Life Change #2

I’d like to share another change our family is experiencing. Debbie and I haven’t shared it with too many people, partly because we are in the very beginning stages and partly because of the potential misunderstanding our new journey may create. But it’s an important part of our lives right now and will become increasingly significant after we move into 2008.

 

Debbie and I are exploring the reality of our family joining Eastern Orthodoxy. Our journey together has brought us through Protestant evangelicalism longing for something deeper, richer and more significant.

 

But I’m jumping ahead of myself.

 

Several years ago, as a professional pastor, I experienced severe burnout. I emerged from that experience questioning both my practices as a pastor and a Christian. I was doing everything I had counseled others to do in order to be strong and mature Christians — church attendance, small group attendance, tithing, participation in ministry, evangelism, prayer, practicing spiritual gifts, regular Bible study, daily quiet times, worship, etc. And yet, while doing all of these activities, inwardly I was angry, stressed, jealous, competitive, greedy, lustful, afraid, insecure, and manipulative. Even though I loved God and truly desired to follow him, everything I was practicing was having virtually no effect upon my inward life.

 

My burnout became the catalyst for my journey into spiritual formation. I soon discovered the practices of spiritual disciplines and community that were beginning to reshape and renew my inward life.

 

But this journey quickly led me to realize that even deeper than my false practices lay my false theology and worldview from which those practices were nurtured and strengthened. And this theology and worldview was deeply ingrained within the entire structure of popular Protestant evangelicalism. It’s popular music, books, teaching, radio programs, and even local church infrastructures perpetuated theology, practices and ultimately a life that claimed to be biblical, but was far removed from anything Jesus and his early followers envisioned.

 

In my search for a theology that would sustain a life of spiritual formation, found myself drawn to theologians and church leaders such as N.T. Wright, Alexander Schmemman, Bishop Kallistos Ware, Father Thomas Hopko and others. Soon I found myself mentally embracing a fuller theology and faith that was significantly different from my Protestant roots. It seems that every facet of my theology underwent tectonic shifts. And all of this while pastoring a Protestant church.

 

The last four and half years away from professional ministry, while difficult in regards to understanding my calling as a pastor, have been wonderfully liberating in my personal exploration in theology and practice. The emerging church has provided an extended conversation that fueled my theological shifts. I love the faith-community in which God has placed my family. I love the new avenues of influence God has opened through my blog, writing and work at Asian Access. I have loved walking with two Fuller Theological Seminary students as they worked on their field education projects.

 

Yet, in all of this, there has been something missing. And it was especially noticeable when our family attended a local church on Sunday mornings. Debbie and I decided a couple of years ago to attend a local Vineyard Church that was pastored by my friend. This would allow our kids to participate in a youth program and allow Debbie and me to join in larger corporate worship, both missing within our small home church.

 

I discovered that the more I was away from professional pastoring, the more difficult it was to attend a local church. Don’t misunderstand me. My friend is an excellent pastor. He is perhaps one of the healthiest pastors I have ever met. I wish he had been in my professional life earlier on as a mentor. I probably would have avoided a lot of pitfalls.

 

Despite his excellent pastoring, I would leave Sunday morning worship meetings miserable and depressed. It is very difficult to explain what I was experiencing. At first, I thought Sunday mornings simply reminded me of everything I had lost when I left my last pastorate. But it was something else.

 

The worship, sermons, and fellowship at the local church were superb at one level. But everything was… how do I put it?… unreal. I kept seeing a structure with programs and budgets and people all perpetuating something that wasn’t real. It wasn’t real to Jesus’ vision. It wasn’t real to the Bible. It wasn’t real to the early church and to those who lived, labored and died for the doctrines and practices we now take for granted. It wasn’t real to any authentic spirituality. And it wasn’t real to life. It was like entering some weird fantasyland reality that didn’t make sense anymore.

 

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t a problem with my friend’s church. In fact, of all of the evangelical churches I have visited lately, his was the most comfortable and healthiest.

