What if Sid and Nancy came to your church? Reflections on Orthodox Evangelism
Fr. John Hainsworth · September 27, 2008
Fr. John makes four points about what Orthodox evangelism is - and isn't.
In a keynote address of the 13th All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America, Orlando, Florida, Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko said the following words:
“An Orthodox Christian parish, however it was founded, and for whatever purpose it was organized, must understand itself to be an apostolic community with a missionary purpose. Its members, especially its leaders, must be conscious of themselves as people, sent by Christ from God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to bring God’s unity, wholeness, and fullness to all human beings in this divided, sinful, and fragmented world. If a parish has no awareness and consciousness of being sent by God to speak his words, to do his work, and to accomplish his will in this world, then it is not an Orthodox Christian parish. At best, it is a bunch of decent people carrying on a bundle of benign activities for their own benefit. At worst, to use apocalyptic words, it is a synagogue of Satan, perverting God’s gospel by its blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will not be forgiven, either in this age, or in the age to come.”
Now these are very strong words, but I believe that they are very true words. An Orthodox Christian parish is not Orthodox, if it is not fundamentally evangelical; if it does not see itself as having been sent by God and empowered by the Spirit, to bring unity, holiness, fullness in a divided, sinful and fragmented world. Now I would like to say a few words in this podcast about evangelism, and specifically Orthodox evangelism. I know that there are many people speaking on this subject and all of them, or at least most of them, have many important things to say, and this will certainly not be the last word on this subject. I just wanted to make a small contribution to this question of, “what is Orthodox evangelism?”
I have been an evangelical priest, as it were, in Victoria, British Columbia now for six years. I have spent these six years establishing a small mission. When I arrived in 2002 – August 1st, 2002 — into Victoria, there were four people in the city who were interested in an English Orthodox mission. Three of those people were not Orthodox yet. On August 15th, we celebrated our very first Divine Liturgy for the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God. And from that time until this time, it has been a momentous experience. We have gone from the four people who began in this parish, to over 100 people; to many ministries and many people converting, to people coming back to Christ from having left the church as a child, and all kinds of stories and experiences have been sent to us by God along the way. So I say all of that simply to share with you that I have been in the trenches, as it were, of evangelical work, and in trying to reach out to people with Christ, as Christ even.
I would like to handle this subject in several different ways. First of all, I would like to tell you what evangelism is not. Secondly, I would like to tell you what evangelism is, at least according to my opinion. Third, I would like to talk about Orthodox evangelism, except I would like to talk about it in the reverse. And I’ll explain what I mean by that shortly. And fourth, I would like to introduce you to a couple that I met in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, last year.
Evangelism is not: Evangelism is not getting human fuel for the religious machine. Sometimes we can get so caught up in numbers, and in people being present, and who is coming, and how many people we have at the average Liturgy, that we can forget that it is simply not about numbers. We aren’t simply trying to get fuel, human fuel, for some kind of religious machine that needs to run on human fuel. “You know, if we can just get more people into the sanctuary, we can get a bigger church, more liturgical items, we can have many ministries, we can feel good about ourselves. We can have this machine of a church running along just fine. We just need more human fuel, more people present.”
But that is not what evangelism is. I’ve often said, often, to my parish, that I am not interested in a numbers-driven church. I am interested in a Christ-driven church. I am interested in people that gather with each other, to love God, and love each other, and to be a community which is a light in the world. But I’ll explain a little bit more about what I mean by that, a little later.
