(Revised and Updated, 6/21/2013)
"There is a solemn procession to the altar. The choir is chanting. A bishop in a long, black robe and a full, gray beard swings an incense burner back and forth. We bow. We cross ourselves. It's a typical Sunday service at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia.
That is how Cuttino Alexander, an American pastor, recently described worship at the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (EBCG), a denomination famous for its unusual method of contextualizing the gospel. The man behind those efforts: Malkhaz Songulashvili, archbishop of the EBCG.
For many citizens, being Georgian means being Orthodox; 82 percent of Georgia's 4.5 million citizens identify as Orthodox. Songulashvili, a Georgia native, says he could have created "a Baptist church for Baptists, or a Baptist church for Georgians." He chose the latter. Call it the seeker-sensitive approach in the former Soviet state.
Songulashvili claims a total community of 17,000, making it the largest Protestant denomination in Georgia. [Editor's note: According to the East-West Church and Ministry Report, statistics from Operation World give 2010 figures of 5,796 Evangelical Christian-Baptist members for Georgia, with a larger number including affiliates of 15,600.] Brian Wolf, a dissenting Georgia missionary with International Gospel Outreach, puts the number much lower, at about 2,000 adult members. Yet its contextual model is powerful. "I know of no other Baptist union or convention in the world that has exegeted its context for ministry as brilliantly and powerfully as [the EBCG]," claims Baptist theologian John Sundquist.
Many Orthodox view Baptists as a Western-inspired ...