 

As I met with my pastor-friend for coffee over the last year or so, he would tell me repeatedly that because of who I have become theologically, it would be very difficult for me to find a church that I would fit. The truth of his statement hit me one day as I was emailing Mark. I suddenly realized that I embrace and believe more core Eastern Orthodox theology than I do Protestant evangelical theology. And although I disagree with some Eastern Orthodox theology, they are more peripheral areas. On the other hand, I disagree with most core Protestant theology. (I’ll need to unpack that in a future post.)

 

I was leaving Sunday worship meetings depressed because I was so out of sync with everything there — the music, the teaching, the subculture, the worldview — that it was a constant reminder of how much I don’t fit anymore.

 

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Eastern Orthodox podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio. As I listen to their discussions of faith, practice, theology and sacramental worldview, I’m discovering that I’ve believed this stuff a looooooong time already. In fact, I told Mark that I think theologically, I’ve been Orthodox for quite a while and it’s just taking time for the rest of me to catch up.

 

So our family is beginning a slow and cautious journey into Eastern Orthodoxy. We have visited a friend’s church for Vespers several times. It is so foreign and strange. After spending my entire adult life both academically and professionally pursuing ministry in a Protestant context, it is weird being a “beginner” all over again. But there is such promise in Eastern Orthodoxy for both me and my family. The thought of being part of a faith-community whose entire reason for being is to become like Jesus and to live and practice toward that goal together within a rich and deeply historical system excites me.

 

But I’m very anxious as well. In many ways, I feel there is no where to go from here if Orthodoxy isn’t for us. I cannot go back into evangelicalism. And because Roman Catholicism is inherently a western worldview like Protestantism, moving there seems to be only a lateral move.

 

So as our family explores Eastern Orthodoxy, I will be posting our experiences and reflections.

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14 thoughts on “Life Change #2

  1. I want to continue to bless what God is doing in you and your family. Thanks be to God that he has given you a courageous wife to walk by your side. I know that you can trust the Spirit in you to continue to lead you into the fullness of his desires for you all.

    Steve

  2. When you guys think about change, you don’t mess around! A friend on our teaching staff is part of an Eastern Orthodox church and I find many aspects of it intriguing and inviting. I would say the word “peripheral” is an accurate choice to describe the differences, but I would think that some people might choose a stronger word. Blessings on this journey and thanks for sharing. Do you think it is possible to bring some aspects of orthodoxy into the Protestant church?

  3. Hi Matt, Thanks for the encouragement. I do believe that it is possible to bring some aspects of Orthodoxy to the Protestant church, especially the teachings of the early Fathers. One person who has been doing a great job is Scot McKnight. His colleague Brad Nassif, who is Eastern Orthodox, interviewed him on his podcast and discussed how McKnight is bringing some Orthodox teaching in the areas of the Atonement, Incarnation and Prayer to the Protestant church. Although some of the Orthodox teaching is transferable, the Orthodox worldview is so radically different that I don’t think it would translate well.

  4. Hi Steve. Thanks for you continual friendship and blessing. You’ve been a great friend, especially during these last several years of wrestling with calling and my faith. I look forward to our continue friendship and coffee-talks together.

  5. Hi Jason,

    I agree with the depressing/oppressing feelings of church gatherings sometimes. In find your interest in Eastern Orthodoxy interesting. This question is not a jugdement, just a question. It seems to me that you’ve been moving away from highly structured spiritual community (church) to a more spirit lead experience. Is not Eastern Orthodoxy not a completely different turn back to high structure and tradionalism? What is really attractive about this direction?

  6. Hi Haran. Great question! I was actually going to address this and some other subjects in subsequent posts. But here’s the short answer: Having pastored in a small, organic, home church for several years now, I’ve come to the conclusion that structure is neither a good nor a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, structure and Spirit-led are often set at opposite sides of the spectrum, which can often be a false dichotomy. I have witnessed both highly structured groups that are very Spirit-led and organic groups that are controlling and manipulative. The problem with structure begins when people give the structure (its programs, leaders, etc.) the place of Jesus and begin to trust the structure to do the things they are responsible for as they follow Jesus. I’m sure this also occurs occasionally within Orthodoxy, but I’m not sure any group is completely free of this problem, whether it is a small home church or a larger liturgical church.

