My first visit to an Orthodox church was for entertainment. Many years ago, I took my small children to a Greek festival, an annual event of an Orthodox congregation in Birmingham. I was thinking of delicious food, lively dance, and the fun of experiencing colorful Greek culture. Somewhere in the back of my brain, the "Orthodox" adjective had been filed away with "Jew" and I had not retrieved it before the festival, so I was mildly jolted by the proliferative use of Christian symbols and icons as I entered the church. Looking back, if I had been using my head I would've known that a Jewish congregation would not refer to its building as a church. I vaguely remember concluding, "Well, what do you know, they're Christian." and then proceeding to the food line.
Fast forward several years. I read a wonderful book by Richard Foster called Streams of Living Water that described traditions of Christian faith throughout the history of the church. He uses the divisions of Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational. Written in 1998, it addressed the comment now heard frequently: "I'm very spiritual; I'm just not religious." The book is excellent, and I highly recommend it, but the reason I mention it in this post is because of something contained in an Appendix titled, "Critical Turning Points in Church History." In describing the "Great Schism" of 1054 when the Roman Christians split from the others, he gave a history of those "others", the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was the first time I'd realized that it's only the Western Christian church that splits daily. The Eastern Christians exist just like they did in the time of Christ. How is it that I've lived smack dab on the buckle of the Bible Belt and been completely unaware that the Jerusalem church as well as the others in the New Testament are STILL THERE with Eastern Orthodox congregations?
And it's not just a remnant. According to Wikipedia the 230 million members of the Eastern Orthodox church make up the third largest group of Christians in the world. Catholics are by far the largest with 1.2 billion and Protestants second with 670 million. The Protestant category includes a multitude of church denominations across the spectrum from mainline to evangelical. This is where we find around 100 million Baptists of which about 15% are Southern Baptist.
Now jump to the present. One day I saw a friend that I hadn't seen lately at our church. I learned that the family had left the Baptist church and joined an Orthodox church. I assumed they were driving to Birmingham or Atlanta to worship, but was surprised to learn that there is a new Orthodox congregation in the area of our small town. I saw the opportunity to experience the worship that I only knew from books. Unfortunately, the schedule of services conflicts with my own church, but during Lent the Orthodox church has extra services (and of course the Baptist church does not), so I saw my chance. It was love at first sight. The worship is full of sights, sounds, and smells. Long sessions of singing and chanting of psalms and scripture were beautiful and incredibly different from what I knew. Did I mention LONG? There's nothing concise about it. And don't worry about falling asleep, because the worshippers stand up during the entire service. Except for the children who wander around. There are a few chairs around the edges of the sanctuary for the elderly or anyone else who needs to sit, but otherwise it's Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus! I attended a number of the Lent services as well as Pascha (the Orthodox name for Easter) and plan to do the same this year.
I'll tell you all about it.