Evangelism is not, certainly not, the preaching or the teaching of opinions, or it is not the telling people of facts or truths. We can get so caught up in our opinions, and our own facts, and our own mindset, that that is so easily the subject of our preaching, and our outreach. But that is not it at all. We will not convince people with the facts. We will not convince them with the truths. And we certainly won’t convince them or win them to Christ with our opinions, because they are based upon ourselves. They are based upon what we believe. In fact, we cannot do that because the Gospel itself, the Good News, is not a fact, it is not an opinion, it is an experience of the living God, through, through and only through, the Son, Jesus, the Messiah, whom we proclaim as the God-man, and whom we know through the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
People will respond to that. They really will. There are certainly facts and truths that we need to uphold, there is no doubt about it. There is dogma, doctrine, things that we need to uphold: the canons and also, of course, the creeds of our faith. But nobody was ever convinced by simply listening and hearing the creed. In fact, it is the person of Jesus Christ that we are bringing people to. And it is connecting, connecting, with his love, and the freedom of his forgiveness, and the fact that through him, our God and Father is revealed openly and fully. I know this from just personal experience.
I know one person, for instance, who for years, struggled and struggled and fought to try to understand the forgiveness of God. If I had just said to this person, “Jesus forgives you” – and I did, many times. “Jesus forgives you”, “Jesus forgives you.” That’s a fact, that’s a truth. And this person knew this, very well. But it was not until years later, finally, that this person, through an act of the Holy Spirit, working between the two of us, finally connected in this person, the brokenness that they struggled with, with the forgiveness, and the love of God in Christ. And this person, I’ll never forget, simply crumpled, in that, and began sobbing in freedom, and in the new life of God. This is the Gospel. When people connect with that, we simply cannot expect people to react to facts or truths. But I’ll come back to this again in a minute.
Evangelism is definitely not a one-way conversation. We aren’t courting people in the way that, I don’t know, some guy–I’ll probably get in trouble for this analogy–in the way that some guy is trying to court some girl he’s interested in, and realizes that she wants a longer-term relationship with him, but all he wants is to get up into her house for a little while, and then he just backs away. We can’t be in a one-way conversation with people that way. We can’t talk to them until we think that they’re not listening anymore. In fact, very little of our evangelism is telling people anything at all, except when they ask in sincerity of heart, after a long and important relationship that has been formed with them. We need to be in dialogue with people, all kinds of people. We aren’t just there to tell people what to believe, and to expect them to believe it, and when they don’t believe it, to walk away. We are there to be Christ in their midst. Again, I’ll come back in a minute.
Evangelism is not, it is simply not bloodless. We cannot think that we can be evangelical, that we can preach the Gospel and live the Gospel in the sight of the world, and expect to get away without shedding some blood; figuratively, if not literally. We must understand that we are going to have to get dirty. We’re going to have to get into the taverns, onto the streets, into the places where the real people are who need to hear these things.
I’ll never forget many years ago, I used to belong to a group of Orthodox Christian poets. And what we would do is go to various open-mike poetry reading events around the city, in Vancouver. And we would go in, and we would sort of read our Christian poems, without explanation, without preaching, without anything. But we would just read our poems in some of the most backward and radical places in that city. One of these places, a café named La Keyna, on Commercial Drive, in Vancouver, which is a pretty rough and tumble place, had a poetry reading every month at around the time of the full moon. And all kinds of people from all kinds of walks of life would be there. We would have skinhead Nazis there, we would have new age pagans there, we had ultra-feminists there, we had everybody of every kind of philosophical bent and walk of life. And we were there doing our readings, and this was a pretty darn rough crown actually.
And I’ll never forget when my wife, and the choir director of our church at the time, stepped up – at this time they were very young – they were probably I think, 22 or 23 years old. And they stepped up onto that stage, and they looked so pure and clean, and small, and insignificant almost, in the midst of this crowd of people, most of whom could care less that they were even up there, as soon as they saw the kind of people that were getting up there. And they opened their mouths, and they sang in a duet, the hymn of St. Romanos the Melodist, the Kontakion, the Christmas Kontakion.
And as they began singing, it was astonishing to hear the entire room suddenly fall silent, and become enthralled, even ravished, by the sweetness and purity, and truth, and meaning that came out of their beautiful voices. They were enchanted by it. And when they finished, there was a stunned silence. Nobody in that room could argue with the beauty, the power of that beauty that came forth from this Orthodox hymn. And I’ll bet there are many, walking the streets still, that remember that moment. And they had many people coming up to them to talk to them, to engage with them about this, but it all came from their hearts, singing a song they loved, about a God who was true, and present and reaching out to them in the Spirit. But we have to understand that this is not a bloodless exercise.