  7. Good point, Jason, about structure being neutral in and of itself. However, I wonder how one determines whether or not they’re trusting/following the structure vs following Jesus? I’ve been thinking a lot about these kinds of things lately.

  8. David, I am too. Thanks for being an encouraging influence during this time. Your model of a healthy Orthodox life is a major motivation in our exploration.

  9. Haran, it’s definitely good stuff to be thinking about. 😉 What I’ve learned over the last few years in a lightly structured environment is that following structure doesn’t have to be opposed to following Jesus. In fact, as a pastor, I’ve come to grips with the fact that most people need some structure to follow Jesus.

    For example, I am the kind of person that can do a lot of things by myself. So when I began learning about spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation, it wasn’t too difficult for me to begin practicing them on my own and then move it to a more communal experience with others. But I’ve found that others need the community structure to begin practicing so that it can then move to their personal lives. And that’s really okay.

    The problem with many local evangelical churches is that they have been convinced that the business model approach to leadership is the most effective way to structuring their church. So the senior pastor prays for vision and then implements that vision. The staff and congregation become more of a workforce to fulfill the pastor’s vision and not the community that journeys together.

    I remember being struck by something Todd Hunter said years ago. He said the true definition of a Christian leader is to help others follow Jesus and not the leader.

    I’m discovering that Orthodoxy’s structure is much like this. The entire “system” is shaped by their concept of “theosis” — to participate in the divine nature of God (2Pet 1:3ff). Everything (liturgy, icons, prayers, calendar, sacraments, traditions, etc) is to help the entire faith-community dwell in God’s presence and kingdom constantly so that we are then energized and transformed into Christ’s likeness. There are a couple of Orthodox sayings that I have taken to heart several years ago and rediscovering in my current exploration. One is “becoming by grace what Christ is by nature.” The other is “God became like us so we can become like him.” In my current understanding, this is Orthodoxy at its core.

    The structure itself cannot make this happen. But, for the community seriously attempting to follow Jesus, some kind of structure like this is necessary to help them accomplish it.

  10. Hi Jason,

    First of all, I really enjoyed the earlier post where you shared that beautiful prayer from the Russian Orthodox tradition.

    I’m curious if you can talk more about this statement:

    “But I’m very anxious as well. In many ways, I feel there is no where to go from here if Orthodoxy isn’t for us. I cannot go back into evangelicalism. And because Roman Catholicism is inherently a western world-view like Protestantism, moving there seems to be only a lateral move.”

    Your probably already know what I think, if you don’t recall here it is. I think we can cherish and incorporate the truth that is present in all of these traditions into our lives and live beyond the darkness that keeps those who love Jesus more divided than united. I’ve been know to say, “I am Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Orthodox, Wesleyan (I see it as different than Protestant), and Quaker (different again).”

    Do you have any thoughts about that?

    Best,
    Sam

  11. Just to add my two cents to the conversation about structure… I think that everything we do is structured in some way. Our faith traditions are not exempt from this. Structure is how we do what we do. The question is: What does the structure of our faith tradition say about what we believe and value. What does the structure lead us to believe and value? Is the structure more representative of our culture OR is the structure more representative of life in God’s Kingdom? What does the structure of our faith tradition lead us to “seek first?”

  12. Hi Sam. I’m hoping future posts will address some of the thoughts behind my statement that you quoted. I also cherish the truth that is in all of the various traditions. However, my family and I must be part of a community — hopefully one that maintains and follows the true Gospel, one that is designed to lead all of us together into Christ’s likeness, one that does not nurture our culture’s hyper-individualism, and one that is historically connected beyond the short history of a modern denomination. There’s more to say, but it will have to wait until later.

  13. David, your thoughts are worth much more than two cents! Thanks for jumping into the conversation. Every living thing has structure. It supports and enforces the life and activity of the organism. Structure is necessary. You hit the nail on the head with your question: “Is the structure more representative of our culture OR is the structure more representative of life in God’s kingdom?”

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