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Journeys of FaithEvangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Robert L. Plummer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Journey to Eastern Orthodoxy
Who can say when a journey begins?
People, places, times, and experiences all contribute to the journey, but they soon become part of the past as the journey keeps unfolding. My Baptist heritage nourished me with wonderful hymns and spiritual songs that continue to lift my heart to this day. One such song, Fanny J. Crosby's "All the Way My Savior Leads Me," speaks of the Lord's presence that "cheers each winding path I tread." I think Crosby's phrases describe the components of the journey: "My Savior," "winding paths" that seldom give us a sense of where we are really heading, and "me," the traveler. The observable paths and people are important parts of the story, but beyond the visible parts that can be described, there is the hidden presence of God — and one wandering soul, hoping to get it right.
An Unintended Path
For me to tell my story, I must begin by saying that I hope I've gotten this journey right, that I have discerned the guidance of the Lord, that I haven't fallen into the comfortable confidence that I have figured it all out and that others who don't see it this way are all wrong. When people ask, "How could you have done this?" I respond that I didn't set out to leave the circle of my Baptist beginnings, ending up in a world I had never thought about before. It was well after I had taken a sharp turn that the world of Orthodox faith even crossed my mind.
I had plenty of reason to stay where I began. In that world, I experienced the love of God through his people, I heard the gospel of Christ and embraced his salvation, I was taught the Scriptures, and I was given great privileges to serve in churches and institutions. What more could anyone ask for?
I look back on a secure Christian community: My parents loved God, each other, my older brother Don and me, and the Baptist church in upstate New York where my spiritual formation took place. I look back on the Christian college and seminary that taught me and gave me wonderful insight into the goodness of God. I was blessed by the faithful, loyal, and kind people who invested in my life, encouraged me, and opened doors for me that gave me forty years of fruitful ministry and support. I owe my Baptist world a lot.
A few months ago my wife, Jean, and I spent an evening with a woman we had taught forty years earlier at a Christian college in Southern California. She told us that when she heard we had become Orthodox, she wasn't surprised. I found in her words a hint that my journey began long before I knew I was traveling. In those intervening forty years, Jean and I had lived in California, Ohio, and Illinois and had served three Baptist churches. During those years, we had been involved with various Evangelical organizations and colleges and had felt deep fulfillment and purpose in serving them. We sent our two children to Evangelical schools and colleges. We weren't planning to go anywhere else, and yet there was always a sense that we needed to discover and grow into something more, something greater, richer, and more compelling.
First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Illinois The journey became more evident in the thirteen years we lived in Wheaton, Illinois, and served one of Wheaton's oldest and larger churches, First Baptist. My first concern as I became pastor of this historic church was its worship life. In many Baptist churches, the worship ser vice is shaped by a pastor, a music director, and the desires of the congregation. These various pieces don't always mesh well. In those days (the middle of the 1980s) the "seeker sensitive" movement had begun to gain national prominence, and in fact one of its founding proponents had been a leader at First Baptist Church. Wheaton's Christian community and its churches were coming to terms with this phenomenon that had sprung up in our own back yard.
Seeker sensitive worship ser vices were based on a desire to engage in worship and evangelism simultaneously. The Sunday morning worship ser vice increasingly was planned with the goal of being palatable for both non-Christians and believers. This type of hybrid ser vice was proving to be very successful numerically, with great increases in attendance. Our church was quite taken with the excitement and success of this "new way to do church," and I was willing to learn about it too. Our staff went to seminars at Willow Creek Community Church with the desire to learn their method and to discern how it could relate to the life of our church.
Before long I began to realize that when new and different ideas regarding worship confront a congregation in the Baptist heritage, there isn't a strong biblical and historic consensus by which the church can judge those ideas. For all of the emphasis on submission to the authority of Scripture, people often find they do not have much common ground upon which they can unite. Love for God and for each other may manage to hold things together. Yet the interests of people of different ages, theological convictions, and even cultural preferences create divisions that at best must be managed and at worst will eventually split the church apart.
I want to emphasize that such churches do not necessarily have bad people in them. The people I served were very good. They loved God, they were serious about their faith, they were concerned for the salvation of others, and they were generous in reaching out to human need wherever they found it. In other words, these were people who possessed Christian virtue. What then was missing?
