CONVERSIONS TO ORTHODOXY
by Fr. Barnabas Powell, Cumming, Georgia, USA
Fr. Barnabas Powell is the priest at Sts. Raphael, Nicholas, and Irene Greek Orthodox Church in Cumming, Georgia, USA
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
The Pentecostal church I grew up in had a profound impact on my life. The lively services, the thundering sermons, and the emotional altar calls gripped my young heart and fed my hunger for an intimate encounter with God.
As a young man growing up in a Pentecostal church, I always knew I wanted to be a preacher because all the powerful men I had ever known had been men in the pulpit, and I wanted to be just like them.
In my Pentecostal church I was told that a stream is purest at its source, so what we had to do was to be like the Church in the Book of Acts. If we were going to affect our world for Jesus then we needed the same power the Early Church had, and that meant being Pentecostal.
The whole purpose for our emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, lively, emotional worship services, and powerful, motivating, sermons, was to keep us motivated to win lost souls. If you weren’t witnessing, you weren’t on fire for the Lord.
I was the youth choir director and our youth group traveled around the Southeast singing and preaching the Good News. Sometimes I would give the sermon, but that had been a honor earned on the streets, since none of the young preachers were allowed to speak at church until they’d proved their metal by preaching on the street corners. It was there that we got our first speaking experience.
Every Saturday we’d gather at the church and get our sound system and go street preaching. We’d set up usually across from a strip shopping center near a traffic light so we could witness to the shoppers and the folks in their cars. Only one at a time could speak so the rest of the group fanned out in the shopping center with Gospel tracts in hand, ready to lead lost people to the Lord. One of the greatest badges of honor was if you were preaching and someone in one of the cars stopped at the red-light heckled you. That was suffering persecution for the Gospel.
Over the years, I began having difficulty dealing with those times when the level of religious excitement wasn’t at a fevered pitch. I knew I was excited about Jesus, but I began questioning whether I knew Him or not. I knew I didn’t want to go to hell. I knew I wanted to go to heaven (after all, if you’re in heaven, then you’re not in hell, right?). I knew I wanted to be a preacher, because everybody listened to the preacher. I knew I wanted to have a successful ministry (meaning a large church), but what I didn’t know is what to do when the emotions died down. All my quick and simple answers weren’t working for me so why would I think that they’d work for others. I was missing something.
It was then that I received the opportunity to do something I had always wanted to do: go to college for a theological education. So, off I went to Toccoa, Georgia, where I attended a small, conservative, Evangelical, college. While at school, I was exposed to a depth of theology I had never imagined. Wow, this was it! Deep theology! But a lot of this theology was causing me to question my Pentecostal upbringing. I could no longer see the Christian life as one of constant emotional excitement, or ecstatic religious experiences. I had to admit that some of the doctrinal positions I once held were not entirely accurate.
I Became an Evangelical
Gradually, I became an Evangelical, committed to the classic theology of the Protestant Reformation. At least our goal was still to win the world for Christ. My time at school was wonderful. The classes were, for the most part, challenging and enlightening. I was being taught to be a scholar, to ask the right questions, and to discover the right answers. But the longer I studied the more I became convinced that something was missing! It was then that I discovered an interest in church history.
Every graduate of a Pastoral theology course of study at Toccoa Falls College had to have what was called an internship at a church. So, the last summer of my senior year I had scheduled my internship at one of the most successful churches in the Southeast, Christ Church, in Nashville, Tennessee. This church was well known for being a Pentecostal church that had successfully married Evangelical theology with Pentecostal worship.
Some of the questions I was asking were also being asked by the assistant pastor of Christ Church, Dan Scott, Jr. He and I had long discussions about this. Dan was a scholar with a Master’s degree in sociology from the University of Southern California. We would talk for hours about theology and church history.
A Dream About Orthodoxy
Dan told me about a dream he had while he was a missionary in Canada. In the dream, he was walking inside this very old church building, with marble floors and high ceilings. Inside there were pictures all over the walls and candles burning everywhere. Several old men with long white beards and dressed in black robes, were praying standing up, and he sensed, stronger than he had ever sensed, the presence of God in the place. The men were actually glowing with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and Dan said he was speechless.
All of a sudden, one of the old, bearded, men turned to him and asked: “Where have you been?”
One day Dan advised me to read The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware. I started reading this book and was captured by the history of the Orthodox Church. Here was the story of what happened to the missions of St Peter and St Paul in the New Testament; the continued story of the missions to Greece, Ephesus, Antioch, Asia Minor and Jerusalem.
It was eye opening to say the least. I had been trained to see all of Christianity as a question of either Roman Catholicism or Protestantism and now I was being confronted with a third Way.
