I frequent your website the “Jesus Creed” and greatly appreciate what you have to add regarding various issues of the Christian faith. I am currently reading your book Praying with the Church and find it delightful that you appreciate many different forms of Christian tradition. I suppose my question I have for you, if you don’t mind, is out of personal inquiry.
I have wrestled over the many traditions and have been visiting an eastern orthodox church for about six months. I was raised evangelical prot and attended an evangelical Christian school where I majored in missions. I have become disillusioned with the evangelical church over the years through experiencing some traumatic events in regards to a “pastor” I worked with closely.
Anyhow, my question for you is how do you continue to stay an evang prot and appreciate the various traditions? I have had some very bad experiences with some people I’ve known that tell me that the orthodox aren’t Christians and are “preaching another gospel.” I appreciate many aspects of both traditions but am having a hard time understanding how to decide which one I fit in. I would love to hear what you have to say on this subject. I know you don’t know me but I would be so thankful for anything you have to say. I hope that I am making sense.
Thanks for writing to me, and I’m happy Praying with the Church has been of use to you. Let me divide my response into two parts: How I as an evangelical can appreciate the various traditions and then what I think of the Orthodox church.
First, I am an evangelical because the evangelical movement nurtured my faith and gave me feet to walk. I love its focus on personal faith and conversion, I love its basic theology, I love the breadth of its diversity, and I love its manifold history — though not all are as happy about its glaring diversity as I am.
But, though I am happy about evangelicalism — on most days, we have lots to learn about the Church: the Bride of Christ has been here about 1973 years (assuming Pentecost was in 33AD), and frankly plenty of evangelicals simply lop off the first 1500 years of the Church and throw it into a dustbin. This, I think, is a big mistake. If God is God, and if God is behind the Church, then God is behind the whole Church.
Which means I try to do three things: first, I try to read from the whole Church — 1st to 21st Centuries, East to West, low church to liturgical; second, I do my best to teach and preach about the whole Church; third, I try to engage in conversations with Christians from each of the major traditions. I suggest this latter will help you, too.
Now, about Orthodoxy: The first thing I would say is don’t go and convert to the Orthodox because of your disappointment with a pastor. Above all, I suggest you stay in close contact with someone you spiritually respect from your evangelical past who knows you and loves you (but who will tell you the truth and to whom you can tell the truth) and discuss everything with them. There is a tendency for young folk who are wounded to jump ship and join the first boat that comes along. Where we choose to worship should be a decision based on the wisest of considerations we can muster.
Each of the Great Traditions of the Church has something to offer. From the East I love Athanasius and the Cappadocians and from today I like Schmemann and Frederica. Many of us have been tugged by the rich heritage of the Orthodox, but heritage is only one part of any consideration of this enormity.
I should lay my cards on the table now:
I have one big beef with all of the major, high church liturgical traditions. That is, they tend to make “church” about going to church on Sunday morning in order to let the “magic” (as one of my Roman Catholic friends calls it) happen. That is, because they are sacramental (and I’m not), they tend to see the major thing the church does is provide mass, communion, whatever you want to call it. This is a mistake — and my sacramental friends will disagree with me. I see the functional model at work in such churches to be “attractional.” People come to church, not solely, but primarily for the communion service.
I believe “church” is about gathering in fellowship and worship and instruction but the focus of church is about being empowered to a missional life in the community — in evangelism and service. This has been the emphasis of the evangelical movement for a long, long time and that is where my heart is.
The test for a church, in my judgment, is its zeal for what the followers of Jesus are supposed to be doing: evangelizing, worshiping, praying, learning theology, serving, being compassionate, etc.. In other words, are its ministries holistic? Do they believe in the whole gospel? Do they practice the whole gospel? (We could get into a long debate here about theology, but no doubt you are already aware of the theological issues at work since you’ve been attending the church for six months.)
The rap, as you have already heard, on Orthodox churches is that they tend to be ethnic enclaves who have been sacramentalized but not evangelized, and who have great pride in their history and insufficient attention to speaking to the current generation and the next one. Think about these issues, too. It always depends on the local church and the local people.
I hope this note helps you think through what God would have you do. Just don’t do anything rash.