Now for a few words about what evangelism, I believe, is: Evangelism is first of all, about the person, the ministry, the teaching, the life, the death, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the revelation, of Jesus. We must, absolutely must, make that the focus of our message. We are not out in the world to preach the Church. We are there to preach Christ, and through Christ to draw people into his home, into the place that he calls us to belong, and to live out his love, in communion, in the church. But first of all, and last of all, we preach Christ, crucified, and him only.
I’m often asked to speak at evangelical gatherings, and in fact, fairly soon I’ll be speaking at the Inter-Varsity Christian fellowship here at the University of Victoria. And it’ll be a room packed with various Evangelical Christians, like many other times I’ve spoken. And I am simply not going to preach the Church to them. I’m not going to try to convert them to the Orthodox Church. I’m going to go there, and I’m going to preach Christ in the Orthodox manner. And my conviction is, my experience is, that when they hear Christ preached in the Orthodox manner, and also understand, through a manner that I can’t even try to hide, that I too, struggle to know Christ, and to follow him, and at least to accept and to seek his mercy, in my own brokenness. I believe that when they see that and hear that, that they will be drawn, as many people have been, to the Church of Christ.
We preach Christ, first and foremost, because he is our life and our salvation. Just as I said that evangelism is not preaching opinions and simply telling people facts or truths and expecting some sort of response or a one-way conversation with people, evangelism is, it absolutely is, listening to people. It’s listening to them. One of my professors at St. Vladimir’s seminary, in our third year, used to get us to write down, quite often, a phrase, which I’ve never forgotten. He used to get us to write down the following. It’s very simple: “Love is listening.” And then he’d also ask us to put it in another way. “Listening is love in action.”
Listening is love in action. If we are going to reach people with the good news of Christ’s love, of God’s love in Christ, then we need to know who they are: we need to listen to them, to understand them, to enter into their world, to try to walk with them, to be their friends, so that they can trust us, and know that we’re not just trying to snow them. And all of that can happen only through listening to what they have to say, and learning about their own walk.
Listening is a very hard, hard thing to do. We don’t do it very often, actually. Sometimes I like to just step out of conversations between people, during coffee hour at our church, or in many other situations, and I like to just see how people are talking to each other. And very often people are talking right over each other. They’re missing signs and inflections in people’s voices that could give them much greater understanding of where they’re coming from. But instead, people are just saying what they want to say, putting it out there, speaking, speaking, speaking, and not necessarily listening. And there’s no fruit that comes out of those conversations, or very little. We have to listen, listen more than we speak, I think, at the beginning. So evangelism starts, absolutely starts, with listening. Evangelism is, it really is, the creating of a community in our church.
For the first year and half that I was a missionary priest here in Victoria, I spent a great deal of time out there, in cafes, in bookstores, giving talks, meeting with people, just getting the word out that our church existed, first of all, so that people know that it was out there. Just getting us kind of famous, in the city, that everybody knew that there was now an Orthodox, English church in Victoria. But after that time, I realized that when people do come to the Church, show up at the Liturgy, visit and become a guest for the first time, or second time, they need to see that there is a genuine community, of people who love and care for each other, who have been gathered.
And I think that this is critical. Because it’s not just that we bring people to a relationship with God in Christ, but we bring people to a relationship with God in Christ in community. We bring them to a place of belonging, where they know that they can be loved, and also be real. That they can be safe in this place, be who they are, be broken, be needful, and know that they are in a place where other people are broken and needful, and in a place where people are genuinely looking out for each other, listening to each other, trying to love each other, to put Christ’s or God’s commandment, to love your neighbour as yourself into action. Which I think the community is the only place where that actually means something.
