Thursday, August 17, 2006

Orthodox Evangelism, Part II

In a previous post on this subject, I offered the thought that Eastern Orthodoxy represents something of a “tough sell” in America for a number of reasons. My original post primarily centered on the ascetical nature of Orthodox Christianity; how this lifestyle of moderation and self-denial, structured traditional worship and prayer, frequent fasting, and the expectation of one’s personal accountability to the parish community and to a father/confessor is all a little too “serious” for the light and frothy religious mentality prevalent in our country today.

I contend that this latter mentality is catered to by a large segment of contemporary Christendom, particularly those groups which bend toward a “seeker-sensitive” approach for the sole purpose of increasing their membership. Motivated by a panic over waning church attendance, Christian leaders seem to have adopted a “give the people what they want” policy which takes many different forms depending on the denomination. The Roman Catholic response has been one of systematic “modernization” in switching from Latin to English, shortening the Mass to 45 minutes or less, bringing in guitars, experimenting with charismatic manifestations, allowing female altar servers, doing away with the monastic habit, and so forth. Many mainline Protestant denominations, in danger of complete extinction, have sought to postpone this inevitable fate by becoming “all-inclusive” and marketing themselves as having few strict moral or doctrinal guidelines, creating an atmosphere friendly to unrepentant homosexuals and to those who simply do not wish to be told what to believe by some ecclesiastical authority. Free-wheeling Evangelicals, lacking any definable rootedness except in a handful of self-imposed “essential” doctrines, have continued to experiment with “the flavor of the month” to attract members, featuring everything from a strong emphasis on Zionistic end times prophecies to rockin’ praise bands.

The bottom line seems to be that American Christendom has become a spiritual smorgasbord from which the individual can pick and choose as he or she pleases with a minimum of commitment or cost. If he wishes, the individual believer can even simply stay home on Sunday and not attend any church at all. Protestantism in particular seems unable to address this growing problem, since for many years it has presented salvation as a personal event, not directly connected to any church. If a person doesn’t need a church to “be saved” then Christian groups must resort to offering other tantalizing incentives to attract potential members, but can never denounce those as unchristian who choose to remain unchurched.

Against such a backdrop of self-defined Christianity, in which exists no discipline or discipleship except for whatever the disciple chooses to impose upon himself (Oh, the irony of it!), Orthodox Christianity stands out as a singular menace; daring to impose its own beliefs upon its members and insisting that they follow a well-defined lifestyle in pursuit of union with Christ and theosis. How will such an approach ever succeed in today’s religious market?

In truth, it just may indeed succeed very well if presented to the right people.

There appears to be a growing number of people who have become dissatisfied with the shallow and often bone-dry well of American Christendom. Some of these folks remain within a Christian context, shopping from church to church in an endless search for the water of life. These folks are true seekers; not shopping for something to entertain them, but are actually seeking a deeper communion with Christ and a greater sense of connection with the kingdom of God. Quite a few of these folks have wandered outside of the Christian realm in the hope of finding what they seek in the so-called “New Age” religions.

At first blush, many of these New Age groups may seem to be just another extension of the American desire for self-made religion, as they combine elements from various “Eastern mystical religions” into a format palatable to Americans. But there is one denominator which many of these groups share in common with Orthodox Christianity besides an Eastern origin. They most often eschew “easy” or merely doctrinal approaches to faith and spiritual illumination, and see such things as coming from a life-long and fairly all-encompassing and disciplined pursuit. “New Agers” generally understand that enlightenment comes gradually as one changes internal and external attitudes and behaviors which conflict with the goal of illumination. Their concepts of what exactly constitutes such enlightenment may differ significantly from what is taught within Orthodoxy, but the redeeming quality here is that they at least understand that they must pursue something, and that this pursuit involves openness to continual change (metanoia, repentance) on their part. New Agers are also more open to the general idea of mysticism and to the physical disciplines of prayer and fasting as well. These are all essential elements of historic Christianity long ago abandoned by Western Christendom in its move from faith to reason, and to instant salvation via a one-time, largely cerebral acceptance of Christ.

Is it possible that the Holy Spirit is guiding people out of the confines of a Western religious view that in general is rationalistic, minimalist, hyper-individualistic, and largely hostile toward historic Christianity, back toward an Eastern mindset whose spiritual pursuits may be more compatible with Orthodoxy? I don’t know. Certainly not all people take this route. An ever-increasing number of Evangelicals are converting directly to Orthodoxy, but in most cases this has been the result of a somewhat abstract study of church history which convinced them of the truth of the Orthodox Church, but which still left them rather ill-equipped to handle the “culture shock” of a fundamentally different approach to the Christian life than that which is found in the West. New Agers will certainly have their own culture shock to pass through when they come to the realization that the “Christ-consciousness” they seek is not some abstract concept, but the living Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Perhaps Orthodoxy represents the middle ground between these two religious viewpoints; more holistic and mystical than Western Christianity, yet more incarnational and personal in its embrace of God than perhaps is typical of New Age beliefs.

I am grateful to my friend Kevin for introducing this possibility to me. Most of contemporary American Orthodoxy’s evangelical outreach has naturally been directed toward American Christians. But perhaps there is a new group of people to consider. Evangelicals usually want nothing to do with New Age folks, and vice-versa. The two groups are polar opposites. Yet here lies Orthodoxy smack dab in the middle, offering to both groups the true meaning and fulfillment of their deepest spiritual desires if they can only overcome their prejudice against historic Christianity and see the truth it contains.

