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 Spring 2007

 Vol. 15, No. 2

 

 Russian Protestant Conversions to Orthodoxy

Maria Kainova

Surfing the Internet, visiting different Russian Christian websites and forums, one might be surprised to discover how often Protestant conversions to Orthodoxy occur. Many Orthodox chatroom discussions include former Protestants who have “come home to Orthodoxy,” as they often call it. There they share their new joy and spiritual uplift and their doubts and their struggles. Do these accounts confirm a tendency, or do they just represent isolated cases one can easily ignore? Do they represent a type of revival in the Orthodox Church especially appealing to the Protestant mind, or are they the result of a very aggressive proselytizing campaign? What consequences do such conversions have for Orthodox and various Protestant churches and for ecumenical dialogue, which has never been a success in Russia?

No Firm Statistics

First, it is necessary to say that no firm statistics exist to support or dismiss the phenomenon of Protestant conversions to Orthodoxy. The Russian Orthodox Church is unable to provide a firm accounting of its numbers because it does not register permanent members. Today it includes about 23,000 parishes, which is about 3.5 times more than in 1987 when the process of restitution began. But it does not tell us how many come to the liturgy. Most Orthodox worshippers today come from non-Christian families and are products of the religious revival of the late 1980s and the 1990s. This revival of faith resulted in many new believers for traditional churches. While the majority became Orthodox, many also joined Baptist and a few other Evangelical communities. Some entered churches newly formed and led by American missionaries. While many of these Protestant congregations represented mainstream Evangelical churches in the United States, others, such as the International Church of Christ, are identified as cults even in the West. Interestingly, the majority of the newest Orthodox converts come from these recently formed communities. Today, most new converts come from such bodies as the International Church of Christ; many come from former missionary churches; a  few come from those communities that are not so deeply rooted in Russian history and culture (Adventists and Pentecostals); but almost none, or a very insignificant number, come from Baptist churches.

The phenomenon of migration between churches is not so surprising in itself. What does seem strange is that Christians, evangelized and baptized in Protestant churches, instead of joining another Protestant community that is much closer to them in theology and rite, are turning to the Russian Orthodox Church. This is particularly unexpected given the negative picture of Russian Orthodoxy often drawn by Protestant teachers to the effect that it is pagan, idolatrous (the icon issue), and deeply corrupted in its relationships with the state. Finally, what is difficult to understand is how Protestants become Orthodox in the absence of much effort on the part of Orthodox to bring in new converts. The Orthodox Church apparently is not very interested in evangelization.

Diverse Paths to Orthodoxy

An interesting feature of these conversions is that there seems to be no single or unique path to Orthodoxy. For some it is the end of a long and painful journey through various Christian communities. For others it is the result of an intellectual quest that started in Bible study groups with readings from Church Fathers and Russian theologians. But for many it begins with an unplanned visit to the nearest Orthodox parish or to a monastery, because mothers insist that their children become acquainted with the faith of their ancestors before being baptized in a Protestant community. But what actually leads people to cross this cultural and historical bridge between two Christian confessions? What motivates them to make this decision? Analyzing the testimonies, one can single out three main reasons: culture, ritual, and theology.

The Influence of Culture

The cultural reason is the most obvious. The majority of newly formed Protestant churches have a foreign origin. The style of worship implemented by Western missionaries and further supported by young Russian pastors who have graduated from American, German, or Dutch seminaries, is often seen as too alien to Russian culture. A good example is jokes in sermons. Not that Russians do not like or do not understand jokes. But everything has its time. There is a time to laugh. And there is a time to cry, or just to be serious and solemn. Sadness and sorrow are part of Russian culture, and we are not uncomfortable with it. Modern Western culture, on the other hand, is a smiling culture, emphasizing what is positive and successful. Sorrow is not a welcome feeling. And pastors try to dilute even the gravest moments with jokes. “I remember a sermon,” said one friend. “It was wonderful; we were all very moved. And then at the end the pastor said a couple of jokes that spoiled the whole picture. Such a waste!” Unfortunately, it is not just one element that catches the eye. The style of exhortation - the manner of sharing one’s feelings, gestures, and vocabulary - all seem to be an adaptation, just as most Protestant books are translations, not only from a different language, but from a different culture. Of course, those who are driven away from new communities for this reason can end up in the Baptist church, which has much deeper cultural roots in Russia. But many end up turning back to Orthodoxy that has always been associated with old Russia.

The Influence of Ritual

Ritual is another common reason for converting. As one new Orthodox convert shared, “It is not easy to explain because feelings are too weak an argument for Protestants, but my deep conviction is that one can understand Orthodoxy only through FEELINGS.” Many speak of a deep upheaval they experienced and of tears they shed when they first came to the Orthodox church: “Then I went to the liturgy for the first time. I was standing there and crying; I don’t know why, but in the cathedral I feel so good!” “I felt the same: tears on my first liturgy and a sense of coming home.” “I’ve finally found the church I was looking for. At the liturgy I can hardly hold back my tears. I’m home!” Coming home is a very common leitmotif of Orthodox professions.

