By Fr. Peter Gillguist
When we came into the Orthodox Church in 1987, I started getting telephone calls from newspaper reporters and radio and T.V. people in cities I was about to visit. Often,they were responding to a news release sent out by a Church where I was to speak. They generally wanted to hear more about our story of 2000 evangelicals becoming Orthodox. They would ask me about charismatics and Episcopalians coming as well.
Then, almost always, before the end of the interview, they would insert, «Well, is this a trend?»
My answer was, «I’m not prepared to say that.» I would often add, «I think it will be one day.» But I felt it would be hype to call it a trend.
It was sometime in 1992 that I started getting comfortable answering, «Yes, it’s a trend. There’s a movement to Orthodox Christianity.» What changed my mind? For one thing, interest has escalated. Sheer numbers of people-and entire congregations-asking about Orthodoxy have grown. We in the Antiochian Archdiocese are getting far more inquiries now than we have ever had before. And I’m really speaking just for myself. My counterpart in the OCA, Fr. Joseph Fester, is saying that interest in Orthodoxy is up, as are the Greek Orthodox and the Carpatho-Russians.
Secondly, interest is broadening. When we first came to the Church we were getting mail largely from charismatic and evangelical Protestants. Then, about 1989, Episcopalians began making inquiries, as more and more Episcopal priests and lay people expressed concern with the direction their church is heading. At our 1991 Pan-Orthodox Missions and Evangelism Conference, held in Santa Barbara, we nicknamed that gathering «the year of the Episcopalians,» because there were more Episcopalians present than any other single group except Orthodox. In 1992 there were more Presbyterians than had ever come before, and we dubbed the Conference «the year of the Presbyterians.»
In Spring, 1991, I did a major piece for The Christian Century magazine, the liberal-to-mainline protestant periodical. The article was a five-year report on how it has been for us to be Orthodox. My primary personal interest in doing the article was to see what the response would be from this more liberal wing of Protestantism. The incredible thing was, I got more response-letters and telephone calls-from that article than anything I’ve ever written. And, except for an isolated letter to the Editor, it was all positive! Here were main-line denominational pastors writing and making inquiries as to how they could be Orthodox. The breadth of interest has spread dramatically across the spectrum.
Thirdly, it isn’t just the religion reporters from newspapers or the Christian radio hosts that want interviews. I am asked to be a guest, more and more, on secular talk shows. And I always feel I work best in these circles. Recently, I have had the opportunity to speak in several situations involving large secular audiences. What an opportunity to present the Gospel of Christ. Even unbelievers want to hear about historic Orthodox Christianity: something that has lived without change or alteration for two thousand years speaks of stability and thus has great appeal.
This is why I believe we are in the beginning stages of a movement to Orthodox Christianity.
A Look Back
We left Campus Crusade in the late 60s. Through those ensuing years of struggle to find the historic New Testament Church, and then seeking entrance into the Orthodox Church during the 1980s, there were so many times I’d feel blue. Those of us who were in on the core of Campus Crusade-men and women in our late 20s-really did see a movement happen on our American campuses. The years that Frs. Jon Braun, RichardBallew, Ken Berven, Gordon Walker, myself, and later when Fr. Jack Sparks came on board, we saw our work go from an unknown little evangelical effort on a handful of campuses to, by the end of the 60s, a chapter on every major campus in the United States. Crowds of students grew from living-room-size to several hundred, to two and three thousand, even five thousand. We knew we were part of a movement.
Honestly, when we discovered Orthodoxy, my hope for a movement was dashed. This Church seemed too old, too foreign, too catholic, too difficult! How on earth do you «market» something ancient and ethnic to post-modern Americans. When the culture is headed headlong in one direction-moving away from morality, from God, from tradition, from discipline and order-here we come espousing Orthodoxy? Get serious! My feeling was, «We’ll look after our own people, we’ll probably see some growth, but the gnawing question was: will we ever see Orthodoxy as a movement here in North America?»
On the plus side, though, if you study the twenty-century history of Orthodoxy, you see that wherever it has gone, given time, it does tend to become the faith of that country or region. Of course, the famous example is Russia, a country that essentially was pagan in religion. Then, starting primarily in the eleventh century, the entire nation is converted. They had one thing going for them of course, that we don’t: they existed under a monarchy. The ruler called the shots.
