by Fr. John Parker
“God is good!” “All the time!” These words are so common in the cultural and Christian memory of the US South. It is a call and response akin to “Christ is risen!” “Indeed, He is risen!” 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 someone say,
“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 to 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 them to “the least of the brethren,” you did them to me.
The disciples were not looking for an “almsgiving program.” They simply fed the hungry. Nor were they attempting to organize a “visitation committee” – it was in their Christian nature to visit the shut-in. Herein we find the very essence of 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,” although we must have one. It is not a “plan,” although we must organize our efforts. It is not a “program,” although lectures and books and how-to-do-its are important. Evangelization – or, more simply, evangelism – is an attitude, a vocation common to all Christians. If you 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 Scripture is clear in revealing that some individuals have been given a very specific spiritual gift called “evangelist” – see Ephesians 4:11 – each and every Christian is called to be a “bearer of the Good News,” and has a specific, personal task to bear witness to God in his or her life.
Hospitality vs. hostility! Evangelization cannot be reduced to “being nice.” But evangelism does begin with a smile and an outwardly 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, while His love and mercy and joy you share publicly.” These are good words – and if each of us would put them into practice, how many souls would find the love of God?!
In a parish, evangelization – when “folks are coming to us” – starts with philoxenia. “philo” is from the Greek “to love,” while “xenia” is from the Greek word for “stranger.” Hence, philoxenia means “the love of strangers” – in English, “hospitality.”
We must welcome visitors with open arms, smiles, handshakes, and gestures of kindness. We must not interrogate visitors and enquirers with “What are you doing here?” or “What do you want?” – questions that are more appropriate from a border patrol agent! Rather, we must rephrase such “opening lines” in welcoming ways: “How did you learn about our community?” or simply “Thank you for joining us for worship and fellowship this morning.” These statements display an interest in visitors and enquirers, and put them at ease in what may very well be intimidating territory.
I recently heard a story about a fellow who moved from our area to another state. He desperately needs the love of God – we had been working with him here. I gave him the address of a parish in his new place of residence. I called the priest in advance to give him a “heads-up.” Excited to visit his new parish, he arrived well ahead of the service – so much so that the church doors were still locked. So he parked his car and sat on the steps of the church. His “welcome” came from the individual who arrived with the keys, who shouted, “Hey! You can’t park there! What are you doing here?” Would we be surprised had he decided not to return? How would you feel with this welcome? Did it reflect the love of the father of the prodigal son?
Nor can we expect Orthodox Christian behavior, dress, and customs from those who are unfamiliar with them. If this scandalizes you, speak to me: God doesn’t care about dresses and headscarves, 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 and embrace them. Welcome the stranger in your midst as he or she is.
Evangelism also requires longsuffering and patience – things that are hardly foreign to Orthodox Chritians. In the first instance, God is the Font of longsuffering and patience. It is “what He does” endlessly 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 grounded in thanking God for this, and then sharing the same, exact gift with those whom God has placed in our path.
A common union. 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” – the “common union” upon which community is built.
Evangelism is rooted in extending the invitation to others to “come and see,” to share our common life – the life of the worship of God, the repentance and forgiveness of sins, and outdoing one another in showing charity, to paraphrase the New Testament. Do our parish events demonstrate our love for one another? How about our parish council meetings? Coffee hour? Do we break off into cliques and speak only with those whom we know? Evangelism involves approaching the person 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. And for some, it may seem constitutionally impossible. It is, however, vital. It is an ascetic effort. It takes practice. It requires leaving comfort zones. Would we want differently for ourselves if we were that visitor? Would we want to be left by ourselves, staring into a cup of coffee alone while others laugh and visit and catch up?
Many of the above principles are common to all facets of our lives, but are also specific with regard to “what we should do” when visitors and enquirers cross our threshholds. And indeed, God does bless us when He sends folks to us!
“Sent ones.” But more biblically speaking, we are “sent ones” – apostles. Jesus’ Great Commission was not, “Wait in your Churches and welcome those who show up” – although we cannot neglect this reality. The Great Commission is “Go!” Jesus’ last words to His disciples 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? To our neighbors. To the store. To the office and the town square and the supermarket and the dormitory and the PTA meeting. Where did the apostles not go?! Every non-Orthodox Christian person on planet Earth lacks something in his or her “toolkit for life.” If you and I have been graced with the complete tool-kit, yet we keep it to ourselves, we would do well to re-read the parable of 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 churchgoer, someone within 8 houses of your house is not a Christian, statistically. In Canada, the statistic is much higher, where 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 Street USA, Canada, and Mexico. And if we are concerned with the fullness of faith, the chances are that no one else in your 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 distance 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 – a witness to Jesus Christ in one place or another – really requires very little.
What does it require?
1. To have encountered God.
2. To be conforming one’s life to God’s.
3. To reflect on God’s work in one’s life.
4. To thank God for this regularly, formally, and informally.
5. To share this story, using words when necessary, with those God sends to us or 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 “halfbreed” 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]. The principle here is simple: 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. He was completely cleansed from the demons who inhabited him.
“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].
Go. Tell. Point to Christ!
God is good to His People – to the righteous and the unrighteous, to outcasts, to the sick and suffering, to you and to me. Evangelization is proclaiming God’s truth by sharing how He has worked in our lives, thanking Him, and spreading His love to others. Everyone, from the baptized infant to the nonagenarian, can thank God for His mercy and bear witness to this in their lives. This is God’s command. This is our response in gratitude and in love.
Fr. John Parker is rector of Holy Ascension Church, Mount Pleasant, SC, and chairs the OCA’s Department of Evangelization.