I’ve been sharing my opinions on what I believe the future holds for the American church over the past few posts, attempting to give you all an idea of what flavor the church is going to have, or at least could have, if all the pieces fall together like I believe they might, or at least, wish they would.  I’ve identified five spices that are going to play a big role in what this pot of hash we call church tastes like twenty years from now.  They are:

1) Ministry as a “career” vs. “calling”.             

2) The evangelical response to growth in orthodox denominations.

3)  Return to liturgical practices:  Here to stay?

4) Fundamentalism vs. Mysticism.

5) Church planting: Evangelical fad or built to last?

Today, we’ll devote some time to looking at the evangelical response to growth in orthodox denominations.

First, I need to define what I mean by orthodox:

-Not necessarily Eastern Orthodox, but does include that denomination.

-Some are evangelical (Anglican, Presbyterian, etc.), but don’t look like a typical Baptist church in their practices.

-Sacramental in tradition.

-Adhere to a form of Episcopal order of church government (Bishops, Priests, Deacons).

-Practice historical forms of baptism (infant baptism, for example).

-Have a liturgical system of function (use the church calendar, lectionary, liturgical order of worship, etc.).

-Acknowledge that the first 1500 years of Christianity did, in fact, occur, and that there is some intrinsic value left over from that period in church history.

I would consider churches or denominations that adhere to the above as orthodox with a lower-case “o”.  Eastern Orthodox, which has an upper-case “O”, is a denomination unto itself, but is orthodox, with a lower case “o”, as well.

I’m also considering the growth in popularity of reformed theology, which is difficult to quantify.  They may not love rood screens, vestments, and chant as much as I do, but Presbyterians are sacramental in their theology, so, at least for the purposes of this blog, I would consider them orthodox.

I recently looked at numbers from the The Pew Research Center, perused some denominational websites, and came up with the following info:

+ The five largest denominations are:

1) Catholic (Over 1 billion world-wide; 68 million in the U.S.)

2) Eastern Orthodox (200 million; 2 million in the U.S.)

3) Anglican (82 million; 36 million in Africa; 26 million in England; 4 million in the U.S.)

4) Lutheran (75 million; 13 million in the U.S.)

5) Baptist (47 million world-wide; 40 million in the U.S.)

+ According to a 2007 USA Today article, the fastest-growing denomination in the U.S. is…..drum roll, please….Eastern Orthodox!?!

Is this surprising to anyone out there?

A number of eye-opening things are occurring in Orthodox (with an upper-case “O”) circles:

-More than 200 U.S. parishes have been opened since 1990, and are reporting positive growth.

– 43% of Orthodox seminarians in the U.S. are converts, not immigrants from Eastern European countries, or folks raised in that system of belief.

-Whitney Jones Religious News Service reports that the Orthodox Church has grown by 16% over the past ten years.

Here’s some additional data to consider about orthodox (lower case “o”) traditions:

– The National Council of Churches’ 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches reported that the Catholic Church grew by 1.49% in the U.S. in 2010.

– The Presbyterian Church of America reported 1.96% growth from 2003-2007.

– Every Protestant denomination in the U.S. reported loss in their memberships in 2010, outside of the aforementioned PCA, and the Church of God, which reported a 1.27% increase in its membership from the year before.

– Since the birth of the Anglican Church of North America a couple of years back, Archbishop Robert Duncan has proclaimed that the ACNA is the fastest-growing denomination in the States.  I haven’t seen the numbers, so I can’t say for sure.  I can say that the ACNA is committed to planting 1000 churches over the next few years, and has made excellent progress in doing so.  I hate to admit it, because of my own ACNA leanings, but there are a lot of disaffected Episcopalians in those numbers.  PCA also includes a large number of former PCUSA folks.  These truths might skew the numbers a bit, in the minds of many.

I recently shared some of these numbers with a group of college students, and they were shocked.  One remarked, “Everybody I know is Baptist.”  One young lady in the group of about 70 promptly raised her hand, and declared, “I’m Catholic!”  She had attended the meetings of this group for a while, but no one knew she was Catholic up until that point.  Three Presbyterians came out of the closet next, then one Anglican.  Regardless, everyone in the room was shocked to hear that systems of belief that are so foreign to us here in the American South are growing so quickly.  We live in an area where most folks we know are indeed Baptist.  Our coastal regions have a number of Anglican/Episcopalians, but we generally believe that our Catholics and Orthodox believers are confined to urban areas, or larger university towns.  You know, places where people are crazy.

