In light of the recent exchanges on The Observer about converts, cradle Orthodox and the future of American Orthodoxy, we are republishing Terry Mattingly’s essay that touches on these important issues. This article was adapted from an address titled “So What Do the Converts Want, Anyway?” given at the 2006 Orthodox Christian Laity conference in Baltimore. Terry Mattingly, an advisor to AOI, is director of the Washington Journalism Center, editor of the www.GetReligion.org
What Do the Converts Want?
By Terry Mattingly
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies to tell the difference
between a Southern Baptist church and an Orthodox church. You can get some
pretty good clues just by walking in the door and looking around. But there
are some similarities between the two that might be a little trickier to
spot. For instance, let me tell you about what life is like on Sunday
nights in a Southern Baptist congregation.
Baptists worship at several different times during the week — at least
they did in the old days when I was growing up as a Southern Baptist
pastor’s son. One of those times is on Sunday nights. Back in the early
1980s, I was active in a church in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in which the
typical Sunday morning crowd would be about 200 to 300 people, which is
rather small for a Baptist church, but fairly normal for an Orthodox
parish. Then the crowd on Sunday night would be from 40 to 45 people.
Now, that ratio should sound familiar to many priests who lead Vespers
services. But the similarities don’t stop there.
Before the age of 30, I became a deacon and the finance chairman of that
church — which, in the Southern Baptist way of doing things, meant that I
was the only person, not excluding the pastor, who saw the annual pledge
cards. I was the only person in the congregation who knew who was giving
If there is an experience in life that will teach you the meaning of
original sin, finance chairman is that role. What I discovered through that
experience is that there is no connection whatsoever between how much a
family gives to the church and how much money that family makes. Instead, I
found that the key connection is faithfulness in worship. If you attend the
Sunday night service at a typical Baptist church and look around at the 40
people there in comparison to the 200 or 300 in attendance on Sunday
morning, you will find that about 80 percent of the church’s giving is
accounted for in that group.
The bottom line: The Sunday night experience in a Baptist church is very
similar to that in Saturday evening Vespers services in an Orthodox church.
As Bishop Antoun told me once, if you look at who attends Great Vespers and
comes to confession, you are looking at about 80 percent of the service,
the giving, and the energy in most parishes.
Who comes to Vespers? Who comes to confession? Who comes to the feasts, and
why do they come? That’s where I would like to start as we consider this
question: What do the converts want?
Where They’re Coming From
On one level, many Orthodox converts are fleeing megachurch
Christianity. They are coming because they want something on Sunday morning besides a rock band and a giant plasma TV screen. Converts are also fleeing from mainline Protestantism, which is in the midst of a three-decade statistical nosedive and demographic suicide.
At the same time, I believe that most of these converts are coming out of
that core 20 percent of their former churches. They are active, highly
motivated people. They read, they think, they sing, and they serve. That
hunger for more, that hunger for sound doctrine, is sending them to
These Orthodox converts are seeking mystery. They want a non-fundamentalist
approach to the faith, but they are not fleeing the faith of the ages. They
are trying to get back to the trunk of the tree. All around them are
churches that are either modern, postmodern, post-postmodern or
If they stopped and thought about it, most Orthodox converts would call
themselves premodern, since the modern world has not served up a wide array
of dependable answers. They are looking for beauty. They are looking for a
life that can give them some degree of stability and peace, while helping
them face the realities of the world around them. They want Orthodoxy. And
it is crucial to know that the converts want more Orthodoxy, not less. In
the words of Frederica Mathewes-Green in Facing East, “In Orthodoxy less is
never more. More is more.”
That’s the approach of the converts. They are not looking for “Orthodoxy
Lite.” They want more.
Now when we ask this question, “What do the converts want?” we may as well
admit that many Orthodox will hear that question as, “What do the Americans
A few years ago, the wife of an Orthodox pastor told my family, “You
already have your churches; why would you want to join ours?”
When we were seeking Orthodoxy in the hills of Tennessee, we tried to
attend the local Greek Orthodox parish — the only parish within a one- or
two-hour drive. When we called, they would — literally — not give us the
times of the services. We came to Orthodoxy in spite of them, not because
of them. We ended up starting a mission.
Looking for Worship
The American converts are not looking for some kind of post-Vatican
II, carved-down liturgical experience. They have that all around them. They are not trying to cut the service down another 15 to 20 minutes so that more
young people will hang around — as if that would work. Speaking as a
journalist, I can tell you that the lively, growing Roman parishes are not
the ones that have cut the Mass down to 45 minutes.
You see, the people who want to worship, want to worship.
One of the trends in American journalism is to try to create newspapers for
people who don’t read. This seems to me to be somewhat contradictory.
Similarly, there are many churches that are creating worship services for
people who do not want to go to worship services. The Orthodox converts are
not interested in those churches.
Also, the converts want their children to be Orthodox. They are looking for
churches that will offer their children a winsome, living faith that they
will want to follow.
My wife is a librarian. With a librarian and journalism professor in the
house, we care a lot about reading. Researchers tell us that if parents
want their children to read, the children must see the parents reading. The
parent reads to the child: this is the only way to hand down the love of
reading. The same is true with worship and faith.
Now that may seem like a cruel thing to say. In many Orthodox churches
across America, the average age of the parishioners is about the same as
the average age of the people in mainline Protestant churches. Many
Orthodox churches are having trouble retaining their young people, so they
are seeking ways to stop the bleeding. But there’s the rub. If you are not
creating new faith, you will not retain the children of those who had the
faith in the first place. As the old saying goes, God has no grandchildren.
You have to give the faith away.
