by Very Rev. Peter Gillquist
We arrived at the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese headquarters in Englewood, New Jersey, and the moment the door opened I knew my life would change forever. “Welcome home,” burst from Sayedna’s lips after we, the delegation representing the Evangelical Orthodox Church, accepted his gracious offer to receive our parishes — about 2,000 Evangelical Protestants across North America — en masse into the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan PHILIP’s two beautiful words still reverberate in my mind and heart 20 years later, and surely will for the rest of my life.
His Eminence put a lot on the line in receiving the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC). But he took that risk believing it was the right thing to do, and expecting that God would use this move to bless the members of the former EOC as well as all the Orthodox Christians of North America, and through them eventually all the people of our continent. God has been gracious, abundantly pouring out His blessings since Sayedna received the EOC into the Antiochian Archdiocese in 1987. I would like to review four prominent areas in which God has worked: the Orthodox Study Bible, the Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism, the planting of over 100 new missions, and the revival of Orthodox campus ministry.
The Orthodox Study Bible
Orthodox Christians are Bible people. The Orthodox Church gave the world the Bible, Her Fathers preached and taught from it, Her liturgies proclaim it daily, and to this day Her clergy weave their homilies around it. The trouble was, at the time the EOC entered, modern Orthodox were not known for personal Bible reading. Parish Bible studies were not widespread. The EOC had approached the Orthodox Church because of Her true Faith and worship, and we wanted to learn from those who had carried the Tradition intact for 2,000 years. Nevertheless, being former Evangelical Protestants, we were all about the Bible, and immediately saw an important area in which we could give back to the Orthodox Church.
Shortly after our chrismations, the St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology took up the daunting task of producing the first English-language study Bible from an Orthodox Christian perspective, beginning with the New Testament and Psalms. Metropolitan PHILIP blessed the undertaking, though this was not to be an exclusive Antiochian Archdiocese project. This study Bible would be for all the Orthodox; hence, we gathered scholars from multiple jurisdictions to write and edit the notes. Likewise, donors from all sectors of Orthodoxy came forward to fund the project.
Thomas Nelson Publishing President and CEO Sam Moore, a godly man of Lebanese descent, did not expect his company would make any money on this project. All he asked was that we sell enough Bibles to break even, that number being the initial press run of 25,000 copies. We took it by faith God would help us reach the goal. Lo and behold, to everyone’s amazement and joy, the first run sold out even before it went to press! The Orthodox Study Bible — New Testament and Psalms wasn’t even ready for distribution, and Thomas Nelson had to scramble to print more.
Over the years the St. Athanasius Academy has received wonderful feedback concerning the Orthodox Study Bible. We’ve seen hundreds of letters and heard thousands of comments, from life-long Orthodox Christians who credit the Orthodox Study Bible with revitalizing their faith, to recent converts who claim their journey to Orthodoxy may not have been possible without it. The Orthodox Study Bible even has played a decisive role in drawing Protestant clergy and entire congregations to the Orthodox Christian Faith. Fr. Joseph Corrigan wrote of the study Bible’s importance in his and his congregation’s journey to Orthodoxy in the mid-1990s:
“Much of what we read in the Orthodox Study Bible confirmed the things we had discovered along our seven-year journey, things that would be considered ‘heresy’ by conventional Evangelical wisdom. The more we read, the more convinced we became that we needed to make contact with these Orthodox people about whom we had been reading and yet remained shrouded in mystery….In the course of my Christian life no single edition has ever had the impact on my life that the Orthodox Study Bible has had in bringing me home to the Holy Orthodox Church.”
Not long after the Orthodox Study Bible — New Testament and Psalms came out, Orthodox Christians of every background began clamoring for an Old Testament companion. The St. Athanasius Academy began work on the Orthodox Study Bible — Old Testament in 1998, but this time the task was even more monumental. Not only would we need to write notes for about three times as much material, but we also had to produce a text of the Septuagint, the predominant Old Testament text used by the Orthodox Church, in modern English. Thanks be to God, after 10 long years the complete Orthodox Study Bible, Old and New Testaments, is scheduled for release in February 2008!
The Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism
In bringing 2,000 former Evangelical Protestants into the Orthodox Church, first and foremost Metropolitan PHILIP commissioned us to bring in more. At our mass chrismation he told us:
“We have to bring this Church from Byzantium to America. We have to bring it from tsarist Russia to America. Psychologically we’re still not here, some of us. Now you’re here….so do something about it!”
