Sunday, October 22, 2017
Orthodoxy welcomes foreigners. . .
More than 70 percent of the roughly 75,000 Antiochian Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts. The Orthodox Church in America, with roots in Moscow and about 85,000 adherents, reports a 50 percent figure. In Greek Orthodox Christianity, by far the largest branch in the United States with almost 480,000 members, it's about 25 percent. Some might say the Greek Orthodox Church has remained mostly Greek because the culture is so powerfully wed to that jurisdiction -- much more than others.
When the day comes and a majority of the Orthodox Christians in the USA are converts, it will dramatically change a church known for its ethnic identity -- perhaps more than any other denomination in America. The numbers of people attracted to Orthodoxy include Hank Hanegraaff among the converts from Protestantism, in particular evangelicalism. Their numbers account for a significant numbers of those who have swum the Bosporus but not all of them. Lutherans have contributed a fair number, as well. What is clear, however, is that those attracted are not from the ordinary ethnic backgrounds Orthodoxy has usually been associated with - Greeks and Russians, in particular.
Lutherans were heavily defined by ethnic backgrounds once. In fact it almost exclusively contributed to the plethora of Lutheran groups a hundred or more years ago -- before the merger phenomenon and the transition into more Americanized groups. Some, in particular the ELCA, have embraced their American identity even more so than their Lutheran identity, choosing to diverge from that Lutheran-ness when they believed it was in the wrong (homosexuality being one example). It has created a huge gulf between the more conservative Lutheran groups and contributed to an ecumenical agenda that has favored unity in diversity more so with non-Lutherans than with Lutherans.
What will happen to Orthodoxy when it is populated more by converts than by those raised in the faith? One thing that might happen is that this may slow the Americanization of Orthodoxy since those attracted to Orthodoxy are intent upon remaining out of the mainstream (one of the very reasons they went church shopping in the first place). If this happens, Orthodoxy may be one of the few denominations to actually become more conservative (not the best term but one we all understand) as it becomes less ethnic and more American in its complexion. That would certainly confound some of the folks who may think that Orthodoxy needs a face lift to meet modernity.
It is interesting that, at least anecdotally, this is exactly what is happening in my own parish. Those coming from outside of Lutheranism are not coming for the Lutheran lite style of Lutheranism which minimizes Lutheran distinctives. No indeed, they are coming to be fully Lutheran -- in faith, in worship, and in piety. They are instructing the long time Lutherans in what it means to be Lutheran and encouraging those who have grown rather comfortable in their faith to rediscover what it means to believe, confess, and teach the faith with conviction.
In any case, it will be something to watch. Orthodoxy, at least the Antiochians, have even tried a Western Rite Orthodox worship format to reach out even more to those running from American churches whose faith has grown cold, weak, and shallow. How far that goes in all of this, I cannot say but Orthodoxy is aware of the interest from those outside and is encouraging it.