We exist in America under a very pluralistic democracy and if the President became Orthodox it probably would work against growth-everybody would scream, «State Church!» Even today in Finland, which was essentially a Lutheran country, there are two recognized bodies: Lutheran and Orthodox. I cannot predict the future of Orthodoxy here in North America, but there is out there a visible trend and movement toward the Church.
Remembering the Church in Acts
In Acts chapter 9, right after Saul’s conversion, he is sent by Jesus into Damascus to be received by the prophet Agabus. It appears that Saul literally comes up out of the water of Holy Baptism, then «immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God» (Acts 9:20). This was his singular message. «Then all who heard were amazed and said, `Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this Name [that is, the Name of Christ] in Jerusalem and has come here for that purpose so that he might bring them bound to the chief priest?'» In other words, his listeners thought Saul was preaching Christ as a front, so he could inflict more pain on them. But Saul, it says, «increased all the more in strength» (vs 22), which is a theme all through Acts. The tougher the situation is, the more strength God gives to His people. Saul received God’s strength and «confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ» (vs 22). This fulfills the promise of Jesus to His disciples that, «the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say» (Luke 12:12). That’s lesson number one in Orthodox evangelism in the Book of Acts and today: the Holy Spirit gives us words and wisdom.
Then we come to Acts chapter 10, St. Peter’s visit with Cornelius. This was the first time out of the blocks, so to speak, for the Apostles to approach potential Gentile converts. Peter opened his mouth and said: «In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him» (Acts 10:34-35).
This is lesson number two in outreach, and a tremendous promise to us: among all peoples, who is it particularly that God accepts? It is those who fear Him and work righteousness. (By the way if you ever need a verse to refute the relatively modern theoryof justification by faith alone, here is one of many!) What is the Lord looking for as He extends to all His arm of salvation? People who fear Him and do righteous deeds. These things by themselves do not save us, of course. But they receive God’s attention in bringing us to Christ and His Kingdom. Thus, Cornelius, a good and righteous man, was given the Gospel and the gift of salvation.
Lesson three in evangelism from the Book of Acts is that the Apostles preached not just Jesus only, but the Holy Trinity. For «God [the Father] anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…» (Acts 10:38).
Now and then, you will hear it said that the doctrine of the Trinity came out of the fourth and fifth centuries. Let us attend: the Trinity is preached in the New Testament Church! The Trinity is revealed at the baptism of Christ, Epiphany, (Mark 1:9-11), Jesus sends His disciples forth at the Great Commission to teach and baptize «in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit» (Matt 28:19), and these three divine Persons of the Godhead were preached and taught throughout the Epistles. The fullness of theTrinity was defended in the forth and fifth centuries, and the doctrine was secured by councils and creed to be sure, but it is the Lord Jesus and His Apostles who reveal and teach the Trinity.
If you go through the Book of Acts, this movement which was once just an out-of-the-way «Jewish» sect in Jerusalem gains momentum in the space of a few years to the extent that by A.D. 49 or 50 you’ve got the Gospel being preached everywhere in the known world. Most scholars believe the Church at Antioch was begun in 38 or 39, and within a decade it has spread almost everywhere that one could go.
If that happened then, could it happen now? Here in the West? Do these three lessons in mission from Acts still apply-and work for Orthodox outreach?
Granted, things today are different. One thing the early Christians had going for them was one message and one tradition: the «Christian pluralism» of today was unknown. Today in America you don’t just «follow Christ» and leave it at that because of so many so-called denominations. We are forced to be specific! Ours is a different playing field from the first century, but the hunger of people remains and our message is the same. The people who are interested in Orthodoxy today are those who fear God and seek to be righteous. And I believe that as these people form the foundation of the movement to Orthodoxy, then more and more we are going to see people who are unbelievers converted to Christ.
What are the opportunities down the road?
I was on the phone recently with the people at Thomas Nelson Publishers who are publishing and marketing the Orthodox Study Bible (OSB). This Bible has taken off quicker than almost any they have ever done. In just the first month, the entire first printing had been sold and a second printing ordered, another 25,000 copies! A third printing is due shortly. This is a very encouraging sign. The OSB is showing up in secular and Protestant bookstores coast to coast. And the mail coming in from Orthodox readers is full of enthusiasm. The OSB is already a catalyst to teach people the Christian faith from the New Testament itself, and to bring non-Orthodox into the Church.
