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The Iconoclasts

Evangelicals turn toward ... the Orthodox Church?

The ministry is a calling, but it is also a career, and, in 1987, a Baptist minister named Wilbur Ellsworth was given the career opportunity of a lifetime. After nearly two decades of pastoring modest congregations in California and Ohio, Ellsworth, at the age of 43, was called to lead the First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Illinois--one of the most prominent evangelical churches in what was then the most prominent evangelical city in the world. Often called the "Evangelical Vatican," the leafy Chicago suburb is home to Wheaton College--the prestigious evangelical college whose most famous graduate is Billy Graham--and a host of influential evangelical figures, a number of whom worshipped at First Baptist. "I was now preaching to these people every Sunday," Ellsworth recalls. "It was all sort of heady and exciting."

From a professional standpoint, Ellsworth thrived. He oversaw the construction of a majestic new building for First Baptist with a 600-seat sanctuary and a 100-foot steeple that towered over Wheaton's Main Street. And, due to the prominent evangelicals he now ministered to, he became something of a prominent evangelical himself--routinely meeting with the many evangelical leaders who constantly came through Wheaton. "I was at the very center of the religious world that I'd been a part of for most of my life," he says. "It was quite a promotion from where I was before."

From a spiritual perspective, however, Ellsworth was suffering. Over the past 20 years, a growing number of evangelical churches have joined what is called the "church growth movement," which favors a more contemporary, market- driven style of worship--with rock 'n' roll "praise songs" supplanting traditional hymns and dramatic sketches replacing preachy sermons--in the hope of attracting new members and turning churches into megachurches. First Baptist of Wheaton was not immune to this trend: Ellsworth increasingly found himself fighting with congregants about the way worship was being done. "They wanted to replace our organ with a drum set and do similar things that boiled down not to doctrine, but to personal preference," he explains. "I said, 'That's not going to happen as long as I'm here.'" It didn't. In 2000, after 13 years as the pastor of First Baptist, Ellsworth was forced out.

For Ellsworth, his departure from First Baptist triggered both a professional and a spiritual crisis. But, before he could deal with the former, he felt he had to address the latter. He devoted himself to reading theology and church history. At first, he seemed headed in the direction of the Calvinist-influenced Reformed Baptist Church or the Anglican Church, which are where evangelicals in search of a more classical Christian style of worship often end up. But, as Ellsworth continued in his own personal search, his readings and discussions began taking him further and further past the Reformation and ever deeper into church history. And, gradually, much to his surprise, he found himself growing increasingly interested in a church he once knew virtually nothing about: the Orthodox Church. "I really thought he'd go to Canterbury," says Alan Jacobs, a Wheaton College English professor and Anglican who is friendly with Ellsworth. "But he took a sudden right turn and wound up in Constantinople."

Ellsworth began reading more and more about Orthodox Christianity-- eventually spending close to

$10,000 on Orthodox books. By 2005, he was regularly visiting an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago (the Antiochian Orthodox Church is Middle Eastern in background and the seat of its patriarchate is in Damascus). By late 2006, Ellsworth realized that he wanted to be Orthodox himself. On the first Sunday of the following February, an Orthodox priest in Chicago anointed him with holy oil and he was chrismated--or formally received--into the Orthodox Church. A month later, at the age of 62, he was ordained as an Orthodox priest himself.

Ellsworth's story is hardly unique. Most of the approximately 1 members of the Orthodox parish he now leads are former evangelicals themselves. Even Ellsworth's transition from evangelical minister to Orthodox priest is not uncommon. Of the more than 2 parishes of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, some 60 percent are led by convert priests, most of whom are from evangelical backgrounds. And, according to Bradley Nassif, a professor at North Park University and the leading academic expert on Evangelical- Orthodox dialogue, the Antiochian Archdiocese has seen over 1 percent church growth in the last 20 years, approximately 75 percent of which is attributable to converts.

While it's unlikely that the Orthodox Church--which, according to the best estimate, has only 1.2 million American members--will ever pose any sort of existential threat to evangelical Christianity in the United States, it is significant nonetheless that a growing number of Southern Baptists and Presbyterians and Assemblies of God members have left the evangelical fold, turning to a religion that is not only not American, but not even Western. Their flight signals a growing dissatisfaction among some evangelicals with the state of their churches and their complicated relationship with the modern world.