In my early years at First Baptist, the pastoral staff and congregation worked together to create an ethos of worship that was reverent, sincere, and made use of our rich resources of music and dedication. We engaged the congregation in worship and attracted many visitors. Nevertheless, as time went on, even though the size of the congregation continued to increase and attendees had a sense of satisfaction with the worship, many felt we needed to adopt the visions and values of "a new way to do church." I developed a growing concern not so much with what people were proposing to do in worship and evangelism as with what seemed to be a lack of any theological basis for what we should be doing. Even more troublesome, there seemed to be an alarming absence of any reason why we would not consider doing certain things. I recall growing uneasy when I would hear someone say, "I just want to see people come to Christ." To use a popular phrase at the time, such a statement seemed too uncritically "market driven." I sensed little awareness that the high and holy priestly work of worship might have priorities that were not compatible with an uncritical focus on attracting unbelievers.
Things took a sharp turn during a meeting I had with a parachurch leader who was influential in our large and active youth ministry. The ministry had been led by several youth pastors trained by Sonlife Ministries, a discipleship program begun at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Eventually the Sonlife principles had begun to be applied to the larger life of the church, spawning what became known as our "Growing a Healthy Church" program. During the meeting, I was strongly encouraged to bring this organization's training to our entire pastoral staff and lay leadership as a way of strengthening evangelism.
On the one hand, I appreciated the careful biblical approach to discipleship that this ministry gleaned from the Gospels. On the other hand, I saw no parallel focus on the kind of worship to which this method of discipleship would lead. In a meeting with the leader of this organization, I synthesized my concerns into one question: Does the discipleship training program necessitate a change in the worship of the church? I formed a hypothetical situation that conveyed my concern: Could a traditional Episcopal church embrace this training and not change its worship life? I was assured this was entirely possible.
With a spirit of caution, I agreed to go ahead with the training. In weeklong seminars away from the church, we listened, learned, and began to strategize about how the changes would look at our church. Very quickly our discussions turned to worship. The conversations continued in smaller leadership meetings for a year. Somewhere along the line, however, the group began to polarize. It seemed clear that there could be no turning back.
By default my journey had begun. I began to feel a profound disorientation. I knew I was part of something at First Baptist that was moving ahead and wasn't going to stop. I believed it was moving in a dangerous direction, but nothing I could say or do could change it. Success in drawing people was more pressing than wrestling with the nature of true spiritual worship, it seemed. Some others shared my concern, but the determination to press ahead would not be denied.
A Time of Transition
From that time on, it became clear I had no place to stand, and I resigned in May 2000. Looking back, I can see that the church had no foundation that could hold. Well-intentioned leaders were passionately advancing pragmatic methods to attract unchurched people. I believed this showed a lack of due regard for the spiritual theology of Christian worship, but I could only offer in protest what Louis Bouyer called "spiritual instincts" — those personal feelings of conviction that have been cultivated without the benefit of the entire tradition of the Church's Spirit-directed wisdom to guide them.
I realized that despite my efforts to understand the magnitude of the Church's historic theology and practice of worship, my Evangelical experience was insufficient to fully respond to the cultural pragmatism of seeker sensitive worship. The "new way" too easily assumed that as Evangelicals, we could discern what the Bible directs the Church to do to fulfill its ministry of worship and its mission of evangelism. "Spiritual instincts" similar to mine are being felt increasingly today, particularly within the more historically and traditionally oriented sector of Evangelicalism, which is seeing some of its churches move in this same seeker sensitive direction.
I wish I could say I came to clear spiritual convictions that compelled me to make bold, courageous steps onto another path, but I can only claim to be a poor relative of Abraham, of whom it is written in Hebrews 11:8, "He did not know where he was going." At our parting, the First Baptist Church kindly and generously provided six months of separation income. With that I was free to continue my journey. One of the most painful experiences during that six months was the absence of clear direction. Within a few weeks churches in different parts of the country began sending inquiries, asking about the possibility of my becoming their pastor, but I was bound by two heavy burdens: first, many of these churches were similar to the one I had just left, and second, I did not have a full vision for a way beyond this.
Christ Church in Glen Ellyn
About six months after I left First Baptist, a group of fifty people in the Wheaton area approached me with an unusual invitation. Over a dinner late in 2000, they said that they were desiring more in their Christian lives than they had previously experienced and that they had heard elements of what they were yearning for in my preaching and teaching. Would I be willing to lead them, even if only for a short time, in a search for what we all were missing?
