“Facing Forward” Part 2: Personal considerations in Orthodox Evangelization

As a continuation of “Facing Forward” Part 1, we offer twelve “personal considerations” necessary to evangelize.

1. You are sharing good, important news.  At a certain point, everyone who would call himself or herself “Christian” must decide how he or she personally relates to Jesus Christ and HIs Gospel, to repentance vs. alienation from God, to the desire to embrace His Kingdom, to the centrality of the Resurrection, and other essential truths.  To paraphrase our Lord in Matthew 10:8, “What you have received as a gift, give as a gift.”  But we can’t give what we have not personally accepted or embraced.  To evangelize, we must fully believe that the gift we are delivering is indeed good news and that that it is important to everyone with whom we come into evangelical contact.  The reason to do this is that people need it.  Know that you are doing Christ’s work.  You are sharing good, exciting—and even necessary—news.  And you are potentially making a difference in the lives of others.

2.  You need not be an “expert.”  But you do need to be credible, likable, humble and yet confident.  You need to listen, smile and be patient.  And you need to be capable of articulating the basics of the Gospel in a way that inspires and invites further enquiry.  Yes, you need to know your faith – and you can probably never know too much – but you will, conversely, never be perfectly ready.  If you wait until you know everything there is to know, you will never get started.  In almost all endeavors we learn best by trying and teaching.  So start, maybe using “baby steps,” but start nonetheless.

3.  Not everybody can do this well, but almost everybody can do this better.  Conventional wisdom among evangelization “experts” is that only a small percentage of Christians have the gift of evangelizing.  To be sure, we all have different gifts and talents that will best fit various roles in a parish’s evangelization ministries.  Hence, it is crucial for us to know ourselves, to discern the gifts and talents with which we have been blessed, and to understand how God works in our lives and the lives of others.  And we must learn to have the courage and conviction to confidently express “the hope that is in us” to anyone and everyone, all the time.

4.  Beware of the “Spiral of Silence.”  Today, we generally don’t ask others where they happen to be in terms of their lived relationship with God, inasmuch as many would consider this to be intrusive and/or judgmental, or see it as an attempt to impose one’s faith upon another person.  Sadly, we have been conditioned to believe that people deserve to be left alone, so we don’t share our faith or ask others about theirs.  Yet that same person may be someone who happens to be facing extraordinarily trying issues and situations—the type that require God’s help and grace.  Showing your concern as a Christian can be important to those facing such issues.  Your invitation can assist them in coping with their circumstances through the grace of God and the fellowship of the Church.  Pray to discern when to remain silent, but also when to speak up.

5.  You almost always need to use words.  Many are familiar with the quote, “preach the Gospel and, when necessary, use words.”  The most effective evangelization approach is living a life that shines with and reflects the Light of Christ.  Practically speaking, however, when introducing others to the Gospel, words are necessary.  They help to indicate that you care.  They help convey an understanding of the other person’s needs, hopes, fears and aspirations.  They help to express “the hope that is in you” [1 Peter 3:15]—what you believe and why you believe it.  According to Michael Green, author of Evangelization in the Early Church,” the approach used by the apostles to evangelize included a combination of “life and lip”—that is, behavior and belief.

6.  Network of communication.  The single most comprehensive contemporary lesson in how to evangelize effectively in your parish comes from the Gospel reading of the First Sunday of Great Lent—John 1:35ff.  In this account, Jesus told Andrew and another man to “come and see,” and they did.  Because it was important, Andrew went and found his brother Simon Peter and brought him to Jesus.  Jesus told Philip, “follow me.”  And he did.  Because it was important, Philip went and found his friend Nathanael and told him, and Nathanael came to Jesus.

Potential members of the Body of Christ are likely to come from within the network of those you already know, since you are more likely to have an open and trusting relationship with them.  Prepare them to be evangelized by your behavior and general relationship.  Discern when they may be “ready” to extend the invitation to “come and see.”

7.  Avoiding manipulation and the “hard sell.”  Orthodox Christian evangelization has nothing in common with the all-too-familiar “hard sell” evangelization tactics often encountered today.  We are not talking about going door to door or putting leaflets on car windows or driving a bus sporting our parish logo through a neighborhood or offering free car washes.  While these things are appropriate to “Church marketing”—yet are often unsuccessful—evangelization is not “marketing.”  Avoid manipulative routines based on emotional appeals, carefully prepared questions, high pressure tactics, or the dreaded “guilt trip,” to which many people have a natural allergy.  On no occasion did our Lord use guilt as a means of drawing people to the Kingdom.  As is often said, He “loved them into His Kingdom.”  So, “let love be your greatest aim” [1 Corinthians 14:1].

