25 August 2007

Evangelicals on the Constantinopolitan Trail

This story, which appears in the latest issue of the New Republic, may be of interest to some. It is about one of my colleagues, Fr David (Wilbur) Ellsworth.

Here are a few paragraphs from an earlier edition of the story.

The ministry is a calling, but it is also a career, and, in 1987, a Baptist minister named Wilbur Ellsworth was given the career opportunity of a lifetime. After nearly two decades of pastoring modest congregations in California and Ohio, Ellsworth, at the age of 43, was called to lead the First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Illinois--one of the most prominent evangelical churches in what was then the most prominent evangelical city in the world. Often called the "Evangelical Vatican," the leafy Chicago suburb is home to Wheaton College--the prestigious evangelical college whose most famous graduate is Billy Graham--and a host of influential evangelical figures, a number of whom worshipped at First Baptist. "I was now preaching to these people every Sunday," Ellsworth recalls. "It was all sort of heady and exciting."

From a professional standpoint, Ellsworth thrived. He oversaw the construction of a majestic new building for First Baptist with a 600-seat sanctuary and a 100-foot steeple that towered over Wheaton's Main Street.
And, due to the prominent evangelicals he now ministered to, he became something of a prominent evangelical himself--routinely meeting with the many evangelical leaders who constantly came through Wheaton. "I was at the very center of the religious world that I'd been a part of for most of my life," he says. "It was quite a promotion from where I was before."

From a spiritual perspective, however, Ellsworth was suffering. Over the past 20 years, a growing number of evangelical churches have joined what is called the "church growth movement," which favors a more contemporary, market-driven style of worship--with rock 'n' roll "praise songs"
supplanting traditional hymns and dramatic sketches replacing preachy sermons--in the hope of attracting new members and turning churches into megachurches. First Baptist of Wheaton was not immune to this trend:
Ellsworth increasingly found himself fighting with congregants about the way worship was being done. "They wanted to replace our organ with a drum set and do similar things that boiled down not to doctrine, but to personal preference," he explains. "I said, That's not going to happen as long as I'm here.'" It didn't. In 2000, after 13 years as the pastor of First Baptist, Ellsworth was forced out.

For Ellsworth, his departure from First Baptist triggered both a professional and a spiritual crisis. But, before he could deal with the former, he felt he had to address the latter. He devoted himself to reading theology and church history. At first, he seemed headed in the direction of the Calvinist-influenced Reformed Baptist Church or the Anglican Church, which are where evangelicals in search of a more classical Christian style of worship often end up. But, as Ellsworth continued in his own personal search, his readings and discussions began taking him further and further past the Reformation and ever deeper into church history. And, gradually, much to his surprise, he found himself growing increasingly interested in a church he once knew virtually nothing about: the Orthodox Church. "I really thought he'd go to Canterbury," says Alan Jacobs, a Wheaton College English professor and Anglican who is friendly with Ellsworth. "But he took a sudden right turn and wound up in Constantinople."

Ellsworth began reading more and more about Orthodox Christianity--eventually spending close to $10,000 on Orthodox books. By 2005, he was regularly visiting an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago (the Antiochian Orthodox Church is Middle Eastern in background and the seat of its patriarchate is in Damascus). By late 2006, Ellsworth realized that he wanted to be Orthodox himself. On the first Sunday of the following February, an Orthodox priest in Chicago anointed him with holy oil and he was chrismated--or formally received--into the Orthodox Church. A month later, at the age of 62, he was ordained as an Orthodox priest himself.

Ellsworth's story is hardly unique. Most of the approximately 150 members of the Orthodox parish he now leads are former evangelicals themselves. Even Ellsworth's transition from evangelical minister to Orthodox priest is not uncommon. Of the more than 250 parishes of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, some 60 percent are led by convert priests, most of whom are from evangelical backgrounds. And, according to Bradley Nassif, a professor at North Park University and the leading academic expert on Evangelical- Orthodox dialogue, the Antiochian Archdiocese has seen over 150 percent church growth in the last 20 years, approximately 75 percent of which is attributable to converts.

While it's unlikely that the Orthodox Church--which, according to the best estimate, has only 1.2 million American members--will ever pose any sort of existential threat to evangelical Christianity in the United States, it is significant nonetheless that a growing number of Southern Baptists and Presbyterians and Assemblies of God members have left the evangelical fold, turning to a religion that is not only not American, but not even Western.
Their flight signals a growing dissatisfaction among some evangelicals with the state of their churches and their complicated relationship with the modern world.


Rhonda said...

Very interesting. I am also an evangelical ( my cousins even attended Wheaton) in search of a better fit in a church. I enjoy the praise worship songs, but miss the hymns and worshipful atmosphere I grew up with. Could you recommend any introductory for someone interested in looking at the Orthodox Church?

herbdove said...

Dear Rhonda:
Fr. John is far more capable and qualified to answer than I, but the standpoint of general observation and personal experience I would look at: The Orthodox Church by Timothy (Bishop Kallistos) Ware and Becoming Orthodox by Fr. Peter Guillquist. Timothy Ware's book being more comprehensive.

Fr John W Fenton said...


As herbdove correctly surmised, I would recommend Bishop Kallistos' "The Orthodox Church." I would then follow that with His Grace's "The Orthodox Way."

However, the temptation is to believe that one can read his way into Orthodoxy. If one pursues that course, then one may end up very knowledgeable about Orthodox teachings, but not yet Orthodox. Let me suggest, then, that the better way is to attend regularly an Orthodox worship service (Byzantine or Western rite) and allow various Orthodox books (like those by the good Bishop) to explain why the Church worships as she does.

Rhonda said...

Herbdove and Fr.John-
Thank you for your input, I found a local greek orthodox church that I plan to attend in the next week or two, but I'm also happy to be able to do some intellectual investigating.
BTW, my daughter and I really enjoyed the "fighting" church signs you provided a link to a little while ago- thanks for the laugh!