Published by Wipf & Stock on March 18, 2021
As the world at large and the church in particular takes stock of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most significant emerging conversations is how the widespread (and arguably necessary) increase in Orthodox parishes’ use of contemporary technologies (Zoom, Facebook, etc.) to carry out missional needs will – and should – endure once whatever the new “normal” comes. On the one hand, many priests and parishes have done a heroic job of utilizing various means to keep the faithful engaged with the liturgical and communal life of the parish. On the other hand, we know that various platforms and technologies are not neutral tools but rather carry, in their very design, multiple and intentionally constructed shaping influences upon how we interact with each other and with things that matter. According to Edward Rommen, this latest acceleration of the church’s navigation of these and other tools – e.g. strategic planning, online giving platforms, social media, professional consulting, etc. – is part of a longer and more troubling arc that requires both pastoral and theological attention.
In Church in the Land of Desire, Rommen, an accomplished missiologist and parish priest who also teaches at Duke Divinity School, seeks to give just this sort of attention, and the results are provocative without being unduly pessimistic. As a former Evangelical who is deeply familiar with “church growth” literature and strategies as employed by both mainline and evangelical Protestants, Rommen seeks to uncover the often tacit theological and ecclesial assumptions that accompany the church’s importation of secular management, dissemination, and communication tools into the life of parishes and dioceses. To his great credit, he does not propose a simple dichotomy between supposedly timeless Orthodox practices and a demonized “secular”; rather, he seeks to offer a more nuanced and pastorally balanced assessment of how onboarding certain strategies and tools inevitably means contending with aspects of the modern milieu that both gives rise to these tools but also may sit uneasily with, or even clash profoundly with, Orthodox ecclesiology.
Rommen’s method is first to offer a genealogy of modernity’s corrosive effect upon widespread belief in eternal truth and authoritative hierarchies that will be familiar to readers of Alisdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, and then to engage in close (sometimes uncomfortably close) analysis of current ecclesial discourse – e.g. official statements from the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA), parish websites, advertisements for parish software tools, etc. Indeed, few areas of the church’s ministry and institutional functioning are left unconsidered in Rommen’s analysis. About online giving platforms, for instance, he worries that modern privileging of convenience divorces tithes and offerings from a properly liturgical context in worship. Regarding the training of seminarians, he both acknowledges the value of seminaries receiving accreditation from bodies such as the Association of Theological Schools and questions whether the schools’ conforming to broadly accepted educational standards might undermine the distinctiveness of Orthodox formation and perhaps acclimate seminarians as “consumers” of education who expect a financial return on their investment (in the form of higher-paying parish assignments, for instance). Concerning the use of Facebook and other social media platforms, Rommen is concerned that these platforms represent a continuation of the Enlightenment’s gradual acceleration of “everyone should use their own reason” to “everyone’s reasoning is equally valid,” and is thus undermines not only hierarchical authority but also the ability to discourse together in good faith rather than in increasingly balkanized tribes of opinionating (a worry that is, to be sure, at least partly warranted based on even the most cursory glances at Orthodox cyberspace). Meanwhile, the fact that these same social media platforms have, in many cases, become crucial in disseminating live-stream videos of liturgy during the pandemic runs the risk of gradually acclimating the faithful to “watch” liturgy rather than participate in it, in a manner akin to the growing practice in Protestant bodies of using screens during worship.
Rommen is particularly hard on the adoption of “strategic planning” methodology at both the judicatory and parish levels, both for methodological reasons (e.g. strategic planning’s employment of benchmarks and metrics often reduces complex realities of discipleship and spiritual growth to “hard” quantitative data such as attendance, giving, etc.) and for more specifically theological reasons: the rationale for strategic planning has, at base, a desire to predict and to a certain extent control the future in ways that exist uneasily alongside Orthodox eschatological trust in God’s faithfulness. While he acknowledges and appreciates that both OCA and GOA discourse about their strategic planning processes and recognize the need to utilize these processes in ways that are faithful to Orthodox theology and practice, again Rommen is skeptical that the methodology is malleable enough to be so deployed without gradually shaping the institutions that use it towards more “bottom-line” thinking.
One of the most successful aspects of Rommen’s study is that, just as he argues that various technologies and methods have a shaping effect upon the perception of those who employ them, his book has the potential to “train” readers to notice aspects of church rhetoric and engagement with cultural toolkits that may have previously been taken for granted due to their ubiquity within North American culture. To be sure, there will be moments where readers are less likely to share his suspicions than at others – for instance, in the case of online giving platforms, I am less convinced than Rommen seems to be that giving online threatens to create a deficient relationship between offerings and liturgical life, especially if, as many Orthodox theologians and pastors have argued, the future of parish vitality may well rest in a renewal of the home as a primary site of devotion, prayer, and family worship (and homes are generally where the “checkbook,” so to speak, is balanced!). But even to dissent with a given conclusion of Rommen is to be prodded to give thoughtful consideration to whether a given practice, technology, etc. is consistent with Orthodox life, and within the orbit of the book’s project that is already a gain.
Meanwhile, in line with the general arc of Rommen’s text but perhaps in some dissension with his overall suspicion of formal evaluation measures, I would suggest that the answer to bad evaluation (e.g. reduction of difficult-to-measure spiritual realities such as discipleship and spiritual maturity to clumsily quantitative metrics) is not reduced engagement with the field of evaluation. Rather, the answer is more intentional engagement with its practitioners who are cognizant of, and sensitive towards, Orthodox ecclesial and theological traditions. Organizations such as the American Evaluation Association (AEA) exist precisely to support evaluators working in specialized contexts where effectiveness cannot easily be tracked or captured in “bottom-line” metrics, and who thus can work with stakeholders (e.g. priests, bishops, laity) to determine what success in discipleship looks like from a theological perspective and how its signs are already tracked before embarking on more a rigorous design process for determining where and how to devote finite resources in order to produce the most faithful results. Put bluntly, many parishes and even dioceses in U.S. Orthodoxy operate with thin margins, and thus seeking to better determine what kinds of resource allocation are most effective for bringing about what parishes care about is a matter of faithfulness. A good evaluator, operating with a sensitive balance of qualitative and quantitative modes of inquiry determined by the context, will not replace the pastoral and theological wisdom of a priest or bishop, but can bring evaluation design wisdom to bear in a manner that partners with and enhances hierarchical leadership.
Written out of a space of deep love for the church and seasoned cognizance that the tools shape the laborer, this text will be read with great benefit by parish leaders, clergy, and bishops; meanwhile, Orthodox theologians will be grateful for the book’s continual and often winsome demonstration of how theological rigor can be brought to bear on the ministry and mission in an increasingly bewildering technological age.
Robert Saler is Research Professor of Religion and Culture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN, where he also serves as Associate Dean for Evaluation and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence. He is the managing editor of the IOTA Forum.