By Fr John Parker
“God is Good!” “All the Time!” These words are so common in the cultural and Christian memory of the United States South. It is a call and response akin to “Christ is Born!” “Glorify Him!” or “Glory to Jesus Christ!” “Glory Forever!” And this call-and-response reminds each of us to reflect on God’s goodness and mercy, grace and forgiveness in our lives, and to respond in two ways: the first is to give God thanks for such gifts. The second is to bear witness to such grace and goodness in our thoughts, words, and deeds. The former is prayer and worship. The latter is evangelization.
Have you ever heard the following? “He who loves what he does will never work a day in his life.” For those who love God and wish to honor him in their daily lives, being a witness to him will be natural, however unnoticed it may be to themselves. They simply wish to thank God and tell others about it. This, I believe, we can see in the words of the disciples when Jesus said, “When I was sick, you visited me…when I was naked you clothed me…”, and they replied, bewildered, “when did we do such things to you?” Of course, we know the answer: when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. The disciples were not looking for an alms “program”—they simply fed the hungry. They weren’t establishing a ‘visitation ministry’—it was in their Christian nature to visit the shut-in. It is likewise with missions and evangelization. “He who loves God and bears witness to him in his daily life will be a missionary without ever thinking about it.”
Evangelization is an attitude more than anything else. It is not a strategy, though we must have one. It is not a plan, though we must organize our efforts. It is not a program, though lectures and books and how-to’s are important. Evangelization—or perhaps more simply evangelism—is an attitude, a vocation common to all Christians. If you, dear reader, would take nothing else away from this essay, take this: evangelism is a vocation, an attitude, a way of looking at and living the Christian life.
While it is true biblically that some folks are given a very specific spiritual gift called “evangelist” (see Ephesians 4:11), each and every Christian is a bearer of the Good News, and has a specific, personal task: bear witness to God in your life.
Evangelism does not mean “be nice”. Evangelism is not moralism. But evangelism begins with a smile and by an outwardly recognizable good example of Christian character. A dear monastic friend of mine was told by his spiritual father, “do not look glum in the daytime. Smile, be joyful, share the love of God. At night, in the privacy of your cell, you can do your repenting and express you sadness or dismay. This you share with God privately. His love and mercy and joy you share publicly.” These are good words! If we would each practice them, how many souls would find the love of God daily?
In a parish, evangelism (when folks are coming to us), starts with my favorite Greek word. It is the Greek word used for the beautiful icon which is the font of Rublev’s Trinity. The word: philoxenia. “Philo” from the Greek “to love” and “xenia” from the Greek “stranger”. The love of strangers. How do we render this in English? “Hospitality”. We must welcome visitors with open arms, smiles, hand-shakes, and gestures of kindness. We must not ask, “What are you doing here?” or “Why are you here?” Rather, we must rephrase such questions in welcoming ways, “What brings you to our parish today?” “How did you come to visit us this morning?” These (latter) questions are questions which show interest. The former questions reflect more of a border-patrol agent.
I recently heard a story of a fellow who moved from our area to another city in another state. He desperately needs the love of God—we had been working with him here. I gave him the address of the Orthodox Church in his new town. I called the priest in advance to give him a heads-up. Excited to try his new church, he arrived well ahead of the service—so much so that the church doors were still locked. So he parked and sat on the steps of the Church. His welcome was the Deacon, who arrived first with keys, shouting at him, “Hey! You can’t park there! What are you doing here?” Should we be surprised that he will not return? How would you feel with this welcome? Does it reflect the love of the father of the prodigal son? “Where the h*** have you been? Sorry—too late!” This is not God’s love.
Nor can we expect Orthodox Christian behavior, dress, and customs from those who do not know. If this scandalizes you, speak to me: God doesn’t care about headscarves and dresses, especially from those who are drawing near to him for the first time. Whatever our inner traditions are for Christians, let’s reserve those for the cathechumens who are learning them, and from the Christians who adopt them. Welcome the stranger in your midst as they are.
Evangelism also requires long-suffering and patience. But this is not foreign to us. In the first instance, God is the font of longsuffering and patience. It is ‘what he does’ every day for you and for me. When was the last time, for example, that you went and confessed your sins to God before the priest, and went away unforgiven? If you repented, you have never gone away unforgiven. Why would we treat others any differently? God long-suffers you. He is patient with me. He shows mercy on you. He forgives me. Evangelism—the sharing of the Good News—is to thank God for this, and then to share the same exact gift with those whom God places in our path.
Evangelism is also found in the community aspects of our parishes. Human beings seek meaning and community instinctively. It is the Church comprised of Christians, who will be known by “how they love one another”, which is the true, live-giving community. Evangelism is to invite others to share our common life: the life of the worship of God, repentance of our sins, and outdoing one another in showing charity, to paraphrase the whole New Testament. Do our parish events demonstrate our love for one another? How about our parish council meetings? How about coffee hour? Do we break off into cliques and speak only with those whom we know? Evangelism is going the one standing alone and saying “Hello! Welcome!”. Evangelism is saying, “let me introduce you to some of our other parishioners.” Evangelism is “would you join us for lunch?”
Some of this does not come easily. For some it may seem constitutionally impossible. It is, however, vital. It is an ascetical effort. It takes practice. I requires leaving comfort zones. Would we want differently for ourselves if we were that visitor? Would we want to be left to ourselves staring into a cup of coffee along while others laugh and visit and catch up?
Many of the above principles are common to all facets of our life, but are also specific to ‘what to do’ when someone comes to visit our churches. God bless us if he sends folks to us.
But more biblically speaking, we are “sent ones”—apostles. Jesus’ Great Commission was not, “Wait in your Churches and welcome those who show up.” (Though we cannot neglect this.) The Great Commission is “Go!” Jesus’ last words to his disciples, his students, were, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18ff).
