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Conversions to the ancient faith of Orthodox Christianity now make up nearly half of the one million Orthodox Christians in the United States. While the majority of those conversions are through marriage, a growing number of people who are neither culturally nor ethnically Greek are converting based on their affinity for the ancient faith. Brent Gilbert, now the Reverend Gregory Gilbert, shares his own journey to the Greek Orthodox faith in this insightful article.
Conversions Gradually Transforming Orthodox Christianity
Growing up a Southern Baptist in eastern Tennessee, Brent Gilbert says, he never realized there were other ways to worship.
He figured everyone knew the best church music was contemporary.
He was sure there was a 45-minute pastor’s sermon at the heart of every Sunday service.And didn’t all Christians agree that religious art, symbols and rituals were relics of a less desirable past?
Then he encountered the ancient faith that would change his life.
In the formal liturgy, rituals and language of the Greek Orthodox Church, he found a worship tradition so enriched by its direct link to lives of Christ’s original followers that it turns faith into an “all-encompassing phenomenon.”
Gilbert is neither ethnically nor culturally Greek — his forebears came to America from the British Isles. But after discernment and years of study, he’s now the Rev. Gregory Gilbert, the presiding priest of Sts. Mary Magdalene and Markella Greek Orthodox Church in Darlington — and a prominent example of the gradual but insistent wave of conversion that is turning a tradition long rooted in ethnic heritage into a more varied and, some say, more American movement.
Almost half the nearly 1 million Orthodox Christians in the United States today are converts, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America reported in 2015. The majority of these married into the church. But a growing number are joining simply out of an affinity for the faith.
“We can still say that it’s not the majority of the laity — at this stage, most have been raised in the church — but there’s a lot of them,” says the Very Rev. Archpriest Andrew Damick, pastor of St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pa., and the author of several books on Orthodox Christianity. “Conversion has already had a pretty big impact.”
Converts to Orthodoxy come from many backgrounds: former Evangelicals in search of historicity, analytical Christians seeking something more hands-on, weekend churchgoers in search of fuller, more regular engagement.
Gilbert says he has found a way of life that can be judged by its fruits.
“Americans have imbibed the idea that Christianity began about 500 years ago, at the time of the Reformation. But that view overlooks three-fourths of the history of the church,” the bearded 39-year-old says, and laughs. “Orthodoxy is a well-worn spiritual path more than an institution, and we know it has been producing saints for 2,000 years.”
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