“Facing Forward” Part 1: Practical Principles of Orthodox Evangelization

by Joseph Kormos

In light of the theme of the 18th All-American Council—“How to Expand the Mission”—questions have been raised anew with regard to evangelization, mission, and growth.  Is evangelization “Orthodox?”  When, how and why should we go about sharing “the hope that is in us” with others?  What should be our proper motivation in doing so?  How should we view the mandate to “go forth” from a personal and parish-wide perspective?

In an attempt to at least explore these questions, we turned to a variety of OCA documents, primarily the Study Papers issued in conjunction with the past All-American Councils that focused on evangelization, mission and Church growth.  In the process, we discovered and extracted “practical principles” contained in those valuable documents.  Some are overarching guidelines.  Others approach a set of practices.  While the content of this two-part article has been reviewed at various times by a variety of OCA clergy associated with evangelization, mission, growth and parish development, we claim no particular endorsement by others.  Certainly no clear consensus exists.  So we ask our readers to consider these articles, not as perfect or even complete, but hopefully as a useful collection and starting point for further discussion about practical approaches for proclaiming the Gospel to those who would receive it.

1.  Evangelization IS Orthodox.  We who claim to hold the apostolic faith and who are disciples of Saints Cyril and Methodius, Herman and Innocent, Nina of Georgia and Nicholas of Japan, and countless other evangelizers cannot say that mission and evangelization are not central to the Orthodox Christian Tradition.  Evangelization – the act of spreading the Gospel—is not a “Protestant” concept.

2.  Evangelization is everybody’s “job.”  Far from being the exclusive ministry of the clergy, evangelization is the calling of every Orthodox Christian.  Just as the Holy Spirit equipped the apostles to proclaim the risen Saviour, the members of the Body of Christ – clergy and laity alike – have been equipped with gifts and functions by which the Gospel might be proclaimed.

The attitude that says “God does not need me to make His Kingdom grow” is, simply stated, wrong.  We are all called to work with Christ to reach others.  All those who hear and embrace the Gospel are expected to proclaim it.  Just as faith, hope and charity are virtues to which every Christian strives, the responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel belongs to every Orthodox Christian.

Evangelization cannot be relegated to “clergy specialists,” like repairing a roof.  Much of the day-to-day ministry of evangelization can—and should—be done by the laity.  The laity are more numerous than the clergy.  And laypersons usually have more contact with the unchurched—those who have yet to hear the Gospel—through work, schools and civic organizations.

3.  Evangelization is not “optional.”  Ultimately, Christ’s death and resurrection were public events, publicly proclaimed.  We cannot separate the personal Christ from His resurrection – and we cannot separate our faith in and experience of the risen Christ from our calling to proclaim His resurrection “to the ends of the earth.”  Faith in the risen Christ is reduced to a mere intellectual exercise if we fail to share it with those who have yet to discover and experience it.  The Good News is not “our little secret.”  If one actually has a personal experience of the beauty and goodness of God, he or she will want to share it.

4.  Evangelism requires collective and personal effort and commitment.  Evangelization is not something that a parish “does.”  It is most effective when each Christian embraces his or her part in responding to God’s desire to bring all to salvation.  Likewise, without the concerted effort by the parish community as a whole, the effectiveness of personal efforts surely will be diminished.  It takes both dimensions to work in tandem for Orthodox Christian evangelization to become effective.

5.  Our parish is not a closed community.  Each parish is a local Church of God.  Too often we see the parish as a closed community that keeps to itself and does not actively seek or welcome new members.  The Church is not just for “our people,” but “for all mankind.”

6.  Evangelization is more than planning.  Just as the Church is not a “business,” evangelization is not a “marketing strategy” complete with “targets” and endless “good plans.”  Unless everyone involved is committed to personal growth in Christ—and seriously accepts his or her responsibility for bringing the Gospel to others—there is no chance that they will succeed in helping a parish to grow.  And if the understanding of evangelization is merely to “bring in new people” to help “increase income” or pay for the new hall, it is wrong-spirited and surely will not succeed.

7.  Finding those who’ve moved to the suburbs is not evangelization.  Mission parishes sometimes form without pursuing a real mission, other than to serve current Orthodox Christians who have moved to another area.  Many parishes claim to grow when, in reality, they are merely enrolling transferees from other communities.  Important as it is to serve those who already belong to the Church but who may not be in a position to do so due to distance or related factors, evangelization primarily aims at reaching the unchurched and those who have fallen away.

8.  Prerequisites for evangelizing.  There are a number of prerequisites involved in undertaking an evangelization effort.

