Edgy Orthodoxy 4 Seekers

One of the Rev. Dwight Moody's favorite perks as dean of the Georgetown College chapel is that he is free to spend most Sundays exploring other churches in Lexington, Ky.

That's how the Baptist preacher ended up in St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church in a cloud of incense, trying to figure out what the worshippers were chanting, why they rarely sat down and when the 9 o'clock service was going to end so that the 10 o'clock service could begin.

Everything was a mystery.

"When the main service ended they just kept going and had two more. ...I couldn't figure out what was going on," said Moody. "It was the most in-your-face, retrograde old stuff you could imagine. What fascinated me was that this was the TOTAL antithesis of everything that is happening in the contemporary church."

But he looked around and realized he wasn't the only visitor in the multi-ethnic crowd. Afterwards, a cluster of ex-Methodists helped him get oriented. Moody had toured Orthodox churches in Jerusalem and elsewhere, but had never actually attended a service.

It was while he was driving home that he had a crazy idea.

During his Sunday adventures, Moody has seen his share of megachurches offering "seeker-friendly services" for media-soaked Americans. These are the ones with shiny auditoriums that seat 5,000 or so people, complete with rock-concert quality sound and lights. Many have been shaped by the work of consulting firms that specialize in church design and marketing.

Moody thought to himself: How would a church-growth professional critique the smells, bells and sacraments he had just witnessed?

Before long, he had written a satirical "Survival Guide" for an imaginary "St. Pachomius Byzantine Orthodox Church."

The church's name, for example, was simply not acceptable today.

Moody's imaginary consultant was blunt: "Nobody -- and I mean NOBODY -- understands any part of your name. (I actually commissioned a survey.) Most assumed you were Jewish, others thought of a travel agency and one was sure 'Byzantine' was a link to al-Qaeda.

"My recommendation: Be bold! Embrace the third millennium! Take a new name, one derived from the old but in a clever sort of way. Our people suggest you utilize the word BOX: how about 'p-BOX'? Edgy, isn't it, but evocative and mysterious, as well. Remember how United States Steel Corporation became USXX? Brilliant: strong but subtle, distinctive and vague."

The sanctuary would need a makeover, starting with the exit of all those "painted panels of old people." Besides, the icons were taking up space that would be needed for large video screens for movie clips and pop-rock hymnody. The firm suggested replacing the incense with "some very nice potpourri planters in a selection of scents: Miracle Moonlight, Oceans of Peace and Farm Fresh Faith."

The a cappella quartet of overweight male chanters would have to go, as well.

"Modern, younger people -- those you must seek to appease, I mean, attract -- are drawn toward drum sets and speakers," he added. "Make them very visible, even if you actually utilize sound tracks (sample enclosed)."

And Holy Communion? Adding a Starbucks would be a better idea. If the church insisted on serving bread and wine at the altar, "research indicates that videos shown during the lag time are well received."

The article was published in several Kentucky newspapers and then in the Christian Century, a mainline weekly. Moody was relieved to learn that Orthodox readers had gotten the joke and were rolling in the aisles. Well, some were rolling in the aisles. Many Orthodox Christians would not have aisles in which to roll, since their sanctuaries are traditionally built without the modern amenities called pews.

Then members of other churches began to respond. Moody hit a nerve with his backhanded tribute to a flock that was clinging to 2000 years worth of roots.

"You see, I was not making fun of the Orthodox," he said. "I was making fun of the whole contemporary church scene. ... There are people in all kinds of traditional churches who are being told, 'If you don't change, you're going to die. If you don't buy into the latest fads, you're history.' Ministers are under incredible pressure to strip away anything that's connected to the past. Well, some people have had enough."