Monday, August 27, 2007

Evangelicals swimming the... Bosporous??

New Republic has an extremely good essay on the remarkable movement of Evangelical Protestants (including some big names) into the Orthodox Church. When one reads of Evangelicals coming to grips with Church history and by extension the realization that Protestantism bears little resemblance to the Church of the first and second centuries, the story usually ends with them in the Roman Catholic Church. However in growing numbers, they are discovering Orthodoxy. While I could quibble with a few points in it*, the article sheds some light on this oft ignored trend in the migration of Evangelical Christians to Apostolic Christianity.

When Wilbur Ellsworth ministered at First Baptist, a typical Sunday service--held inside the church's immense but unadorned white-walled, burgundy-carpeted sanctuary--went something like this: Wearing a suit and tie, Ellsworth would stand at a pulpit and preach. Aside from occasionally rising in prayer and joining the church choir and orchestra in some traditional Protestant hymns, the congregants would largely refrain from any activity during the one-hour-and-15-minute service--except for once a month, when they would receive communion.

The service Ellsworth now leads at Holy Transfiguration, by contrast, has an entirely different feel. Wearing his priestly vestments and standing inside the church's small sanctuary--which boasts yellow walls covered with hundreds of tiny iconic pictures of saints and Oriental rugs on the floor--Ellsworth conducts much of the service from behind the iconostasis (or icon wall) where he is out of view of the congregation. The congregants stand for most of the two-hour service, constantly prostrating and crossing themselves, and the only music is rhythmic Byzantine chanting. At the end of the service, they file up to the front of the sanctuary--as they do every Sunday--and take communion. It's easy to see how, for someone reared in an evangelical church, the Orthodox Church might seem like something not just from another culture, but another world.

And yet it is precisely that otherworldliness that is part of what is attracting a growing number of evangelicals to the Orthodox Church. Since the late nineteenth century, when fundamentalism emerged as a response to the increasing cosmopolitanism of mainline Protestant denominations, evangelicalism has been an anti-modern movement. But, at the same time, with its belief in the importance of saving lost souls, evangelicalism hasn't been able to completely divorce itself from modern culture--and, in the latter half of the twentieth century, it began to increasingly try to employ or co-opt aspects of the modern world in its efforts to lure "seekers" and others to the faith. As Ellsworth explains, one of the principal attractions of the Orthodox Church for him is its solidity--and lack of interest in integrating modern life. "There is, in the Orthodox Church, an enormous conservatism," he marvels. "There is not going to be a radical change in the worship life of the church next week."

... But it wasn't just the foreignness of the Orthodox Church; it was its bigness that appealed to DeRenzo, as well. Indeed, as she continued to talk, it became clear that, as an evangelical, she had felt very small and alone. It was a surprising sentiment to hear from someone about the evangelical movement. After all, ever since the rise of the Moral Majority, American evangelicals have arguably been the most politically powerful religious group in the country. But perhaps the most telling revelation of the Orthodox conversion trend is that this political power has not translated into a sense of spiritual power--or belonging. For these converts, it seems, the Orthodox Church has solved the unbearable lightness of being evangelical. "When I was in [an evangelical church], I was thinking, This is great, I love this,'" DeRenzo said. "But I thought, and I don't mean to be morbid, but eventually some day this pastor is going to die or I'm going to move away, so if this is the only place in the world where the truth is, that's tragic." DeRenzo paused and looked around the sanctuary at the icons and the candles. She went on, "Coming to the Orthodox Church means that I am in communion with that church no matter where I am in the world, that I can go into that church wherever I am and have the same liturgy and celebrate the same way. I'll be in communion with other people. And that is so huge. That hugeness is so exciting."
Read the rest here.

*The only significant point I took issue with was that the number of Orthodox in America quoted in the article is almost certainly far below the real figure. Most authoritative sources indicate there are a little over 6 million self identified Orthodox Christians in the United States and Canada (mostly in the USA). In fairness, it is unlikely that more than half are regular church goers. But even if you cut that number (6+ million) by 2/3 you are still going to wind up with a number roughly twice what was quoted in the article. It is perfectly fair to note that we are not the biggest church in the United States. But we do have respectable numbers (confused somewhat by the unfortunate jurisdictionalism prevalent here).


Young fogey emeritus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

To be fair, baptism is how all church groups count their numbers. A "practicing members" number would require an ever-fluctuating number and way too much work to keep track. And what would that entail? Would it leave out those who are, through various circumstances, faithful and observant but not often able to attend liturgy? If the Church is an anchor, while the ship of members' lives may be blown willy-nilly, at least they have that source of stability to which they'll return, and which somehow keeps them from being blown against the rocks of destruction, one prays. We can work on getting them more active by being more active ourselves.

