Evangelicals Turn Toward … the Orthodox Church?

The New Republic | Jason Zengerle | August 17, 2007

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.”

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