Another encouraging sign for the future is Orthodox mission work overseas. In the next few years we must mobilize thousands of Orthodox people to bring the Gospel most especially to the Orthodox countries recently freed from Communist domain. The Greek Orthodox Board of Missions is doing an outstanding job going into Africa, specifically Kenya, and more recently, Russia.
In 1992, our experience preaching and teaching in Romania was incredible. There were several towns we visited that, if we could have stayed a week, we could have virtually seen the whole town turn out to hear the Gospel, the response was that strong. They asked us right at the end of the trip to consider coming back and doing the same thing on Romania’s college campuses that we did for the general public.
Currently, there’s great interest in England. The same thing is happening among Anglicans-the discovery of Orthodoxy-that is happening among Episcopalians in North America. I am hoping to go to Great Britain before Christmas 1993, to meet with Anglican priests and lay leaders who are looking at the possibility of entering the Orthodox Church with their people. The same forces that are driving the Episcopal Church away from the apostolic faith here in America are also at work in Great Britain.
Interest in Orthodoxy among Protestant pastors continues to build. This past summer I spoke to a group of eighty charismatic pastors in Oklahoma City. These men have come to the point in their study of the ancient Church to realize that historic Christian worship is liturgical and sacramental. I shared the platform with other pastors and theologians who were of great help to us in the AEOM on our pilgrimage to Orthodoxy. These participants included Tom Howard, Bob Webber from Wheaton College, Tom Oden, formerly a liberal United Methodist theologian who has become very traditional in his faith, and Bob Stamps who, for years, was chaplain at Oral Roberts University (ORU) and steered many there into Orthodoxy. Together, we represented the liturgical, sacramental, historical foundations in Christendom.
Then of course, new Orthodox missions are coming into being all across North America. For the first time since the Antiochian Department of Missions and Evangelism began in 1988, two new missions began on the same day. I wish I could have been in both places. One was in San Jose, a body of 200 people under their priest, Fr. Charles Bell. Many of these people belonged to the local Vineyard which Fr. Charles had previously pastored. That same day in Chicago, an evangelical congregation of some fifty-five people was chrismated-people whose roots go back to student days at nearby Wheaton College.
There is interest in other places as well, such as Vacaville, CA, where Fr. Nathan Mack, a former pastor in the Reformed Episcopal Church is leading his flock into Orthodoxy. In Topeka, Kansas, the state capital, with 120,000 people, there is no Orthodox Church of any jurisdiction in town. A wonderful group of former Protestants have come together there and asked to be chrismated.
Then, there is Aiken, South Carolina. An Episcopal priest, together with his wife and another person, began a retreat center there. It’s an old estate, 4-1/2 acres and a turn-of-the-century house right in the heart of town. They run a conference center for traditional Christianity called Rose Hill. This couple has made a decision just in the last few months to become Orthodox, and they would like to continue the work of the center, reaching out especially to college students and scholars, calling them to the Orthodox Church.
Asheville, North Carolina, is another possibility. A man from Jacksonville, Florida, called recently and he is interested in starting a mission. The list goes on. We are on the ground floor of a movement to recapture the first-century Church. This Church is still alive and well-and still Orthodox-as we approach the 21st Century.
One last observation: this movement is not something that is humanly engineered. I believe we are at a point of Orthodox development in North America which has its best days ahead. We Protestants had our chance, but we could not stay the course in doctrine or worship. Roman Catholics have made significant contributions to be sure. But Rome seems to continually be moving further and further away from apostolic faith, not closer toward it, especially since Vatican II. Post-modern theology, permissiveness and nominalism seem more in vogue in the West than historic faith and tradition.
Honestly, for people who fear God and want to be righteous, is not Orthodox Christianity the one choice left? But, let me be realistic. In Orthodoxy, the spiritual journey takes a lifetime. There is no quick fix, no one-night conversions. Knowing Christ means a long-term relationship.
Thus, I believe it is the Orthodox hour in North America. I believe that with all my heart. And the glory for the discovery of Orthodox Christianity goes to God. It is the Holy Spirit who is turning us back to worship correctly the Holy Trinity, to rightly know the Father together with the Son and the Holy Spirit.
FR. PETER GILLQUIST is Chairman of Missions and Evangelism for the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in North America. The author of numerous books, including Becoming Orthodox, his alma maters include the University of Minnesota, Dallas Seminary and Wheaton Graduate School.