Saturday, January 13, 2007
More Americans Join Orthodox Churches
They number about 1.2 million in the U.S. at present, around half the size of the LCMS or the Episcopalians. However, the Orthodox Church in America is growing, and that growth is being fueled largely by converts to the faith; converts which appear to come mainly from cross-overs from other denominations.
According to a recent AP article about 1/3 of all U.S. Orthodox priests are now converts as well. Apparently the conversion of John Fenton was a sign of the times. A 2006 survey of the four Orthodox seminaries in the country found that about 43% of seminarians are converts according to Alexi D. Krindatch, research director at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkley, California. But it isn't only from the folds of Lutheran flocks that these new converts are coming. They are also entering from traditions as distant from Orthodoxy as conservative Baptists.
Krindatch found in his research that 1/3 of the more than 200 parishes in the U.S. parishes in the Antiochian Orthodox Church were founded after 1990. One fast-growing church in Wheaton, Ill. has seen an overwhelming majority of its newest members coming from the under 40 age group.
Orthodoxy in this country was largely an immigrant church, much like Lutherans a century ago. Like other American denominations, though, the change from the ethnic languages to the vernacular and the influx of people who do not share the history of the church, will have an impact on the character of this church in years to come. One of those changes comes from the zeal new members often bring to their discovered church, which can clash with the more easygoing approach of older members.
Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, is more decentralized and diversified, with divisions apparent largely around ethnic differences. They do not have a titular head like the pope, and so authority appears more defused. While this will certainly appeal to some who are turned off from what they sometimes see as heavy-handedness from Rome, others will undoubtedly be frustrated by the myriad of foreign jurisdictions that form the patchwork quilt of American Orthodoxy. There are currently 22 separate jurisdictions in the US. Church.
Yet what ultimately attacks these newcomers to this ancient church? Not surprisingly a large selling point is the beauty of the liturgy. Another point is the "durability of the theology." Consistency would be the word to describe the appeal in part.
This growth in Orthodoxy should say something to Lutherans. At a time when young Americans are looking for a more durable tradition to anchor their faith in turbulent times of change, the Lutheran church is often jettisoning its traditions in a desperate attempt to woo Baby-boomers and chronic church-shoppers looking for new programs. A handful of confessional congregations are valiantly trying to hold the line for the future, but pressure is often intense as they hear the manta: "change or die."
We should watch this new era in Orthodoxy and learn. But we should be watching not only for why these new people are joining, but how they adapt to the influx of new blood. How will they integrate people who come with that newly married excitement, and keep peace with old timers who may resent the impression that the new ones are only there for their own needs. How will they build community out of this? It will be interesting to observe.