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January 9, 2011

New Converts Flocking To An Ancient Church

Orthodox traditions dating back centuries attract members.

Neannie Kever
January 9, 2011
Houston Chronicle

Like many of his parishioners, Father Richard Petranek came to the Orthodox church in search of the past.

After 30 years as an Episcopalian priest, Petranek converted to the Antiochian Orthodox Church and leads a new but growing parish in west Houston, filled almost entirely with converts to the ancient faith.

"Most people come for the stability," he said. "The same thing that is taught today in the Orthodox church was taught 500 years ago, was taught 1,000 years ago, was taught 1,500 years ago."

At a time when most mainline Christian churches are losing members, Eastern Orthodox churches — which trace their beliefs to the church described in the New Testament - are growing, both in Houston and across the United States.

The numbers are still small: the 2010 U.S. Orthodox census estimates there are about 32,000 active Orthodox churchgoers in Texas and just more than 1 million nationally, although other estimates are higher. But the number of U.S. Orthodox parishes grew 16 percent over the past decade.

In Houston and its suburbs, the growth has been more dramatic, fueled by immigration from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere, along with an increasing number of converts.

The Orthodox tradition includes Greek Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and the Orthodox Church in America, among others.

"We were amazed the church still existed, and it had never changed," said Lana Jobe, who with her husband, Lloyd, left a Baptist church to join Petranek at St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church four years ago. "That was so important to us."

A focus on tradition

To outsiders, the first hint of what lies within is often the architecture; many of the churches are built in a neo-Byzantine style, capped by gold domes and other flourishes, standing out in a city of sleek skyscrapers, strip shopping centers and ranch houses.

Traditions vary from church to church, but in many congregations, members stand for much of the service. The priest faces the altar for long stretches of time, with his back to the congregation. (All Orthodox priests are male.)

Members make the sign of the cross throughout the service, they kiss icons of Jesus and the saints and, sometimes, the Communion chalice and the priest's robes.

"It's pretty freaky for people from the nontraditional churches," said Father John Salem, pastor of St. George Antiochian Christian Church in West University. "If you come from a non-liturgical background, it can be pretty overwhelming."

But to many converts, the traditions are the main attraction.

"People are tired of the mixture of worship and celebrity culture," said Frank Schaeffer, a writer and novelist who converted to Orthodoxy 20 years ago from the evangelical faith of his childhood.

"People are tired of these worship services that look closer to MTV or the Disney channel than something that goes back into the past," said Schaeffer, son of Christian theologian Francis Schaeffer and the author of books including Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion and Patience With God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). "In the Orthodox church, people are not there for the priest, but for the liturgy."

Jobe points to something else:

"You see churches today splitting over doctrinal issues," she said. "In the Baptist church, there's the Southern Baptists. There's the Texas Baptists. There are controversies over Biblical truths or inerrancy or homosexuality; all kinds of issues come up, and the church wants to vote on it. We don't have to vote on anything, because it was settled from the very beginning."

Spiritual healing

Ben and Connie Harrison were lifelong Episcopalians but began looking around after that church was divided over the ordination of a gay bishop in 2004.

As they learned about the Orthodox church, Ben Harrison said, "it became less of a moving away from and more of a moving towards. It just felt right, going to the original Christian church."

Converts account for much of Orthodoxy's growth, making up more than half of the membership in some branches.

But Alexei Krindatch, research consultant to the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, said immigration is part of it, too, along with the fact that children raised in Orthodox churches are more likely to remain in the faith than those from many other churches.

Father John Whiteford, pastor of St. Jonah Orthodox Church in Spring, said converts account for about half of his congregation.

He converted, as well, after meeting an Orthodox priest while he was studying to become a Nazarene pastor.

Many new members came from evangelical churches, where Whiteford said they weren't satisfied.

"It's all modern, basically whatever they want to do," he said of some evangelical churches. "That has a rootlessness to it that makes people uncomfortable."

Not everyone feels that way, of course.

Megachurches such as Lakewood Church and Fellowship of the Woodlands have grown dramatically with high-tech outreach, sophisticated music ministries and contemporary services, and evangelical churches report faster growth than other denominations.

But Salem said Orthodox churches, with their rituals and icons and sacraments, can offer spiritual healing for those so inclined.

"The beauty of the church, that's part of it, too," he said. "People come in and say, 'Wow.' "