For those Christians or other religious folk who only seek a convenient faith that is of their own choosing, Orthodoxy has nothing to offer. But for sincere Christians seeking an unlimited and unimaginable communion with God, and for New Age believers wondering if there is more to this person named “Jesus” than the fact that He was a good teacher and personally enlightened, Orthodoxy has what they are seeking. It is only up to us Orthodox Christians to educate and position ourselves to help such folks find what they need.

What do you think? I am still forming my own thoughts on this matter and I certainly welcome your input.


At 8/17/2006 3:07 PM , Blogger Trevor said...

It seems like I've met several Orthodox converts with a Buddhist background. Also, I just got done listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko's series on the Apocalypse, where he seems to pick Buddhism as a favorite example of a religion where someone might find partial enlightenment. He also tells a story about having been invited to speak to a Buddhist group, and the positive reaction he got from them, especially from a group of former Christians who had converted to Buddhism.

I'm not sure what it all means, but it's interesting anyway. Personally, I didn't feel too much culture shock coming from Evangelicalism, but then my first taste of Orthodoxy was to borrow its fasting practices as part of my own smorgasbord. I spent a year following the fasting schedule as rigorously as possible, without looking at anything else about Orthodoxy. It was another year or two after that before I really started exploring what else Orthodoxy had to offer.

At 8/17/2006 4:25 PM , Blogger Mimi said...

Father, bless.

I actually agree as well - I know from my personal experience as well as from ancedotal evidence that many who come to Orthodoxy do so either from a New Age or as the above poster mentioned Buddhist or other Eastern Religious background or like myself from not being religious at all.

I think that what happens is someone goes down the path of “New Agers” generally understand that enlightenment comes gradually as one changes internal and external attitudes and behaviors which conflict with the goal of illumination. at some point many or some get smacked upside the head with the reality of Christ. And, because they are used to a more mystical, Eastern background find themselves somehow exploring Orthodoxy. I think it was Kh. Frederica who said "those attracted by smells and bells" find Christ. (horrible, horrible paraphrase).

I could be totally wrong, though.

At 8/17/2006 5:18 PM , Anonymous Justin said...

Who was it that said if I try to save my own soul, then another might be saved? Or something like that... maybe a Desert Father?
Maybe there was some Truth to that... you tell me?!

At 8/17/2006 6:07 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

You may be thinking of St. Seraphim of Sarov who said, "Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will find their salvation".

The most powerful evangelism does not consist of words but in the witness of men made holy by the Spirit of God.

May God help us all to become such evangelists!

At 8/17/2006 6:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Paul said "but what of it? Provided only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed: in this I shall rejoice, and yes I shall rejoice"
Phil 1:18

Good luck, I don't see why they wouldn't. New Agers though aren't monolithic, many are chosing "wicca" over Christianity no matter the denomination.

At 8/18/2006 10:07 PM , Anonymous Kevin said...

I have to agree with all the posts. I am not ready to abandon evangelism to our Protestant brethren; the growth of Orthodoxy in all jurisdictions is largely the result of Protestant conversions (per Fr. Thomas Hopko in his recent interview in Again Magazine).

However, there are segments within the too-all-inclusive umbrella labelled "New Age" - and Fr. Tom Hopko has said this too, in the book "Through The Labyrinth" - who are truly seeking truth. God is truth. So to the extent they are serious seekers, "God will find a way to satisfy that hunger and thirst. (page 191)

I also agree with anonymous that there are segments -wicca, and what I call the "spiritual power seekers" in the "New Age" mix, those who are in Tantric Yoga and Kundalini Yoga, etc. - who are probably not going to be drawn to Orthodoxy, or for that matter any "religion" where submission and ultimately death of self is called for.

But there are serious seekers who are Hindu (especially those in Vedanta) and Buddhists and others who are influenced by these philosophies (I'm not sure if they are religions or not!) who, I am convinced, will be drawn to Christ through the Orthodox Church for many of the reasons Fr. Mike suggests in his main post.

As you know (Fr. Mike) I was a disciple of Swami Nikhilananda, who was a disciple of and in the lineage of Sri Sarada Devi, called "The Holy Mother" in India. I was a pre-monastic novice at an ashram in upstate New York during my summers before college. During my meditations my mind kept wandering from the regimented visualization meditations I had been initiated in (candle flame in the lotus of the heart, etc.), to the icon (which was in the ashram, by the way!) of Christ on the Cross ("truth is one, sages call it by various names")! I continued to be drawn to the Person of Christ, drawn by the holy spirit, because - I believe - I was hungry and of course by His grace. Eventually I replaced my mantra with the Jesus Prayer (without telling anyone!)! No I wasn't a formed Christian yet by any means but I was also no longer able to be a contented Hindu! The power of Christ was stronger than the gods of the Hindus for me. My Mother too - a life-long American Hindu - who travelled to India three times for *darshan* with Satya Sai Baba foound that in the end, only Christ satisfied her deep longing for God.

Orthodoxy comes from the east and has "Christianized" many "eastern" paradigms ("theosis", etc.) and is therefore the perfect vehicle to communicate Christ to those who seek true enlightenment.

At 3/26/2007 5:43 AM , Blogger Patrick said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You


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