Friday, March 02, 2007

A Though Experiment: Converts, Reverts and the Need for Pastoral Change (part I)

One of my great concerns as a priest is evangelism. This certainly includes helping people raised outside the Orthodox Church be reconciled to her. But especially since I have left the mission fields of the Pacific Northwest and returned to Western Pennsylvania, I have come to understand how much evangelistic work needs to be done among those who, though baptized as Orthodox Christian, are indifferent and even hostile to the Gospel.

The reconciliation of such lapsed Orthodox Christian presents a number of pastoral challenges. I would ask you to join me in a little pastoral "thought experiment" about one of those challenges: The integration of "reverts" (Orthodox Christians reconciled to the Church) into existing parishes.

My own experience as a convert who came to Orthodox with relatively little emotional baggage relative to the parish or the Church would suggest that the Orthodox Church typically does a rather poor job with integrating new members into existing parishes. In large part I think this is because such integration requires conversion not only on the part of the new Orthodox Christian (whether convert or revert), but also a conversion, or at least change, on the part of the parish.

With converts the challenge is that they embody the idea that the Faith is, legitimately, an object of human decision. Converts become Orthodox because they evaluate the truth claims of Orthodox against their own experience. Granted they may appeal to church history or theological reflection. But this does not take away the fact that, whatever the content, they became Orthodox as an act of reason and will.

But if we can choice Orthodoxy, if we can decide for the Gospel, then we can also choice not to be Orthodox, we can decided to not believe the Gospel. In other words, converts don't simply call into question a taken for granted attitude about being a Orthodox Christian, the flatly contradict such an attitude. To the degree that people understand the faith as simply a part of their cultural or family background, something Eternal and static, this can evoke a fair acute sense of cognitive dissonance: The Orthodox Faith can be evaluated and it can be chosen and affirmed for very human reasons. What was facilely professed is now seen as requiring effort, if for no other reason then because room must be made for the convert who shares the cradle Orthodox faith, but not his or her reasons for believing.

Enough for now about converts. My real concern is with reverts, and I will address these group in part II of this post.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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