And I think that evangelism, in its most powerful way in an orthodox church , really comes out through the creating, the fostering, the building of community. And that’s not easy, because we are inclined, as human beings, to try to cut people off. We want to protect ourselves from any kind of vulnerability, because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of what other people might do to us, or say to us. And if we are hurt, we want to cut those people who hurt us right out of our lives. And even, in some cases, write them off, and punish them by not speaking them, or trying to prevent any kind of forgiveness or reconciliation. But really, in community, in Christ, in the Orthodox Church, we cannot do that. We must seek reconciliation. This doesn’t mean that we’ll always have the same relationship with the person who we feel has hurt us. But there can be reconciliation, and we can have love for each other, and care for each other, anyways. But that’s the subject of a whole different podcast.
Nevertheless, evangelism must be the creating of a community, in the Liturgy and out of the Liturgy, radiating from the Holy Liturgy. Evangelism is also making the Gospel a verb. When the Lord says, at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” he adds, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” What we are to teach people is to become disciples, and to observe all that he commanded us. Not to believe in a certain set of doctrines, and facts, and opinions, but to observe the commandments of Christ, to hear what he says to us, and to put it into action, into praxis.
This is the Orthodox Christian life, in fact. We need to learn to love God, to love our neighbours as ourselves. We need to, well, everything is fulfilled in those commandments, but we need to put all of Christ’s commandments into action, and to make our lives about doing what he did, and told us to do, by his example . In short, it is to be crucified, to be Christ in the midst of this world, and of our communities. It’s not just a set of doctrines or facts. Anybody can believe those, but the disciples are those who prove their love for Christ by obeying his commandments.
And when we do that, then we are truly evangelical, then we are truly showing forth the light of Christ. Christ himself said, again in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter five, that “you are the light of the world.” We are the light of the world, we are the salt of the earth, and that if we do the Father’s commandments, actually do them, then we will inspire others to follow us, and to do them as well. We’ll certainly also inspire hatred, contempt, we’ll inspire hardened indifference in people, but that’s neither here nor there. That’s the natural reaction to the light of God, lived out in the disciples of Christ.
Those who seek God, who hunger, who thirst for him, will see in us, in our actions, in our struggles, in our desire to be true disciples and to observe the commandments of Christ, something real and honest, and they’ll be drawn to that, compelled to that. And they may not even know why they’re compelled to that, but they will be. And when they come, they’ll see a community of people that are seeking to do the same. And they’ll be drawn in, and find a home, and only then begin the work: the long, hard, bloody work of trying to finally surrender their whole lives to Christ, and to put on the new man; to be “clothed with Christ,” as Paul says.
All of this evangelism can be done with ten people or with a million people. And this is why it’s so important that we are not growth-driven churches, but Christ-driven. Because we can be a community of Orthodox Christians that fulfill to the highest the commandments of Christ, and we can be a blazing light, a torch fire on a hill for those in the darkness, with only ten people. We can do it with a thousand people, but not if that’s all we’re concerned about, how many people. Obviously it would be wonderful if three thousand, five thousand people converted in preaching the Gospel, and the spirit radiating out from us. But that is unnecessary angst. If we are ten, twenty, fifty people, we are doing the will of God, in observing his commandments, living out community, listening to other people, loving each other, living for the kingdom, living in the kingdom, present.
I’d like to make a little bit of an excursus here, in making my next point. This is not, I suppose, directly in the flow of what I’m saying. But I’d like to say a few words about evangelism in the reverse. Meaning, rather than trying to preach Christ, and trying to build a church, and think just what we’re doing on the here and now, I think we should always have an eye to the future, and what kind of church we want to have, and work backwards from that.
There’s a wonderful book, by a man, a Presbyterian minister named Peter Leithart, and he wrote a book called Against Christianity. It’s a wonderful, short, brilliant book, and I recommend it to everybody listening to this podcast. Near the end of the book, he retells the story of Jonah in a brilliant way. He tells the story of Jonah, except he renames Jonah to Stanley, which is a kind of funny way to talk about his criticisms of Stanley Hauerwas, who is somebody who wrote a great deal about evangelism in the post-modern context, and so on.
