I’ve never thought of myself as particularly cool, or if I once was, a 47 year old mother who drives a Volvo and bird watches for a hobby has no hope of ever reclaiming that title. I still might be considered marginally cool in my choice of music or my laissez faire attitude towards the horticulture of weed, but that’s just ’cause I’m an old hippie at heart. These days I’m more apt to criticize the vanity and emptiness of trying to achieve ‘coolness’ – the pointlessness of a life lived in search of ‘the next big thing’. It seems parenthood and mortality are the great equalizers of the hip and young.
Recently a news piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer has been popping up across Orthodox message boards and news aggregators. It’s the sad profile of an Eastern European neighborhood called Northern Liberties and its declining churches and synagogues, now gone to the dogs, literally, with its discovery by urban hipsters looking for things with “good bones”, dog parks and a critical mass of other like-minded cultural zombies. The churches merely add to the neighborhood’s character. While the more melancholy Inquirer piece gently laid out the shallow hipsters for some reproach, it was author/journalist Thom Nickels who cleanly gutted them with a follow-up piece in the Philadelphia Weekly Press. It was brilliant! His commentary wasn’t merely about the loss of tradition in one gentrified Philadelphia neighborhood, but a profile of pop-culture-as-religion across the nation.
But may I also say I agree 100% with Mr. Nickels when he rightly points out that the Northern Liberties parishes (or any Orthodox Church in the U.S.) are not without blame for their own decline. The ethnic social club atmosphere that substitutes for real faith in some parishes has got to go. Any Orthodox Church that preserves their Liturgy like a museum piece, is hostile to Christ’s call for evangelism, and is unwilling to adapt to the language and culture of America, is doomed and rightfully so. I’m not talking about changing the Truths of our faith, or pushing novelty and political correctness, but reaching out to potential converts in English, through new media, and through an active presence in the community. And this doesn’t mean ethnic food festivals. It means offering Inquirer’s Classes, Vacation Bible Schools, coffee house lectures on Orthodoxy, icon exhibitions during arts week, National Night Out programs to meet the neighbors, etc… To be an evangelist is to be generous in sharing your faith. Hipsters may not immediately come flocking in, but for those few who are looking for something deeper, they’ll recognize the real thing when they see it practiced. The Orthodox Church doesn’t have to be ‘cool’, but maybe through a sincere desire to follow Christ and live a holy life we can change the definition.