  • Know God.  If we are to share our faith, we must live it fully.  Our first task is to enter into and live in the reality of God – to be in personal communion with Him.  The goal of evangelization is “growth in life and faith and spiritual understanding.”  That growth is rooted in our knowledge and experience of God and our conviction that Jesus Christ is the very center of our lives.  As Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes, “Let your life testify to the presence of God within you.”
  • A community of love.  Our second priority is to manifest a spiritual quality of life within the parish community and project this beyond “our walls.”  Where there is hatred, bitterness, resentment and hostility, the community of love is destroyed—and without love, the spiritual character of the Church is destroyed.  Evangelization efforts will be useless without a receptive and caring parish.
  • Proclaim and serve.  A third prerequisite is to go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel by serving “the least of the brethren” and providing for their essential needs—as revealed in Matthew 25.  The light of God must be allowed to illumine through us and God’s goodness must be made to season our life by our actions.  We proclaim faith through actions that shine in the surrounding world.

9.  Don’t wait for perfection.  Many parishes and individuals are unsure if they are ready to evangelize.  But “waiting until we’re ready” almost always assures us of “never being ready.”  Every parish is called upon to exercise in its own special way every one of the ministries of the body of Christ as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12.  The parish’s ministry for the spiritual growth of its own members is inseparable from its mission to bring those beyond its walls to the knowledge of the Truth.  Neither is ever completed.

10.  Evangelization will change your parish.  Seeking new members without the willingness to accept them fully into the community misses the mark.  The fruit of a parish’s evangelization efforts will be new Christians who are, in all probability, going to be different in many ways than its current members.  Efforts cannot be restricted to seeking “replacements” who are “just like us.”  The very heart of the Gospel is “change”—to “repent” means “to change.”

11.  Intentional, structured effort is essential.  A parish in decline cannot grow simply because it wants to.  While the desire to grow, coupled with a parish climate that fosters growth and attracts and assimilates new members, are necessary, there must be something more.  Effective evangelization is not accidental or unconscious.  It is intentional.  The parish must find ways to translate the evangelistic impulse into a specific, effective, intentional and active ministry.

As a first step each parish should evaluate its performance in evangelism and growth.  Key question in this regard include the following.

  • Who is responsible for our parish’s outreach and evangelistic witness and ministry?
  • What are our current procedures and how well are we doing with various aspects of the evangelistic cycle?
  • Where are we ministering—that is, what is unique about the “place” in which we have been “planted” and how might we best relate the Gospel “where we are, here and now?”
  • What gifts, talents and skills do we possess and how can they be used in sharing the Gospel with others?

While, as noted above, merely possessing a “plan” is in and of itself insufficient, a parish does need to plan its ministry and set goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time sensitive.

12.  Define a parish evangelization cycle.  A somewhat systematic approach to the ministry of evangelization can be helpful.  One such approach, shown below, follows the life cycle of a new member in coming to the parish.

  • Identify.  Locate receptive persons and pockets of persons who represent areas of greatest potency for the parish’s evangelization ministry.
  • Inform.  Build an awareness, trust, curiosity and openness to the parish and the Church.  And be genuine.  A parish that has as its motto “we’re a caring, sharing community,” yet fails to provide a genuine welcome to “outsiders,” will only ensure that such persons remain “outsiders.”
  • Invite those with curiosity and receptivity to “come and see.”  Welcome and receive them with warmth.
  • Nurture.  Follow up carefully and honestly to grow interest in and excitement for the faith.  Assist others to explore what the Church offers and to identify whether they truly seek it.  Encourage participation as appropriate in liturgical services, ministries, activities and events.
  • Instruct.  Guide enquirers to participate in catechetical programs, Scripture studies or other “points of entry” through parish groups.
  • Incorporate.  Involve or include new members in roles, tasks or groups after they’ve embraced the faith.
  • Inspire.  Encourage others to begin the cycle anew by evangelizing the active to renew their commitment to Christ, to “heat up” the inactive or minimally involved, and to share the light of Christ with the unchurched.

13.  Catechesis is crucial.  Evangelization aims at making a life-long commitment.  It is crucial to take responsibility for those to whom we have preached.  Jesus told His apostles to “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… teaching them…” [Matthew 28:16ff].  After the day of Pentecost, the disciples “were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” [Acts 4:2].  No one can teach about the Kingdom of God without evangelizing, and no one can properly evangelize without teaching.  As receptive persons begin to truly seek Christ, the teaching role of the parish becomes supremely important.

14.  Beauty:  Our secret weapon.  Many Orthodox Christians are familiar with the story of Saint Vladimir, who in the 10th century sent envoys to observe worship firsthand in other lands.  After visiting Constantinople’s Great Church of Hagia Sophia, they reported, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth… and we cannot forget that beauty.”

Orthodox Christian worship is a sensory experience and strong on beauty.  Icons fill the walls, illuminated by candles and framed with chanting and incense.  While such beauty alone is insufficient, an atmosphere of beauty teaches wordlessly about the nature of God.  It teaches that He is not a “concept” to be discussed endlessly and that, at some point, our capacity to grasp Him intellectually fails and we fall before Him in worship.  Beauty opens the heart and stirs a hunger for God.

In Part 2 of this article, we will continue this survey by considering twelve important “personal efforts” necessary for evangelization.