On the other hand, there is a whole lot of attraction to Orthodoxy being expressed. Everyone is starting to use icons, and our liturgies and prayers are often referred to as "ancient" (as in "untainted" by hassling development or somesuch). The age of our Tradition is recognized, while the fullness of Orthodoxy may not be accepted. There's something to be said for that. Even if only in a superficial, physical approach they find Orthodoxy attractive (their seeing art, architecture, literature where we see iconography, ecclesiology, and prayer), that's still a kind of silent evangelism for the Truth that we should appreciate and foster. I see the same among Roman Catholics disgusted by clown masses, who while they aren't interested in converting, at least they recognize the magnificence and core Christianity of the Orthodox patrimony preserved in Tradition (whatever we may think of papal claims). I think I'm perhaps just a little more optimistic than our Young Fogey!

Young fogey emeritus said...

In a way it's old news but still worth reporting.

What I call the convert boomlet, mostly from evangelicalism with a few Episcopalians (both born and 'just passing through' types), has been going on at least 20 years, from Peter Gillquist and his friends forming the Evangelical Orthodox Church (starting out fundycharismagelical with high-church ideas and gradually self-byzantinising) and eventually joining the actual Orthodox through Antioch to stories like this.

(I say they're often the kind of people who would have become and remained Anglicans 60 years ago. Now that Orthodoxy is more accessible, thanks to services in English, more churches and the information/communications revolution online, and now that Anglo-Catholicism is barely alive, on life support, the boomlet makes sense.)

But I wonder... is this unexpected windfall (as a tiny minority of immigrants the Orthodox never proselytised) exaggerated? Is the commonest kind of convert still somebody like Tom Hanks who marries a Greek or Russian? I'm guessing there are still five Tom Hankses for every Peter Gillquist or Franky Schaeffer.

Does the boomlet offset the massive losses as second-, third-, etc.-generation ethnics in the new country leave to assimilate? They move away, marry out and drop out, and even those who nominally stay often have views just like their secular peers - church is about Granny/Yaya/Baba and cute ethnic customs, a place to get married and have your child's baby-naming party, er, baptism. Byzantine Catholics have the same problem only their people are under social pressure to turn RC, which a lot of them do.

(Fanatical converts are another problem but regarding the ethnic situation I think you know what I mean. Both groups have their up and down sides.)

Blogger Owen White has claimed the evangelicals are no longer stunned by the boomlet and have taken counter-measures. I don't know what they are. But Owen says stories like this are dated - ’doxing is no longer as hip in evangelical circles as it was five or ten years ago. The boomlet could be tapering off.

Orthodox churches are infamous for 'lying up' their numbers, not only counting baptised members instead of practising members but doing things like counting members of the ethnic group ('Well, they SHOULD be Orthodox!').

What will happen to the second generation, the kids (born Orthodox but not 'ethnic') born to the boomlet? Being good social conservatives who realise what sex is about, the boomlet people do have kids!

Finally, where are the ethnic boys who, having been born and raised Orthodox, should be filling your seminaries? (Gone off and joined secular culture.) Why is just about every priest in some jurisdictions a convert? So many convert priests is great of course but the astonishing lack of home-grown vocations should be a matter of concern.

Young fogey emeritus said...

Kevin answered an earlier version of my comment.

C. Wingate said...

I'm inclined to believe the HartSem numbers, but the 6 million number doesn't do much good if the boomlet is mostly confined to one of the smaller denoms. I tend to think that the Greeks have been largely left out of this.

I'm also curious about the lay vs. clerical aspects of this. Are the convert clerics bringing a lot of laity with them, or are they in large part replacing formerly ethnic priests?

C. Wingate said...

BTW, in response to Kevin's first remark: Different churches DO have different ways of counting, and many of those ways are effectively of "active" membership. Most mainline prots keep rolls and transfer members explicitly; there is also some cleaning of those rolls of inactive members. Episcopal parishes also count attendance at services, which is used to produce an "average Sunday attendance" figure.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

C. Wingate, thanks for the information. However, the largest of churches in the US, the Roman Catholic, still counts baptized members, and doesn't "uncount" those who have otherwise left than from shuffling off the ole mortal coil. That was primarily on my mind.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Some churches are indeed a little hard when it comes to getting their roles pruned. Witness the hoops one Protestant has had to jump through to get the RCC to recognize his departure.

Anonymous said...

Well, it seems to me that for a Church that "counts baptized members, and doesn't "uncount" those who have otherwise left" isn't being totally truthful, but is claiming those who are not part of it at all. A dear friend of mine was raised RC but is now Anglican after years away from any kind of church; she suspects that the RC still claim her in their numbers.

Unknown said...

Lies, damned lies, statistics and ecclesial statistics considered… Anyone interested in doing a REAL head count of weekly attendance and contributing members?

First of all, I would say read or re-read Owen's remarks... the überfromm snuggling up to the gates of hell, part I

Just having finished the New Republic article, a lot of thoughts come to mind...

But the first and foremost is this - This is the same article I have been reading for 20 years. With a different convert clergyman, and a different convert layman... (Remember in the 1990s when 10% of Wheaton college was estimated to be inquiring, converting or converts to Orthodoxy?) But by and large, as coverage in the secular press goes about this issue, well it reads the same way as say

Ancient ways entice Detroit Christians

This most recent article about Fr. Wilbur and company appears at least a little more staid in its presentation of Orthodox numbers and growth. Ten years ago some articles left us wondering if there would be any Baptist/Pentecostal/Evangelical churches left in America. They were all becoming Orthodox!