One evening in June, I went to see Wilbur Ellsworth at his new professional and spiritual home--the Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, Illinois. Although it is one town over from Wheaton and just a few miles from First Baptist, Holy Transfiguration is located a great psychic distance from the "Evangelical Vatican." The church itself is tucked away in a shabby residential neighborhood, set among working-class bungalows and across the street from a Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, and it is housed in a modest one-story building with peeling white paint. It was a Saturday evening when I first visited, and Ellsworth--or, as he's now called, Father Wilbur--was at the church to lead a vespers service. He was robed in gold-trimmed vestments, but with his open, clean-shaven face, he bore little resemblance to the stern-- to say nothing of hirsute-- Orthodox priests of popular imagination.

Greeting me outside Holy Transfiguration, Ellsworth was gracious, but also a bit anxious. As 30 or so worshipers filed into the church, he cast occasional glances across the street, where a few presumably unchurched people were making a ruckus on the VFW baseball field as they drank beer and shagged fly balls. Standing in the diminishing evening light, he apologized for what he said was an unusually small turnout, which he attributed to the pleasant weather. "If they don't come," he said, "I'll remind them who made it so nice." He also apologized for the church's appearance, telling me that in a few weeks its exterior would be repainted. As we prepared to head inside, he introduced me to his wife, Jean, who, he explained, would sit with me through the service in case I had any questions. It was the first time in all of my journalistic visits to churches-- including the time I went to an all-night service at a charismatic church of African immigrants who spoke in tongues--that a minister felt compelled to provide me with a chaperone. More than anything, Ellsworth seemed worried that I'd find his church weird.

This is an understandable fear. For a long time, the Orthodox Church simply wasn't on the radar of most Americans--never mind evangelicals. Although Orthodox Christianity has been in North America since 1794, when Russian Orthodox missionaries crossed the Bering Strait to convert Aleuts in Alaska, Orthodox churches in the United States were almost entirely immigrant or ethnic- -especially after the Russian Revolution, which spelled an end to the Russian Orthodox Church's attempts to do missionary work with Americans. "The whole history of Orthodoxy in North America from 1918 until relatively recently is a terrible story," says A. Gregg Roeber, a Penn State professor of early modern history and religious studies.

But that story took a dramatic turn 20 years ago, when a group of about 2, 000 evangelicals converted en masse into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. The conversion had been nearly two decades in the making. In 1968, a Campus Crusade for Christ executive named Peter Gillquist became disenchanted with the group's parachurch identity, but he could not find an existing evangelical church that met his spiritual needs. Gillquist joined with about half a dozen other similarly disenchanted Campus Crusade for Christ staffers and embarked on what they called, somewhat cheekily, "the phantom search for the perfect church." As Gillquist recounts in his memoir, Becoming Orthodox, "Our basic question was, whatever happened to that Church we read about in the pages of the New Testament? Was it still around? If so, where? We wanted to be a part of it." Much like Wilbur Ellsworth would do years later, Gillquist and his fellow sojourners worked their way back through church history and doctrine before they finally came to 1054 and the East-West Schism and, thus, a fork in the road. One path took them to Rome and the West; the other to Constantinople and the East. Gillquist and the others thought the East was right to resist papal excesses; they also thought the East was right to insist on equality among the Holy Trinity, rather than relegating the Holy Spirit to a lesser place than God the Father and God the Son. They concluded, almost reluctantly, that they were Orthodox.

Unlike Ellsworth, though, Gillquist and his group had no clearly laid-out path to becoming Orthodox. For nearly ten years, as they formed their own organization called the Evangelical Orthodox Church and gained their own followers, they tried--and failed--to join the Orthodox Church. In 1985, about 20 of them traveled all the way to Istanbul to seek the acceptance of the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, only to be turned away moments before their scheduled meeting. Greek Orthodox officials were evidently worried that Gillquist and his group weren't sufficiently committed to promoting Hellenistic culture.

