A large part of my own ministry as a priest has centered around working with those who later in life become Orthodox Christians. And yes, I am specifically avoiding the word "convert" for reasons that will hopefully become clear in a moment.
Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!'For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17: 20-21)
Psychologically, and I think spiritually as well, we need to make a distinction between those who embrace the faith of the Orthodox Church from converts in the proper sense. Yes, becoming Orthodox from a Catholic or Protestant or Evangelical background does require a change. But as often as not what changes is less the person theological convictions (their faith) then their location on Sunday morning.
For many of the people who I have received into the Church they tell me that in the Orthodox Church they have found the faith that, as a personal matter, they have always held. The faith of the Orthodox Church simply makes sense with what they have always believed about being a Christian.
The people say this for two reason. First, yes it is in fact the case that for them Orthodoxy crystallizes an understanding of the Christian life that has floated just outside their ability to put it into words. So yes, they have "always" believed as the Church believes, they just couldn't express that belief.
Second, I think that part of the reason the people I have received tell me that they "alway believed" what the Church believes is because I take an anthropological approach to catechesis and spiritual direction. I real do believe that what is Christian is also most truly human. In other words, the Gospel is inscribed in each human heart.
Practically speaking this means that the real challenge of our spiritual lives as Christians is not to find the Gospel or the faith of the Church in books, but in our own lives. If we take this approach what we, or at least, I, discover is that there is some convergence between my experience and the what was believed "always and everywhere by everyone" in the somewhat overused and abused phrase of St Vincent of Lérins
To take this inward journey, I must begin with self-knowledge. The journey requires that I see the tracings of the Gospel, the seeds of the Logos, in my own experience. If I do, then I will discover in my own heart the Church's faith.
But this isn't all that I will find.
As I grow in self-knowledge, as I see the Gospel being written out in the lines of my own life, inscribed as I said in my own heart, I also discover that there is a far amount in my heart that, while it is equally universal, is not the Gospel. It is in only in my willingness to change my life in light of this discovery that I can real say that I have converted.
Unfortunately, too many of us are inclined to accept only a the rather small measure of the Gospel that corresponds with our experience.
For example, I've known many who came to the Orthodox Church later in life who kept conversion at arms length through an attachment to monasticism or the writing of the ascetical and neptic fathers. Others among us are quite taken with the Church's dogmatic or liturgical tradition. Still others find in the Orthodox Church an ally in their own political or moral agendas.
Let me be very clear here: None of these things are wrong in themselves. It is rather the way we use these riches to inoculate us against the Gospel's call to conversion. No matter how theological sublime, or historically sound, what unites all of these ways of avoiding conversion is an attachment to approach to Christianity roundly criticized by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard was critical of the Christians of his own time who confused obedience to Gospel with an aesthetical sensibility. Basically, Kierkegaard argues we follow social convention as a personal choice that follows upon what we see as lovely or beautiful. The sign that our attachment to the Gospel is aesthetic is that we emphasis (either for self or others) conformity as the dominate value of the Christian life. (As an aside, how often when there is a scandal or crisis in the Church do we hear people appeal to obedience or the reputation of the Church?)
While not without its dangers like those I've outlined briefly (an superficially I fear), turning inward and finding the Gospel written in our heart is a great joy. So often Christianity feels oppressive to people because, well, it is presented in an external manner. But when we realize that God has written the Gospel on our hearts not simply in baptism but also in creation, we can grasp the great power of grace to transform and enliven.
An external "gospel" is a false one. But so is our limiting the Gospel within to only this or that aspect. God has blessed us by coming to dwell within our hearts--if we explore the home He has made within us, we will discover joy beyond what we can imagine. This journey is not without its risks, but even when we fail (and fail we will), our failure is infinitely more valuable then the rather narrow triumphs that come our way by artificially limiting the Gospel to our own preferences and to what most closely matches our own--my own--interests and inclinations.
And it is only those who take this infintely rewarding inward journey who merit the name that is second only to "Christian." It is only those who turn within and allow God to reveal Himself to them merit the name "convert."