What do the Converts Want?


By Terry Mattingly

It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies to tell the difference between a Southern Baptist church and an Orthodox church. You can get some pretty good clues just by walking in the door and looking around. But there are some similarities between the two that might be a little trickier to spot. For instance, let me tell you about what life is like on Sunday nights in a Southern Baptist congregation.

Baptists worship at several different times during the week -- at least they did in the old days when I was growing up as a Southern Baptist pastor's son. One of those times is on Sunday nights. Back in the early 1980s, I was active in a church in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in which the typical Sunday morning crowd would be about 200 to 300 people, which is rather small for a Baptist church, but fairly normal for an Orthodox parish. Then the crowd on Sunday night would be from 40 to 45 people.

Now, that ratio should sound familiar to many priests who lead Vespers services. But the similarities don’t stop there.

Before the age of 30, I became a deacon and the finance chairman of that church -- which, in the Southern Baptist way of doing things, meant that I was the only person, not excluding the pastor, who saw the annual pledge cards. I was the only person in the congregation who knew who was giving what.

If there is an experience in life that will teach you the meaning of original sin, finance chairman is that role. What I discovered through that experience is that there is no connection whatsoever between how much a family gives to the church and how much money that family makes. Instead, I found that the key connection is faithfulness in worship. If you attend the Sunday night service at a typical Baptist church and look around at the 40 people there in comparison to the 200 or 300 in attendance on Sunday morning, you will find that about 80 percent of the church's giving is accounted for in that group.

The bottom line: The Sunday night experience in a Baptist church is very similar to that in Saturday evening Vespers services in an Orthodox church. As Bishop Antoun told me once, if you look at who attends Great Vespers and comes to confession, you are looking at about 80 percent of the service, the giving, and the energy in most parishes.

Who comes to Vespers? Who comes to confession? Who comes to the feasts, and why do they come? That’s where I would like to start as we consider this question: What do the converts want?

Where They’re Coming From

On one level, many Orthodox converts are fleeing megachurch Christianity. They are coming because they want something on Sunday morning besides a rock band and a giant plasma TV screen. Converts are also fleeing from mainline Protestantism, which is in the midst of a three-decade statistical nosedive and demographic suicide.

At the same time, I believe that most of these converts are coming out of that core 20 percent of their former churches. They are active, highly motivated people. They read, they think, they sing, and they serve. That hunger for more, that hunger for sound doctrine, is sending them to Orthodoxy.

These Orthodox converts are seeking mystery. They want a non-fundamentalist approach to the faith, but they are not fleeing the faith of the ages. They are trying to get back to the trunk of the tree. All around them are churches that are either modern, postmodern, post-postmodern or post-post-postmodern.

If they stopped and thought about it, most Orthodox converts would call themselves premodern, since the modern world has not served up a wide array of dependable answers. They are looking for beauty. They are looking for a life that can give them some degree of stability and peace, while helping them face the realities of the world around them. They want Orthodoxy. And it is crucial to know that the converts want more Orthodoxy, not less. In the words of Frederica Mathewes-Green in Facing East, "In Orthodoxy less is never more. More is more."

That’s the approach of the converts. They are not looking for "Orthodoxy Lite." They want more.

Now when we ask this question, "What do the converts want?" we may as well admit that many Orthodox will hear that question as, "What do the Americans want?"

A few years ago, the wife of an Orthodox pastor told my family, "You already have your churches; why would you want to join ours?"

When we were seeking Orthodoxy in the hills of Tennessee, we tried to attend the local Greek Orthodox parish -- the only parish within a one- or two-hour drive. When we called, they would -- literally -- not give us the times of the services. We came to Orthodoxy in spite of them, not because of them. We ended up starting a mission.

Looking for Worship

The American converts are not looking for some kind of post-Vatican II, carved-down liturgical experience. They have that all around them. They are not trying to cut the service down another 15 to 20 minutes so that more young people will hang around -- as if that would work. Speaking as a journalist, I can tell you that the lively, growing Roman parishes are not the ones that have cut the Mass down to 45 minutes.

You see, the people who want to worship, want to worship.

One of the trends in American journalism is to try to create newspapers for people who don’t read. This seems to me to be somewhat contradictory. Similarly, there are many churches that are creating worship services for people who do not want to go to worship services. The Orthodox converts are not interested in those churches.

Also, the converts want their children to be Orthodox. They are looking for churches that will offer their children a winsome, living faith that they will want to follow.

My wife is a librarian. With a librarian and journalism professor in the house, we care a lot about reading. Researchers tell us that if parents want their children to read, the children must see the parents reading. The parent reads to the child: this is the only way to hand down the love of reading. The same is true with worship and faith.

Now that may seem like a cruel thing to say. In many Orthodox churches across America, the average age of the parishioners is about the same as the average age of the people in mainline Protestant churches. Many Orthodox churches are having trouble retaining their young people, so they are seeking ways to stop the bleeding. But there's the rub. If you are not creating new faith, you will not retain the children of those who had the faith in the first place. As the old saying goes, God has no grandchildren. You have to give the faith away.

The converts also want good preaching, since many come out of church traditions that place an incredible emphasis on preaching. This does not mean pounding on pulpits, because no one is doing that anymore -- not even the true fundamentalists. However, the converts do not believe that preaching is the only sacrament, which is the rule in most of evangelicalism. They want to worship with all of their senses. They want to worship with their whole bodies.

