Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Cost to the Church of Receiving Converts

Commenting on the Sundance film festival showing of Save Me, "a film about a young man’s journey through a Christian 'ex-gay' 12-step ministry," Pastor David Sawson of Community Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, that
Even more striking were the numerous men in the theatre who wept during the most poignant moments of the film, usually when the men in the 12-step program described the pain and brokenness in their pasts. How well, I wondered when leaving the theatre, is the church prepared to really understand this type of brokenness and this amount of pain? And how willing are we to acknowledge our own role in much of that painful memory?
Pastor Sawson's question is also my own for the Orthodox Church.

Yes, certainly the Orthodox Church welcomes converts. But I can't help but wonder if we are willing and able to welcome to converts who carry the kind of pain that Sawson describes at the Sundance Film Festival. My own experiences as a covert and a priest would lead me to answer in the negative: No, for a variety of reasons we are not in a position as a Church "to really understand" the extraordinary brokenness and pain that many men, women and children carry around.

We certainly like the well-educated, middle class convert who affirms us in our conviction that we are the Historic Christian Church, the True Church. But are we willing to receive in our communities individuals whose pain does not admit relief? Some people, some situations, are so broken that they can't be put back together until the Kingdom of God comes in glory. Do we have room for these people? Do we have room for those who are struggle with burdens of shame and guilt that most of us find unimaginable?

Welcoming people with the kind of brokenness that Swanson saw would require from us a rather wide scale reappraisal of our priorities. I suspect from my own time as a mission priest, that this reappraisal would not be done easily or without significant personal and institutional cost and readjustment.

For example, we would need to train both clergy and lay workers who had the necessary pastoral and professional competence to respond to the needs of the people who came to us. As it is now, we equipped to receive converts with theological questions and (relatively) healthy psychological and social identities. In other words, we do well with relatively well-educated, well-adjusted converts from the middle and upper middle classes.

This makes sense since most of our churches are themselves composed of middle and upper-middle suburbanites. Were we are failing to attract coverts are in those parishes that are in the inner city and communities (like Pittsburgh) were economic factors have lead to economic dislocation. In other words, when the neighbor suffers economically the parish dies.

There certainly is no need for this--there are people who we could evangelize. We simply don't. As I alluded to above, we are not equipped pastorally or personally to build communities with people who are "not like us." But this is not primarily an ethnic reality--but a socio-economic reality. We are able to sustain ethnic parishes precisely because we are relatively wealthy and so can afford to not reach out to those who are not Greek or Russian or Arab or whatever.

So back to the Sundance Festival--do we want parishes filled with broken people? Do we want to make the investment in time, treasure and talent it would require to reach outside the confines of our middle class parishes? I hope that the answer is "yes." If it isn't, if we are not willing to pay the cost of receiving converts, then I think that God will simply take from us what we will not give willingly.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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