Journeying Home (2) — From Emerging Church to Eastern Orthodoxy

So we left the evangelical church. Several of us began meeting at Mark and Barbara’s home. Mark and I, disillusioned by the consumerist model of church, desired to create a new kind of community. We wanted this community to be organic, not requiring a building or staff. We wanted this community to avoid becoming meeting-centric. Our hope was that our times together would supplement each member’s personal apprenticeship to Jesus. We didn’t want our members to rely on any structure, program, system or staff in their relationship with Christ. We wanted to purge ourselves from the contemporary Christian ethos of viewing the church as the organization that provides for my spiritual needs. It was out of this vision that I wrote the article “Detoxing from church.” In hindsight, I wished I had entitled it “Detoxing from Consumer church,” since I was actually critiquing the consumerist model of the evangelical church.

We also began acquainting ourselves with the fledgling Emerging Church. Through blogs and relational networks, we discovered others who were leaving the consumerist evangelical church with the hope of developing alternative forms of Christian community. We were encouraged by people with similar stories, who were paving the ecclesiological path into the future. 

Our group developed three simple values — the inward journey, the outward journey and the corporate journey. We hoped to become a community that focused on being formational, missional, and communal. We wanted to be apprentices, becoming like Jesus from the inside-out. We wanted to become ambassadors, living like Jesus in the world. And we wanted to become apprentices and ambassadors by how we lived and worshipped together. One of the statements we adopted was “To embody, demonstrate and announce the fullness of Christ.” Simply put, we wanted to be incarnational. We hoped to learn how to be Jesus’ actual body, the continuing incarnation on earth. Just as Jesus embodied Yahweh, we desired to be sent as Jesus was sent (John 20:21). In fact, we embraced an Orthodox saying, “Becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.”

So our group met, lived, and loved together. We read books together, studied Scripture together, and ate together. At this time, our home church is five years old. I am forever grateful for the experience. After fourteen years of professional ministry, I relearned how to have substantial friendships completely free from any pastoral role. I was also free to engage in theological exploration and discovery that I could not have done on staff at my previous church. And most importantly, our group has shown my family love in very rich and meaningful ways. 

Yet, during these past five years, I have learned several lessons that ultimately turned my gaze toward Eastern Orthodoxy.

I quickly learned that while spiritual formation requires personal responsibility and effort, it is a communal endeavor. During our home church’s first couple of years, even though I knew spiritual formation requires community, I think I overemphasized the individual aspect. To our members, I continued to liken spiritual formation to individual athletic training — one needs to train as an individual in order to be like Jesus and live his kind of life just as one needs to train in order to be a great basketball player. 

However, I learned that just as very few people are capable of mastering a sport simply by training on their own, very few people are capable of mastering God’s life by training on their own. Spiritual formation is a team sport. The “one another” exhortations in the New Testament alone make that clear. Spiritual formation must be learned, practiced and lived at the corporate level. The community’s experience of formation is not supplemental, but foundational to each member’s formation.

This became especially evident as Debbie and I discussed our children’s formation. We obviously wouldn’t expect our kids to train into spiritual formation on their own. They needed guidance from us as parents, which we gladly accepted. But we also realized that they needed some sort of structure to help them experience formation within a community. They needed to worship, pray, study and fellowship in a community. We also felt that they needed formational moments like youth camp and service projects. So after a couple of years as a home church, Debbie and I decided that our family would also attend an evangelical church in order to provide community and structure for our kids. Unfortunately, it got to the point that once a week, we were driving our two younger kids to one church for their children’s program and our two older kids to a church in a different city for their youth program. That got old quick.

In our home church, we knew we needed some sort of structure during our community gatherings to help us be formational, missional and communal. Gathering only to eat, study and talk was meaningful, but also lacked something essential. Specifically, we needed worship and prayer. But I didn’t want us to fall back into singing contemporary worship songs that contained shallow, mishmash theology. Nor did I want us to digress into prayer meetings that were filled with extemporaneous and usually forced and shallow prayers. Communal worship and prayer needed to be deeper in order to be formational.

At first, this was difficult to admit. Because the consumerist structure that we had left was so destructive, I clung vehemently to the concept of a community with very limited structure. And we floundered. We needed structure to steer us as a community into formational worship and prayer. But I dreaded the idea of creating a system upon which we would develop an unhealthy dependence as we had done in the consumer model. Yet, we couldn’t continue without structure. We decided we needed some form of liturgy to guide us.

Since none of us came from any liturgical tradition, we began exploring liturgical components from a variety of Christian traditions. We used the Divine Hours. We used Lectio Divina. We used the Common Book of Prayers. We incorporated Eastern Orthodox prayers. We lit candles. We read from the Revised Common Lectionary. We even created our own prayers. 

And we discovered two things. First, creating liturgy requires a lot of energy and time, something we didn’t have.  Also, this kind of endeavor creates a liturgy that is discontinuous and jumbled. While sometimes meaningful at a personal level, our efforts failed to create a regular structure that supported a formational life. And, quite frankly, I’m simply not smart enough to create a cohesive liturgy every single week. Others in the Emerging Church were developing liturgy, but the results either seemed relevant only to the life of that local community or were pieced together from various sources like we had experienced. We needed something cohesive that was larger than our local context and had a time-proven record of supporting spiritual formation. 