Where are we to go? Go to the neighbor’s. To the store. To the office. To the town square. To the market. To the dormitory. To the Commons Hall. To the Mosque, the Synagogue, the Presbyterian Church. To the PTA meeting. To the HOA. To Africa or Mexico. To Russia or Romania. Where did the apostles not go? GO! Every non-Orthodox person on the planet Earth lacks something in his toolkit for life. In his spiritual hospital for salvation. If you and I have been graced with the full tool-kit, the most-advanced hospital, and we keep it to ourselves—well we would do well to re-read about the man who buried his talent in the earth.
It is never easy to know what to do with statistics, and it is probably complicated at best to equate “Goes to church” with “Christian”, but in the USA (one survey says), 8% of folks never go to church. If you are a church-goer, someone within 8 houses of your house is not a Christian, statistically. In Canada, the statistic is much higher. 38% never or almost never go. If you go to church, one neighbor on either side of your house does not. God does call some to the proverbial African jungle. But let’s not overlook Main St., USA, Canada, Mexico. And if we are concerned with the fullness of faith, the chances are, in the USA that no one else in your whole neighborhood is an Orthodox Christian. In a town of 10,000, statistically speaking, there are 100 or less Orthodox Christians. That means, depending on our strategy, there are up to 9,900 folks who need Orthodox Christianity—who do not know the fullness of Christ. How big is your town?
Biblically speaking, we might organize our efforts according to Acts 1. Again just before his Ascension, Jesus instructed his followers (us!) to go and wait on the coming-and-promised-Comforter: the Holy Spirit. And he noted, “…you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth…”: We can take these to be like ever extending ripples in a pond. Jerusalem: where we are. Judea: the surrounding area. Samaria: a long way away. Ends of the earth: a foreign land. Some take it in this way: my city, my state, my country, foreign missions. Some indeed are called to go a long way away to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Some are called to stay at home. Some are called to go and come back. “To where?” and “When” are the good questions. “Me?” is not a question. Every Christian is called to be a witness to Jesus Christ. The questions are where, how, when?
To be a missionary or evangelist—simply a witness to Jesus Christ in one place or another—really requires very little. What would those needs be? 1. To have encountered God. 2. To be conforming his life to God’s. 3. To reflect on God’s work in his life. 4. To thank God for that regularly, formally, and informally. 5. To share this story, using words when necessary, with those a) whom God sends us or b) to whom God sends us. Of course, it will benefit us greatly to know the Scriptures, the Saints, the History of the Church, how Orthodoxy fulfills all religions, etc. But the personal knowledge of the Saving God is the bedrock of one’s evangelistic foundation.
Two biblical examples come to mind: The woman at the well, and the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus drew near to the “half-breed” Samaritan woman and if that scandal wasn’t enough, he knew every detail of her life—not to ‘expose’ or ‘shame’ her, but to heal her by pointing her to true life: himself. She left the well “and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ” (John 4:28). Principle: Go. Tell. Invite. Point to Christ.
The Gerasene demoniac had already been consigned to the unclean existence of living in the land of the dead, chained to death, and away from his community. Completely cleansed from the army of demons which inhabited him, and filled with Christ—sitting clothed and in his right mind. “And as [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. But he refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled” (Mark 5:18ff). Principle: Go. Tell. Point to Christ!
God is good to men. God is good to women. God is good the righteous and the unrighteous. God is good to outcasts. He is good to the sick and suffering. He is good to you, and to me. Evangelism, at its simplest, is taking the Orthodox Christian truths about God, and how he has worked in our lives, thanking him, and spreading that love around. Everyone from baptized infant to nonagenarian—everyone between and beyond, can thank God for his mercy and can bear witness to that in their lives. This is God’s command. This is our response in gratitude and in love.
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I see the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Evangelization mainly as a cheerleader and resource to serve our Church, and I see it as a leader in coordinating efforts evangelization, church growth, missions planting, and parish revitalization across jurisdictional lines.
There are scores of clergy and laypeople alike—both within the OCA and in other jurisdictions—who are doing mighty work bearing witness to Christ. I hope that our department will highlight them, lift them up, encourage them, allowing their light to shine in other areas of our Church.
There are numbers of faithful Orthodox Christians who are talented church planters, street preachers, writers and teachers, and I hope that our department will introduce them to the wider OCA so that we might learn from them.
There are those in our church who are skilled at strategizing about where to plant churches and how to train leaders. I hope our department will mobilize these to the glory of God.
There are those in our church who have experience diagnosing and revitalizing dying parishes. I hope our department will assist in multiplying and sending these into the suffering portions of our OCA.
And we must, I believe, not be prideful by failing to admit that we have sacramentalized many in our churches without properly catechizing or evangelizing them. We have many who are able to guard the doors of our parish concerning little ‘t’ traditions of Orthodoxy (whether that is related to how one dresses or when one bows, or if one kisses the face instead of the feet of a saint on the icon, or didn’t pay for a candle, or stand for the Gospel), but don’t have a clue what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” or “forgive one another as I have forgiven you”. So I hope our department will also make an impact in supporting the evangelization, revitalization, and catechizing of those who already bear the name Orthodox Christian within our folds, who have slipped through those cracks.
And I would like to close, for now, with a challenge: that every diocesan hierarch would ask every dean to work in every deanery in our land, each to make a list of the 10 or 20 towns and cities nearby which need an Orthodox Church, in rank order by size and by current Orthodox presence (none, or none in the local language, or big enough to support an additional thriving parish). And then, in the year 2012, to pick one of those cities, and plant a church there. I’ll just take a statistical guess: 14 dioceses, 5 deaneries/diocese, 70 new missions in the new year. Pick one town, and plant it!