Dr. Albert Rossi · October 1, 2013
Dr. Rossi reflects on what is means to evangelize from an Orthodox perspective.
Today I’d like to deal with the topic of evangelism, evangelization, and what that is all about because it’s a really good question. It’s biblical, “Go forth and teach all nations. When I was visiting my daughter while she was driving me to the airport for me to return home, she said dad what’s your opinion on evangelization? And I said, “Oh, sweetheart, that’s a great questio. It would require an extended discussion, but here’s a short version of your dad’s opinion.” And I began by saying it that it just so happened that by God’s grace, that that very morning on the OCA webpage, the Chancellor’s Journal, Fr. John Jillions, he quoted a nun, one of Mother Teresa’s nuns, Missionaries of Charity, in Newark, New Jersey, “OK, sister, you’ve been here these many years, tending the sick, how many converts to Roman Catholicism have you gotten?” And the nun’s answer was “That’s not our concern, that’s not our business, that’s God’s concern, our concern is to come and minister and help heal the sick period.” They are there to do God’s work as Mother Teresa explained her work in Calcutta, because they asked Mother Teresa the same question “Ok, you’ve been here these many years, and there are more sick and suffering on the streets of Calcutta than when you first came, so it doesn’t really look like you’re doing a very good job. And Mother Teresa’s response was, my job, our job, my sisters and I have the job of being faithful, not successful.” So that’s where I kinda began my conversation with my daughter.
And she said, how about those groups of people, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who go door to door, and stand on street corners and hand out pamphlets and so on, how about their success? And I said well, sweetheart, it depends how you define the word success. If by success we mean numbers, more people into our belief system, then that approach which I would call, Hard Sell, is successful. If one does that, one is likely to get more into one’s faith conviction. However that’s numbers, statistics, are not my definition of success, rather my definition of success is drawing people closer to Jesus Christ. Now that’s not mutually exclusive, but there is a primacy there. That is to say I personally do not favor of training missionaries to go to a foreign land and impose upon them a particular culture and understanding of the Bible. To go to Africa to make them more American, and teach them what the Bible says as American’s understand it. I don’t think that’s an approach to evangelism and evangelization that I would espouse, not at all.
Rather my own approach is, what I consider the Orthodox approach, the Jesus approach, is Come and See. Come and See, we evangelize others by attraction, by invitation, by modelling love behaviours, so that they want to come and find out what it is we believe, because of the way we behave. Like the early Christians, “See how they love one another and see how they love others and see how they love their enemies.” So I continued to talk a bit with my daughter and said my own understanding is that we, where she is, wonderful Church with wonderful growth, began as a small mission, and now it has enlarged to the point where it’s prepared to send someone to a neighbouring city and start another mission. I don’t need to name those cities. That’s my understanding, you go and you being your little Church, and you worship, and you love, and you have outreach, and you then allow the Lord to work as He will, to draw people to you.
So my approach to evangelization is the more mystery approach. Yeah it requires human effort, a great deal of perspiration, a great deal of grunt work, yes. But it’s not the work of getting in people’s faces and in effect saying we have truth and you don’t so come and convert to our way because it’s a better way. No that’s not evangelism as I would see it, I would see it conversely, that is to say, it’s an approach of magnetism, it’s an approach that others simply see, a kind of life, that I, we are living, and are attracted to. Now I’ve seen that work again and again.
I gave a retreat, I gave a retreat in Chicago and, you know a typical parish retreat, and there was a number of people there who were not Orthodox who simply came or were invited, anybody could come. And one non Orthodox man who teaches at a local college came up to me afterwards and was just saying that he really likes the Orthodox Divine Liturgies, that he really loves the teachings that he’s hearing, he really loves the way he’s received as non-Orthodox into the parish. And maybe he’ll convert, maybe he won’t. But we need to do our job and allow him to be attracted to it. That would be my approach.