Finally, Metropolitan Philip Saliba, the archbishop of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, came to their rescue. Born and raised in Lebanon, Metropolitan Philip came to the United States in the 19s and studied history at Wayne State University in Michigan. He stayed and became an Orthodox priest, initially leading a congregation of mostly Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in Cleveland. But he had a vision of growing the Orthodox Church in the United States. Importantly, his vision wasn't constrained by any sort of nationalist or ethnic pride; while the other two large Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States--the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches-- conducted their liturgies in Slavonic or Greek, the Lebanese, Syrian, and other Arab immigrants who attended Antiochian Orthodox Churches were more assimilationist and often conducted their liturgies in English.

When Metropolitan Philip learned of Gillquist and his group, he seized on the opportunity. In 1987, he converted most of the clergy and the members of the Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

Since that conversion, the number of Antiochian Orthodox Church parishes in the United States has more than doubled, largely through the efforts of Gillquist, who serves as the Director of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese. Although Gillquist is now 69 and a cancer survivor, he continues to travel around the United States, evangelizing on behalf of the Orthodox Church with a particular eye toward converting evangelicals. "Right now, the flood of evangelicals [interested in Orthodoxy] is just overwhelming," he says.

When Wilbur Ellsworth ministered at First Baptist, a typical Sunday service-- held inside the church's immense but unadorned white-walled, burgundy-carpeted sanctuary--went something like this: Wearing a suit and tie, Ellsworth would stand at a pulpit and preach. Aside from occasionally rising in prayer and joining the church choir and orchestra in some traditional Protestant hymns, the congregants would largely refrain from any activity during the one-hour-and- 15-minute service--except for once a month, when they would receive communion.

The service Ellsworth now leads at Holy Transfiguration, by contrast, has an entirely different feel. Wearing his priestly vestments and standing inside the church's small sanctuary--which boasts yellow walls covered with hundreds of tiny iconic pictures of saints and Oriental rugs on the floor--Ellsworth conducts much of the service from behind the iconostasis (or icon wall) where he is out of view of the congregation. The congregants stand for most of the two-hour service, constantly prostrating and crossing themselves, and the only music is rhythmic Byzantine chanting. At the end of the service, they file up to the front of the sanctuary--as they do every Sunday--and take communion. It's easy to see how, for someone reared in an evangelical church, the Orthodox Church might seem like something not just from another culture, but another world.

And yet it is precisely that otherworldliness that is part of what is attracting a growing number of evangelicals to the Orthodox Church. Since the late nineteenth century, when fundamentalism emerged as a response to the increasing cosmopolitanism of mainline Protestant denominations, evangelicalism has been an anti-modern movement. But, at the same time, with its belief in the importance of saving lost souls, evangelicalism hasn't been able to completely divorce itself from modern culture--and, in the latter half of the twentieth century, it began to increasingly try to employ or co-opt aspects of the modern world in its efforts to lure "seekers" and others to the faith. As Ellsworth explains, one of the principal attractions of the Orthodox Church for him is its solidity--and lack of interest in integrating modern life. "There is, in the Orthodox Church, an enormous conservatism," he marvels. "There is not going to be a radical change in the worship life of the church next week."

This is an appealing idea, particularly to younger Orthodox converts who view evangelicalism as corrupted by the generation born right after World War II. "Baby boomers had an overweening confidence that our creativity and spontaneity was fascinating and rich," says Frederica Mathewes-Greene, a one- time charismatic Episcopalian who's now a prominent Orthodox speaker and author. "The following generation sees it as not all that rich. They find the decades of the rock band onstage performing songs kind of shallow. They're looking past their parents for something earlier."

They're also looking for something with more intellectual depth. The evangelical church has a long history of anti-intellectualism: As the early twentieth-century evangelist Billy Sunday proclaimed, "When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell." Some evangelicals who became Orthodox simply could no longer tolerate evangelicalism's anti-intellectualism. As Mark Noll, a professor of history at Notre Dame and the author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, explains, "After the Second World War, after the boom in education, there were a lot of sectarian evangelicals who became educated and started reading widely and had experience in urban areas--all of which undermined the form of the Christianity they'd been raised with, although not necessarily their Christianity. It seems almost inevitable that, as some evangelicals become more interested in history, culture, Europe, and the broader world events of the twentieth century, that, within that group, there are going to be some who are attracted to Orthodoxy."

