By Archpriest Eric George Tosi
Chairman, Department of Evangelization; Orthodox Church in America
I grew up in the New York City area. We would often take our little trips into “The City” to visit museums, sporting events, etc. As we drove through Midtown, I always noticed that the street corners had people on boxes with signs around their necks announcing to the world their belief in Jesus Christ (and usually accompanied by a warning of repentance and the end of the world.) Was this evangelizing?
I now live in another interesting city . . . Las Vegas. Different yet the same if you walk down “The Strip.” In addition, many people don’t know this but Las Vegas is a strong Mormon city with strong Mormon roots. This means that we get the missionaries at our door. They usually flee after I let them know I am an Orthodox priest and would like to talk to them about Christ. I have even seen them (unbeknownst to them) gathering under the bell tower of our church and praying, I can only assume, for the conversion of myself and my parish. Hmm . . . was this evangelizing?
Clearly the answer to both of these examples is a loud and resounding NO! This is not evangelizing but rather self-promotion and proselytism. There is a great difference. Evangelism pure and simple is to “preach the good news of the Gospel.” We are called to live out this good news in our daily lives. And by this way of life, we become witnesses to the truth and power of Jesus Christ. We do not and should not be standing on a street corner nor should we be knocking on doors. What we should be doing is living a life of prayer, fasting and repentance. These are the most powerful witnesses to Christ and His Church.
Living the Life
In today’s world, we are constantly being bombarded by a host of secular and religious pressures. They seek our souls and the souls of our children. But this is nothing new. The faithful of the Church have ALWAYS been bombarded by these. Just peruse the Epistles and the Church Fathers and it will become clear that we face the same problems as any Christian did throughout the ages. (The only difference is that the medium has changed . . . , i.e., the internet and mass communication) Yet despite all of these challenges (and some of them are quite great) the Church has always been able to grow and evangelize all nations as a witness to the Great Commission in Matthew. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. (Matthew 28:19-20)
So what did they do and how did they do it? Very simply, they lived the life of an Orthodox Christian. Let us take the example of the great missionary saint, St. Herman of Alaska. Read his life and see how he affected the lives of those around him. He did not proselytize but rather lived the life he was called to live. He didn’t stand on a stump and announce that he is an Orthodox Christian and everyone ought to be the same . . . or else. He prayed, he helped, he loved, he became a part of the community in which God had placed him. And through this witness of what a Christian is and how a Christian should act, he brought generations of people to the Faith. There was no great secret but rather hard work and difficult times as he (literally) carried the Cross to the people and brought the Good News of Jesus Christ. And this can be repeated in the many examples of all of our great missionary saints. From the Apostle Paul to the latest holy men and women who work throughout the world, they all lived the life of an Orthodox Christian.
So to begin with, our actions must speak louder than words. Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann wrote on missions that, “one is first sent to oneself, then to the family and then to the world.” In other words we are no good if we are not seeking our own salvation first. And that is a lifetime of work right there. We must live the life of an Orthodox Christian. Do we pray? Do we attend the services? Do we fast? Do we go to the sacraments? Do we give of our time, talent and treasure? Do we live a life of repentance? Do we raise our families in the Church? When in public do we bless ourselves with the Sign of the Cross? Do we have an icon in our offices and homes? Do we read the Gospels daily? Do we read the lives and writings of the Church Fathers? Do we educate ourselves in the Church? In short, do we live as an Orthodox Christian?
If we do that, then we find that we are walking on a path that we are called to be on and that path has been well trod by the great evangelists before us. We might want to get into great polemical arguments with the non-Orthodox on an internet chat room, but are we ready for that? I have been a priest for some years and still do not feel I am ready, despite giving talks and sermons around the country and in my own community. And in the end the only witness that is truly powerful is that I live as best as I can as an Orthodox Christian (and often fall far short). I remember one bishop’s statement that the most powerful sermon we can give is to do the sign of the Cross . . . this sums it all up!
But What Else?
But the point of this paper goes a little beyond this since people want to have some practical advice (though I believe that what is put forth in the last section is eminently practical). What can I do to reach out? How can I let people know about my valued Orthodox Faith?
Well to begin with start with the home. The home is our refuge but also the place of gathering. People come and in and out. Do we have icons throughout the home? Every room should have an icon on the east wall. These are our witnesses and will bring more conversation from someone who is non-Orthodox than we can ever imagine. Do we wear our baptismal cross around our neck? My wife is an operating room nurse and more conversations (and connections with Orthodox) have happened from that simple witness. When we are in public, do we prayer quietly and humbly before meals? Not as a show that we are Christians but because we prayer before we eat. Do we do the same in our workplace? Because this is where we spend much of our time yet it is the place where we feel ashamed to express our Faith.
But we are also in constant contact with people around us. We must have the courage and conviction to stand for our Faith. Very often, if the conversation turns to religion a lull would descend. We do not want to offend nor do we want to seem like some religious fanatic. But we can speak of our Faith without being either. We need simply say that “I am an Orthodox Christian and this is what we believe . . . ” Be willing to express the basic tenets of Faith through a thorough understanding of what we believe. And that means The Creed. So the question we should ask ourselves is “,do I understand what The Creed says and means?” We would be surprised that so many of us recite The Creed every Sunday yet really don’t understand what is being said. We need to understand the words of the Church because it is through those words that the Church expresses itself. Many of us learned The Creed in Church School or through catechism and then . . . stopped seeking to understand it. The Church formulated The Creed so that it could express what, as a minimum, a Christian must believe in order to be a Christian. There are some wonderful books which can help us in educating ourselves on The Creed. For example, Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s, Celebration fo Faith series (Book 1 is I Believe). It has a wonderful set of writings on just this subject. Likewise, Fr. Thomas Hopko’s “Rainbow” series also has a section on this subject. There are, of course, a host of selections from our Seminaries’ Press, Conciliar Press and Regina Press which also deal with just this subject. We don’t need complicated explanations but rather a simple exposition of the Faith.
