A convert to Orthodoxy was approached by a precious Orthodox lady at coffee hour. She commented that his last name on his name tag wasn’t common in the ethnicity of that parish. My friend told her that he wasn’t of that ethnic background. This dear lady got a puzzled look on her face and innocently asked, “Then what are you doing here? Don’t you have your own church to go to?”
Now before you are too harsh with this lady, please understand she was genuinely confused, not malicious. It never dawned on her that someone who did not have an ethnic connection to Orthodoxy would ever want to enter the Orthodox Church. But the truth is that thousands of converts stream into the Church every year, and not just from mixed marriages. American Christians are coming to Orthodoxy for its depth of faith, stability of theology, and beauty of worship. In fact, some of our Orthodox seminaries are filled with converts who have no ethnic connection to the countries that are traditionally Orthodox, and these men are becoming priests in our churches.
Some may see this as a bad thing, but they would be wrong. The truth is that Orthodoxy is doing what it has always done. It is baptizing the country where it finds itself, and in that respect twenty-first century America is no different from fourth-century Greece or tenth-century Russia.
How do we face honestly the inevitable “culture shock” that comes from this infusion of “new faces”? We could fight against it and attempt to keep our churches little more than “foreign embassies” of other countries, but that is a recipe for irrelevance in just a few generations. We could attempt to “fit in” so much in this country that we look just like every other religious group in the nation, but that would mean we would lose the very “distinctives” that make Orthodoxy the original Church founded by the Apostles.
No, there is another way. There is the Orthodox Way (as opposed to the Greek way, or the Russian way, or the Serbian way etc.), and that is the way of transformation. This way is slower, wiser, and lasting. This way preserves the riches, with which we have been entrusted, the wisdom we have learned through the centuries, the cultural traditions that underpin deep theological truths, and the irreplaceable theology that sets Orthodoxy apart from the spiritual confusion all too often evident in today’s world.
Here are three aspects of this Orthodox Way that will help us both welcome others with traditional Orthodox hospitality and preserve that which is truly foundational to our faith.
First, this Orthodox Way Reveals. Orthodoxy is the fullness of the Christian faith, period. It is the spiritual hospital where the full potency of the Christian Gospel is preserved. An authentic Orthodox faith reveals both the divinely inspired parts of a culture and its weaknesses. Orthodoxy serves a nation best when it honestly critiques the culture of a nation. That is the blessing the faith brings to this nation. But it just doesn’t criticize, it also baptizes. There are parts of our culture that can be transformed by the faith into a vehicle of Orthodox faith. The culture offers us an unprecedented amount of freedom to practice our faith, and unparalleled economic and educational opportunities that allow us to both educate our young people and be philanthropic like no other people in the world.
Second, this Orthodox Way Restores. Orthodoxy changes people and nations. It always has. In fact, one of the marks of authentic Orthodox faith is the changed behavior of people and governments. Orthodoxy calls men and women to a serious and sober Christian faith that restores them to what they were created to be – the sons and daughters of God. Orthodoxy uniquely gives men and women a tried and true path to spiritual maturity. This faith challenges us to mimic the life of Jesus Christ in actions and attitudes. This faith produces saints! No wonder spiritually weary Americans are seeking out and finding the mature and stable theology of Orthodoxy. Our challenge as a Church is to help them find “home,” be ready to receive them, and to integrate them into our growing family.
Finally, this Orthodox Way Relates. Orthodoxy is about relationships - Our family, our nation, and our faith in God. Orthodoxy does not build walls but bridges. When this doesn't happen, it isn't a failure of Orthodoxy, it's a failure of the Orthodox. We are to seek out the lost, just like our Lord sought us out so we could enjoy right relationship with Himself and His Father. Orthodoxy always actively seeks out ways to bring this salvific message to friends and neighbors wherever the Church finds Herself. And Orthodoxy is no different in America than it is in any other nation. An authentic Orthodoxy works to make the faith available to “whosoever wills” to enter the faith. That’s why Jesus described the Church as a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. Orthodoxy is meant to be found by anyone who longs for the fullness of the Christian faith, even people who might not have had the happy accident of being born in a traditional Orthodox country.
Our Orthodox faith is drawing the spiritually seeking people of this nation. This is a trend that will only increase. It isn’t going away and it isn’t something we will be able to stop. Thank God! God loves all people and He is drawing men and women to Himself from every ethnic background, even average Americans who really don’t know what their ethnic backgrounds are anyway. Orthodoxy is becoming part of the fabric of America, and we rejoice in this exciting time to be alive and serving His Church.
Still, this growth and influx of converts is going to cause some real trauma for those who are not ready for it. That's why I hope you'll order the new book by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt called "One Flew Over the Onion Dome" published by Regina Orthodox Press. In this book, Fr. Huneycutt talks about converts, reverts (Orthodox who've left the faith and come back), and retreads (Protestant clergy who have converted and then entered the Orthodox clergy). He does a good job in spurring on the necessary conversation between us "newbies" and the folks who've been here all their lives.
Order the book. I don't get any commissions but I am grateful to Fr. Joseph for giving a voice to this increasingly important subject.
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