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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Utah Mormons, Protestants finding new spiritual home in ancient Orthodox church

By 

It shook the fundamentalist Christian world to its roots: Hank Hanegraaff, the darling of evangelicals as host of the long-running, nationally syndicated "Bible Answer Man" broadcast, had joined the Greek Orthodox Church.
Hanegraaff, for nearly 30 years president of the Christian Research Institute, an evangelical apologetics ministry, also has written 20 books opposing purported cults and heresies and non-Christian faiths. If ever evangelicals had a doctrinal superhero, Hanegraaff was he.

But on Palm Sunday, in a video released via social media, there was the 67-year-old Hanegraaff kneeling for "Holy Chrismation" — a rite of anointing with oil accompanying baptism — inside St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church of Charlotte, N.C.
Within days, Bott Radio Network, a 107-station strong, evangelical broadcasting empire, severed its longstanding relationship with him; other critics proclaimed Hanegraaff had somehow betrayed true Christianity.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he countered in a broadcast shortly after he, his wife, Kathy, and two of their 12 children became Orthodox. "Nothing has changed in my faith. ... I have fallen ever more in love with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
There are no authoritative statistics available, but anecdotally, at least, it appears Hanegraaff is hardly alone in finding a spiritual home in the world's oldest — and Orthodox believers insist the first and most faithful — Christian fellowship.
That certainly is the case for Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Christian Church in downtown Salt Lake City. The Rev. Justin Havens says the church, located in a former Jewish synagogue at 355 S. 300 East, had fewer than 100 worshippers when he became its priest nine years ago.
"We have almost tripled in size since then," Havens says. "I would say 60 percent or more of our parish is made up of converts. About half of those are former LDS [Mormons], and the rest are former Protestants and evangelicals, along with a few former Catholics and Episcopalians."
Havens — himself a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, having been raised Presbyterian — says the congregational growth has left his tiny church "packed to the gills."
On Easter Sunday, more than 500 worshippers stood for prayers, liturgical chants, the Eucharist and sermon.
Orthodox Christians traditionally stand throughout worship, but this was different: Parishioners were elbow to elbow, the crowd spilling out of the nave and down the stairs.
While maintaining their current home in Salt Lake City, the congregation hopes to build a larger church nearer to the line between Salt Lake and Utah counties, where many parishioners live. (See the insert.)
'Stagnant in my faith' • Suzanne and Bruce Plympton, who drive in from West Jordan on Sundays, are among the former Mormons who found there way to Sts. Peter and Paul. Other converts have found solace in sister Greek, Russian, Serbian and other Orthodox churches in Utah.
"We were baptized [into Orthodoxy] nine years ago," Suzanne says, noting her spiritual search first took her from Mormonism to an evangelical Christian church, where she served as a children's minister and church secretary.
"I was stagnant in my faith. I had always believed in God, but it wasn't changing my life; I wanted to grow closer to him," the mother of four adult children recalls. "Ironically, my sister and her family had discovered Orthodoxy while preparing for a [Protestant] mission to Russia."
Encouraged by her sister, Suzanne began visiting area Orthodox services. It was a cultural shock — in one case, the service was all in Greek, and the traditional liturgical worship was a far cry from the laid-back, contemporary-music-laced, nonliturgical evangelical atmosphere.
"At first, I didn't understand a thing. But I kept studying it; I had always wanted to know the truth," she says. "I realized the Orthodox Church had been around for 2,000 years, had carefully guarded their theology and had not allowed popular beliefs to change them."
One personal note: My brother is in Korea and he attends Orthodox services there. The congregation is divided into three main groups. Russians (not surprise here), Koreans (a small but growing group) and Americans (big surprise here). 

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