar with this phenomenon – people who identify as Orthodox because of a past reception into the Church yet do not actually live as Orthodox Christians.
Here's the problem with all three of these phenomena: Orthodox Christianity is not an "identity." To be an Orthodox Christian is to be faithful to Christ, which means real faithfulness in the 3D world – regular worship, daily prayer, fasting, almsgiving, kindness, humility and love. We read many times in the Scriptures that in the end Christ is going to judge every one of us according to what we have done (Matthew 25:31–46, 1 Pet. 1:17, Revelation 20:12–13), not according to what we think, how we feel, what we agree with, if we have the right opinions, or whether we identify as Orthodox or not. If you're not faithfully struggling to do these things, calling yourself "Orthodox" is simply a falsity. It's just not true. Likewise, if you're exploring Orthodox Christianity without including regularly and faithfully being at worship services, you're not really exploring Orthodox Christianity.
Any decisions you make about it will not be informed ones. You might be learning about Orthodox Christianity, but without the experience of participating in parish life even as a visitor, you're missing most of the picture.
So if this describes you, even partially, here's my challenge for you. If at all possible, get out of your house and get to church. Get out of your head and go do the actual things. I understand that there are circumstances where it really is not possible, but if you're not even trying, if you've been content just to stay home, and think and read and talk about the Church, then I'm talking to you.Yes, of course Orthodox Christianity should shape your reading, thinking, and speaking, but if that's all it ever does, then you're not a faithful Orthodox Christian. Nor are you really even considering becoming part of the Church.
It can be a good step to read and think and talk about the Church, but if all that intellectual activity is not motivating you to get into church and live the actual life, to become faithful to Christ, then it's useless to your salvation and may even be harming it. By these means you can also judge the things you see and hear on the Internet – if they're referring you only to themselves and not always pointing you to 3D life in the Church, then they're not helping.
A proper teacher and guide should always be pointing you beyond himself and toward an encounter with Christ in His Church. So let's get up, out of our heads, out of our chairs and houses, and into worship. See you there!