Is the Ancient the New Modern? New converts flocking to ancient church in Houston

Is the ancient is the new modern?  Can what is old be new?  The cult of fad teaches us to chase after the wind for the newest, latest, and greatest trends in leadership, missional discipleship, and so called incarnational communities.  And yet this wind chasing is driving people from the emptiness of the ever changing landscape that seems to be our post modern church into the arms of the ancient church.   An article in the Houston Chronicle highlights this “trend:”  New converts flocking to ancient church in Houston – Houston Chronicle.

So what gives?  Why are new converts flocking to the stuffy old church of the past?  Why the church of the Eastern traditions of christendom?  Two words:  Stability and Tradition.  The Chronicle observes:

“Most people come for the stability,” he (Father Richard Petranek) said. “The same thing that is taught today in the Orthodox church was taught 500 years ago, was taught 1,000 years ago, was taught 1,500 years ago.”

At a time when most mainline Christian churches are losing members, Eastern Orthodox churches — which trace their beliefs to the church described in the New Testament – are growing, both in Houston and across the United States.

The numbers are still small: the 2010 U.S. Orthodox census estimates there are about 32,000 active Orthodox churchgoers in Texas and just more than 1 million nationally, although other estimates are higher. But the number of U.S. Orthodox parishes grew 16 percent over the past decade.


To outsiders, the first hint of what lies within is often the architecture; many of the churches are built in a neo-Byzantine style, capped by gold domes and other flourishes, standing out in a city of sleek skyscrapers, strip shopping centers and ranch houses.

Traditions vary from church to church, but in many congregations, members stand for much of the service. The priest faces the altar for long stretches of time, with his back to the congregation. (All Orthodox priests are male.)

Members make the sign of the cross throughout the service, they kiss icons of Jesus and the saints and, sometimes, the Communion chalice and the priest’s robes.

“It’s pretty freaky for people from the nontraditional churches,” said Father John Salem, pastor of St. George Antiochian Christian Church in West University. “If you come from a non-liturgical background, it can be pretty overwhelming.”

But to many converts, the traditions are the main attraction.

“People are tired of the mixture of worship and celebrity culture,” said Frank Schaeffer, a writer and novelist who converted to Orthodoxy 20 years ago from the evangelical faith of his childhood.

“People are tired of these worship services that look closer to MTV or the Disney channel than something that goes back into the past,” said Schaeffer, son of Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer and the author of books includingDancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False ReligionandPatience With God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism).“In the Orthodox church, people are not there for the priest, but for the liturgy.”

(Recent convert to orthodoxy, Lana) Jobe points to something else:

“You see churches today splitting over doctrinal issues,” she said. “In the Baptist church, there’s the Southern Baptists. There’s the Texas Baptists. There are controversies over Biblical truths or inerrancy or homosexuality; all kinds of issues come up, and the church wants to vote on it. We don’t have to vote on anything, because it was settled from the very beginning.”

Someone once said, if you want to plant a mega church, build a huge cathedral and follow the ancient liturgies of the church.  I do not know who said that or if I have quoted it correctly, but there is something to be said for the monolithic, ancient churches and congregations that have weathered the storms of time and heresy and dissension to remain a bastion for the Kingdom of God against the devil and the fads and trends of post-modernism and our shopping mall mentality.  They are represented by ancient buildings that house bones of those who have gone before us, strange and curious artwork, and writings from seemingly ancient tongues.  Enter a Divine Service in one of these congregations and it will seem foreign and rigid, yet it strangely draws you into it as if you have actually entered into another world with the colors, the reverence, the movement, and the sights and smells.  And yet, there is nothing new about it.  To the modern, marketed at mind, it may seem new, but it is just different.

Perhaps it is more than just stability and tradition that draws people to Grandpa’s church.  Stability implies consistency, confidence, and purpose.  Tradition connotes identity and familiarity.  All are apt descriptors of the ancient church.  For it is to this ancient body that the truth of God was first revealed through His one and only Son and the faith of Christ deposited for all time. Anchored, moored, and grafted to the historical root that is Christ Himself, the ancient church stands on truth that is not the invention of man.

What are some of these truths claimed by historical churches?  The article itself refers to several truths.  One is the Word of God.   The liturgy is the term used in the article.  In the eastern church, liturgy is life.  So what is it?  In its simplest form, it is the formal order of service.  And yet, it is nothing but God’s word spoken to us in the Divine Service with our speaking His own Words back to Him.  It is confession of the faith delivered to the saints.  This speaking of God’s Word back to Him showing that, through the working of the Word, we are in agreement that what He says is true, and, more to the point, what He says about all of humanity including us is true.  We do this together, as a people, in fellowship with God and with one another.    That Word does not change, and is the same yesterday, today, and every day.

This leads to a second truth — Stability.  The church is the guardian and steward of the mysteries of God.  It is a refuge for the weary and broken in the world in which the Word of God is delivered to us to mold and shape us into children of God.  And so the church provides space for teaching and develops doctrine and methods of transmitting the faith and carrying out the work of the Body of Christ that provides consistency and unity among the many members.  Liturgy is one example of this consistency and stability.

A third truth follows — Faithfulness.  The church is faithful in teaching doctrine.  Doctrine are the truths drawn from Scripture which the church is to teach to all for the purpose of making disciples.  The church is faithful in being a refuge for the weary and the broken.  The church ministers to the poor, the sick, the hungry, naked and those in prison.  The church is faithful in asserting the truth of the doctrine it has been given.   What the church teaches does not change, because it is drawn from the immutable Word of God.  And so the church does not change who it is or what it is to fit some conception of what it ought to be as outlined in a marketing plan, or to conform to the norms of the culture in which it finds itself.  No, we are conformed to the Word of God.  The church is always the stranger, the foreigner in this world.

And a fourth — Jesus.  One of the most telling statements in the article is that “people are not there for the priest, but for the liturgy.”  In many churches, it is the pastor who is front and center.  Young, hip, fresh, and relevant, the church is about the personality, the ministry of the preacher.  Yet the longing described in the article is to set aside the obsession with personalities, and be fed by the Word in the liturgy.  For the liturgy brings the Word of God to the people, and the Pastor serves that Word.  What people get is a servant, filling the office of the Pastor, not a larger than life personality, but one who understands the privileges and duties of the office, and carries out the work with humility, reverence, and faithfulness.  Because at its apex in the Divine Service, the liturgy brings Christ directly to the people through the mouth and hands of the priest.  In other words, the church delivers Christ to the people of the church in Word and Sacrament — in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the reading and preaching of the Word of God.  People are there to receive Christ and what He has promised to give them.  It is Christ alone that is the hope, foundation, and chief cornerstone of the church.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Sadly, many feel as if the church brings MTV live, or, for our children, Justin Beliebers in a Disney show just for them.  Many see the church becoming a sit-com or reality television show.  And yet, as the article shows, edutainment and conformity to the world are leaving people empty, and hopeless searching for something real.  Fancy words such as “authentic” and “incarnational” devoid of their true meaning are of no avail either. Hope can certainly not be found in a church that changes who it is and who it is called to be to suit the whims of its members or the culture in which it finds itself.  Nor can it be found in some idea of authentic christianity that we seek to capture in ancient rites and rituals, or in what we believe to be the way the early church worshiped and lived.  Hope is found in nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.  Hope is found in the eternal truth of God, not the invention, idea, or conception of any man.  From this truth flows the life, the practice, the work of the church on earth.  It is and remains with the historical branches of the church.  It is time to look from where we have come to see where we should be.

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