And he says that Stanley was a prophet, a great man, a man whom God had used to convert many back to his ways through repentance. But God asked Stanley to go to a place, to a people where he was not known, where God’s name had never been proclaimed, and Stanley was sent there. Now Stanley didn’t want to go there, and through one misadventure after another, of trying to escape God’s will, he was eventually placed there. So Stanley did reluctantly what he was told to do by God in the first place. He preached repentance, forgiveness; he preached God’s name to the king and to his whole court. And the king listened carefully to Stanley’s message, and the king tore his robes when Stanley was done, fell down from his throne and called up on God to accept his repentance and the repentance of his whole court. And immediately, from then on, when about asking that all of his kingdom come before God, and make a special festival of repentance, and a proclamation of God’s name in his kingdom.
But Stanley left the court that day watching what had happened. He went outside of the city, and he fell down in abjection and in sadness. And God came to Stanley, and he said, “Stanley what’s wrong?” And Stanley said, “I preached and they accepted.” And God said, “Good. But what’s wrong?” And Stanley replied, “Lord, I’m your prophet, I’m not your damn chaplain.” And that’s just it. When we preach, if we convert a people, if we build a church, we have to accept the fact that we are going to from prophets, as it were, to chaplains, to caring for people, to a society that is going to need us as his disciples, to a kingdom, to a country, that is going to need us to guide them in God’s ways, to heal their sickness and brokenness. And therefore we need to have that eventuality in mind.
Now Leithart also says in this book, quite wonderfully, that any time a Christian enters a home, a town, a village, a city, and begins to righteously, properly proclaim the Gospel of Christ, indeed, when they go into a culture, and try to preach Christ in that culture, then that home, town, village, city, culture, whatever, is forever changed. Because, as Leithart points out, either they will accept the prophet’s proclamation, in which case, everything changes, in which case, indeed, the church goes form prophet and martyr, to chaplain, and we have a whole set of new problems at that time, just as the church faced with Constantine. Or this home, city, town, village, culture, whatever will reject the prophet’s teaching, and indeed, the prophet, the preacher, will find himself a martyr. And everything changes, because God will visit that place with judgment, to vindicate the blood of his saints. Because that’s what God does. You just have to read the book of Revelation, or Exodus, for instance, where God hears the cries and pain and the blood of his people. And they have reached him. And now is the time for God to act. And this is indeed what God will do. He will come to vindicate his saints, to justify his righteousness. And he will indeed hear the blood of the martyrs, which cries out from the very soil in which it was shed.
And then everything changes then. Everything. There’s a wonderful, wonderful story, of an Anglican bishop (I can’t remember which one), who, in the early 19th century went to an obscure coast in Africa to go to an obscure African tribe in order to preach the gospel. But the chief of this tribe had heard that he was coming, and in a power struggle didn’t want this bishop to come, because he saw him as a challenge to him. And so he sent his men to murder this bishop when he got further inland. And when the soldiers met the bishop, and drew their swords, this bishop said to them, “You go now, after killing me, and tell your chief that in shedding my blood, my blood will become a highway for the saints.” And that’s exactly what happened, because after he died, more came. More came, and preached the Gospel, and eventually they accepted.
Orthodox evangelism needs be thought of, not entirely, but it needs to be thought of in that way, in a reverse way. We go, we preach, and we preach genuinely, lovingly, so that indeed our preaching does not become a condemnation to us. We are judged because of how judgmental we were, and when we do that, there is only going to be change. It will either be accepted or rejected, and in both cases God will be glorified and his ways will be justified, and known among men and the whole world.
But if it’s accepted, we need to be prepared for the kind of people and the kind of work we’re going to do in our community. So rather than scrambling around as missionaries and missions, trying to make ends meet, we should be planning for this eventuality. What kind of church do we want to end up being in ten, fifteen, twenty years, when we’re a larger mission with more people? Are we going to end up with just another church, with just another building, going about the meaningless benevolent tasks, or do we have a plan in mind, of shaping people in the gospel. So missions and evangelism is very much about planning what we’re doing as well.