As touched as I was by their request, I knew there were some problems: I had been careful to keep from disturbing the people of First Baptist in their need to determine their future without being troubled by my activities in the community. Further, Jean was dubious about the wisdom of such a venture. She reminded me how many times we had watched signs go up for yet another "new and improved" startup church. And Wheaton had so many churches already. Now we were considering launching another start-up. We were about to come out from a Baptist version of the church that had departed from a Reformed version that had left the Catholic Church that had split from the other half of the One Great Church of the first Christian millennium. This seemed terribly wrong to her. She really did not want to be a part of continuing this sad story. Though I agreed with her, I couldn't see an alternative. I felt that serving the desires of this group could be the Lord's provision, a chance to explore the way to the place I was looking for but did not yet know.
With a sense of excitement and some uncertainty, I accepted the group's invitation with one condition: that we would observe the Lord's Table every Sunday. I hoped this would provide a lifeline to where it was we needed to go. While not fully understanding why I had asked this, the group agreed. Within a few weeks a fellowship was formed, meetings began on Sunday evenings, and off we went. In my quest for deeper and clearer roots, I preached and taught the Reformed Protestant doctrine that had been the foundation of my training.
Within a year, the group had become Christ Church in Glen Ellyn, a city just east of Wheaton. There we were blessed to buy a lovely English-style stone chapel. People began to join the church, and the future looked promising. One of the greatest joys of Christ Church was a prevailing spirit of reverence in its worship life. With the help and encouragement of my friend Robert Webber, a Wheaton College professor and one of Evangelicalism's leading exponents of returning to the historic roots of the Church in order to find a better way to the future, we began to explore the ancient worship practices of the Church. Congregants were united and enthused by what we began to call classical Christianity.
Early on, however, I began to sense something troubling about the fruit of my scholastic Calvinistic preaching. I felt a spiritual hardness coming to us through it. Through Robert Webber's influence, I began to study and explore with our congregation the ancient theology of the Church known as Christus Victor. In this understanding, the work of Jesus Christ in salvation is less of a judicial act that pardons our guilt and its accompanying judgment and more of a rescue through his resurrection from the bondage and futility of sin and death. This emphasis is affirmed powerfully in the central Old Testament event of Israel's release from the bondage of Egypt, as the people passed through the Red Sea, an event Israel remembered in the annual Feast of Passover by the shedding of a lamb's blood and the eating of its flesh.
The Rediscovery of Reverence
While we were finding a new joy in the deeper and quieter reverence of our church's worship, we wondered if there was anything behind this reverence other than our own preference and taste. Looking back on our Evangelical experience, we began to remember a mix of attitudes about worship. Positively, the Evangelicals I have known were often people of deep faith, profound love for Christ, and a passionate desire to serve God and to extend his love and grace to others. That kind of spiritual authenticity carries its own innate reverence.
On the other hand, reverence — the fear and respect for the good God who loves humankind — has fast been fading in American culture, and as reverence fades in the culture, it seems to be fading in many Evangelical churches as well.
"Contemporary" and "traditional" forms of worship have sparked the tragedy of what has been called the "worship wars." In my experience, the real issue has rarely been contemporary or traditional worship. I have seen older, godly Christians participate in singing contemporary hymns and spiritual songs with great joy. I have seen young people sing great hymns of the Church's past with intense sincerity. I suggest that the heart of the issue is reverence. Reverence is a spiritual experience that comes from consciously standing in the presence of the All-Holy Triune God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. This Presence is so great that very often in Scripture, when people became aware they were in the presence of God, the first thing they needed to be told was, "Fear not!"
Such a message seldom seems necessary today across a wide span of American Evangelicalism. People are invited to sit back and relax and enjoy the ser vice. It would seem the ser vice is more about us than it is about coming into the presence of the living God. In an attempt to relate to present culture, the atmosphere of the modern church ser vice is intentionally casual, comfortable, and user friendly. The music is to soothe, comfort, invigorate, and move our emotions. The physical characteristics of the worship space are designed to be nonthreatening, so symbols of the Christian faith are largely excluded.
Excerpted from Journeys of Faith Copyright © 2012 by Robert L. Plummer . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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