Sunday, April 04, 2004

Orthodox Evangelism

About a month ago, at the clergy conference for the Western American Diocese, the topic of conversation involved missions and missionary activities. This leads to the topic of “Orthodox Evangelism.” Since that time, I have had a number of conversations with some parishioners interested in this topic. I wish that I could say that, through the clergy conference, and these parish conversations, we’d arrived at a strategy – but I can’t.

When we examine the "missionary methods" of St. Innocent of Alaska, and St. Nicholas of Japan, we find a common theme in how these men served as evangelists. For lack of a better term, I call it, "earning the right to speak." That is, they went to the new land; learned the language, and customs, and religion; lived as did the natives; and finally were asked, "You're not one of us, but you live like one of us. Why?" They then proceeded to praise those elements of the local culture that were congruent with Christianity; and, as did St. Paul at the Areopagus with the men of Athens and their altar to an unknown God, proceeded to tell them about our Lord Jesus Christ, and the good news of our salvation -- from aspects of the local culture, and in terms of the local language. Those who had asked listened, if only out of being polite; for, after all, they *had* asked the question to begin with! But, more often than not, I suspect they were truly curious about the presence of this "outsider"; and were genuinely interested in what they heard in response to their questions.

One major difference: these missionaries went to people who were, if you will, "pre-Christian" pagans. Today, we are faced with the challenge of bringing a message to people who speak the same language, and think they know what we are saying. How, then, do we "earn the right to speak" in a post-Christian world that is pagan once more?

The only other avenue of evangelism that I've been able to glean from our history is that of being so focused on the pursuit of the Orthodox way of life that I ("every believer") become transformed; with the result being that the people around me ("every believer") notice that I am different -- and they want to know why, because they want whatever it is we have for themselves: strength in the face of adversity, peace in the midst of troubles, and so on... This is, I think, what St. Seraphim of Sarov meant when he said, "Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved."

"Evangelism" as we tend to understand it in the west is, "going to look for the lost one." There’s also something we might call "99 evangelism"; that is, caring for those who are not lost, and in such a way that the lost are drawn, by the call of God, perhaps aided by our being transformed, to come to Him in our midst. There, being touched, they may find something that brings them back, and so decide to be joined to the Church, and the Body of Christ. Mystical, yes – but, hey, it can happen!

The last part of "Orthodox evangelism" doesn't look like evangelism at all. That's being in Church, doing the services; and making it possible for anyone to come, and be touched by the presence of God in our midst. This is the job of both the priest and the people; and it involves not only the liturgical actions, but also our prayers for God to build His Church (as the Body of Christ) and to fill His church (as the building where the Body assembles).

Still looking for the answer…

Holy Week... and Blogging?

Not too likely! It's not impossible, of course; but as the week goes on, the time for anything apart from services grows indeed. Perhaps a more regular schedule will be possible once Pascha has come! In the meanwhile: a blessed Holy Week to all!