by Terry Mattingly

One does not need a graduate degree in liturgies to be able to tell the differences between a Sunday night Southern Baptist worship service and a Saturday night rite of Holy Vespers in an Orthodox parish.

If you walk into the sanctuary and there are no candles, no incense, no chanting, no prostrations, no vestments, and no iconostasis, then you are with the Baptists. You also will not see people lingering
in silence afterwards, waiting to take their turn standing before the icon of Jesus Christ to confess their sins.

Nevertheless, anyone who bothered to spend a few months in each of these two radically different ecclesiastical environments would notice some striking similarities in the people involved in these services and the roles that they play in their congregations.

Trust me on this. Let me tell you a parable about Orthodoxy. This parable, though, is rooted in my heritage as a Baptist. I was, you see, a first-round draft pick of the Southern Baptist establishment and remain proud of my family and the deep heritage of biblical faith one can find among good Baptists. My father was a pastor and a missions leader in the state of Texas, which makes me something like the son of an Orthodox priest in Russia or Greece. Other members of my family are also Baptist leaders, and I was ordained as a deacon when I was only 27. I have Orthodox friends who speak Arabic or Greek. I speak Texan. It was during my deacon days two decades ago that I learned something crucial about church life. I learned this lesson during Sunday night worship services, and I have thought about it often during Vespers in the years since I converted to the Orthodox faith.

Soon after we were married, my wife and I were active in a small Southern Baptist flock in central Illinois. It was a smallish congregation by Baptist standards, but most Orthodox Christians would think of it as a good-sized church. We tended to have two hundred or so gathered for worship on Sunday mornings. Then we would have about fifty of the faithful return for Bible study and prayer at the low-key services on Sunday nights. We also had small prayer meetings on Wednesday nights. After several years in the congregation, I was elected as chairman of the church finance committee, even though I was quite young. In this role, I was the only person in the congregation who saw the financial pledge cards turned in by members during the annual stewardship campaign that provided virtually all of the church’s funds. Not even the pastor knew who had pledged what amount of money.

Historically, Southern Baptists have placed a heavy emphasis on faithful, steady giving and the biblical doctrine of the tithe—the standard that asks members to contribute ten percent of their income to the church. But here is the plain truth: most of our members did not tithe. Many did not come anywhere close. As finance chairman, I was the only person who knew who was tithing and who was not, who was practicing sacrificial giving and who was, well, taking it easy.

This is what I learned: Stewardship has almost nothing to do with income. Some of our major donors made good money. But many did not. Some of the wealthy members contributed little or nothing. Most of the money came from ordinary people—highly dedicated, faithful people. It was impossible not to think about this from time to time during Sunday morning services. My eyes would scan the congregation and I would see the faces of people whose sacrificial giving made it possible for the church to reach out in missions and youth programs. I saw others who could have given, yet did not do so. Some people gave much, when they had little to give. Some had much they could have given and gave very little. It was tempting to feel anger and despair, as well as gratitude and thanksgiving.
Then there were the times when we gathered on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Looking around, I saw the faces of the faithful people whose giving helped our church live and breathe and help others.

This is what I learned: Faithful stewardship is rooted in prayer and worship. Transfer this over to an Orthodox parish and, I am convinced, you will find that the people who are most faithful in Vespers, faithful in confession, and faithful in the celebration of the feasts and observances of the fasts will be those who are most faithful in stewardship. It is this kind of steady giving—in time and talents—that gives a church stability and helps it to reach out to find new believers and those who are seeking Orthodoxy.

There is a time and place for festivals and benefit events, for tributes and dedications. But nothing can take the place of faithfulness in worship, Vespers, and confession. Is the Vespers service in your parish growing? Are you there?