The Audacity of Converts

by George Demacopoulos

Several months ago, a recent convert to Orthodox Christianity with the online handle “BigSexy” launched a Reddit thread decrying Public Orthodoxy because, he claimed, it is an affront to Christian teaching. My first impulse was to mock the absurdity—are we supposed to believe that “BigSexy” has a monopoly on theological insight!?!

I realized, of course, that I should not be surprised that people say silly things on the Internet—especially about religion. Nor should I be surprised that some converts come from traditions that encourage certitude rather than faith. An academic forum, like Public Orthodoxy, is threatening to this kind of Christian (and others) because it complicates simplistic understandings of the Church and its history. At the time, I told myself that no one encounters a faith tradition without the hermeneutical baggage of their past. Indeed, if a Christian as remarkable as St. Augustine was unable to move fully beyond his Manichean experience, could I really expect a convert with Fundamentalist tendencies to eschew the entirety of his former world view?

But the more I’ve thought about this episode over the past few months, the more I have realized that the problem isn’t the converts, their past, or their zeal. The problem is us—those of us raised in the Church. As individuals and as communities, we are not adequately prepared for, or even interested in, the reception of converts—especially not converts with the audacity to have more enthusiasm than we can muster ourselves.

In the early Church, catechism was typically a three-year process, and Church leaders took it very seriously. In most parishes today, evangelism and catechism are an afterthought. Our priests have little time to devote to it and, with some notable exceptions, they often do not have the training or experience to be successful catechists. Lay leaders are less prepared and even less interested. Far too many see their service to the parish community in terms of cultural preservation rather than evangelism.

Perhaps there is no greater indicator that we do not consider evangelism to be central to our identity than the fact that we have a special designation for those who join our communities as adults: CONVERT.

In short, we are failing and a course correction requires both a conceptual reorientation and practical solutions.

Let’s begin with the fact that the continued designation “convert” is deeply problematic. Are we not all converts? Is Christianity not a life-long act of turning toward the embrace of the divine? Was my mother somehow less Orthodox than me because she was received into the Church in her thirties and I was baptized as an infant? One need only a cursory familiarity with Orthodox theology to know the answers to these questions. So why do we continue to stigmatize those courageous souls who have left the traditions of their upbringing to embrace the Church by referring to them as “converts”?

And while it is certainly the case that adults who join the Church need quality instruction and shepherding beyond their sacramental reception into the Church, the very same is true of individuals who have been in our parishes since their youth. Indeed, the degree of theological illiteracy that one finds among many of our teenagers and adults is alarming. It is often the case that adult converts know more about the Orthodox Church and its traditions than those raised in the Church. Why is that the case? It is because Orthodox parishes in the United States have largely failed to give religious education the investment, focus, and professionalization that it requires.

In addition to consistent, quality encouragement from the pulpit, parishes could take any number of steps to be more welcoming and inclusive of the hundreds of thousands of adult seekers who encounter our communities every year. These same steps would also help to retain our young adults who are leaving in droves.

For starters, as I’ve argued elsewhere, parishes in the United States should celebrate the Divine Liturgy in English (and I don’t mean artificially antiquated English). There is simply no theological or pastoral justification to perform the Liturgy in a medieval language that even immigrants don’t understand. Parishes that continue to conduct the majority of their services in Byzantine Greek or Church Slavonic are not only driving away their young adults, they are fortifying cultural barriers against mixed-marriage spouses and those seeking Orthodoxy by their own volition.

Second, priests and lay leaders who take an active role in catechism and religious education need to resist the temptation to speak of Orthodox Christian history in mythological terms. No long-term good comes from presenting Christian history inaccurately, polemically, or triumphally. No one should convert to Orthodox Christianity because they have been misled into thinking that Byzantium or Tsarist Russia was some sort of perfect age of Church/State integration where all moral questions had simple answers and it was always easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad. Similarly, priests and lay instructors need to understand that the Evangelical fixation with literalist interpretations of Scripture is not the Orthodox Christian approach to Scripture. They also need to understand that Orthodox “tradition” is a broad, complex category that requires a sophisticated appropriation for modern application. In short, our catechists need to know what they are doing.

Third, we need to emphasize that no one exists within the Orthodox communion in a pure or perfect way. Being born Greek, or Serbian, or Russian is no advantage. Our encounter with the living Church is always from a condition of hybridity, a complex amalgam of experience, context, and failure. Thus, whether we were raised in the Church or recently received, we are all converts with unique histories and we are all on a spiritual journey to learn how to love.

But this means we must embrace every fellow seeker. Even BigSexy.

George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.