How Do Orthodox Christians EVANGELIZE?

How Do Orthodox Christians EVANGELIZE? July 21, 2004

A small business owner once told me of a guaranteed way to get rid of pesky telemarketers. “Whenever the salesman calls and immediately goes into his sales pitch,” he said, ” interrupt him and ask, ‘Are you a born again Christian?’ If he replies ‘No,’ you say, ‘Well, I am and I don’t deal with people who aren’t’ – and hang up. If he replies ‘Yes,’ you say, “Well I’m not and don’t deal with people who are’ – and hang up. It works every time.”

A couple years passed before I was quick enough to remember the story during one of those frequent dinner-time phone interruptions. As the pitch began I said, “Are you a born again Christian?” The caller, stunned, asked: “What am I supposed to say?” I said, “Just answer the question. Are you a born again Christian?” “No,” he replied. I said, “Well I am and I don’t deal with folks who aren’t!” I hung up. Forgive me, but my wife and I had a good laugh. Before the chuckles faded the phone rang again. “Hello?” The voice on the other end shouted, “I am! I am! I am!” (Ha! Talk about a coversion!)

“How do the Orthodox evangelize?” The question was posed by a Methodist layman while visiting our church. It’s not a question I’m used to answering. I was stumped. My sinister side wanted to blurt out: “Not very well!” But this is not true. With thousands of Evanglicals and Episcopalians, including myself, coming home to Holy Orthodoxy, something evangelical is going on. Honestly, other than poorly, I don’t remember how I answered the question.

The fact that we live in a culture that is still fairly familiar with Jesus Christ should not prevent us from humbly and boldly imparting the fundamentals of the Faith – over and over again – even to the faithful Chrisitans around us. The fundamentals, the basics, mere Christianity: this is what our society thirsts for, this living water. The popular social knowledge of our Lord has become something other than truth. Jesus is made out to be a mere buddy or pal who is there in our times of trouble, like an insurance company. [“Nationwide (i.e., Jesus Christ) is on your side.”] We who share in the fullness of the Faith are bound to share this treasure with those around us. Along the way, as you will see below, there’s ample opportunity for error and missed opportunities.

An Orthodox Christian friend of mine is constantly bothered by Protestant and sectarian missionaries in Jacksonville, Florida. One evening he decided to have a bit of fun. Two young men were fervently trying to him to the glories of guaranteed salvation. He took them on a tour of his home. He introduced them to all the icons populating his walls. When he got to an icon of the Theotokos holding Christ, he said, “This is Mary and … uh … Mary and … oh, gosh … uh.” One of the Bible thumpers dubiously gasped, “Jesus?” “YES! That’s it! Jesus!” Jim replied. They quickly exited stage right and have not returned.

There used to be a Baptist minister in the Asheville area with the same name as me. On occasion, we’d gotten each others phone calls. One evening an Orthodox Christian called long distance from a pay phone. He reached the Rev. Huneycutt instead of me. He decided, what the heck, to have a conversation with the preacher. Eventually the minister started asking questions about Orthodoxy. True to form, he finally asked my friend, “Do you know the Lord?” The caller replied, “Yes, I know the Lord, his Father, and his Mother!” This is where the conversation broke down.

There is much work to be done if we are to introduce True Christianity into this wayward society of ours. Yet if we’re too full of zeal to convert out neighbor, chances are we’ve neglected God in the process. Christ said, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Some have interpreted this to mean, “Convert your neighbor and God will love you.” We must begin with God’s love and love of God. Before we do anything else, we must love God above all. St Seraphim of Sarov said, “Find inner peace and thousands around you will find their salvation.” Salvation is the Good News of God’s love that has consumed our very being. This consummation is the beginning of salvation. We must bring our will into accord with God’s will in order to be a Christian and bear Christ to the world. The Theotokos is our model for this fundamental step.

While working in a local hospital some years ago, a man approached me and wanted to pray. Afterwards, he began speaking of his faith and I listened and wondered where this was all leading. I soon figured out that he thought I was a Roman Catholic and he was intent on converting me to Jesus Christ. After I told him about Orthodoxy, he was much more interested in me as a fellow Christian. He even wanted to know the location of the church. Thinking I’d “won” this little faith skirmish, I smiled, gave him my card, shook his hand, and turned to leave. “You don’t pray to Mary do you?” he asked. Whoa! “What?” I pretended. “Y’all don’t pray to Mary do ya?” What to say? Knowing of his bias I asked, “You mean like the Roman Catholics do?” “Yes,” he replied. “No, we don’t have the rosary,” said this silly Orthodox priest. Okay, okay! I realize I blew it! But listen to what comes next. He smiled and said, “Good! Because Mary scares the hell out of me!” I was tested … and failed.

