The Next Faithful Step

Fuller Logo

A Light from the East: Eastern Christianity (Part 1)

History

The city of Rome fell to invaders in 410 (it was overrun again in 455 to another group of invaders invading the invaders!). We in the West often think of this as the end of the Empire. No more centrality of Rome, no more Empire. But this is completely wrong. The Empire continued for over a thousand years after that… just not in the West. Eastern Christianity continued and thrived and it wasn’t until the 15th century that the Eastern portion of the Empire fell. I saw a book recently that was titled something like “Non-Western Christianity.” Interested, I picked it up and found that the book was about Christianity in China, Africa, and maybe Korea as well. This just underscores the fact that actual Eastern Christianity is lost on us in the West. Yes, these are places we don’t think of as part of the dominant Western world. But it is generally Western Christianity that has taken hold there through western missionary activity. For those of us in the West, Eastern Christianity is the best-kept secret of our religion.

Eastern Christianity is Eastern Orthodoxy. And it has been amazingly resilient. In the 15th century, the geographic centers of Eastern Christianity fell to Muslim control as Islam continued its centuries long spread. Only the Orthodox Church in Russia continued to be free from Muslim domination. But the coming of the atheist Soviet state put this last portion of Eastern Christianity under the enormous strain of state opposition.

It is the survival of the Church in Russia that is particularly impressive. When the Communist empire in Eastern Europe and Russia fell in the late 1980’s/early ‘90’s, about 80 percent of the approximately 250 million Eastern Orthodox Christians were living under Soviet domination. Decades of such control and separation from the rest of the Christian world made it the case that when the Iron Curtain fell, it was unclear what sort of Eastern Church would emerge—if one would emerge at all.  But what the world saw was a continuing and strong Orthodox Church. It had suffered its blows, but was alive and generally well. The Eastern Church continues to thrive and has made deep inroads in American Christianity (the late 1980’s saw a mass conversion of around 2000 American evangelical leaders to Orthodoxy). It is not so much a survival story as a story of divine faithfulness.

My first call was a small and aging congregation. When I came the average age of membership was mid- to late -60’s. We had about a hundred members with about 30 or so in attendance on any given Sunday morning. (In the Presbyterian Church there is built into the system a regular purging of membership roles for those long absent and non-participatory in order to keep the records accurate. But I think this church just couldn’t bring themselves to take people off the rolls because it would be a depressing reality—the church had been a fairly large and growing congregation a few generations back.) Added to the difficulty was the fact that the particular area had particularly expensive house prices (the schools were great). This resulted in fewer and fewer young families being able to move into the area. What’s more, the community was quickly changing demographically. An increasing first-generation Chinese population was moving in and language and cultural/religious differences made outreach difficult. The result was a church that was aging and shrinking in the midst of a community that did not offer many opportunities for new membership and activity.

All this was fairly depressing and frustrating. It was mainly frustrating because many of the members expected me to somehow be able to produce a new army of young and eager members who would step in to fill the shoes of the prior generations and bring the church back to its glory days. This was just not going to happen.

It was hard for the congregation and me to have a vision of the Church that was larger than just our church. This is understandable—I was charged with leading this congregation and many of the members had been there worshipping and working together for over fifty years. We were all intimately tied to this particular church and had vested interests in its survival and well-being. But the truth is that we often fell prey to a too small vision of the Church—as if the fate of our particular congregation was the key to understanding God’s ways in the world.

I wish I had known more about the Eastern Church back then. And if I had I hope that I would have had the wisdom not to use it as some sort of cheap inspirational story that would give us hope about the fate of our congregation. Instead, the Eastern Church and its trials and survival could have acted in such a way to instill hope for the larger Church, the Church worldwide, the Church throughout history. No matter the particular fate of our particular church (churches will always come and go—remember that none of the churches that Paul founded are still around), the fate of the Church is assured. The East is a fine example that the gates of Hell do not overcome the Church. I wish we would have had the vision then to celebrate being a small—even possibly fleeting—part of this Church.