And now I’d like to finish off by introducing you to a couple I met in Regina, Saskatchewan. Regina is a very small city in Saskatchewan, south Saskatchewan. And it’s not the kind of place that you get strange people in. It’s got a lot of farmers, and a lot of local people there. And it’s got a small mall that I happened to be in. I was there giving a series of lectures to the clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox church in south Saskatchewan. And I was sitting in the mall there because I had a bit of a break between them, and I was just eating and doing a bit of work quietly to myself.
And I began to notice that everybody’s head in the mall was turning, and everybody became kind of silent. Because walking through the mall was a most strange sight in Regina. There were two Goths; you know in black, with piercings, and chains, and heavy makeup, and straight black hair, and so on. And nobody had seen anything like this before, practically. Maybe they just came off from the highway which drove through Regina right by the mall and on its way to metropolitan cities of Calgary, Vancouver. Who knows what they were there doing? But I began to think about this couple, so I named them in my mind. I named them Sid and Nancy. And I began to wonder what would happen if this couple, Sid and Nancy, went into an Orthodox church in Regina, or really, anywhere. If they walked in the door, what would happen? What would happen? How would they be received?
And I began to think, “you know, this would be a good question to ask for any church. How would we receive somebody like Sid, or somebody like Nancy, if they walked in the door right off the street?” Would we just gape at them and feel uncomfortable that they arrived, and wonder why they came, and what the point was? Or would we receive them, and how would we receive them.
I believe that there are three main kinds of evangelism. There is word evangelism, there is community evangelism, and there is relational, or relationship evangelism. When Sid and Nancy walk in the door, they should, indeed, immediately be received. Received for who they are, not just shunned, or not feared or we shouldn’t ask why there are there. We should assume that they are there because through some way beyond our ken, God has brought them in the Holy Spirit, to this place, to us. And that, if we do not receive them in love, we are in fact rejecting the God who sent them. And that is a judgment up on us.
The first thing Sid and Nancy should experience in this church is community evangelism. They should be received by people in the church, welcomed: “As other broken people, we welcome you. And here, come, sit here, stand here, here’s a book. If you want I can explain the service to you. It’s so good to have you here. Thank God. I’m nto here to convince you of anything, I’m just glad that you’re here with us, so welcome. And by the way, after the service, I want to introduce you to a bunch of other people as well.” That’s the first thing they should experience.
The second thing they should experience is word evangelism. The preacher, the priest should give a homily that is clear, well thought out, that is direct, that is meaningful. I have literally heard sermons that were written by priests years earlier. They just had them in a filing cabinet.“oh this the Sunday of the parable of the marriage feast. I’ll just pull out the sermon I did a couple of years ago on that, and that’s what I’ll preach. I’ll just read it off the page.” Well that’s just not going to help anybody. It needs to be a fresh word, a real word, coming from our hearts in struggle with Christ. And it needs to be well thought-out, researched, prepared. And I know how difficult that is. I have a family of three small children and I have a bustling, busy, vibrant parish, and I have lots of other things going on besides. But that word should be direct, for the moment, rooted in Liturgy, reaching to the kingdom, and speaking to the hearts of those present.
They should hear that, and see the genuine enthusiasm and fire of the priest. The words of the Liturgy should be clearly sung, with love. They should be able to hear them, hear the voices singing them, people crying out these words in church, as if it meant something to them. As if this was their first Liturgy, their last Liturgy, their only Liturgy. The words of that community should ring out and be true, from the heart of that community.
Now a little bit of an excursus: I think, I really think that our society has become deaf to the words of Christians. It would be true to say that preaching the Word of God, as was done on the first day of Pentecost would be a powerful experience. It was a powerful experience because people heard those words in the context of a society that was immersed in the words of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets. And so they had a context to understand them, and everybody was waiting for the renewal of Israel, which would come. And so these words, empowered by the Spirit, reached into men’s hearts, and thousands were added on that first day.