So what are we evangelicals gonna do when the guys with tongue-shaped hats, cassocks, and Jesus-actually-on-the-cross walking sticks start really showing up in force in our communities?

I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard evangelical pastors promote the idea that Catholic and Orthodox believers are hell-bound because they are “works-based”.  I haven’t actually met one yet that could adequately express what that means, in terms of  Catholic or Orthodox theology.  I’ve also seen lots of pastors promote the idea that we are saved by “faith alone”, then systematically judge whether people in their pews are “really saved”, according to how they’re behaving….their works.  It’s confusing, at best.

I’ve heard some of the same pastors say that “Some Catholics are saved” (never acknowledging that some Protestants could indeed be “lost”).  For most, at least in our region, their knowledge of other sacramental denominations is so limited, they really don’t even know what these strangers believe or practice.  The typical reaction of an evangelical pastor to a Catholic or Anglican sitting in their office is to attempt to witness to them, as if the salvation preached in outside circles isn’t legitimate.

Frankly, I believe that it’s not the theological differences that frighten evangelicals, it’s the fear of the unknown, a “These people do not do things the way we do things” mindset.

There’s also the competitive nature of evangelical denominations that figures into this equation.  You know, we can’t be losing members to another church, let alone to a denomination where they call the preachers “Father”, wear those priest shirts, and fling incense and holy water around.

So how will evangelicals respond to the growth in orthodox denominations over the next twenty years?

Unfortunately, many will respond with the same old rhetoric, and will attempt to fire up passions over the rise of these devilish old pre-reformation ideas.  Some evangelical churches will start incorporating liturgies and serving communion more often because they see it as a trend, and we love trends in evangelical Christianity.  Some will embrace orthodox theology and practices, and join the movement, following in the footsteps of churches like Trinity Vineyard (now Anglican) in Atlanta.

Being ecumenically minded, though, I am praying that us evangelicals will do the following:

1) Educate ourselves about the history of our faith.  Penguin Classics offers tons of books on church history that you can purchase for pennies on Amazon.com.  Don’t rely solely on your pastor to teach about something he doesn’t know, and isn’t interested in learning about or teaching.

2) Learn about ancient spiritual practices.  See the Recommended Reading page on this site for some suggestions.  The Phyllis Tickle Ancient Practices Series is a good place to start.  So is Tony Jones’  The Sacred Way.  Listen, most of the books I recommend are pretty easy reads, because I attended the University of Georgia, and I ain’t real smart on the book-larnin’.

3) Gain more understanding of liturgy.  Mark Galli’s Smells and Bells and Todd Hunter’s Giving Church Another Chance are great places to start.

4) Don’t stay stuck on the idea that musical styles matter so much.  There are a number of sacramental churches that offer traditional, historical services with chants and old hymns.  There’s also a growing movement that incorporates contemporary worship with ancient liturgy, or at least contemporary versions of hymns.  The great thing about the historic liturgies, though, is that Sunday morning worship isn’t about us and our preferences.  It’s about God, and the story of what Christ has done for us.

5)  Don’t be afraid.  If you encounter someone who attends a church where there’s smoke, candles, and a whole bunch of responsive reading going on, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the devil lives there.  It’s a different expression of worship, worship of the same Jesus that us evangelicals love.  I’ve been to Baptist and Pentecostal churches in Bulgaria, and worship there does not always look like worship in Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the U.S.  They kneel, and sometimes pray corporate prayers.  They take communion frequently.  And they use real wine (gasp).  On the same note, a Baptist church in Kenya or Cambodia would look even more different from what we know.

To conclude, I would predict that over the next twenty years, Christianity is going to have a more sacramental flavor.  How American evangelicalism responds to this will determine how it tastes to the rest of the watching world.  It can respond the way it has in recent history (against);  grab on loosely to what it see as orthodox practices for a season (adhere);  or become a part (adopt).

The orthodox (lower case “o”…and I guess, upper case “O”, too…) are coming!  The statistics prove it.

How do you see this story playing out?