To help fulfill Sayedna’s commission to “bring America to Orthodoxy,” the Archdiocese established a full-time Department of Missions and Evangelism. We had to begin by inspiring and training the faithful to evangelize — from an Orthodox perspective — and hit on the idea of a national conference. We would invite Orthodox clergy and laity to a weekend of lectures and workshops, teaching the Orthodox how central evangelism is to the life of the Church, and instructing them how to do it. On Labor Day Weekend of 1988, the annual Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism was born.
The Conference proved a success the very first year, attracting more than 100 participants from multiple Orthodox backgrounds. Over the years many have testified to how the experience moved them personally to a deeper understanding of and greater enthusiasm for their Faith. Many more have reported the long-term fruits of their participation in the Conference: more serious involvement in Church services and activities, a commitment to parish growth, deeper personal faith, and in some cases even the very survival and eventual resurrection of their parish. One priest who attended an early Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism wrote, “You literally saved my parish! There wouldn’t be a parish there if it weren’t for this conference.”
It soon became clear that the Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism was becoming not only a cross-jurisdictional event, but an outreach event in itself. In some years Conference attendance has run as much as one- third non-Orthodox! The Conference has developed a reputation as the place for Protestant seekers to check out the evangelical side of the Orthodox Church. In a number of cases, their experience at the Conference has given these Protestants the boost they needed to finally choose Orthodoxy.
Orthodox Christians returned home from the Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism and put to use what they learned — sharing their Faith, helping their parishes grow, and helping to build new missions. At the same time, I and as many local Orthodox priests as I could recruit were kept busy visiting with and training a steady stream of Protestant clergy inquiring about Orthodoxy. Some of these were hoping to bring part or all of their flock with them into the Church.
Just before the Evangelical Orthodox Church entered in 1987, the Antiochian Archdiocese consisted of 117 parishes in the United States and Canada. Today, with the addition of the 17 EOC parishes, several former Anglican and other liturgical Protestant congregations of the Western Rite Vicariate, and over 100 new missions (most of which have grown to full parishes), the AOCA has more than doubled its parishes in just 20 years. The multiplication of new Orthodox Christian missions is the third significant area in which we have seen God’s blessings at work, and where He has allowed the former Evangelical Orthodox to contribute to His Church.
Orthodox Campus Ministry
The fourth major area in which God has worked through the entry of the EOC into Orthodoxy has been on campus. Most of the leadership of the EOC had “cut their evangelistic teeth” through college ministry, working as campus ministers and national leaders in Campus Crusade for Christ. What’s more, much of the EOC membership had either become Christian or re-committed their lives to Christ as college students in the 1960s and 70s. In several instances these students formed the founding core of what eventually became an EOC parish. It was only natural that our movement would carry on its campus work under the omophorion of the Orthodox Church.
Sayedna PHILIP assigned Fr. Jon Braun, one of the central EOC bishops and one of the most noted campus evangelists in the country, to revitalize our college ministry efforts. Following the Orthodox Conference on Missions and Evangelism example, the Department of Campus Ministry hosted the first nation-wide Orthodox College Conference in many years in the summer of 1989 — and again, it was offered for all the Orthodox, not just Antiochians.
Orthodox Christian students, accustomed to feeling hopelessly outnumbered and pressured on their campuses by secular forces on one side and Evangelical Protestants on the other, finally were offered a place where for at least a few days they could find strength in numbers and the brotherhood of other Orthodox believers. Eventually moving from summer to winter break, the Orthodox College Conference has grown in depth and attendance over the years. It has become a key offering of the reborn Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) under the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA).
The infectious enthusiasm for campus ministry which the Evangelical Orthodox Church brought to Orthodoxy has spread across North America. In addition to the annual Orthodox College Conference, Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) chapters have sprung up at 240 college campuses as a result of grassroots efforts by inspired students, local clergy, and neighboring parishioners. After graduation, a large number of these students have gone on to make important contributions in their parishes. We thank God for rekindling the Orthodox Christian Faith at our nation’s colleges and universities, and for reviving OCF itself as an effective force on campus.
Those of us who entered into Orthodoxy with the Evangelical Orthodox Church in 1987, as well as the thousands of Evangelical Protestants who came in before or since through any jurisdiction, surely can agree that the Orthodox Church has transformed us, affecting us far more than we it. Being unworthy, we humbly thank the Lord God for leading us to this most blessed Church, and we always will be grateful to His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP for courageously opening the loving arms of the Church to us. Having received so much, it is our honor and joy to have been able to offer some of our gifts and talents back to our Holy Mother Church. We do feel welcome, and we know that we indeed are home.
Courtesy of the
September 2007 issue of The Word magazine.