Many people have expressed interest to me about joining the Orthodox Church but don’t know how, especially since so many Orthodox Churches seem to revolve around ethnicity. For new converts who want to experience the Divine Liturgy in mostly English, however, the choice is not difficult.
First, allow me to give a quick background on the Orthodox Church. There are two main branches: Eastern Orthodox, which is what most people see as “the Orthodox Church,” and Oriental Orthodox. The latter is a much smaller branch serving mostly the Armenians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, and Indians. For all intents and purposes, you will not join an Oriental Orthodox Church unless you marry into it or have a particularly strong interest in one of the cultures.
The Eastern Orthodox Church comprises all other churches such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Greek Orthodox Church, Serbian Orthodox Church, and so on. Each church is under the authority of a patriarch. If you’re coming from Catholicism, the patriarch is like a fallible mini-Pope who has far less authority to exert top-down control of the Church.
Most of the ethnic churches conduct their Divine Liturgy in languages that are no longer spoken (Armenians conduct theirs in Classical Armenian, so I use a service book that contains an English translation). It would make sense for you to join a church that conducts at least some of the Divine Liturgy in English to ease your transition into a more eastern form of worship. There are three churches that I can recommend:
Antiochian Orthodox Church. The Antiochian Church comes in two types. One is mostly for Syrians and the other is mostly for converts. You want the one for converts. If the priest of a particular church doesn’t have a Syrian name, and pictures of the parishioners online are not all Syrian, you have the right church. I have visited Antiochian churches in Salt Lake City, Portland, San Diego, and Austin. They ranged from multicultural (Salt Lake City) to having mostly Protestant converts (Austin). From what I’ve seen, the Antiochians are extremely faithful to Orthodoxy.
ROCOR (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia). Now part of the Russian Orthodox Church, ROCOR was originally created by bishops fleeing Bolshevism who wanted to preserve the doctrines and faith of Orthodoxy. Many ROCOR parishes conduct an English liturgy with some Slavonic. My two favorite monasteries in America, Holy Cross in Wayne, West Virginia and Holy Trinity in Jordanville, New York, are ROCOR monasteries.
Orthodox Church of America (OCA). The OCA branched off from the Russian Orthodox Church not long ago, and like the Antiochians, maintain the eastern mysticism that will not remind you of an American megachurch. I attended one OCA church in Denver and found it similar to the Divine Liturgy of ROCOR. My main concern about this church is that it’s American; I am distrustful of American institutions and am not sure that the OCA can resist the inevitable subversion attempts by forces of evil, but as of today, the OCA seems suitable. Unfortunately, this Church was closed to visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic, a potentially bad sign that they are in tune with secular authorities, but if you become a member of this church and later change your mind, you can join and receive communion from other Eastern Orthodox Churches without having to be baptized or chrismated again.
Two additional options to consider:
The Russian Orthodox Church. While it can depend on the parish, Russians are not bubbly to strangers, and it could be difficult to insert yourself into their community. That said, their Divine Liturgy is excellent and their faith pure. If you want to remain “anonymous” and not have small talk with others, this could be a good option.
The Greek Orthodox Church. Many non-Greeks join this church because of its reputation and history, but the Greek Orthodox Church in America is rapidly going down the road of secularism by virtue signaling on issues like racism and global warming. Most recently, their bishop attended a Black Lives Matter protest. Even though there is a Greek Orthodox Church in most American cities, I cannot personally advise you to join this Church unless you have absolutely no other option.
My recommendation is to attend the Divine Liturgy of at least two churches and stay for the fellowship period (coffee hour) if it’s available. If you like the liturgy, meet the priest and give him an abbreviated version of your life story. Does he seem like a man who could be your spiritual guide? Ask him about the process of becoming a catechumen with the intention of getting baptized and/or chrismated.
If you’ve never been to an Orthodox church, there are a variety of rituals that can feel intimidating, such as making the sign of the cross, venerating the icons, bowing, and lighting a candle. You don’t need to do any of them. Simply stand or sit with the congregation and no one will view you as disrespectful. As for dress, wear something that covers your arms and legs. Many people wear short-sleeve shirts, especially in the summer, but it’s better not to. If you’re a woman, take a headscarf just in case (it is strongly advised for ROCOR and Russian Orthodox churches).
After you visit the Orthodox churches in your area, ask yourself these three questions:
1. Which church will allow me to get closest to God? At the end of the day, this is why you go. Do you feel that the church will aid in the development of your faith, and ultimately your salvation?
2. Which church is likely to resist secular winds? You don’t want a church that is going to implement changes to fit in with the world.
3. Which church has the ultimate truth? While this is much harder to discern, the more mistakes or errors a Church has, the less grace you may receive from God from following its doctrines. Since all the Churches I recommended to you are Eastern Orthodox, you should not find major theological differences between them.
Don’t fall into the temptation of picking a church that gives you more mating options. It should not be relevant if a church has attractive singles, and if you are looking for a church with that in mind, you are not putting God first before your worldly needs.
Another temptation is to gravitate towards the church that is more “entertaining,” which is more of a problem with Protestant churches that feature amplified music bands. Instead, seek the church that is most holy. Did you feel moved during the Divine Liturgy? Do you feel that the Holy Spirit is in the church? Remember that it’s all for God.
I once suggested to my priest that the Armenian Church needs an English diocese. “I’m sending a lot of people to other Orthodox Churches,” I exclaimed. My priest replied, “If we stopped doing the Badarak in Armenian, would we still be the Armenian Church?” Good point. Whatever the case, I continue to serve in my baptismal Orthodox church while helping others find Orthodoxy as well. In a post-coronavirus world where joining a church is more difficult than before, pray to God that He may help you find one that leads to your salvation.
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