From the East and the West

Hard to imagine Christian groups more different in history and character than the Russian Orthodox and the American Nazarenes. But here they are side by side in Kansas City, and I am here also to testify to what I have seen and heard.


Holy Trinity Orthodox Church sits on the Kansas side of the city. They worship in a sanctuary mash up of Russian and American architecture: arched and domed but clean and bright. Thirty icons fill the walls and ceiling; across the front is the classic iconostasis, that partition that separates the gathering space of the people from the working space of the priests.


I was there for ninety minutes of morning worship. It was all in English; it was all sung or chanted: Resurrection Tone 4, the bulletin stated. Except for the homily, a ten-minute talk on Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus.


The weather was bitter cold and treacherous; but thirty minutes into the service and the sanctuary was comfortably full with one hundred fifty or so people divided rather evenly into the young, the old, and the in-between. At least a quarter were under the age of 20. Who would have thought!


And who would have thought that the most compelling element of the worship was the 15-voice a cappella choir sitting behind and to my right. “Were your vocalists paid?” I asked the pastor after the service. No, he replied; all volunteer. Hard to believe! It was four- and six-part harmony in a service during which they sang for one solid hour—silent only during the homily.


Across town, the Nazarene folk were gathering for their once-every-four-years mission and ministry conference. Thirty-five hundred strong, men and women, young and old, in the Kansas City Convention Center.


Tracing their roots to John Wesley but taking organizational shape during the holiness movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Church of the Nazarene proudly teaches a doctrine of entire sanctification of the Christian believer.


Thirty-five of their young people came to Kansas City to participate in a festival of young preachers. From their five seminaries, 14 liberal arts colleges and universities, and 31 undergraduate Bible colleges, they came, prepared to preach fifteen minutes sermons on the conference theme: The Gospel Unleashed.


I was there and heard eight of these sermons. Spiritually sensitive, biblically rooted, socially relevant, and passionately presented: I was impressed. Tiffany Hazel linked Moses with Bilbo Baggins in resisting the call to leave comfort and embrace adventure: “God is calling me to something more,” she said. “God is calling you to something more.” She was speaking my language!


Many things beside nation of origin divide these groups: Orthodox ordain men, who wear floor length vestments; Nazarenes ordain men and women, neither of whom wear anything distinguishing them from lay people.


Nazarenes sing with instruments; Orthodox don’t. Orthodox use a fixed and formal liturgy; Nazarenes not in the least. Orthodox are the oldest of Christian traditions; Nazarene among the youngest.


But they share some similarities that may surprise you. Both are evangelistic and practice the planting of churches. Both believe in an educated clergy, supporting colleges and seminaries. Both uses images in worship: icons among the Orthodox and on screens with the Nazarenes.


The book store at the Nazarene conference included books about Mary the mother of Jesus, whom the Orthodox call mother of God, and a five-volume set on “The Saints of the Church.” The hospitality I encountered with the Orthodox was as warm and friendly as any Nazarene church in the country.


Both groups of Christians quoted scripture and talked about Jesus Christ the Lord. Both read the Holy Scriptures and prayed for forgiveness. Both served communion to commemorate the death of Jesus for the sins of the world. Both sang about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.


I confess: I felt very much at home among these believers. I was welcomed and blessed and treated as an honored guest. I made new friends, new partners in gospel work, in both places.


As I left Kansas City, I turned over in my mind the words of the great apostle Paul: “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit…. We have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.”