The clash between immigrants and the evangelical-influenced second generation in the Indian Orthodox Mar Thoma Church in the US is significant enough to change the nature of this liturgical and mystical church, according to Syracuse University sociologist Prema Kurian.
In a paper she presented at the ASR conference in San Francisco in mid-August, Kurian found wide dissatisfaction among Mar Thoma young people, similar to the alienation experienced by other second-generation members from their ethnic churches. The Mar Thoma Church, based in India, is an ancient Oriental Orthodox body that is strongly liturgical, with about 60 parishes serving 8,000 families in the US. In Kurian’s interviews with Mar Thoma youth and young adults, she found a persistent identification with non-denominational evangelical Christianity and criticism of the formality and lack of spiritual fervor in the church in which they grew up.
Drawn to the evangelical churches, many of the second generation left the church in the 1990s. But in the early 2000s, a group of “activist, evangelically-influenced Mar Thoma youth returned, with the goal of trying to minister to the second generation and to challenge and transform the church. Consequently, second generation members are often picking up evangelical ideas from within the Mar Thoma church through Sunday school classes taught by older youth, youth meetings, and regional and national Mar Thoma youth conferences,” according to Kurian.
The evangelical incursion is also challenging the church’s traditional reluctance to take up hard-line positions on many contemporary debates (including the ordination of women).