Gillquist and Ellsworth are among those who feel evangelicalism has mistakenly staked its foundation on the changing concept of personal Christian experience rather than on the firmer ground of theological doctrine. "Evangelical theology is rooted in only the last twenty-five percent of the history of the church, the post-Reformation period," Ellsworth says. "Orthodoxy goes back to the church fathers; it goes back to the roots and the first seventy-five percent of church history. There is a very real sense of continuity." Lacking this continuity, evangelicalism must continually adapt to modern life, a process that Orthodox converts like Gillquist say has inhibited the church's intellectual growth. "Worship has now been basically reduced to entertainment," he explains. "That carries people for two years, and then they start looking for something with more depth. Those are the people who we pick up: serious Christians who are hungry for more."

And, in some respects, hungry for less. Although the culture wars seem like a staple of evangelical life, the converts suggest that there is a growing fatigue with this worldly fight. One of the more striking things about the Orthodox Church is that it's not very political. That's not to say it isn't conservative. "As Orthodox, we don't believe that being gay is a legitimate alternative lifestyle, we believe it's an aberration. We also say abortion is murder," says Gillquist. But, unlike in many evangelical churches, these views-- while strongly held--tend not to come up in the course of worship. As Daniel Larison, a conservative writer and Orthodox convert who attends a Russian Orthodox Church in Chicago, says, "As a general rule, the sermons are going to be related to the gospel and that's about it. Political themes and political ideas don't come into sermons directly. That's not why people are there. They want to keep that as far away as possible."

And, by keeping it far away, the Orthodox Church has been immune to the social and political conflicts that frequently flare up in the Anglican and Catholic Churches, where disaffected evangelicals once typically sought refuge. "In the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, there's a lot of dialogue with the culture: For instance, what do we do with the whole creation versus evolution thing? Where does science play in?" says Andrew Henderson, an evangelical-turned-Anglican who recently converted to Orthodox Christianity and worships at Holy Transfiguration. "In the Orthodox Church, with that Eastern mindset that's just so ancient, those questions haven't really arisen. It just isn't a concern."

On the morning after the Vespers service, I went to Holy Transfiguration to attend Sunday mass. The turnout was much better than the night before, with nearly 100 people crowded into the small sanctuary. When the service was over, they headed to a basement social hall for a post-mass meal. The Orthodox Church had recently ended a month-long fast--during which church members were prohibited from eating meat and dairy and subsisted on what's basically a vegan diet--and so the congregants eagerly gorged on meatballs and beef casserole. One of those enjoying the meal was Jordan DeRenzo.

A recent graduate of North Central College in nearby Naperville, DeRenzo was also a recent Orthodox convert. She had once belonged to First Baptist. When Ellsworth decided to convert to the Orthodox Church, she converted with him.

After the meal, as I sat with her and several other Holy Transfiguration parishioners in the now mostly empty sanctuary, DeRenzo, like a recent convert to any religion, spoke passionately about her new spiritual home. The things about it that had once seemed strange to her--such as the fasting and the icons- -she now embraced. Fasting brought her body in line with her spirit; she was also hoping to attend icon school so she could be taught how to draw her own pictures of the Orthodox saints. "It's learning how to love something that is foreign," she said.

But it wasn't just the foreignness of the Orthodox Church; it was its bigness that appealed to DeRenzo, as well. Indeed, as she continued to talk, it became clear that, as an evangelical, she had felt very small and alone. It was a surprising sentiment to hear from someone about the evangelical movement. After all, ever since the rise of the Moral Majority, American evangelicals have arguably been the most politically powerful religious group in the country. But perhaps the most telling revelation of the Orthodox conversion trend is that this political power has not translated into a sense of spiritual power-- or belonging. For these converts, it seems, the Orthodox Church has solved the unbearable lightness of being evangelical. "When I was in [an evangelical church], I was thinking, 'This is great, I love this,'" DeRenzo said. "But I thought, and I don't mean to be morbid, but eventually some day this pastor is going to die or I'm going to move away, so if this is the only place in the world where the truth is, that's tragic." DeRenzo paused and looked around the sanctuary at the icons and the candles. She went on, "Coming to the Orthodox Church means that I am in communion with that church no matter where I am in the world, that I can go into that church wherever I am and have the same liturgy and celebrate the same way. I'll be in communion with other people. And that is so huge. That hugeness is so exciting."