Much to my surprise, I learned that not only were there still Orthodox Christians, but that there was even a group of former Evangelicals and Charismatics who had become Orthodox. I got in touch with them and two of their leaders journeyed to Georgia to visit with me.
By the fall of 1989, I was pastoring a growing Evangelical congregation in Woodstock, Georgia called Church of the Firstborn. I was also working as a Promotions Manager at In Touch Ministries in Atlanta.
This placed me deep in the Evangelical world of media and ministry.
Every week my best friend, Rod Loudermilk (a former Pentecostal pastor himself), and I would meet to discuss theology and the books we were reading and invariably we would turn to the church history books we both found so interesting. In these books we discovered the Church fathers, the witness of the Holy Spirit in every age of the Church and the heroes of the Faith we began to identify as true and genuine followers of our lord Jesus. We began to be convinced that there were treasures here for us today that we desperately needed to reclaim.
I was also trying to incorporate what I was learning about the early Church into our local congregation: things like a weekly Lord’s Supper, and the weekly recitation of the Apostle’s Creed. Also, I began involving the congregation in regular responses:
“Peace be with you,”
“And also with you.”
I imagine our Pentecostal church was the only Pentecostal church in the area with icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary behind the pulpit! As a Pentecostal, I had been taught that worship wasn’t a spectator sport. I didn’t realize till it was too late that the underlying theology behind historical Christian worship wasn’t compatible with my current theology.
It was like trying to mix oil and water. It didn’t work.
Discovering the Orthodox Church
In 1992 I began to have regular discussions with those who had become Orthodox. I found myself drawn to these men and their journey. They didn’t try to persuade me they were right. They just told me about their own story.
After an invitation from one of these men, I visited an Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, Indiana to experience what we had been reading about. What we both experienced there was both overwhelming in an emotional and experiential aspect and exciting in that here was the historical perspectives I had been searching for in a modern setting.
After the service, we said our good-byes and headed back to Atlanta. For a long time neither of us said a word. There were no words. I was convinced that I had to have the theology behind the beauty that I had just experienced.
I eventually had to come to grips with my own spiritual journey and my pastorate at our church in Atlanta. The breaking point came when an evangelist I had invited to our church for a series of meetings (we still called it a “revival” at that time) began praying for my folks in a prayer line and I was there praying that his prayers wouldn’t harm or deceive these dear people.
That was it! I had to make a choice. I approach our church elders and spoke frankly with them about my own journey to Orthodoxy, and we agreed to make a clear message to our church about my own choices. At the end of those days of talking and praying 20 families from our church had decided to enter the Orthodox Church with me. We went through a year’s worth of catechism and were all chrismated into the Church at St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church (Orthodox Church in America) in Atlanta in November of 2001. Our journey to Orthodoxy took almost nine years, but we were finally home.
Orthodoxy attracts me precisely because of my background as a Pentecostal. Worship is very important to Pentecostals. And in Orthodoxy I have found a depth of worship that doesn’t deny my emotions, but doesn’t depend on them as well. Orthodox worship takes into account the whole person. It was said by the great Russian writer, Dostoevsky, that “beauty will save the world,” and I have found a beauty in Orthodox worship that draws me to God.
A former professor and Evangelical (now a Roman Catholic) once said that the theology he read that had been written by Christian writers in the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries (times that were suppose to be gripped in the darkness of ritualism and false teachings) were more awesome and more powerful than most of all the conservative Protestant writers of his own day. In effect, he said that their “error” was more beautiful and more powerful than my “truth.”
Richness and Fullness
My journey has led me into Orthodox worship and belief. This should not lead others to think I have abandoned my desire to find the fullness of Christian faith and worship. It simply means that I no longer feel the need to reconstruct a pure church in the image of the early church. I am not certain I would be able to recognize such a Church if I encountered it. If those folks mocking Christ failed to recognize the scourged, beaten, bleeding, and crucified person hanging on the cross as the Lord of glory, would I recognize his body today? My only recourse is to trust the Holy Spirit has preserved His Church and ask that same Spirit to form me within the Church that exists today.
Nonetheless, for me, Orthodoxy offers a richness and a fullness that is timeless and yet refreshingly new. It is so vast and wide-reaching and so full of mystery that it will take more than a lifetime to fully examine it. While I am not competent to judge the hearts of others, I am convinced that there is preserved within Orthodox Christianity a foundational core of worship and faith that is fundamentally true to the Spirit and life of the New Testament. This is the faith “once, for all, delivered to the saints.”
For those who wonder whether this can be true, I refer them to the words of St. Philip the apostle:
Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And Nathaniel said to him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”- John 1:45-46