DIY Christianity versus Sacramental Faith

[This episode is adapted from the Walking an Ancient Path blog post “A Family of Faith, Spiritual and Real,” published on October 23, 2019]

I was standing in the lunch line about 12 years ago at a Christian writers’ conference, chatting with a former professional comic. I asked him about his church, and he told me that he and his wife often attend “Bedside Baptist” on Sunday mornings. It took me a moment to get the joke and understand that they weren’t deeply involved in a church. 

I’ve had similar conversations over the years. I remember the couple at my children’s Christian school who had moved to the area two years previously. They had never quite gotten around to finding a new church, but the wife told me they listened to the Christian radio station K-LOVE, as if that were a viable substitute for a worship service.

I also recall the family who had been very involved in their small church and were too demoralized to embark on a church search after their pastor resigned. Then a few years ago I bumped into a couple from our previous Protestant congregation. They had given up on their efforts to find a new church, and the discouraged wife told me, “They’re all the same.” Another friend, appalled by the way politics have overtaken faith in her longtime congregation, also gave up on church. 

I had understood the importance of church attendance my whole life, and I was always saddened by these stories—especially when they involved deep hurts inflicted by professing Christians. But after I became Orthodox, I understood the importance of the Church on a much deeper level.

The Church is an enclosure. If you are within, the wolf does not enter; but if you leave, the beasts will seize you. Do not distance yourself from the Church; there is nothing mightier than the Church. The Church is your hope. The Church is your salvation. The Church is higher than the heavens. The Church is harder than stone. The Church is wider than the world. The Church never grows old but always renews itself. — St. John Chrysostom, quoted in St. Nikolai, The Prologue of Ohrid

[Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash]

My most depressing encounter with the de-churched occurred not long after I had become Orthodox. In the produce section at Whole Foods, I spotted a former worship pastor and his wife and greeted them. They were both excited about some book they had read that equated church with hanging out at Starbucks with Christian friends. The couple said they experienced richer times of fellowship at coffee shops than at a formal service. Knowing their history, I was both sad and unsurprised, and I yammered something quite ineffective about finding the Orthodox Church. But they were members of the vast army of religiously traumatized people, and they were deeply uninterested.

I knew that their do-it-yourself form of Christianity would not bring them healing and wholeness. Privately I wondered how baptism works in coffee-shop Christianity. Maybe a pumpkin-spice immersion? Is that with oat milk or two-percent?

Church Without Sacraments

These people are not unusual. I’m sure you know quite a few former churchgoers in your own circles. For several decades now, scholars, researchers, and other Christian thinkers have bemoaned the precipitous decline in church attendance among Americans and the growth of the “nones,”—that’s n-o-n-e—those who claim no religious affiliation. The problem is real for all Christian groups, including the Orthodox.

But the part of my personal experience that has most intrigued me is that the de-churched people I know remain professing Christians. They have not embraced atheism or even agnosticism; they have simply given up on church.

And, you know what? I get it. I really do. I have experienced that discouraged, nowhere-to-turn sense of burnout in my own religious life. If God in His grace hadn’t led me to the ancient Faith that is alive and well in the Orthodox Church, I really don’t know where I would be. I might be sleeping in at Bedside Baptist too.

The common denominator among my de-churched Christian friends and acquaintances is that their backgrounds are nondenominational. Most of them finally found a new church home and settled into a rhythm of corporate worship. But a large proportion of them, such as my friends who embraced the Church of Starbucks, don’t really see a problem with quitting church.

This disconnect from a local gathering of the Body of Christ is, I believe, directly related to  another common denominator among dechurched Evangelicals.

The churches that my friends and acquaintances have left are all non-sacramental. Most Evangelical churches adhere to statements of faith that are basically Baptist in theology. This means, aside from various differing doctrinal points, that they recognize two sacraments, baptism and communion, and they believe that these sacraments have no inherent spiritual power. They are symbolic only.

This nonsacramental practice of the Christian Faith is key. If sacraments are not salvific—if they do not actually do anything—then why does anyone need church? As a lifelong Protestant I understood that church attendance is important, and I was ready to trot out my Revised Standard Bible memory verse from Hebrews 10: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (vv. 24–25).

Why Gather Together?

What I didn’t understand at the time was that my Protestant worship experience was so individualistic, it was easy to find loopholes for the church-attendance requirement. The contrast with Orthodoxy is huge. We can’t even join the Orthodox Church by ourselves! Community is required for baptism and chrismation. We can’t just do our own thing—every sacrament requires the participation of a priest, and often laypeople too.

[Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash]

Something had shifted in my understanding after I entered the Orthodox Church. Attendance at the Divine Liturgy was more than a good thing, more than an act of obedience. It is necessary, and the reasons go deeper than my baseline biblical understanding. In my Evangelical past, church attendance was important for three basic reasons:

1. Fellowship

The understanding of this word in my circles had absolutely nothing to do with participation in any sacraments; fellowship generally referred to the act of gathering with like-minded believers who offer support and encouragement to one another. This dumbed-down definition of fellowship makes the Church of Starbucks not only possible, but much more enjoyable than sitting on folding chairs in an auditorium.

2. Teaching

We go to church for instruction in the Christian Faith. Remember, the sermon is the centerpiece of Protestant worship. And before the days of radio, attending church was the only way to hear a sermon. But in the 21st century I can get good teaching—as well as lots of heresy and feel-good fluff—from books, podcasts, and YouTube. Sitting in my favorite chair with my laptop, on my own schedule, is a more comfortable experience than getting dressed and driving to church to sit in said auditorium.

3. Prayer & Worship

[Photo by Angela Franklin on Unsplash]

We gather to pray and worship together. But I can pray anywhere, anytime. Also, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” This means that corporate prayer among a few friends gathered around a table at the Church of Starbucks is possible, and it has the benefit of that pumpkin spice deliciousness. And worship? I can listen to Christian radio and curate my own list of favorite praise songs on Spotify.

A formal church gathering is simply not needed for any of the three basic elements of Evangelical worship. And since the bread and grape juice are understood to be symbolic, I can even make up my own communion service at home. I remember one Methodist retreat years ago where the pastor had forgotten to bring the communion elements, so the attendees made do with crackers and orange juice. No, I am not making this up.

Sacraments Are Us—Not “Me & Jesus”

Come to think of it, my own Orthodox parish is not necessary for fellowship, teaching, and prayer and worship either. So, as long as I’m careful to listen to Orthodox teaching on YouTube, listen to podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio, and play the AFR music channel while doing housework, I’m good, right? Can’t I still consider myself a faithful Orthodox Christian while functionally living as a Lone Ranger Christian?


That’s a big no.

Because sacraments.

I cannot baptize myself. I cannot commune myself by placing a glass of Merlot and a hunk of bread on my kitchen counter and asking the Holy Spirit to mystically change them into Christ’s Body and Blood. (Okay, I can ask, but it won’t happen.) I can and do privately confess my sins to God and ask His forgiveness, but I cannot experience the healing grace of the Sacrament of Confession without a priest.

Nobody gets ordained at Starbucks.

And the Sacrament of Marriage can only be performed in an Orthodox church. (I just found out that Starbucks weddings do occur. But we’ll pretend they don’t.)

In short, we need the Church. Orthodox Christianity is lived in community. Participation in the Divine Liturgy is not extra credit. It is essential. Because salvation is a process—a lifelong journey— we need to attend church in person for our salvation. 

That feels like a radical statement, even after many years as an Orthodox Christian. A part of me is still a bit stunned by the idea of the Church being necessary for our salvation. In my heterodox past, salvation was defined as praying the sinner’s prayer and having a personal relationship with Jesus. Although I never believed that a simple recitation of that prayer guarantees salvation, I find that a lifetime of individualistic, me-and-Jesus faith still stubbornly clings to me.

The Church is the sure way to the life eternal; walk in it undeviatingly, hold fast to it, and you will gain the kingdom of heaven; but if you turn aside at the crossways of your own sophistry and unbelief, then you have only yourself to blame, you will go astray and be lost. I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). — St. John of Kronstadt

[Icon of The Mystical Church available from the Ancient Faith Store]

The Church’s role in our salvation is also quite countercultural in a radically individualistic society. My desires, my perceived needs, and my choices are the highest good. We could say, rightly, that this individualism has infected the Church. But in the US, the opposite is also true. America was founded by pilgrims known as Separatists. From the nation’s founding, individual faith and conscience have been enshrined as the religious ideal, bolstered by individual interpretation of Scripture and spread by individuals forming new denominations arising from those individual interpretations. 

I’ve mentioned the Church of Cannabis in Denver. Why not a Church of Starbucks that claims to be Christian? I’m not a sociologist and can’t prove my hypothesis, but I doubt that American secular individualism could have spread like bindweed without American religious individualism as the soil that nourished it.

[Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash]

Once again, the Orthodox Church reveals its weirdness in the surrounding religious landscape. We are united by our physical participation in receiving the Eucharist, and we can’t just make up our own definitions of church. In fact, community is embedded in our identity, beginning with the community of Persons in the Holy Trinity.

Authentic Christianity is not a DIY endeavor. As I said earlier, we can’t even join the Church as isolated individuals. So I’d like to park here for a while and consider the Sacrament of Baptism and Chrismation for those entering the Church.

A Family of Faith

I have had the privilege of attending several chrismations and adult baptisms. (For those who are new to this, chrismation—anointing with oil, or holy chrism—occurs for those who have already been baptized in the name of the Trinity at a different church. When a baptism can be verified, the Orthodox Church doesn’t re-baptize.) In each of these services I have felt such joy and gratitude. Sometimes the catechumens standing on the solea have struggled down a long road to conversion. Some come from families who are uninterested in the Orthodox Faith or even opposed it.

[Photo by Rob Horner]

But with or without the support of relationships of blood and marriage, the reality of being received into the Church is this: the new Orthodox Christians do not stand alone. The Church is not a gathering of individuals; it is a Eucharistic community, and I find this truth to be most evident when catechumens are received into the Orthodox Church.

In a beautiful practice birthed in ancient wisdom, each newcomer must be sponsored by a member of the community. A sponsor stands with each catechumen on the solea and vows to nurture and encourage the godchild in their Orthodox Christian journey.

Of course, the concept of a spiritual family is not limited to Orthodoxy. In the Protestant world I was taught this important understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ, united by Jesus as the Head and composed of a variety of members with different gifts and callings.

The Church of Christ is . . . a single spiritual body, whose head is Christ. . . . She is called holy because she is sanctified by the holy word, deeds, sacrifice and suffering of her founder, Jesus Christ, to which end He came in order to save human beings and lead them to holiness. — St. Nicholas of Serbia

Protestants call each other brothers and sisters, and they mean it. Yet, like so many Bible-based teachings in the Protestant world, this belief in a spiritual family is a matter of intellectual assent to a propositional truth, with no Holy Tradition to make it visible in an earthly way. 

People join a church on their own, or together with their spouses or nuclear families. They are not sponsored by other believers in any agreed-upon way. They may be required to pledge verbally to be faithful to a particular congregation, or they might sign a document. The process varies from church to church, as do the statements of faith.

[Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash]

As Protestant brothers and sisters, members of the larger Body of Christ, the family commitment to one another was readily acknowledged, but it was intangible. New church members were vetted by the pastor, but we entered the spiritual family individually, by personal choice. And if a new member moves to a different city, the new church family often holds different beliefs and practices different family rituals.

Family Traditions

Of course, the Orthodox Church is filled with messy, fallible humans, too. We bicker, we judge, we hold onto resentments. We often don’t admit our sins, much less confess them. We’re yet another big, dysfunctional family.

But the Orthodox Church is a spiritual family by design, with a network of intentional relationships. The tradition of godparenting turns the concept of spiritual family into tangible, flesh-and-blood reality.

These ties are real and meant to last. For those who take these connections seriously, godfamilies are a wonderful blessing. A dear, older friend of mine who tells everyone, “Just call me Yia-yia” (Greek for ”grandma”), had always wanted a big family. Although that particular dream did not come to pass, God has given her multiple godchildren. When I see her on Sundays surrounded by her daughter’s family as well as her goddaughters, I smile. Another new convert is a single woman, but she always has family to sit with in church.

In the communion line, a childless couple brings their infant godson to the chalice. Behind them, Rachel is holding the hand of Sara’s daughter in her princess dress while husband James carries his godson, in his little cowboy boots, on his hip. Their own children are elsewhere in line with their godparents. My sponsor Judy often slips in line behind me so that we can commune together.

As I watch people on Sunday mornings, noting the threads of blood, marriage, and spiritual ties that weave through our parish, forming a web of connection, I am filled with a sense of settledness—a sense of “home.”

Each parish family also has a spiritual father in their priest, embodying the longing in St. Paul’s words: “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15).

[Photo by Rob Horner]

My priest is not a distant pastor known only for his preaching; he truly functions as a spiritual father. He knows me, prays for me and my family, administers the Eucharist—the “medicine of immortality”—to his children in need of healing, listens to my confession, and takes time to meet with me when I need counsel. The essence of his vocation is more than preaching and teaching; it is one of spiritual fatherhood.

Extended Family

My Orthodox spiritual family is also spread out geographically, with a unity of doctrine that brings stability to this family of faith. Whether I am out of town or out of the country, I can visit an Orthodox parish and know that we share the same doctrine and serve the same Divine Liturgy. The melodies and language may differ, with different customs practiced in different homes, but these “family values” are consistent.

My extended Orthodox family also crosses time. Like treasured family portraits passed down through the generations, the icons on our church walls and in our homes remind us of a family line that can be traced back for two millenia.

The saints’ stories are our family stories, tales of struggle and sacrifice that inspire us to carry on the tradition of Faith.