I remember something that happened when my family was part of an ethnic parish that had installed pews in the sanctuary. During Great Lent, the number of people who came to church on Wednesday nights -- for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts -- was small, so we could stand in the front of the church. Freed from the pews, all sorts of Orthodox things started happening again. Prostrations returned. People were bowing, people were worshiping with their whole bodies. It was a very moving experience.

Emotions are OK. Movement is OK. Beauty is OK. Humility before God is OK. And more than anything else, participation in worship is more than OK -- it is essential.

Let me be blunt. Americans who visit an Orthodox church will judge the vitality of that congregation based on how many people sing and take part in their worship. That is really unfair to many Orthodox who were raised to stand in quiet holiness, but it’s the truth.

Americans will want to take part in the service. If they have mustered up the courage to walk through the door of an Orthodox church in the first place, they're not going to want to just sit or stand once they’re in there. They will feel left out, if there is no way for them to sing, if there is no way for them to take part in the service. The church will have just sent them back out the door. Let me repeat: Americans will judge the spiritual vitality of an Orthodox parish on whether or not the congregation is reverently and enthusiastically singing, praying, and participating in worship.

Converts, Assimilation, and Unity

Truth is, I believe there is a link between this issue and that of Orthodox unity. To make my point, I need to use a dangerous word -- "assimilation."

America is all about assimilation. But I need to stress that Orthodox believers face two different forms of assimilation. One asks them to assimilate into America at the level of culture and language. The other tempts them to assimilate on the level of doctrine and practice.

I believe that Orthodox Christians have divided into two different camps, whether this choice is conscious or unconscious. In many parishes, we see people who are struggling to assimilate into American culture but don’t know what parts to accept. They are struggling to retain their language and to some extent their art. But on the level of faith and practice, they have already assimilated and their children have as well. You walk into their homes and you see little or no iconography. Yet when you walk into their church, they are not speaking English.

It’s an interesting mix of what they've given up and what they've chosen to cling to. As an Orthodox priest of an ethnic parish once told me: "Most of the members of my congregation have never been to confession in their lives. They have no idea that this even exists as a part of our church. They see no connection between confession and the life of our parish and the sacramental reality of our parish."

As threatening as it sounds, our goal -- if there is to be a united Orthodoxy -- is to be united in worship and sacramental practice. This unity will blend gifts from across our great ethnic traditions. However, it will be a vital, growing Orthodoxy that at the congregational level can welcome Americans with open arms. It will make them feel strange, but it will be a place they can become a part of and even help change over time. This Orthodoxy will assimilate on the level of culture and language, but it will not assimilate to America at the level of practice, sacrament, and doctrine. It will not compromise on the essentials. It will not compromise on what unites Orthodoxy around the world and through the millennia. It will create a worthy expression of Orthodoxy that will, over time, be unique to this culture.

This will be painful. It will be hard, but it will also be joyful and miraculous.

It must happen. This is, quite frankly, what the converts want.

The Convert-Friendly Church

Let me return to the issue of children. In my experience of Orthodoxy, I have found nothing more poignant or more painful than talking to ethnic parents and grandparents whose children have left the faith. They can't understand. They thought America was going to be a wonderful place. They thought America was going to be a place that would make them feel at home. They thought they were offering their children a better life. Now, in some sense, America has taken away their children.

Here is that hard truth again. If their children are to practice Orthodoxy, they will have to believe it, they will have to want to practice it. The faith will have to be their own.

Let me stress that there is no such thing as a "convert church," but there are convert-friendly Orthodox churches. Even a church that is largely made up of converts must, in the end, be a church that welcomes all Orthodox people. Meanwhile, there are ethnic parishes that are full of people who, as Fr. Joseph Huneycutt on the Orthodixie weblog likes to call them, are "reverts." There are cradle Orthodox priests who are as on fire as any convert will be in their lifetimes. You see, this is not about ethnicity. We are not talking about the "convert era," but a "convert-friendly era."

The worship in these churches will be in English, and the people -- all the people -- will be singing. You will see lots of children, and chrismation rites and adult baptisms will not be strange, mysterious events. The list of their children who are headed off to church camp will be long. Some of these churches will have tight budgets, but they will be tight because they are struggling to cope with growth, not decline. You will find people being called to the priesthood, the diaconate, and other forms of service.

In conclusion, let me offer this parable.

I have a friend who wants to be Orthodox -- more than anything. He has for a number of years been visiting a nearby Orthodox church. But there's a problem. You see, this friend also has business that takes him to Chicago, and when he is there he worships at All Saints Orthodox Church, a vital, convert-friendly parish. He sees the Orthodox life there and he wants it like life itself. His problem is that he cannot find it where he lives.

For five years, he has been struggling. One year at Pascha, he witnessed this painful, sad scene. This service, of course, is the high point of the Christian year. Yet, at the high point of that service, as a small choir entered the sanctuary singing, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death," the members of the congregation stood in silence -- watching.

My friend saw this and, trust me, this was not what he was looking for. He wanted Orthodoxy, for himself and for his family. He wanted more, not less. He still does.

If there is to be unity in Orthodoxy in America, that unity will emerge out of the sacramental life of the Church. We will sing unity into existence. We will pray unity into existence. We will confess unity into existence. It can happen no other way. We must live the faith and then give it away.

This essay was adapted from an address entitled "So What Do the Converts Want, Anyway?" given at the 2006 Orthodox Christian Laity conference in Baltimore. Reprinted with the author's permission.