The ministry is a calling, but it is also a career, and, in 1987, a Baptist minister named Wilbur Ellsworth was given the career opportunity of a lifetime.
After nearly two decades of pastoring modest congregations in California and Ohio, Ellsworth
, at the age of 43, was called to lead the First Baptist Church of Wheaton, Illinois--one of the most prominent evangelical churches in what was then the most prominent evangelical city in the world.
From a professional standpoint, Ellsworth
thrived.He oversaw the construction of a majestic new building for First Baptist with a 600-seat sanctuary and a 100-foot steeple that towered over Wheaton's Main Street.
And, due to the prominent evangelicals he
now ministered to, he
became something of a prominent evangelical himself--routinely meeting with the many evangelical leaders who constantly came through Wheaton."I was at the very center of the religious world that I'd been a part of for most of my life," he
says."It was quite a promotion from where I was before."
From a spiritual perspective, however, Ellsworth
was suffering.Over the past 20 years, a growing number of evangelical churches have joined what is called the "church growth movement," which favors a more contemporary, market-driven style of worship--with rock 'n' roll "praise songs" supplanting traditional hymns and dramatic sketches replacing preachy sermons--in the hope of attracting new members and turning churches into megachurches.First Baptist
of Wheaton was not immune to this trend: Ellsworth
increasingly found himself fighting with congregants about the way worship was being done."They wanted to replace our organ with a drum set and do similar things that boiled down not to doctrine, but to personal preference," he
explains."I said, That's not going to happen as long as I'm here.'" It didn't.In 2000, after 13 years as the pastor of First Baptist
was forced out.
departure from First Baptist
triggered both a professional and a spiritual crisis.But, before he
could deal with the former, he
had to address the latter.He
devoted himself to reading theology and church history.At first, he
seemed headed in the direction of the Calvinist-influenced Reformed Baptist Church or the Anglican Church
, which are where evangelicals in search of a more classical Christian style of worship often end up.But, as Ellsworth
continued in his
own personal search, his
readings and discussions began taking him further and further past the Reformation and ever deeper into church history.And, gradually, much to his
found himself growing increasingly interested in a church he
once knew virtually nothing about: the Orthodox Church
."I really thought he'd go to Canterbury," says Alan Jacobs, a Wheaton College English professor and Anglican
who is friendly with Ellsworth
began reading more and more about Orthodox Christianity--eventually spending close to $10,000 on Orthodox books.By 2005, he
was regularly visiting an Antiochian Orthodox Church
in Chicago (the Antiochian Orthodox Church
is Middle Eastern in background and the seat of its patriarchate is in Damascus).By late 2006, Ellsworth
realized that he
wanted to be Orthodox
himself.On the first Sunday of the following February, an Orthodox priest in Chicago anointed him with holy oil and he
was chrismated--or formally received--into the Orthodox Church
.A month later, at the age of 62, he
was ordained as an Orthodox priest himself.
Ellsworth's story is hardly unique.Most of the approximately 150 members of the Orthodox parish he
now leads are former evangelicals themselves.
...One evening in June, I went to see Wilbur Ellsworth at his new professional and spiritual home--the Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, Illinois.
Although it is one town over from Wheaton and just a few miles from First Baptist
, Holy Transfiguration
is located a great psychic distance from the "Evangelical Vatican."The church itself is tucked away in a shabby residential neighborhood, set among working-class bungalows and across the street from a Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) post, and it is housed in a modest one-story building with peeling white paint.It was a Saturday evening when I first visited, and Ellsworth--or, as he's
now called, Father Wilbur--was at the church to lead a vespers service.He
was robed in gold-trimmed vestments, but with his
open, clean-shaven face, he
bore little resemblance to the stern--to say nothing of hirsute-- Orthodox priests of popular imagination.
Greeting me outside Holy Transfiguration
was gracious, but also a bit anxious.As 30 or so worshipers filed into the church, he
cast occasional glances across the street, where a few presumably unchurched people were making a ruckus on the VFW baseball field as they drank beer and shagged fly balls.Standing in the diminishing evening light, he
apologized for what he
said was an unusually small turnout, which he
attributed to the pleasant weather."If they don't come," he
said, "I'll remind them who made it so nice."He
also apologized for the church's appearance, telling me that in a few weeks its exterior would be repainted.As we prepared to head inside, he
introduced me to his
wife, Jean, who, he
explained, would sit with me through the service in case I had any questions.It was the first time in all of my journalistic visits to churches-- including the time I went to an all-night service at a charismatic church of African immigrants who spoke in tongues--that a minister felt compelled to provide me with a chaperone.More than anything, Ellsworth
seemed worried that I'd find his
Much like Wilbur Ellsworth
would do years later, Gillquist and his fellow sojourners worked their way back through church history and doctrine before they finally came to 1054 and the East-West Schism and, thus, a fork in the road.
When Wilbur Ellsworth
ministered at First Baptist
, a typical Sunday service--held inside the church's immense but unadorned white-walled, burgundy-carpeted sanctuary--went something like this: Wearing a suit and tie, Ellsworth
would stand at a pulpit and preach.Aside from occasionally rising in prayer and joining the church choir and orchestra in some traditional Protestant hymns, the congregants would largely refrain from any activity during the one-hour-and-15-minute service--except for once a month, when they would receive communion.
The service Ellsworth
now leads at Holy Transfiguration
, by contrast, has an entirely different feel.Wearing his
priestly vestments and standing inside the church's small sanctuary--which boasts yellow walls covered with hundreds of tiny iconic pictures of saints and Oriental rugs on the floor--Ellsworth conducts much of the service from behind the iconostasis (or icon wall) where he
is out of view of the congregation.
explains, one of the principal attractions of the Orthodox Church
for him is its solidity--and lack of interest in integrating modern life."There is, in the Orthodox Church
, an enormous conservatism," he
Gillquist and Ellsworth
are among those who feel evangelicalism has mistakenly staked its foundation on the changing concept of personal Christian experience rather than on the firmer ground of theological doctrine.
"Evangelical theology is rooted in only the last twenty-five percent of the history of the church, the post-Reformation period," Ellsworth
decided to convert to the Orthodox Church
converted with him.