Michael Powers, 28, has been a Christian for more than 10 years, but he says he's experiencing true Christian worship for the first time in his life.
That experience has come from the world's most ancient denomination--the Orthodox Church. And Powers is not the only evangelical Christian rediscovering God in that unfamiliar place.
Powers became a Christian in high school through an evangelical youth organization. Later, working three years in youth ministry, he shared the gospel with high-school students every day. Still, he says, something was missing in his own relationship with God.
"As much as I always talked about how big God was, I had no problem explaining God to kids in about 12 minutes," he recalls. "I started to wonder, 'Is this really the God that is in the Bible? Is the God of the universe really that explainable? Should I be able to lead a kid to Christ in 10 minutes?' I was not at all doubting my faith, but I was just wondering if I was going about my business in a way that God wanted me to go."
At this crucial point in Powers' journey with Christ, he came into contact with two professors at Fuller Theological Seminary, who introduced him to the Orthodox Church.
"I had never heard about the Orthodox Church," admits Powers. "My idea of worship had always been closing your eyes to the soft strum of a guitar with an overhead projector. And now Dean was telling me about liturgy, with its chants, incense and singing the same song every week for 1900 years!"The Orthodox tradition is preserved in the life and worship of a number of religious bodies worldwide, usually identified as Eastern Orthodox churches. Most are organized along ethnic lines, and many existed before the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity east and west. Churches in the western half of the old Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church.
In Eastern Orthodox worship, the sanctuary glows with candlelight, and incense tingles noses in the congregation. Icons painted on the wall witness to the glory of Christ, the love of Mary or the unique stories of the disciples. The priest intones a sing-song chant of Scripture. Worshipers may join the reading, pray to themselves or kneel in reverence to God.
Powers explains the appeal: "The liturgy involves everything about you. You kneel, bow and hear songs that have been sung for hundreds of years. Prayers rise up to God like incense. And I am surrounded by the presence of God in a way I never would have been before. I don't have to work up a mood or contrive it, because it is all there in the liturgy."
Orthodox worship, like other liturgical traditions, attracts some American evangelicals because it balances the rational, word-centered worship so popular since the Enlightenment with a focus on the senses, aesthetics, experience and mystery. It also offers a measure of consistency and tradition that counteracts America's increasingly eclectic and rootless religious culture, advocates say.
And there's another attraction, says Father Joseph Hirsch, an Orthodox priest for 24 years--community.
"Orthodox worship isn't something that one comes to in order to develop his personal relationship with the Lord," says Hirsch, a professor at Regis University. "An Orthodox person's own relationship with God happens in his own personal prayer time. Church is a time to enter into a community of worshippers. A person has to sacrifice his own spiritual consolations for the good of the community."
Powers adds: "It's so much bigger than me or the four walls around me. The community is a powerful testimony to me that the Church is eternal, timeless. This is the worship that I'll experience for eternity."
The aesthetic nature of Orthodox worship--with its icons, candles, and incense--helps create an atmosphere of worship and reverence. But that's not why they are there, according to Father Hirsch. It is the incarnation of Christ--the idea that God lived among us in the person of Jesus--that inspires the sensuous nature of Orthodox worship, he says. "Liturgical worship is thoroughly incarnational. At the base of Christianity is the assertion that God became man, so the religion is experienced physically."
Icons are an Orthodox means of bearing witness to Christ, though some Protestants criticize them as being idolatrous. Icons are painted depictions of Jesus, Mary or the disciples. They are used in the Orthodox tradition to tell the Gospel story. Orthodox worshipers bow in reverence before icons and even kiss them to show their love for God.
One thing that is hard for Bible-centered Protestants to accept is that the Orthodox tradition places icons on the same level as Scripture. If the gospels are the story of Christ in word, then to Orthodox believers icons are the story of Christ in image.
Hirsch says the common criticism that equates icons with idols is unjustified. "God commanded Moses not to make images to worship because it was an attempt to capture God. But once God became man in the form of Christ, we must make an image or it is a denial of the incarnation."
While the sweet smell of incense can create an interesting atmosphere in a worship space, its use is rooted instead in the biblical tradition of incense as a sacrifice to God. "Nothing is done in Orthodoxy for the sake of the thing itself or to impact people in a particular way," explains Hirsch. "They are not creating a religious aesthetic or atmosphere."
Icons and incense contribute to another aspect of Orthodox worship that Michael Powers appreciates: celebrating the mystery of God. "In most evangelical churches, when you talk about going deep with God, you're talking about deeper Bible studies, deeper knowledge. You may start with right-versus-wrong stuff, and then get more serious. But it's a cognitive ascent.
"That's not how I grow deeper with God. It's about experiencing the depth of God, smelling him."
How many evangelicals are making the trek into Orthodoxy with Michael Powers? It's hard to know, in part because numbers don't mean much in the Orthodox tradition.
"It is hard to get good figures because it is against the nature of Orthodox churches to keep such statistics," Hirsch says. "But our churches are much fuller. There are more young families and more young people."
Powers is one who left evangelicalism for the Orthodox Church. In fact, he hopes one day to become an Orthodox priest. He and his wife, Katy, have moved back to his hometown of Norman, Okla., to plant an Orthodox church.
Those decisions, he says, are testimony to the fact that his earlier experience in traditional churches was lacking--so much so that he didn't even consider church attendance a vital element of his faith. During three years of full-time youth ministry and another three years pursuing a master of divinity degree at Fuller, Powers didn't feel a need to go to church.
"I thought the church was dead," he says. "I believed at that time that the church didn't need to be an organization. It was just the people who believe in God. My ministry was my church, because there wasn't any other church that I was interested in being a part of. I felt it was more important for me to be involved in ministry. I didn't know what else I was missing."
He says he understands the skepticism many Protestants feel toward Orthodoxy. "In the past, if I would have heard someone say the things I am saying now, I would have said, 'Well, they don't really love Jesus.'
"I'm here to say that I do love Christ, and all this is a journey out of my love for God. It's legitimate. And I refuse to be written off as someone who has fallen away from Christ."