It seems to be a common refrain among the Evangelical leaders that they are tired of the Orthodox picking off their youth. I have heard several express their frustration with the Orthodox converting people from the Universities and Evangelical Churches instead of the street corner and the Wal-Mart. When one starts looking at the stats and hearing the anecdotes it is understandable that pastors and professors would complain about the Orthodox undertow that seems to be undercutting their institutions, programs, and movements. As an Orthodox Christian, and as an recent convert from an Evangelical school I sympathize with the feeling, but I have to argue that the charge that these such complaints raise against their Orthodox “opponents” will fail to gain traction and only stultify an appropriate and truly Evangelical response to the Evangelical college exodus.
I have said that the response from Evangelical leaders is understandable, but is also fallacious. While it may be true that some Orthodox lay people are satisfied (or even may find perverse enjoyment) bringing Evangelical kids to Orthodoxy, it is certainly not the case for the majority of lay people. Moreover you will find no Orthodox leaders who target these demographics, plotting to eat from the crop of another. Rather you will hear people like the Antiochian Director of Missions and Evangelism, Fr. Peter Gillquist, come real close to complaining about the number of Evangelicals and Anglicans beating on his door: he can’t seem to find time to do anything else! As I’ve entered the Church I’ve heard more and more priests and Bishops using the Evangelical Exodus as a means of chastisement and exhortation to convert those who don’t believe in Christ. Most notably Fr. Pat Reardon exhorted the entirety of the Archdiocese to build a unified American Orthodox Church that has a global mindset, lauding parishes that send missionaries to other continents. The candid responses from his fellow priests were encouraging to me, though his exhortation was received with some indignation. The priests mentioned their already existent work in their cities; reaching out the poor and the homeless, and expressed the frustration of an already domestically missional parish: “how can we run to foreign countries to help the poor when we have so many in our backyard”?
Of course the priests are emoting past Fr. Reardon’s point, that we should be globally minded in our American Orthodox identity because its a) Christian, and b) the way to avoid an ingrown and state nationalist church. The overwhelmed response from the Antiochian priests show that they have their plates full with missions work in the community – and they are not quietly sniping off young, enthusiastic college kids by dangling the attractive ornaments of tradition in front of them. Instead they are fighting for the Kingdom of God, obeying the Bible and fathers like John Chrysostom who continually exhort them to constantly care for the poor.
If I were to whine about the good work done by Protestants in the community or if I were to disparage a small Non-Denominational church that quietly helped those around them, I should obviously look like an Unchristian fool. To complain about people and communities who perform any such works I must have a separate and legitimate issue, and even then I must cautious not to harm the will of the Father done on earth as it is in heaven. I must respect the old ladies at the soup kitchen, the men building houses in Mexico, and the teens who help the raise money for Katrina relief – they, like Christ, are sacrificing for the life of the world. If there is dogmatic heresy it will be talked about apart from the Christian work that is done, pure dogma is not the basis of our salvation.
Are the Orthodox parishes in America the epitome of these Christian deeds? Sadly, no. However, listen but a little and you will hear Orthodox clergy and lay people encouraging their parishes and jurisdictions to act in a commendable way like the Evangelicals have done. Of this matter there is no Orthodox disparagement of Evangelicals, but a godly envy. You won’t find Orthodox copying the institutional structures or methods of serving, but you will find a healthy respect of the service and good work done to the glory of God. I saw this respect, and I saw a good deal of what it unique and right in the Orthodox Church.
I am no longer an Evangelical, but I do care a great deal for my Evangelical brethren and their ministries, and it is precisely for this reason that I find their misunderstanding about Orthodox growth so frustrating. The reactions I have seen from them (and I am now seeing the same disappointing reactions from Catholics) are harmful to everyone, but I believe those primarily suffering from these poor responses are the reactionaries. I do not know what the best Evangelical response should be, but there are some obstacles I would like to point out that hopefully will help enable people avoid some of the more common fallacious reactions.
First one should understand the Orthodox life in the parishes that your former parishioners are now attending, and then listen to the hierarchs and clergy that give direction to the flocks. Are the parishes a hotbed of traditional and intellectual pride? Should you demean the work done by the parish? If you cannot, then speak kindly of them as they are speaking kindly about the godly work you do. Are the Bishops and hierarchs plotting against you? There is sin in the parishes of the Orthodox Church, but I think that one might see what the converts are seeing with a little patience and investigation. In my short time in the Orthodox Church I have come to realize that seeing the Church – what it stands for, what its life is – is like getting to know a large family. Institutional newsletters and websites will not fully convey it.
It is also a common reaction to psychoanalyze converts and inquirers into Orthodoxy. This reaction can very easily be hurtful, even if the analysis is true. The inquirer or convert has burning issues on his or her mind; the kind of questions that will not easily be diverted or numbed. To deal with a convert well is to deal with the questions sincerely; as they are willing to make a courageous and radical change based on these questions. Treating these questions as the fruit of an immature or heated brain will only frustrate the conversation.
Quite commonly the issue between the Evangelical leader and the convert is the value and role of Tradition. There is a commonly held belief that Tradition is a great “perk” of being Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican; as if it were a means of bidding for our allegiance. This issue will have to be taken up later – but let me just say for the moment that Tradition is not all bells and whistles, and rest assured that any inquirer will discover this soon. If Tradition seems scary to anyone, it is to the one who is about to take that yoke upon himself.
Are the Orthodox just being divisive Christians? Is all the talk about being the “one true Church” just a form of Institutional pride? As I intended I have not answered this question in any comprehensive manner, but hopefully I have shown that the conclusion is far from simple, and that to pretend like it is an obvious question with an obvious answer is a simple and foolish response.
Orthodoxy has lived under the radar of most Americans. This has carried with it the disadvantages of shock and misunderstanding, but has allowed Orthodox men and women into positions otherwise unattainable but for ignorance. American Orthodoxy has gained momentum without much outcry or persecution because of its low profile. Those days are coming to an end; Orthodoxy will have to withstand at least a part of the American spotlight. This is an inevitability that the Orthodox have to come to terms with, however against the Orthodox nature it may seem: for there is no institution on earth less concerned with marketing and camera readiness – just look at the Orthodox websites. The Evangelical leaders who are frustrated with the quiet exodus East must also reconcile themselves with this fact, for as the American exposure to Orthodoxy increases, a more fitting response will be required.