And then, throughout history, people engaging constantly with the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, and later, the scriptures, the teaching about Christ through the law, the psalms, and the prophets, the New Testament. There were opportunities for revival, for renewal in the church, and in society in general, because the church and the scriptures permeated all of society and people’s lives. It was part of their daily vocabulary, their daily life. And so even in the 19th century you could have Jonathan Edwards standing and preaching about hellfire and brimstone and being dangled like a spider upon a thread held by the mercy of God over the flames of hell, and people could en masse repent.
The 19th century and the early 20th century was a great age of Protestant revivalism, because the word of God was very much still permeating the society that they lived in. But I don’t believe that that is the case anymore today. We live in a society that has had enough of the words of Christians. That has had enough of the words that aren’t matched with meaning and life, and the observance of the commandments of those words. They’ve just had enough of us.
And besides which, there is such a great prolixity of verbiage in media that our words just become among the many other words that are out there in the world. Many different competing religions and ideas and philosophies, and anyway the predominant form of speaking to people, the media, has been so dominated by a kind of focus, a kind of diversionary entertainment, that we simply can’t get our words through in three or four minutes that we might be afforded in an interview on TV or whatever. So our words are really rendered mute to the people of this part of the world. But that leads me to the next, and I believe the most powerful form of evangelism, that we can all practice, called relational, or relationship evangelism.
This is the kind of evangelism that is actually the most difficult for me to accept, but I believe after these years that it is the most powerful and the most necessary kind. I think we have been judged for the valueless words we have been preaching for so long. And now we are commanded by God to form relationships with people, and in those relationships to bring them to Christ. But the relationship is key. We need to earn the trust and love of others through listening, through being present, through meeting with them time after time without agendas or demands. In fact, it has often been the case with myself that I have met with people over many months, even years, without ever asking them to become Orthodox or even Christian. But listening to them and to their struggles, walking with them, laughing with them, doing things with them.
I know others in my community and in many other communities who know that they have to do the same thing. When we are that kind of person to other people, wherever that person is and whoever they are, then we have earned them, and then there will be a time, if we’re praying for them, and praying before and after every meeting with them, that they will bring up the question of our God. And then God help us, at that moment, because then we make a case, for the faith, and the hope that is in us, to them. And then they know they can trust us, and then they will come, and then they will listen to us, and then we can be Christ to them.
So relationship evangelism I think, is the most important, the most important mode of reaching out to our society, that we can employ as Orthodox evangelicals. Certainly we must preach the word when we’re called. And sometimes we must preach the word on the streets and on the lecture stands, and we are called by God at times to speak the word. We need to be like Ezekiel, preaching to a hard-hearted people. And that knowing that if we don’t, then their blood will be demanded of us, that we will be guilty of their blood. Still, today, the default needs to be relationship evangelism.
So Sid and Nancy, after the Liturgy, having heard these words sung, having been received, having heard a sermon from a priest who is actively engaged and struggling in the Gospel and has prepared this homily out of love for his people, and love for God, will be invited to the fellowship time of the community. And there they begin to form relationships. And as they meet people and talk to them, they will realize that nobody’s putting agenda s on them. Nobody is saying,” well, now that you’re here, what do you think? Are you going to convert? We’re really only interested in talking to you if you’re going to convert, and talk about the faith with us.”
No. No. They’re going to be there, talking to people about everything that is important to them. And that might indeed become an answer as to why they showed up in the first place. But nobody needs to ask that, necessarily. Just get to know them; find out who they are. Be interested in them without requiring an agenda in return. And then they know that they are in a place. In a place that they’re safe, in a place that is real, in a place where the love of God is actually lived out, in the faces, in the hearts, in the words of the people gathered there. And then Sid and Nancy become John and Evlogia. (laughs) Then Sid and Nancy enter the church and find their God. And that, in a nutshell, I think, is what I would at least add, in the short amount of time I have in this podcast, for speaking on this subject, which so many, can say so many good things about, but to which I just wanted to add those few words.