I once stood outside a hospital elevator, dressed in my cassock, with the Sacrament hanging around my neck. I was there to give communion to an Orthodox Christian. A young woman approached the elevator, burst out laughing, and asked: “What are you?” Caught off guard, I replied, “I’m an Orthodox priest. What, may I ask, are you?” “Well, I’m Baptist,” she boasted. “Good,” I said as we entered the empty elevator. On the way up she said, “We believe in Jesus Christ.” “That’s good,” I stammered, “we do too.” “Huh! I thought y’all believed in Mother Mary,” she snorted. “Yes, we believe in the Lord’s Mother as well …” Before I could continue she announced: “We believe in the blood of Jesus!” Without even thinking I caressed the tabernacle and said, “That’s exactly what I have right here.” Just then the elevator doors sprang open – as did her mouth – and she virtually ran out of the elevator down the hall. End of discussion.

We don’t like to be rejected. No one does. Yet, Christ’s disciples should expect to be rejected and even hated:

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” [John 15:18-19, 20b]

When we run from rejection, hatred, scorn and derision, we are no different than the disciples that fled the scene when it included crucifixion. But they changed. They were converted. We, too, must convert – be willing to die for the Faith – before we can evangelize. Now you might say, “Gee, that sounds a bit extreme.” I agree with you. But the Faith is not something that we make up. The Faith is not something that necessarily soothes us. The Faith is a precious gift from God that requires ALL of us: mind, body, and soul. We may have to die many “little deaths” before the big one that terminates our earthly sojourn. For now, Christ calls us out of the world – He consumes us – and sends us back with fear of God and full of the Holy Spirit to bring in the harvest. We must die for Him to live in us. We must allow our pride to die; our greed to die; our wants to die; our wills to die; our dreams to die; our feelings to die – we must die. Death is the first step in evangelism.

Like St John the Forerunner, we must say of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” [John 3:30]. In taking up our cross daily we crucify our sinful selves only to be raised up to glory and thereby become co-workers with God for the salvation of the world. This is the promise, this is the mission. Evangelism begins with death. We are not to slay our brother for the sake of the Gospel. Rather, it is ourselves who must be slain. This is the Way of Evangelism.

In conjunction with the first step is the second: Prayer. We must spend time with God. Sure God is everywhere and available at all times. But we aren’t. Our busy lives usually serve up schedules where we know neither if we’re coming or going. We need to spend time just plain standing: Standing in the presence of God in prayer. This presence with God is Incarnational involving the Sacraments of the Church. It also entails time alone or with family in our icon corners.

The next step in evangelism is social. We have to be around other people in order to bring them the Good News. This, being in contact with people, happens each and every day in ordinary ways. The day’s fleeting moments are often unrecognized as evangelism’s finest hour.

Back when I was just starting out as a missionary priest, an experienced priest told me: “Pray God sends you people. Pray you recognize the people God sends you.” Living this principle is much more difficult. Oftentimes I feel as if I’m responsible for “converting” everyone who smiles toward Orthodoxy. I get my hopes up when a new face darkens the church door. Too many times I’ve allowed myself to count unhatched chickens. This can lead to mental and emotional exhaustion.

We have to be present with God and present with others. The operative word here is present. If we’re not living in the present, we’re not residing in God. We reject what the French mystic, Jean Pierre de Coussade, calls the sacrament of the present moment. This “sacrament” God offers each moment. Yet, most of the time, we reside not in that moment, but in the past or future – the land of worry, doubt, fear, and concern. This is not to say that most of us have never tasted this precious sacrament of God’s grace. We have. However, this joy is often quickly discarded only to be replaced by our will: future, past, pride, sloth, worry.

This moment that God offers us is not an individual right. It involves personal relationships. It begs us to be the “God bearer” to the world around us. It begs us to recognize Christ in others. Living in the present necessitates love and forgiveness. For there is no other way for us to reside in the will of God than to be living, loving, and forgiving in the present moment.

We evangelize by:

1) dying to self

2) being present with God

3) being present with others

If we do these things we fulfill the commandments of Christ to love God and our neighbor. This sounds simple. It is simple. God is simple. For fallen humans, it is terribly hard. It is much easier to spout doctrine, judge our neighbor, be puffed up with pride – and hide.

Orthodox evangelism is not a matter of endless programs, workshops, revivals, audio and video tapes, etc. Like training wheels, these can be helpful, but they are not the end nor are they necessarily the best means. Christ said there is one thing needful. Remember St Seraphim: “Find inner peace and thousands around you shall find their salvation.” The one thing needful, the inner peace – Christ – leads us to act. As St Paul writes to Timothy:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside by fables.

But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. [2 Timothy 4:1-5]

God forbid that we Orthodox un-shoulder the burden that God has placed on us. Rejection of our calling equals rejection of the Kingdom. We have a calling to share this precious Faith with the world for its salvation. This salvation was purchased by the Blood of the Lamb. This Faith has sprung from the blood of the martyrs and the prayers of the saints. This Faith, this Church, the gates of hell shall not prevail against. We are the people of God; the time is now. Let us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Let us struggle to die to self and to be found in the presence of God and others.

The final step in evangelism is trust. In dying to self, being present with God and others, we trust. We trust that through our imperfect and unworthy efforts, God will bless the increase and the Holy Spirit will lead others into the Church.

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