One of the elements of the Faith that I have come to understand as a priest and dealing with a wide variety of people is that our own people don’t know their own Faith. And furthermore there are many, many people out there who do not even know who or what God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit is as well as what the Church mean. Basic articles of Faith such as the Trinity, Baptism, etc. are expressed in The Creed and we need to be able to articulate these beliefs. Perhaps years ago, many Christians still held certain basic beliefs but this is no longer the case and we need to get back to the heart of what a Christian is and what we believe. So be willing to speak about this . . . not just saying “I am a Christian” but rather, “I am a Christian and this is what I believe.” We would be surprised at this simple witness. A simple suggestion is to read. Borrow books from the parish library, talk to your priest and get his suggestion on good books. Have an adult class or small group session where together with others you can read. The great gift that the modern Orthodox Church in America has is that we have so much material available to us in English so take advantage of this.
Come and See
One of the truisms that I have discovered is that families bring in families. People are looking for a place to raise their children. They want a place where their children can learn about Jesus Christ and the Good News. They want a place where they can find eternal truths and true worship. This is especially evident in a mobile society where families no longer grow up where they were born and job changes move people all over the country and away from the roots. We used to rely on the extended family to help raise our children in the Church since a grandma or aunts or whoever would be going to Church and could bring their extended family with them. This creates a void in which families are trying to find a new “extended” family.
So often we come in daily contact through school, community activities, neighborhood events with a host of people looking for a church home. Yet we never invite them to our own church home. Their children play with our children and yet we don’t even ask if they would like to come to church. It used to be very common for that to happen. We need to do this in a respectful and kind way. Invite the families when they, through the course of conversation, say they are looking for a church home. Help them to understand the Church and the Faith. Live your own life as a Christian and they also will want to have a part of that in their life.
Of course, our own parish must be open to them. We must be in order so that we can receive visitors. We must be patient and understand that they do not know the tenants of our Faith. But we must open the doors for them, make them feel welcome and take an interest in them. Not jumping all over a visiting family but rather be kind and gentle. Families are looking for this and when they find it, they want to know more. They want their own children to be raised in that way. And they will learn and grow in the Faith. So be open to visitors and invite families. Our own extended relationships are the most fertile ground for evangelization. And when they come, explain the services and make them feel welcome.
One final note is that we need to be a part of our surrounding community. Be an active participant in the life of the community. Encourage events to be held at our parish and facilities that benefit those who live around it. Be in the organizations which promote our values and life. Very often, people come tho these events or come into contact with Orthodox at these events. They see and want to know more. We no longer become that church over there, but rather the church that is here. So the more we are involved, the more contact people have with us.
Be The Church
The life of a parish is often filled with major events. Baptisms, wedding, funerals are all part of the life of a normal parish. And these are often incredible times to reach out to people. Our services are so filled with meanings and ritual that are totally unlike anything else. People are constantly amazed at the depth and beauty of something we take for granted. They are powerful witnesses for the Faith and one in which we should not take lightly. They are sometimes the best evangelism tools we have. People will come and ask questions. They want to know why we do this or very often the simple statement, “I have never seen anything like this.” They have opened the door for a conversation about the Faith. Learn the meaning of the services, especially the Sacraments, so that you can explain what they just saw. It is simple but effective because they see the Church in action, at our very best.
Non-Orthodox are simply amazed by what we do. Sometimes they may consider it quant but very often they are seeing something that has been lost in the West. Baptisms became perfunctory family gathering, weddings became contracts, funerals became memorials. All of them lost the sacramental meaning and hence the beauty of what they are meant to do. And when we do it in its fullness, the meaning is brought back to people who have never understood or forgotten them. The services, the priest’s sermon, the ritual, and the gathering all form part of a witness to what the Church is and should always be.
The other aspect to this and one that should not be forgotten ever is that these events bring back the lapsed Orthodox. They have a chance to come back to Church in a nonthreatening way. And there is something about being an Orthodox that never leaves you. When they see and experience the Church again, it is as if they are looking at it for the first time. It touches a place in their soul and reignites a passion for the Faith that may have been lost. And we must be open to them and embrace them as a prodigal. Not to judge them as to where they have been but rather rejoice. Sometimes they come to a Church where the services are in English and for the first time they actually understand what is being said. Meaning is put to words and they then realize the depth and beauty of those words. And as always, our services are the greatest witnesses to what we believe.
So how do we Orthodox evangelize? Really on three levels. First and foremost we evangelize ourselves. We learn and live the Faith. We raise our families in the Church and make it central to our life. We become witnesses to the Church by living the life of the Church.
Second we reach out to the community. We speak of our Faith with love and attention. We express it without shame. We invite those around us to share in that Faith. And we keep our doors open to the community and all seekers.
And finally, we evangelize our Faith through the life of the Church. We use the wonderful gift of God’s Church and the services to lead others to experience worship . . . real worship. And our own knowledge is invaluable and helping people process that. We invite and welcome people through our own doors.
There is a wonderful story from Russia which tells of an old and young monk. The older monk told the young monk that they were going down into the village to evangelize. They went down, shopped, talked to the people and showed their presence. As they were walking back the young monk asked when they were going to evangelize. The elder monk simply replied, “we just did!” So may we also follow their path.
Archpriest Eric George Tosi is the rector of St. Paul the Apostle Orthodox Church in fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada and the chairman of the Department of Evangelization of The Orthodox Church in America.