Our liturgical exploration also made us aware to the need for sacraments. We knew Jesus’ Incarnation redeems all of creation and the entire world is filled with his presence. We realized that formation occurs by living one’s whole life with Jesus’ presence in the world. But learning to experience his presence in the world requires special moments of his presence as a community. One cannot experience the entire world as a sacrament without actual sacraments. One cannot view the entire world as holy and filled with Christ’s presence without having special moments that are holy and filled with Christ’s presence. The logical conclusion of Christ’s Incarnation is a sacramental life. But as Protestants, our only regular sacrament was communion. But was it only symbolic or something more? Unable to agree, we left it at “to each his or her own.”

Bottom-line, over the last five years, I have learned that an incarnational life — being formational, missional, and communal — must be supported within a community that has effectively practiced time-proven and life-giving liturgy and sacraments. My family and I need this kind of community, but where would we find it? Our simple non-Protestant choices were Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, or Eastern Orthodoxy. While certain aspects of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism were attractive, their historical roots as well as contemporary issues dissuaded me from leading my family in either of those directions. Also, I had become very attracted to Eastern Orthodox theology over the last several years and had become convinced that they had preserved the biblical Gospel better than other traditions. I was surprised upon reflection that I agreed more with Orthodox theology than I did with Protestant theology. 

So through David’s encouragement, Debbie and I decided in late 2007 to give our family twelve months to explore Eastern Orthodoxy in a parish close to our home.

To be continued…

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12 thoughts on “Journeying Home (2) — From Emerging Church to Eastern Orthodoxy

  1. FYI, Jason. I’ve linked to you. I expect that at least one or two of my friends will stop by.

    Meanwhile, wow! I’m really enjoying reading your story!

  2. Jason, your journey sounds quite similar to mine. Over the last several years, I have baby-stepped my way of the established church and into “emergent experiments” both personal and communal…reached some the of the same conclusions as you…and I am now attendending Liturgy at a Greek Orthodox Church and studying with a priest. I look forward to hearing the rest of your story.

  3. Hi Philip. That’s so cool that you’re attending Liturgy and studying with a priest. As I look back on my journey, God used all of the phases I underwent, especially the Emerging Church, to prepare me to enter the Orthodox Church. In fact, I think my time in the Emerging Church was necessary before entering the Orthodox Church. I learned a lot there and bring what I learned to my new home.

  4. Wow! Since a trip to Turkey and Romania to look at the Orthodox church I have found myself compelled to investigate. Some nights I sit in bed alternating between Kalistos Ware’s book and Brian M’s book on Jesus. They both appeal. My friends think I’m nuts. My husband is in shock. How can I do “new and old”. But I am finding in the pre-RC, pre-Protestand Orthodox church an amazing reflection of my beliefs. Once I had dreams of living in Christian intentional community and now I stay far far away from church becasue they keep calling me border-line heretical.

    In Orthodoxy I find the space to believe that there MAY be a place for a christian universalism. I can talk about becoming god (theosis). I can reject sola scriptura, a punishing view of atonement, and the utter depravity of man. I can breathe. I cried in Romania when I experienced the commu nion of the saints. I cried when we talked about salvation, trinity, creation, hope, grace…I was either crying or grinning from ear to ear the whole time.

    Please, any like- minded souls. What are you doing with the all male priesthood? How do you accept that women can never enter the alter as boys can at baptism? Homosexuality?

    While I struggle with these things I find that the absolute belief that all contain the image of god and that there is a purpose to creation beyond getting back to the garden absolutely seductive. I have not made peace with what seems exclusionary, but I never had such hope that their may actually be a place for me in Christianity after all.

    I’ve started a blog to help process.

  5. I was either crying or grinning from ear to ear the whole time.

    …you sure you weren’t in a Charismatic church, by mistake…? :-\

  6. Pauline, thanks for sharing a bit of your journey. I completely resonated with your experience of “Some nights I sit in bed alternating between Kalistos Ware’s book and Brian M’s book on Jesus.” But in the end, I knew Jesus was leading me toward the Orthodox Church. I need the historical, traditional and spiritual depth that the Orthodox Church offers.

    And believe me, there were some significant obstacles that my wife and I had to deal with as we journeyed toward Orthodoxy. But in the end, we knew we needed to trust the Church. Recently, we heard Fr Peter Gillquist say that there is a progression of trust that we must experience in our Christian journey. First, we learn to trust Jesus. Then we learn to trust the Bible. But we then need to progress further and learn to trust the Church.

    For me, this didn’t mean blind obedience. I do not like to be told what to believe and do without the opportunity to think, talk, process and even disagree. And what I’ve been discovering is that Orthodoxy is filled with many traditions (with a small “t”) that are not really what it means to be Orthodox. The life of Christ contained in the Orthodox Church is in its Tradition (with a capital “T”). It’s in that Tradition where you find the unchanging and life-giving Gospel of Christ.

    I don’t know if any of this helps. I will pray that Christ will continue to lead you deeper and deeper into his life.

  7. Hi Jason. Your comments did help. I have followed some similiar territory over the past few weeks. I am talking to the priest about becoming a catechumen tomorrow.

    I am especially curious about your discoveries in the world of little “t” tradition. That seems to be where I can breathe a little and get the peace to continue. In the end I go where the Lord leads. What else is there?

    My huband is supportive but not interested for himself. May I ask how you and your wife as a couple have experienced this journey?

    your future Orthodox sister, Pauline

  8. Pauline, I searched in vain for an email for you on your blog/profile. Also, though I always sign my name, there is no “anonymous” option enabled in the comments.

    I’m a catechumen too, probably a bit older than you ;P with a husband who is also not going to join me. I’d like to talk. Give me a shout at ldames at pacific dot net.

    Dana (say “dan-nuh” not “day-nuh”)

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