For example at St Vladimir’s virtually each year we have students studying at an Orthodox Seminary who are not Orthodox, there are various religions, we’ve had one who’s really not religiously affiliated, who wanted to come to St Vladimir’s, who had all the credentials, and was matriculated and went through. One of the things that is very clear in the administration and faculty is that we are not setting about to convert that person to Orthodoxy. Oh no. That’s not our work. Our work is to teach Orthodoxy, present the truth as we see it, because this student and others want to take our classes, and we present the truth fully and completely and unreservedly, without the hidden hook of “and you better begin to believe this or you’re in bad shape.” That’s not part of what we do. Virtually every year we have students come as non-Orthodox, take the courses, love their experience, love the services that they go to, love the teachings that they get, and certainly love the community that we have, which is really quite loving and engaging. But who leave and are not converting to Orthodoxy, and many of them as far as I know never convert to Orthodoxy. What can we say about that? All I can say is that, that’s the Lord’s work. They came, they liked what they saw, they heard Orthodoxy taught well, they experienced it served well, and they left for a whole bunch of reasons and basically good reasons, their own conscience and often family reasons, they did not convert. Am I disappointed with that? O heavens no. And I tell them that right from the get go, that please know that if you are not Orthodox and you decide to come, there’s not going to be any pressure to become Orthodox.
So the evangelization, the evangelizing approach that I who would espouse, is simply a non-pressurized, respecting of the other person and then allowing God to work as God wills. And then we simply love and live.
Another really personal example is that my daughter Beth met a young man at the college that they both went to, really fine fellow, I dearly love him, Roman Catholic. And she began to date him and fell in love with him, and of course asked me “you know dad what do you think about all this?” And I said honey, you are an adult and I respect your decision and I’m not going to impose my thought on you, I trust your judgment and I will walk with you through life. So we did. I really like her then fiance. My wife and I taught Beth Orthodox values, we certainly taught her that we would like her and hope that she marry an Orthodox man, and in her growing up years during college and after college she did date seminarians, with the hope of marrying a seminarian, in fact she dated four different seminarians and none of them worked out. It was just not meant to be and it was clearly just not meant to be. So that’s where life went.
Beth and Greg married in St Vladimir’s Chapel, Beth being Orthodox and Greg being Roman Catholic, what was my opinion of that? I was just fine with it. I really liked the guy, I said, a man of values and integrity, dearly loves my daughter, great promise for the future and she’s dearly in love with him. So in no way did I stand judgmental about him, and I told him all along, Greg you are Roman Catholic, I respect that, I respect your walk with the Lord and we’ll say where this all goes.
Now as it turns out, virtually all of the time, he would go to the Orthodox Church with Beth and with their children as children came along. On occasion he would go to a Roman Catholic service, but basically he was going to the Orthodox service, just as a Roman Catholic, so he wasn’t taking communion. Not that long ago, he on his own decided that he wanted to convert to Orthodoxy after ten years of marriage and did convert and is now fully Orthodox. What’s my opinion about that? It’s God’s work.
I did not lean on him on any way, because I knew deep down inside me I had no right to do that. It’s not my right to say I think you who married my daughter should be preparing to be Orthodox, no no no no, from my point of view that’s up to God. He did convert. What would I say if he had gone his lifetime and remained Roman Catholic, that would be fine with me, really. Because it’s not my call. It’ between him and God. He is the finest young man on earth I could imagine to be married to my daughter, I’m a fully happy camper with the marriage as is, and I’m not going to impose my construct, my thought patterns onto him.
So evangelization, from my point of view, is synergy. It takes a certain kind of loving effort on our part, to expose others to Orthodoxy. I’ve taken a number of people to Orthodox services, Vespers or Divine Liturgy and so on, persons who weren’t Orthodox, but it’s always Come and See, would you like to go to a service with me. With no more of a push or pressure that this is the right thing for you and you know, please wake up and become Orthodox. No no no, and we`re back to that notion, I will judge you and I am better than you because I have this particular affiliation, no no no, and we look at the Bible and Jesus’ life and so often He said you know to the centurion, “I haven’t found faith like this in all of Israel.” His chosen people, many of the people He complimented for their faith were not Jews, but were Samaritans and of course in this parable He was continually talking about the Samaritan person by way of contrast. So we need to be really careful about how we treat other people, we need to treat them lovingly and with respect and try to get them as close to Jesus Christ. In other words we love them into Orthodoxy, we don’t marginalize them or judge them. So that was my daughter’s question and we got to the airport and I felt incomplete in my answer because I had to get out of the car to get ready to go on an airplane but I wanted to share that because I think for me there’s a kernel of truth, an approach to other people here that I still need to learn more about and we all do and I just wanted to share that.