There is a sense of recovery, rather than discovery: “It has always been home where the Lord was calling us, standing and waiting at the door.” Many speak of a very acute sense of God’s presence that they experience in Orthodox churches. “In Protestant churches I saw God’s work in people. In the Orthodox church I met God Himself.” “At some point I understood that I didn’t know God, so I had to look for Him myself until I found a church where there was just me and God and my fellows in faith.” This very special experience may be somehow related to what some mention as a time and place for inner prayer: “In an Orthodox cathedral I can pray any time, but in a Protestant church only at the time of thanksgiving/praise (20 minutes) or in a prayer group.” “We understood then that no silent time at a Protestant worship could be compared with the profound meaning of Orthodox prayers. We were listening to the words of the liturgy and were amazed at their depth, greatness, and infinity.” Some explain this by the fact that Protestant worship is centered on the sermon when hearers are told what to think and whether to give thanks or to lament and worshippers are led in prayer. By way of contrast, in the liturgy the participant has more freedom and more of a sense of being alone, face-to-face with God. “Every time I was sitting and waiting for something to happen, and then worship was over. But it was not over for me. I thought I must have missed something; only at the liturgy was my thirst quenched. I met God.”

Finally, one of the most important issues raised by converts concerns the Eucharist. “What I like the least is the Eucharist enacted as a symbol and not as a real partaking of the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” One recent convert told an especially striking story: “I remember one time when we came to a new [Protestant] church. (We had just moved to this city and were looking for a place to worship.) At the time of the Eucharist the leaders discovered that somebody had forgotten about the bread, so they just ran to the nearest bakery, bought a loaf, and shared it with the congregants, leaving crumbs all over the floor. It did not even look like a decent symbol of the Last Supper. One of the main reasons that brought me to the Orthodox Church is a reverent attitude to Eucharist.”

The Influence of Theology

One more argument in favor of Orthodoxy that is broadly discussed in Internet forums is theology. “In my case, the emotional aspect didn’t play such an important role. What played the major role was the study of church history and theology, and readings from the Church Fathers.” “I discovered Orthodox theology as something so well-founded, perfect, beautiful, and wholesome, that there was no question of choice, or more precisely, of inner struggles.” This issue encompasses several aspects. The first has to do with theological writings. The body of theological literature in Russia is not large, and the share written by Protestants is even smaller and often poorly translated; so anyone on a spiritual quest is sooner or later bound to come across the best of the Orthodox legacy: the Church Fathers, as well as religious philosophers such as Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, or Mikhail Florensky. To be fair, I have to admit that I know many Baptists who fell in love with these writers and still remained Baptist, but many as a result of this encounter turned to Orthodoxy.

In addition, Russians, on the whole, have a deep respect for their history. They are skeptical when they are told that their religious past counts for nothing, as it is stated even on the official website of the Baptist church. The rich tradition of the lives of the saints seems to openly contradict this position: “We read about the lives of Boris and Gleb – ideals sisters said, ‘So these are the Orthodox that we despise so much!?’ ” Many converts testify that after their baptism it was those lives of the saints and the writings of the Fathers that served them as models of spiritual discipline and encouragement in their life in Christ.

In Summary

First, we are not facing a mass conversion. It is only a tendency, but certainly worth being noticed and analyzed. Second, Russian Baptists rarely convert to Orthodoxy. The Russian Baptist Church is in many ways closer to Orthodoxy than to its Western counterparts. For example, regarding the Eucharist, Russian Baptists are much more inclined to see it as a sacrament than are Western Evangelicals. Russian Baptist pastors encourage a very reverent attitude to the ritual and even warn against dropping crumbs.

Finally, I would like to highlight the positive effects of Protestant conversions upon Orthodoxy. First, everyone knows that conflicts often spring from ignorance. As a rural babushka once asked me, “Tell me, daughter, those Protestants, do they believe in Christ?” Former Protestants will certainly know the answer to that question. Knowing the negative aspects of the churches they leave, they also remember the positive. By experience, they are much more open to dialogue than are traditional Orthodox believers. Second, they bring with them an intelligent faith. After coming such a long way in their spiritual search, they often know much more about Orthodoxy than do longstanding Orthodox believers, sometimes even more than priests. Unlike many Orthodox, new converts know what they believe and they know why they are Orthodox. It could be that Protestant converts to Orthodoxy will be a source for Orthodox renewal. ♦

Maria Kainova is a lecturer at the Russian- American Christian University, Moscow, Russia