By Robin Galiano Russell
Converts to Orthodoxy are drawn by its unchanging nature, aesthetic beauty and spiritual mystery
Orthodox churchgoers line up at the end of service to kiss the cross being held by Father David Hovik in Arlington, Wash. After six months of catechism studies, Hovik and 104 members of the independent Grace Community Church converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and became the St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church. Meg Robinson lights a candle for her uncle and grandparents before service at St. Andrews Church in Arlington, Wash.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, as far removed from a nondenominational or evangelical congregation as you can get, is attracting a growing number of converts who are drawn by the tug of an ancient faith.
Converts are trading in their PowerPoint sermons and praise bands for the ancient rhythms of a liturgy that hasn’t changed in thousands of years – a pendulum swing from the casual, seeker-friendly services that have dominated contemporary evangelicalism.
Their numbers are still small compared to megachurch growth patterns, with 1.2 million Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States. But adherents say there has been a surge in people drawn to the faith.
The Antiochian Orthodox Church, the most evangelistic of the American Orthodox churches, has tracked conversions for several decades. The number of its churches in the United States has doubled in 20 years to more than 250 parishes and missions. About 80 percent of its converts come from evangelical and charismatic backgrounds, 20 percent from mainline denominations.
Those who convert say they are drawn to an aesthetic beauty and spiritual mystery in Orthodox worship that are often lacking in their own Protestant services. It’s like entering a time machine that allows congregants to worship as the early Christians did.
Not that it doesn’t take some getting used to. Orthodox services are based on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which can last two hours or more. Congregants stand much of the time, while priests in vestments offer incense and chant the Psalms.
‘Startlingly different’: Frederica Mathewes-Green, a former Episcopalian and author of Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey Into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy, said the experience of Orthodoxy was ”startlingly different” from anything she had known in Western churches. But it clicked when she saw it was directed toward God rather than her own emotional needs.
”It called us to fall on our faces before God in worship and to be filled with awe at his glory. I could never go back. I now find Western worship tedious and sentimental. To me, the contrast is jolting.”
Mathewes-Green also prefers the Orthodox view of the Christian life as a healing process and a journey, rather than a one-time ”sinner’s prayer.” She and her husband converted from a liberal Episcopal Church in 1993 and helped found an Orthodox church made up mostly of American converts.
”It’s not about getting the sin-debt paid, the ticket punched and now you wait around to die and go to heaven. Orthodoxy is a transforming journey where every day the Christian is being enabled to bear more of God’s light. That’s exciting,” she said.
Stan Shinn, who was raised in the Assemblies of God denomination, recalls feeling nearly overwhelmed when he stepped inside Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in North Dallas for the first time. What looked good on paper – definitive answers to his search for early Christian worship and doctrine – had taken him to a ”very bizarre and strange” church with icon-filled walls, heavy incense and Byzantine chanting.
”I felt like there was a gauntlet thrown down in front of me,” he said.
He and his wife, Janine, and their three children converted in 2002 from their nondenominational church to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Like the Shinns, those who convert are joining 350 million Orthodox Christians around the world.
First-century church: “Orthodox” means ”right belief.” The Orthodox Church traces its origins back to Jesus’ apostles and first-century practice. The Roman Catholic Church makes that same claim, but the two branches of ancient Christianity differ in ecclesiastical hierarchy and a few doctrinal points.
Catholics believe the pope has ultimate authority, while Orthodox Christians say their council of bishops is more in line with Scripture and church tradition. Orthodox Christians also disagree with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which states that Jesus’ mother was born without sin herself. The two branches of ancient Christianity split in 1054.
Today, the Orthodox community is led by patriarchs and a hierarchy of bishops who must be celibate. Unlike Catholic clergy, Orthodox priests can marry before ordination.
Archbishop Dmitri, 81, leads the Archdiocese of Dallas and the South for the Orthodox Church in America. He grew up as Robert Royster in a Southern Baptist family in Teague, Texas, but converted to Orthodoxy as a teen because he wanted more out of faith.
”Everything was true, but it was not complete. It wasn’t that I needed to repudiate it. I just went on to find the rest of it,” he said.
The Orthodox consider themselves to have a bond with other Christians but believe they have a more accurate understanding of the faith. At a recent daylong festival in Dallas about Orthodox Christianity, Dmitri encouraged people in other denominations to cling to the elements of the historic faith that their churches uphold, but added an invitation:
“‘If you find there are holes at the bottom and you have to abandon ship, then head for one that’s still afloat,” he said.
In search of history: Conversion to Orthodoxy often begins with an intellectual quest, Shinn said. He began searching when he saw modern churches abandoning historic Christian tenets, such as the Nicene Creed, and stripping their sanctuaries of any religious symbolism to be more seeker-friendly.
”The elements of Christianity were disappearing before me like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. What kind of Christianity would my grandchildren inherit, and would the Gospel even be recognizable?” he said.
The ancient liturgies, chants, incense and sacraments used in Orthodox services, he discovered, were not taken from medieval Catholicism – as his Protestant upbringing taught him – but from early church worship.
”It all caused me to re-evaluate my core assumptions. Instead of me judging history, I decided I wanted history to judge me and tell me what should I practice,” Shinn said.
The unchanging nature of the Orthodox Church is a strong draw for ”serious Christians” who are tired of Protestant individualism yet disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings, said the Rev. Peter Gillquist, chairman of missions and evangelism for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.
Minority faith: Converts become more familiar with the church through catechism classes and the guidance of spiritual godparents (individuals and couples in the congregation who mentor new converts). If they’ve already been baptized in another church, they also must be chrismated, or anointed, to be received in the Orthodox Church.
Americans who convert to Orthodoxy know they will be part of a minority faith. That doesn’t bother the Rev. Anthony Savas, of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Dallas, who grew up Orthodox among Mormons in Salt Lake City.
”It’s wonderful to practice the ancient Christian faith in an environment that doesn’t know what to do with it. A minority can be a beacon of light, like the apostles, who took it beyond their own country,” he said.