Today is the feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs and Equal to the Apostles. What titles! They were missionaries indeed, and today is a good day to talk about what mission work and indeed, what evangelism is in the Orthodox Church.
So, what is the biggest difference between Orthodox evangelism and Protestant evangelism? Well, for one thing, you won’t find us knocking on doors. Byzantine Texas posted an interview with Met. Ambrose in Korea yesterday (how timely!) answering questions put to him by Protestants. Here is an excerpt:
On Monday 5 September, following an invitation from a Protestant theological school (postgraduate level) located outside Seoul, the Most Reverent Metropolitan of Korea, Fr. Ambrose, gave two lectures to 35 postgraduate students, all pastors. The lessons, within which the lectures were given, were on missions and the Liturgy. We have recorded the discussions for the most part that followed after each lecture and provide it below since we believe that the topics raised as well as the manner of their delivery of the Orthodox confession in Korea is of particular interest.
1st Question: What is your understanding of missionary activities in the Orthodox Church?
Answer: To start with, the term “mission” does not express the spirit of the Orthodox Church. We use it compromisingly because it has universal prevalence. Instead we prefer the term “witness.” The term mission, which derives from Western theology, does not exist in Holy Scripture, while the corresponding term, witness, is found many times. The teaching of the Gospel does not mean to say beautiful words about Christ but to give a daily witness of Christ with one’s words and with one’s silence, with works and by example. And if need be, if necessary, to martyr for Christ, namely, to spill one’s blood for Christ, as was done by millions of martyrs and confessors of the faith.
2nd Question: What is your opinion on proselytism?
Answer: In the Orthodox Church we consider proselytism a great sin because it does not honour man. It tramples upon the precious divine gift of freedom and debases man’s personality. Proselytism means to impose on someone else your beliefs by lawful and unlawful means, while confessing Christ means to struggle, to live according to Christ and to repeat by one’s words and life, the perennial “come and see” of the Apostle Philip to any well-intentioned “Nathanael” – your neighbour. The disastrous results of proselytism of the so-called missionary countries by Western Christianity, which we face to this day, I believe, does not leave any margin for the indefinite condemnation of the proselytising process.
3rd Question: What process is followed in the Orthodox Church for someone to work as a missionary?
Answer: In the Orthodox Church, the deacons of the Bible are not self-called but other-called. In other words, someone does not decide by himself to work as a missionary but is sent by the Church. Obedience to the Church is the only soul-saving route. If we remember, for example, the case of Barnabas and Paul, we see that the Holy Spirit chose them and the Church through prayer and fasting sent them to preach. (Acts 13:3) And when they returned to Jerusalem they informed the Church which sent them of “everything that God did through them.” (Acts 15:4)
This subject has great theological significance for the spreading of the true faith and for the unity of the Church. If everyone acts according to his opinion and desire, then the faith and unity of the Church is in danger.
At this point permit me to mention the following event: Once I flew from America to Greece with an American woman, a self-appointed missionary. When I asked her why she chose Greece for her missionary work, she told me that she admired the Greeks a lot because she knew a lot about their glorious ancient history, and that is why she had great zeal to Christianize them.
“Do you know what modern-day Greeks believe in?” I asked her.
“Of course, the twelve gods of Olympus!” she answered.
“Do you know,” I told her, “that 2000 years before you some other apostle, the Great Apostle of the Nations Paul went to Greece and preached Christianity? And that Greeks have had an uninterrupted Christian Orthodox tradition ever since?”
Such waggishness and much worse happens when behind every self-called missionary it is not the Church doing the sending.
I have personally encountered this sort of ignorance. It is always so sad (and, to be honest, sometimes infuriating).
Fr. Joseph Huneycutt always puts things well so I am including an excerpt of his post on Orthodox evangelism to finish this out:
When we run from rejection, hatred, scorn and derision, we are no different than the disciples that fled the scene when it included crucifixion. But they changed. They were converted. We, too, must convert – be willing to die for the Faith – before we can evangelize. Now you might say, “Gee, that sounds a bit extreme.” I agree with you. But the Faith is not something that we make up. The Faith is not something that necessarily soothes us. The Faith is a precious gift from God that requires ALL of us: mind, body, and soul. We may have to die many “little deaths” before the big one that terminates our earthly sojourn. For now, Christ calls us out of the world – He consumes us – and sends us back with fear of God and full of the Holy Spirit to bring in the harvest. We must die for Him to live in us. We must allow our pride to die; our greed to die; our wants to die; our wills to die; our dreams to die; our feelings to die – we must die. Death is the first step in evangelism.
Like St John the Forerunner, we must say of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30]. In taking up our cross daily we crucify our sinful selves only to be raised up to glory and thereby become co-workers with God for the salvation of the world. This is the promise, this is the mission. Evangelism begins with death. We are not to slay our brother for the sake of the Gospel. Rather, it is ourselves who must be slain. This is the Way of Evangelism.
In conjunction with the first step is the second: Prayer. We must spend time with God. Sure God is everywhere and available at all times. But we aren’t. Our busy lives usually serve up schedules where we know neither if we’re coming or going. We need to spend time just plain standing: Standing in the presence of God in prayer. This presence with God is Incarnational involving the Sacraments of the Church. It also entails time alone or with family in our icon corners.
The next step in evangelism is social. We have to be around other people in order to bring them the Good News. This, being in contact with people, happens each and every day in ordinary ways. The day’s fleeting moments are often unrecognized as evangelism’s finest hour.
Back when I was just starting out as a missionary priest, an experienced priest told me: “Pray God sends you people. Pray you recognize the people God sends you.” Living this principle is much more difficult. Oftentimes I feel as if I’m responsible for “converting” everyone who smiles toward Orthodoxy. I get my hopes up when a new face darkens the church door. Too many times I’ve allowed myself to count unhatched chickens. This can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion.
We have to be present with God and present with others. The operative word here is present. If we’re not living in the present, we’re not residing in God. We reject what the French mystic, Jean Pierre de Coussade, calls the sacrament of the present moment. This “sacrament” God offers each moment. Yet, most of the time, we reside not in that moment, but in the past or future – the land of worry, doubt, fear, and concern. This is not to say that most of us have never tasted this precious sacrament of God’s grace. We have. However, this joy is often quickly discarded only to be replaced by our will: future, past, pride, sloth, worry.
This moment that God offers us is not an individual right. It involves personal relationships. It begs us to be the “God bearer” to the world around us. It begs us to recognize Christ in others. Living in the present necessitates love and forgiveness. For there is no other way for us to reside in the will of God than to be living, loving, and forgiving in the present moment.
We evangelize by:
1) dying to self
2) being present with God
3) being present with others
If we do these things we fulfill the commandments of Christ to love God and our neighbor. This sounds simple. It is simple. God is simple. For fallen humans, it is terribly hard. It is much easier to spout doctrine, judge our neighbor, be puffed up with pride – and hide.
Orthodox evangelism is not a matter of endless programs, workshops, revivals, audio and video tapes, etc. Like training wheels, these can be helpful, but they are not the end nor are they necessarily the best means. Christ said there is one thing needful. Remember St Seraphim: “Find inner peace and thousands around you shall find their salvation.”