Evangelicals Turning to Orthodox?

The New Republic has a fascinating article about the growing number of Evangelicals who are converting to Orthodox. It starts with the story of Wilbur Ellsworth, a Baptist minister who was forced out of a church after his refusal to change to a more modern form of worship:

Over the past 20 years, a growing number of evangelical churches have joined what is called the "church growth movement," which favors a more contemporary, market-driven style of worship--with rock 'n' roll "praise songs" supplanting traditional hymns and dramatic sketches replacing preachy sermons--in the hope of attracting new members and turning churches into megachurches. First Baptist of Wheaton was not immune to this trend: Ellsworth increasingly found himself fighting with congregants about the way worship was being done. "They wanted to replace our organ with a drum set and do similar things that boiled down not to doctrine, but to personal preference," he explains. "I said, That's not going to happen as long as I'm here.'" It didn't. In 2000, after 13 years as the pastor of First Baptist, Ellsworth was forced out.

For Ellsworth, his departure from First Baptist triggered both a professional and a spiritual crisis. But, before he could deal with the former, he felt he had to address the latter. He devoted himself to reading theology and church history. At first, he seemed headed in the direction of the Calvinist-influenced Reformed Baptist Church or the Anglican Church, which are where evangelicals in search of a more classical Christian style of worship often end up. But, as Ellsworth continued in his own personal search, his readings and discussions began taking him further and further past the Reformation and ever deeper into church history. And, gradually, much to his surprise, he found himself growing increasingly interested in a church he once knew virtually nothing about: the Orthodox Church. "I really thought he'd go to Canterbury," says Alan Jacobs, a Wheaton College English professor and Anglican who is friendly with Ellsworth. "But he took a sudden right turn and wound up in Constantinople."

. . .

Ellsworth's story is hardly unique. Most of the approximately 150 members of the Orthodox parish he now leads are former evangelicals themselves. Even Ellsworth's transition from evangelical minister to Orthodox priest is not uncommon. Of the more than 250 parishes of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, some 60 percent are led by convert priests, most of whom are from evangelical backgrounds. And, according to Bradley Nassif, a professor at North Park University and the leading academic expert on Evangelical- Orthodox dialogue, the Antiochian Archdiocese has seen over 150 percent church growth in the last 20 years, approximately 75 percent of which is attributable to converts.

While it's unlikely that the Orthodox Church--which, according to the best estimate, has only 1.2 million American members--will ever pose any sort of existential threat to evangelical Christianity in the United States, it is significant nonetheless that a growing number of Southern Baptists and Presbyterians and Assemblies of God members have left the evangelical fold, turning to a religion that is not only not American, but not even Western. Their flight signals a growing dissatisfaction among some evangelicals with the state of their churches and their complicated relationship with the modern world.

. . .

"The whole history of Orthodoxy in North America from 1918 until relatively recently is a terrible story," says A. Gregg Roeber, a Penn State professor of early modern history and religious studies.

But that story took a dramatic turn 20 years ago, when a group of about 2,000 evangelicals converted en masse into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. The conversion had been nearly two decades in the making. In 1968, a Campus Crusade for Christ executive named Peter Gillquist became disenchanted with the group's parachurch identity, but he could not find an existing evangelical church that met his spiritual needs. Gillquist joined with about half a dozen other similarly disenchanted Campus Crusade for Christ staffers and embarked on what they called, somewhat cheekily, "the phantom search for the perfect church." As Gillquist recounts in his memoir, Becoming Orthodox, "Our basic question was, whatever happened to that Church we read about in the pages of the New Testament? Was it still around? If so, where? We wanted to be a part of it." Much like Wilbur Ellsworth would do years later, Gillquist and his fellow sojourners worked their way back through church history and doctrine before they finally came to 1054 and the East-West Schism and, thus, a fork in the road. One path took them to Rome and the West; the other to Constantinople and the East. Gillquist and the others thought the East was right to resist papal excesses; they also thought the East was right to insist on equality among the Holy Trinity, rather than relegating the Holy Spirit to a lesser place than God the Father and God the Son. They concluded, almost reluctantly, that they were Orthodox.

Read it all here.

It is very interesting that the Orthodox faith is attracting not only many Anglicans and Catholics, but Evangelicals as well. It is also interesting that the Orthodox Church in the United States is now thriving, and adopting a uniquely American flavor, while remaining true to the Orthodox faith.


bls said…
I'm actually not that surprised. Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy have a similar strict approach to religion that actually turns me off to both in the same way. They both seem disdainful of outsiders and of people who have ideas that diverge from accepted orthodoxy. They are both virulently and implacably anti-gay. Both seem hostile to women in many ways - or, probably better put, are strict in assigning roles to both men and women. Deviation of any sort, IOW, is not appreciated. And both are into the "early Church," which Orthodoxy claims never to have departed from anyway. Both seem uncomfortable in the world, in different ways, too.

I am really attracted to Orthodox worship and liturgy and ecclesiology - but could never join myself, because of these very things which both seem to have in common. And while I agree that the Catholic Church is in error in several ways, I'm far more attracted to its intellectual achievements and its (at present not much in evidence) generous pastorality.
Swordsandlace said…
I've just become an Orthodox Catechumen. I really love my parish. I left the Baptist Church years ago because of the "mass market" evangelism so many are known for. I could never go back. I attend an English speaking parish, and they are very welcoming of outsiders, so you have to go to the right one. One thing I love about the Orthodox is that they are not afraid to drink wine and don't treat it like "grape juice" for the kids sake when it comes to communion.
The liturgy is unchanged from early Christian roots, however, and I guess this is what initially drew my curiosity. As far as women go, no, they can't serve as clergy, but I signed up to read all the books in the library and write a commentary on each one and also help out with the newsletter. They were very accepting of this. There's a lot to learn about the saints, liturgies, faith practices, icons etc. I feel this is the right place for me to be.
Anonymous said…
the evangelical scene is shallow, even amongst the more intellectual scenes, it has no richness of history;
this is why so many of us are being called home, though i stakes many years for most of us
check out the podcasts from ancient faith presents and the interviews with Wilbur Ellsworth

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