Protestants who are received into the Orthodox Church, particularly those from non-liturgical churches, not infrequently find the transition to Orthodox forms of worship challenging. The Orthodox do not use instruments, the music is different, the hymnography is alien. No praise bands, no soaring organs, no “How Great Thou Art.” But the differences between Orthodox worship and Protestant worship goes much deeper than these surface differences. For Protestants contemplating becoming Orthodox it can help to realize that the primary difference between Protestant worship and Orthodox worship is that for Orthodox, the personal experience of worship is primarily one of kenosis and askesis, of self-emptying and discipline.
First some disclaimers: these are only somewhat unsystematic reflections on the personal experience of worship, and not a philosophy or theology of worship. I do not read music (unless it’s in comic book form). I am utterly ignorant of music theory, historical liturgics, liturgical theology, and any other -ics, -ography, or -ology there might be related to music and worship.
Let me also say that I have no beef with Protestant hymns or styles of worship. While “contemporary worship” when I was growing up amounted to singing Bill Gaither or Billy Graham-era hymns versus Isaac Watts or Reformation-era hymns, by the time I was in college rock-and-roll style worship, praise choruses and so forth had begun to filter in to many churches’ worship times. To this day, I enjoy singing “How Great Thou Art” at the top of my lungs with the strains of an organ shaking the rafters, as well as Rich Mullins’ “Our God is an Awesome God” and other such choruses (and yes, that dates me big time!).
Let me also say, I believe that the best of all forms of worship, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox: can properly move the heart; when well done can facilitate union with God through true contrition, surrender, praise, petition and faith; can be effectively and properly didactic; can utilize repetitions effectively; can be “portable” (humming the tune or singing the words) through the week as one goes about one’s daily life; and at their best can help us mature in our worship of God. I also believe there are enough bad examples of all these forms of worship, including Orthodox, for advocates of one to criticize the others. We are, all of us, still sinners.
That said, whatever similarities of experience, or of failure, there is a primary difference that can be somewhat disorienting for Protestants coming in to the Orthodox Church. That difference is one of askesis. (I’ve written about this in other contexts, and with a more critical vein, here and here.) Askesis is in other contexts the structured training of an athlete for a particular struggle or contest, including diet, exercise, and teaching. Orthodox believe that human persons are a unity of body and soul, and that what happens to one has impact and influence on the other. There is a union here that is deep and constitutive of the person. That is: persons are the unity of body and soul. This unity of body and soul is what makes us persons. To deny one or the other is to deny our full personhood.
All of life as an Orthodox Christian is a structured askesis; we fast, we refrain from sleep by staying up through the middle of the night on certain feast days, such as Pascha (Easter), among other things. This is especially true of our worship, especially the Sunday worship.
Orthodox prepare for Sunday morning worship by going to Saturday evening worship. There either prior to or after the service, we often, especially if we are receiving the Bread and Wine of the Lord’s Supper the next morning, will cleanse our souls through confessing our sins to Christ in the presence of his priest. By this time we will also, if we are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, have consumed our last food and drink until after receiving the Holy Gifts. Orthodox observe a complete fast from food and drink to prepare our bodies for the Lord’s Supper. Some Orthodox, after the Saturday Vespers service, will, before bed, pray certain prayers in preparation for Holy Communion. And again, other prayers the next morning upon waking.
The point here is that it is normal Orthodox practice to spend quite literally a couple of hours or more total (which will likely also include the Sunday Orthros, or Matins, service which immediately precedes the Sunday morning Divine Liturgy) preparing to worship on Sunday morning. Askesis: the structured training of an athlete for a particular struggle or contest, including diet, exercise, and teaching. Here it is the structured preparation of the worshipper for worship of God and the reception of Holy Communion, including fasting, confession and prayer.
This sort of spiritual discipline and preparation for worship was just not at all part of my life as a Protestant Christian. On my own, I might read a few pages of Scripture and offer some spontaneous prayers when I got up in the morning on a Sunday. And then I’d eat some cereal or have some eggs and bacon. I might have listened to some praise music or contemporary Christian music on the way to church. Sunday School was usually first. And then an hour of worship. If I confessed anything, it might be during the observance of the Lord’s Supper (which was wholly non-sacramental). It wasn’t that we rejected the Orthodox askesis. We didn’t even know about it. This was just how it was.
I suspect that’s how it is for many Protestant Christians. Then they find themselves attracted to the Orthodox Church. But then, on top of a capella singing, different music styles, an indecipherable Liturgy with incomprehensible moving parts in the first half, then a long-drawn out prelude to the Lord’s Supper–all of which is utterly disorienting in itself–on top of the fact that the familiar hymns and praise choruses are absent and there are no touchstones or familiar landmarks, on top of all this, there is all this (let’s face it) hard work just to get ready for worship.
And for Orthodox: this is the point of our existence.
In my last couple of years at Ozark Christian College, I began to uncover a couple of deep motivations (I’ve written about this at length elsewhere.): I wanted to experience a more organic (incarnate) connection to the New Testament Church, and I wanted to pray better. After spending about a decade searching, I came to the Orthodox Church. I went through the disorientation Protestants can feel about Orthodox worship. For my part, none of that was too troublesome. I had found what I’d been looking for.
At first, my satisfaction at the fulfillment of having that organic connection to the New Testament Church (in and out of time), was so great it eclipsed everything else. I had finally come to the fulfillment of what my Restoration Plea had inculcated in me. But now, while that still satisfies, I have come to the joy of the other motivation that set me on my peregrine way two decades ago. I am learning to pray better. I have a long way to go. And it is hard work. But it is joy.