The tradition of the Fathers is the experience of the saints in the spiritual field, the enormous experience of nearly two thousand years, the experience of many hundreds and thousands of holy men and women. What an extremely rich depository of wisdom! What an immense mass of proofs of every truth of Holy Scripture! All that wealth, all that wisdom, all those proofs, all that experience, the Protestants have rejected! Oh, what inexpressible madness! Oh, the poverty of beggars! — St. Nikolai of Ohrid and Zhicha, The Prologue of Ohrid

Of course, people fall short. Some sponsors move away or neglect their spiritual parenting duties; some people join the family then leave. Many of us neglect the sacraments. But we need them, and we participate in them together. Our failings are real, but the vision remains, of one Body of Christ, one family worshipping and serving together, bound together with spiritual ties.

We are knit together by God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit, and also by the Church’s design. We worship in community, and we are healed in community. We receive the sacraments in community. We can enjoy Starbucks—or, for much better coffee, Peet’s—but we know that a coffee shop is not church. Not even close.

We can find edifying Orthodox content on YouTube, but it also is not church. We can’t grow in Christ and attain theosis by ourselves, indulging our own preferences. In a very real and human sense, through the presence of the saints and the Church’s Tradition of godparenting, we are not alone. While receiving the sacraments, we are not alone. We need each other.

We are family.


Five years ago, in 2018, I began writing a bi-weekly blog called Walking an Ancient Path on the Ancient Faith platform. Then in 2020 I began the podcast version by the same name. 

When I started this little ministry side gig, I wrote the following in the “About” section: 

In this blog, I hope to help other weary, burned-out pilgrims explore the daily joys and struggles of Orthodox faith and practice in order to find hope, renewed faith, and community in Christ and His Church. . . . I will write about struggles with prayer and worship, the cultural adjustments on the journey into Orthodoxy, and the reexamination of inherited beliefs. We won’t go super-deep into theology and history; other far more learned people have written on these subjects. . . . Together we will listen to the collective wisdom of the ancient Church fathers and mothers, explore sacraments and everyday ascetic practices, and figure out how to walk through the rhythms of the ecclesiastical year in our modern, short-attention-span world.

There is hope. And that hope cannot be found in the next new thing, but in the wisdom of the past. Let’s journey together.

I feel that I’ve accomplished what I hoped to do back then, which was to write the blog content that I wished had been available when I first came into the Orthodox Faith as an excited, grateful, and confused newbie. Now the time has come for me to end that journey. I will put out two more blog posts and podcast episodes in December, then I will pack away my microphone and WordPress software. Partly because I’m tired, and mostly because I don’t have much more to say.

I have addressed everything I can think of about the experiential side of Orthodox Christianity, such as a six-part “Liturgy Quick-Start Guide,” and trying to respond with grace “When Your Friends & Family Don’t Understand.” I’ve discussed the thoughts that we might hesitate to admit, like “Why Bother with Church When I Can’t Focus?” and “Learning from the Weird Saints.” (To this day, I still don’t get the stylites. But the fools for Christ make me smile—and think.)

I don’t know if I’ll return to blogging and podcasting some day, but right now I don’t have plans to do so. I’m looking forward to a little more margin in my life as well as some more face-to-face ministry. I thank all of you for the opportunity to walk together on this ancient path and for your many words of encouragement.

And speaking of journeys . . . While we’re walking the path of fasting on our way to celebrating the Incarnation, next time we’ll explore one of my favorite icons, the Icon of the Nativity. And for the final post—which right now is mostly scattered thoughts in my head—I’m pretty sure we’ll talk about a practice we can continue and grow in through the rest of our lives of faith: the Jesus Prayer.

I hope you can join me.


  1. It will be sad to see you go. You have been helpful.

    Will your content be archived anywhere, or will it disappear as soon as your wordpress subscription expires?

  2. I only found this blog fairly late, but I really appreciate your writing and the subject matter. I too wondered where to find the kind of content that you describe when I first came to Orthodoxy (I’ve been Orthodox for only 6-7 years and this material is still very helpful). I’m happy that the archive will exist and I’ll recommend it to my fellow parishioners.

    I will very much miss your posts, which I find very helpful. And I completely understand that you’ve accomplished your goals and it’s good to not go on “just to go on”. I’ll still miss your insights and very kind manner. I’ll be reading through the archive (once I have time, probably after the holidays! LoL!) over time. I don’t know if you’ll still monitor the blog for any comments and questions or not?

    May God hold you close and grant you and yours peace! Thanks for everything you’ve done, Lynnette!

    1. Thank you, Byron. I’m so glad this blog has been helpful for you! I do plan to monitor it for questions and comments in the future, even without new posts.

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