8.  Evangelization is not an interrogation, argument or conquest.  Saint Isaac the Syrian warns us to be wary of over-zealousness.  We often hear of Christians “winning” converts, as if evangelization were a game or a conquest.  [Curiously, one of the sins of the pharisees was traversing land and see to “win” a single convert, only to make him or her “twice as fit for hell” as they themselves were.  Their goal was not rooted in love for the other, nor in the Gospel, but in “closing the deal”—a goal more commonly expected of a used car salesman.  Read Matthew 23:15.]  Avoid bombarding others with questions, and never be argumentative.  Remember that everyone is in a unique “place,” so to speak—not everyone is open to receiving the Gospel, at least at the present time.  Add patience to the list of virtues you will need to evangelize so that you might best discern when to “move forward” and when to “back off.”

9.  Evangelization is not about “me.”  There’s an old saying, “you have not converted a man because you have silenced him.”  Evangelization, no matter how well intentioned, that smacks of “I’m utterly blessed to be Orthodox, and you’re utterly wrong” is likely to silence others and shut down communication—and, ultimately, communion with Christ and His People.  Likewise, evangelization should never be undertaken as a means to subliminally justify your personal faith choices by seeking endorsements from others.  Keep the “personal journey” stories to a minimum, focusing instead on the One Whom one discovers at the end of one’s “journey to faith.”

10.  Evangelization is not a monologue, but a dialogue.  A monologue is designed to transmit certain “religious” facts, figures or information.  A correct understanding of the facts, for example, does not necessarily bring about a positive response or commitment on the part of your hearers.  Embracing God and His Kingdom requires more than processing information—even information revealed in Scripture.  [In Soviet times, those who taught courses in communist ideology often possessed a great deal of information on Christianity, but that information alone was insufficient to prompt them to embrace Christ in most instances.  They may have been “moved by the Spirit” in an “informational sense,” but mere information generally did not budge them.]

Orthodox Christianity is not a “collection” of facts, figures and statistics.  It is a way of life guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit, lived in communion with God and His People.  Important as information about the faith may be, it is formation in the faith that is essential.  Information alone is not enough to “convince” someone that the Gospel is indeed good news.  Avoid monologues while striving to be a “living example” of active faith and life in the Spirit.

Evangelization, however, is a dialogue.  People come from different backgrounds and possess varying needs, doubts, hopes, fears and aspirations.  Just as an inspiring speech or presentation always begins with the speaker revealing a keen sense of who his audience is, so too effective evangelization begins with connecting with the person with whom you are conversing.  This is an honest, two-way process based on an honest and genuine concern for others.  In line with points made above, evangelization demands that we listen, as well as proclaim.

We can enhance a person’s receptivity to the message of salvation by engaging him or her “where they are”—that is, at a pace that is appropriate to the level of trust and openness that exists.  Trying to advance the conversation too quickly can create barriers if the impression is given that you are attempting to take them to a “place” to which they do not want to go, or to which they may not be ready to go.  While a deep discussion on hesychasm may be of supreme interest to you, it certainly may not be of interest to someone who has yet to hear about the fundamental importance of daily prayers.

11.  Developing curiosity while accentuating the positives.  We need not feel that we must guide a person completely through the process of embracing the faith, from initial contact to reception into the Church.  If, as is often said, it takes a community to raise a child, it also takes a community—the entire parish community, clergy and laity alike—to raise and incorporate a new Orthodox Christian.  We cannot all be capable of answering every question that might arise.  And for most of us, our “required competency level” must be able to engage honestly and openly with others while generating curiosity on their part with regard to hearing more about the Gospel.  Often, this comes down to explaining why we are Christians and specifically why we are Orthodox Christians.

Contrasting and comparing Orthodox Christianity to other faiths is inevitable, and is often helpful in sharing the fullness of the faith with others.  In every instance, however, focus on the positive qualities of Orthodox Christianity while avoiding, at all costs, “bashing” other faiths, which indeed can silence an enquirer—especially one who may not yet be in a position to “let go of” emotional ties with his or her former faith tradition for any number of reasons.  Emphasize how Orthodox Christianity maintains the “fullness of truth”—which is not to say that all other faiths maintain the “fullness of falsehood.”  At the same time, emphasize that embracing Orthodox Christianity is not a matter of “running away” from something, but is solely concerned with “running to”—or “storming,” as we read in the Gospels—Christ and HIs Kingdom.

12.  Finally, we are not “peddlers of God’s word.”  We must never reduce salvation and truth to a “packaged commodity” that can be commercialized, advertised or “sold” in the “marketplace” as any other “product.”  People should not be “fooled for Jesus.”  Rather, evangelization involves “telling it like it is,” difficult as this might be.  But Christian life is not an easy road, as Christ Himself reveals when He speaks of the “narrow path.”  When the real message is rejected, or “commercialized,” or watered down, then the mission has ended, and we risk embracing the sin of the pharisees rather than the grace revealed in the Gospel that leads to the life of the Kingdom of God, yet to be fully revealed, but already fully present in the life of the Church.