The Unchanging Church

At the heart of so much discussion of the church, in particular missional church or seeker-sensitive church, is change and adaptation and relevant and listening to the audience and serving the sorts who need our service. One church that is absolutely and resolutely against the adaptation theme is the Eastern Orthodox Church, and it is “meet and right” for us to give EO a glance to remind us both where we were and what longterm tradition looks like.

What have you “picked up” from the Orthodox? What do you think we can learn? 

Same words, same history, worldwide, week after week. Not monotonous but a sacred rhythm constructed by theologians and pastors and churches and designed to usher each worshiper each week into the mysteries of the gospel.

Instead of being shaped by the sermon, which is the Protestant contribution, the Divine Liturgy is shaped by a journey into eucharistic communion with God in the kingdom of God. Instead of “change,” the operative word is “same.”

I have on my desk a beautiful (Orthodox is all about beauty), passionate book by Father Vassilios Papavassiliou called Journey into the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are twenty brief chapters on each of the elements of the Divine Liturgy (that is, the Sunday service). The book walks us through each, with plenty of photographs. The best introduction to Orthodoxy is not a book, even the fine ones written by Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, but attendance and participation in the Divine Liturgy itself.

There is something for the evangelical and for the evangelical worship service from each element of the Divine Liturgy.

1. Blessing and Litany of Peace
2. Great Litany
3. Mini Creed
4. Entrance of the Gospel [there is a lack of Old Testament readings today among the Orthodox].
5. Catechumens [one location for the homily/sermon].
6. The Cherubic Hymn and Entrance of the Holy Gifts
7. Psalm 50 [51]
8. Preparing for Holy Communion
9. Litany of the Precious Gifts
10. Creed: Trinity, Christ, Spirit, Church, Baptism, Resurrection [a very brief catechism is given in the book on these topics]
11. The Holy Oblation
12. Remembrace
13. Lord’s Prayer
14. Holy Things for the Holy
15. Thanksgiving and Dismissal

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  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    The EO church has a wonderful history and how it has survived in Russia is an amazing story in itself. I will say “the unchanging church” needs to be a qualified unchanging church. Some of my EO friends talk like the EO church has never changed on anything. They will even challenge me and say, “Chris, can you name one thing the EO church has changed on?” And my quick reply is, “Yes, women used to be deacons in the church and now they are not.” Then this is either, ‘okay, on that one issue’, or ‘someday, that will be reversed which shows that the church has always been unchanging’ 🙂

  • Phil Miller

    The liturgy and governance of the EO church certainly has been relatively unchanging, but I find it interesting that in some things, some EO churches have started emulating evangelicals to a degree. For instance, I’ve noticed in a few of the EO churches I’ve been in that they have youth groups and other parachurch groups similar to what you’d see in evangelical churches. Of course, they aren’t having their own services or liturgies, but they do still feel it necessary to have dedicated ministry for different demographics. Also, some EO churches (seems more the OCA churches) really do put more of an emphasis on evangelism than you would expect to see from the orthodox church.

    I’m not saying these things are bad. I just think that there is some cross-pollination going on. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the EO church has seen something of an influx of converts over the last few decades.

  • Steve Robinson

    A nice review, but a caveat, Scot. The Orthodox Church does change, after all the 3 liturgies now commonly in use (St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory) didn’t drop out of the sky with the Bible in Acts. 🙂 “Change” however is, as you mention, a SLOW, SLOW, SLOW process vetted by sometimes centuries of scrutiny by the concensus of the Church, both laity and clergy. Hymns, innovations to the liturgical motion may be added or subtracted but they may or may not survive within years, decades of even centuries. The core is rooted in the Gospel and the Creeds and all things done liturgically must illuminate, explicate and reflect that.

    A shameless self-promo… there is a 9 part podcast on the Divine Liturgy that takes the listener from the vesting of the priest through the final benediction done especially for evangelical listeners who are wondering how liturgy can be evangelical.

    There are also a couple of podcasts on “Liturgy in the NT” on the site.

  • Jordan L.

    Can someone on here recommend a good book or two for getting a better grasp of the significance (historically & theologically) of the Eucharist? I’m a new pastor and our church will start celebrating the Lord’s table soon and I feel the need to deepen my perspective – partly just so it does not become stale but becomes rich and meaningful for the church. I know there are different perspectives, but as a Wesleyan I do accept that it is a means of grace at least. I’m sure something from the EO would be good too.

  • Andy W.

    Steve @ #3…huge fan! Have listed to nearly all your podcasts…many more then once! Great resource!! I have such an appreciation for EO and have given it an honest try, but it is this very issue that ultimately keeps me away. They are stuck in an ethnic world or Greek, Russian, Romanian, Antiocian… well, Eastern. I guess that makes since!

  • Steve Robinson

    Jordan L. #4, Try Alexander Schmemann’s “For the Life of the World”. There are several podcasts at on Eucharist, and developing a “sacramental world view” based in Trinity and Incarnation that are foundational to Eucharistic theology.
    Andy #5, Thank you, and yes, it is hard in some areas to find a “honky friendly” parish. 🙂 Although I have to say that rabid “American convert parishes” can be just as exclusivistic and clique-ish. We’re all Corinthians in the end… sigh.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Another, not so smiley face “caveat, Scot. The Orthodox Church does change, after all the 3 liturgies now commonly in use (St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory) didn’t drop out of the sky with the Bible in Acts.” Right. The EO has done just as much adaptation to culture and times as has the RC Western church, at least in regards to unholy alliances with “the powers that be” and well beyond that. Adaptation may be unavoidably necessary, but accommodation didn’t have to include the ethical compromises that characterize most of the church throughout history and today, IMO. The idolatrous un- or non-missional lifestyles that most of us–myself included–adopt didn’t descend from heaven with the Holy Spirit sent from God. The liturgical (theological and preaching) traditions of the churches can all be merely “religious” traditions devoid of true and obedient following of Jesus.