I do not wish scandalize too much when I say, I think that the early and exhuberrant projections for growth and retention were more optimistic than realistic. Kinda like the one point in my childhood when I thought the Chicago Bulls would win the championship every year for decades...

But if we could look to the OCA numbers...

I TOTALLY dismiss the any number in the 7-figure range at this point. There are NOT 6 Million Orthodox in the US. There are NOT 2 million Orthodox in the Greek Church. There are NOT 1 million in the OCA.

What is the ratio of clergy to parishes, or membership to parishes or clergy to membership? Do more clergy and parishes mean the OCA has grown? Good hard numbers that I trust have been hard to come by. But some of what I am seeing is leading me to indicate that they have been losing ground by not retaining the children of Orthodox families.

With some total 1026 clergy listed in the last year book (2006), 197 of them deacons, 829 priests...

Using the Hartford Institute's estimated membership of 39,000

You get -
ratio of clergy to laity: 38.01
ratio of priests to laity: 47.04
39,000 / 456 parishes = 85.52 members per parish

Using Fr. Jonathan Ivanoff's estimated membership of 27,196

You get -
ratio of clergy to laity: 26.50
ratio of priests to laity: 32.85
27,196 / 456 parishes = 59.64 members per parish

(YES, some of those priests are retired. Accounting for that could make some numbers look better, some numbers look worse.)

Where the OCA has grown, has been in their ethnic diocese – through immigration.

Now the OCA is different from the Antiochians to be sure... But If and when I can find statistics on Antiochian clergy, I suspect that there numbers will not be all that different.

The point? Not to attack the OCA... but to be realistic about the convert boomlet.

The point is that we are at worst we are dying. At best we are trading in our ethnic enclaves for essentially social enclaves of small personal chapels of people who take time to explain to co-workers the chotki on their wrist, why they cross themselves funny and on some days of the year are forced to ask for breadsticks without butter and shrimp linguini with red sauce when they go to the Olive Garden for lunch with co-workers. Served by a whole lot of clergy doing the same.

Read the Hopkpo Letter.

Father laments:

• the virtual reduction of church life among many clergy to liturgical services and ritual practices, with uncritical imitations of old world practices and subjective alterations of our received rites and texts

• the virtual reduction of supra-parochial church life to liturgical services, ecclesiastical celebrations and social events

• our church's failure to attract American born Orthodox young people to our seminaries and monasteries (for if we did not have the converts, those born abroad, and the clergy children that we do in our seminaries and monasteries, we would have almost no seminarians and monastics at all!)

• our church's failure to support and foster a vibrant monastic and missionary movement

• the misrepresentation in and outside the church of its statistical figures (such as that our church has 400,00 members when less than 30,000 identify themselves as members)

• dioceses that have fewer members than their cathedral churches alone had 50 years ago

• the point where a church of 200 people is considered to be large

• the loss of the influence and respect that our church and many of its leaders once hand among Orthodox and non-Orthodox in North American and abroad.

When you are a convert reading about other converts in a parish with many converts it is easy to think we are all, well, converting.

I second YF's thinking on this matter. Today's Orthodox convert was yesterday's Anglican. Orthodoxy has succeeded in supplanting the former as the non-Roman option.


1) It is more accessible to the English speaker then ever before.
2) Episcopalianism has become less and less atractive to Evangelicals.

Now that the erstwhile Evangelical on the pilgramage trail no longer looks at Orthodoxy and says "Its all Greek to me" or looks at Episcopalianism and says "Now that is some Catholicism I can live with!"

In the last 20 years Icons and chotki have trendily vied with books on "Celtic Spirituality" (20 years on and I still have no clear idea what the hell the latter concretely is - except for any one author's take on what was done in Ireland 1300 years before he or she was born). At one point I had cynically contemplated setting up an online business to sell packets that included chotki, faux ancient Greek icons and Celtic St. Brigid crosses. I would do a killer business among RC soccer moms and Evangelicals.

If the boomlet gives rise to a serious American Orthodoxy, Lord have mercy and be praised. At this stage there seems to be a vascilation between nationalistic/ethno-centric sentiment meeting converts who traded in their copy of "My Utmost for His Highest" for "The Way of a Pilgram" and who now proof-text with Scipture AND the Fathers. "Our people" versus people who are our "Would-be great-great-grandparents." (Have you met the young convert couple who has tried to homestead and forgo electricity while living off the heat of a franklin stove and using oil lamps yet? I have.)

The cradle-dox ethnic club types have kept the doors shut for a good many years. (If Orthodoxy is true, why do I have to be Greek/Russian/Ukrainian/Rusyn?) And the neo-dox have left some lamenting Western "Eastern Orthodoxy" as Boutique Religion.

We have had the boomlet already. The boom will begin when a sound, self-confident, self-evident, practicical vision and experience of Orthodox life in Peoria, 2007 (No matter who your grandparents were) is realized.

Young fogey emeritus said...

Here's an answer regarding what's happening to the children of the boomlet.