The converts also want good preaching, since many come out of church
traditions that place an incredible emphasis on preaching. This does not
mean pounding on pulpits, because no one is doing that anymore — not even
the true fundamentalists. However, the converts do not believe that
preaching is the only sacrament, which is the rule in most of
evangelicalism. They want to worship with all of their senses. They want to
worship with their whole bodies.
I remember something that happened when my family was part of an ethnic
parish that had installed pews in the sanctuary. During Great Lent, the
number of people who came to church on Wednesday nights — for the Liturgy
of the Presanctified Gifts — was small, so we could stand in the front of
the church. Freed from the pews, all sorts of Orthodox things started
happening again. Prostrations returned. People were bowing, people were
worshiping with their whole bodies. It was a very moving experience.
Emotions are OK. Movement is OK. Beauty is OK. Humility before God is OK.
And more than anything else, participation in worship is more than OK — it
Let me be blunt. Americans who visit an Orthodox church will judge the
vitality of that congregation based on how many people sing and take part
in their worship. That is really unfair to many Orthodox who were raised to
stand in quiet holiness, but it’s the truth.
Americans will want to take part in the service. If they have mustered up
the courage to walk through the door of an Orthodox church in the first
place, they’re not going to want to just sit or stand once they’re in
there. They will feel left out, if there is no way for them to sing, if
there is no way for them to take part in the service. The church will have
just sent them back out the door. Let me repeat: Americans will judge the
spiritual vitality of an Orthodox parish on whether or not the congregation
is reverently and enthusiastically singing, praying, and participating in
Converts, Assimilation, and Unity
Truth is, I believe there is a link between this issue and that of
Orthodox unity. To make my point, I need to use a dangerous word –
America is all about assimilation. But I need to stress that Orthodox
believers face two different forms of assimilation. One asks them to
assimilate into America at the level of culture and language. The other
tempts them to assimilate on the level of doctrine and practice.
I believe that Orthodox Christians have divided into two different camps,
whether this choice is conscious or unconscious. In many parishes, we see
people who are struggling to assimilate into American culture but don’t
know what parts to accept. They are struggling to retain their language and
to some extent their art. But on the level of faith and practice, they have
already assimilated and their children have as well. You walk into their
homes and you see little or no iconography. Yet when you walk into their
church, they are not speaking English.
It’s an interesting mix of what they’ve given up and what they’ve chosen
to cling to. As an Orthodox priest of an ethnic parish once told me: “Most
of the members of my congregation have never been to confession in their
lives. They have no idea that this even exists as a part of our church.
They see no connection between confession and the life of our parish and
the sacramental reality of our parish.”
As threatening as it sounds, our goal — if there is to be a united
Orthodoxy — is to be united in worship and sacramental practice. This
unity will blend gifts from across our great ethnic traditions. However, it
will be a vital, growing Orthodoxy that at the congregational level can
welcome Americans with open arms. It will make them feel strange, but it
will be a place they can become a part of and even help change over time.
This Orthodoxy will assimilate on the level of culture and language, but it
will not assimilate to America at the level of practice, sacrament, and
doctrine. It will not compromise on the essentials. It will not compromise
on what unites Orthodoxy around the world and through the millennia. It
will create a worthy expression of Orthodoxy that will, over time, be
unique to this culture.
This will be painful. It will be hard, but it will also be joyful and
miraculous. It must happen. This is, quite frankly, what the converts want.
The Convert-Friendly Church
Let me return to the issue of children. In my experience of
Orthodoxy, I have found nothing more poignant or more painful than talking to ethnic parents and grandparents whose children have left the faith. They can’t understand. They thought America was going to be a wonderful place. They thought America was going to be a place that would make them feel at home. They thought they were offering their children a better life. Now, in some sense, America has taken away their children.
Here is that hard truth again. If their children are to practice Orthodoxy,
they will have to believe it, they will have to want to practice it. The
faith will have to be their own.
Let me stress that there is no such thing as a “convert church,” but there
are convert-friendly Orthodox churches. Even a church that is largely made
up of converts must, in the end, be a church that welcomes all Orthodox
people. Meanwhile, there are ethnic parishes that are full of people who,
as Fr. Joseph Huneycutt on the Orthodixie weblog likes to call them, are
“reverts.” There are cradle Orthodox priests who are as on fire as any
convert will be in their lifetimes. You see, this is not about ethnicity.
We are not talking about the “convert era,” but a “convert-friendly era.”
The worship in these churches will be in English, and the people — all the
people — will be singing. You will see lots of children, and chrismation
rites and adult baptisms will not be strange, mysterious events. The list
of their children who are headed off to church camp will be long. Some of
these churches will have tight budgets, but they will be tight because they
are struggling to cope with growth, not decline. You will find people being
called to the priesthood, the diaconate, and other forms of service.
In conclusion, let me offer this parable.
I have a friend who wants to be Orthodox — more than anything. He has for
a number of years been visiting a nearby Orthodox church. But there’s a
problem. You see, this friend also has business that takes him to Chicago,
and when he is there he worships at All Saints Orthodox Church, a vital,
convert-friendly parish. He sees the Orthodox life there and he wants it
like life itself. His problem is that he cannot find it where he lives.
For five years, he has been struggling. One year at Pascha, he witnessed
this painful, sad scene. This service, of course, is the high point of the
Christian year. Yet, at the high point of that service, as a small choir
entered the sanctuary singing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling
down death by death,” the members of the congregation stood in silence –
My friend saw this and, trust me, this was not what he was looking for. He
wanted Orthodoxy, for himself and for his family. He wanted more, not less.
He still does.
If there is to be unity in Orthodoxy in America, that unity will emerge out
of the sacramental life of the Church. We will sing unity into existence.
We will pray unity into existence. We will confess unity into existence. It
can happen no other way. We must live the faith and then give it away.
The Mattingly family attends Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD.