The following article is based on a presentation given by Fr. Stephen Frase at the 2014 Small Parish Forum
An Orthodox Christian approach to communicating one’s Faith in Christ that is "Authentic", "Immanent", and "Transcendent".
(And yes, these terms will be explained.)
“That’s not Orthodox!” This may be something heard among Orthodox Christians discussing the topic of evangelism or in other words, “Sharing ones Faith.” Throughout the history of the Church there have been numerous places and periods of time when Christians only spoke of their Faith under the cloud of possible imprisonment, loss of employment or social status, and even death.
An example that comes to mind for me personally is the baptism of a child I participated in a few years ago. During the meal after the baptism, I gave the parent a baptismal certificate. The parent asked something along the lines of, “What am I to do with this? Where I am from to advertise ones faith in this manner would at least bring ridicule and the parent may have even been fired.” It was a sober reminder of the blessings we have in the United States that we must never take for granted. Also, we need to be cautious to not judge those whose families and maybe even they themselves that came from persecuted lands. It’s too easy to assume their life experience is similar our own and therefore assume their willingness to openly discuss their faith should match ours.
That being said, currently in the United States persons of faith are permitted to discuss their beliefs, worship, and share their reasons for being a member of a religion. Unfortunately, some religious groups have given a negative impression regarding discussing and sharing ones faith. Even if these negative impressions did not already exist, sharing ones faith is oftentimes a frightening concept to consider.
Express Discipleship and a Growing Unity with Christ and His Church
As is similar to many other aspects of Christianity, Orthodox Christians’ understanding of these matters will be (and should be) different. Orthodox Christians value the unity in the Church, discipleship, and the lifelong process of growing in union with Christ and His Church. These values should motivate us to evangelize with a deeper and more meaningful approach that will hopefully produce longer-lasting results among those who are eventually received into the Church.
Some may think that Orthodox Christians should fall in line with other religions and assume their practices to communicate their faith. I contend we must evaluate the methods of others (as well as our own) critically to make sure we bring glory to God and to not dishonor Him or His Church.
A Seamless and Organic Part of Our Life
How do we communicate our Faith and play a role in God bringing someone into His Church? A brief response to this question would be that our evangelistic efforts must be a seamless and organic part of our life as members of Christ Holy Church within the parish context we find ourselves. This is easier said than done.
Below are some items to keep in mind when considering sharing our faith or being prepared to share ones faith in Christ. There is no claim that this is “the list.” It is “a list” that is not meant to be comprehensive, but merely reminding us of important things to reflect upon and hopefully integrate into our lives and the lives of our parishes to serve as a catalyst toward being prepared to discuss and share our Faith and the hope we have in the Resurrection of Christ.
Our Evangelization Should Be “Authentic”
Though living an authentic faith is important for all who claim Christ as Lord and Savior, it is all the more important for Orthodox Christians. When an Orthodox Christian attempts to share Christ without living an authentic faith in the Orthodox Christian tradition, it becomes all the more evident that the person is saying one thing and living something oftentimes completely different. On the other hand, one does not have to be a living saint, monastic, clergyman, seminary graduate, or professor to answer basic questions regarding the Faith. Anyone who is able to do (and to some degree does) the following is prepared to share the Faith.
Though this should go without saying, it is difficult to invite someone to services if we aren’t there. Also, most will not be interested in listening to what we have to say about the Faith if it becomes obvious it is not important to us from day to day and week to week.
Read the Daily Scriptures.
Let them hear, as many of us as neglect the reading of the Scriptures, to what harm we are subjecting ourselves, to what poverty.– St. John Chrysostom, Homily XLVII On Matthew
A challenge regarding this is many expect Christians to be knowledgeable of “chapter and verse.” Though this usually means only specific chapters, and even more so specific verses; Orthodox Christians oftentimes are more familiar with the overall themes and stories found in Scriptures because of the Festal and Paschal cycles we are blessed to have received in the Church. We do not have to be silent about the lessons found in the Holy Scripture because we might be unsure of exact chapter and verse designations. On the other hand; we should read the daily Scriptures, allow ourselves to read parts of the Bible outside of the lectionary, and to discuss the Scriptures with others in our parishes.
Follow the Fasts of the Church
Don’t just fast because the day on the parish calendar is red. Dedicate your fast to intercede for those in need of comfort, support, and God’s mercy. We will hopefully be more sensitive to discerning what someone’s needs might be.
Pray each day and pray for the souls of those you interact with daily who are not in the Church.
This does not mean holding an All-Night Vigil each evening. If we aren’t praying at all each day, then we should be able to commit to offer five minutes of prayer each day. If we don’t pray for our family members, then we need to start by interceding for them. One of the next groups of people we should pray for are those we encounter daily. We should hope for God to bless them, guide them, and have mercy on them…even if they never accept the Orthodox Christian Faith.
If we don’t trust the Lord to hear our prayers, then we have little hope to guide others toward seeking the Lord and His will in prayer.
Read a book regarding the Faith each Advent and/or Great Lent.
The lives of the Saints are the Gospel in action. To read how the Lord manifested His presence in the life of somebody who said “Yes” to God in this life is an opportunity to not miss. The lives of the saints provide us with many stories and sayings to reflect upon for ourselves and to share with others who need to hear them.
The spiritual life is oftentimes compared to a sponge. A dry sponge soaks up no water. Once a sponge is moist, it is able to do absorb liquid or in other words do what it was made to do. The services of the Church, the daily Scripture readings of the lectionary, fasting, prayer, and spiritual readings keep us ready and prepared to respond to the Lord’s direction as well as the needs of our neighbors.
Our Evangelization Should Reveal the Immanence of God.
One vital element of the Christian Faith is our hope and expectation to experience God’s grace and mercy in this life and not just after we die or following the Lord returns in glory. Our Faith and the living out of our Faith in Christ should have an impact on our lives and the lives of those around us now and not just at the conclusion of this age. Some ways to help us be reminded of and to demonstrate God’s immanence, His union with us in His Holy Church now and in this life are listed below.
Develop a personal narrative.
Some may refer to this as a “testimony”. Whatever it is called, each adult Orthodox Christian should be able to explain why they are a Christian, why they attend the parish they attend, why they believe in and accept the Church’s teaching regarding Christ. Parish clergy need to lead the way in this endeavor. Can those of us who are bishops, priests, and deacons explain why we are Orthodox Christians (and remain Orthodox Christians) in a manner that honors God and can be understood by someone with little to no formal education. If we are unable, then it potentially impedes us from guiding the flocks entrusted to us to be prepared to share their faith in Christ.
To actually think about in advance what we would say to someone who asks us about our Faith in Christ is merely another form of planning and preparation not unlike the preparation we invest (or should invest) into other aspects of the Christian life.
Be prepared each day to offer comfort to those in need
(II Corinthians 1:3-7). Are starting each day asking the Lord to bring to our attention those in need of prayer, comfort, mercy, help, and hope? Christians’ ability to care for others in need and not expecting anything in return must be one identifiable characteristic of Christians personally and corporately as a body. Are we and our parishes ready to help those in need?
Invite persons in your life to parish events (picnics, guest speakers, parties).
Notice I didn’t say “Food Festival”. While those and other similar activities are oftentimes outstanding events, they are less personal and oftentimes money makers for the parish. We want their souls in the Church…not their money. They can become stewards of the Church after they are received not as patrons buying our food and trinkets. How to design parish events to be inviting and engaging to guests is a larger conversation our parishes need to have. Church picnics and similar social events need to be planned in a way that provides people an opportunity to engage in casual conversation, have fun, as well as be exposed to something meaningful related to the Faith. I encourage communities to plan a vespers service toward the end of the picnic whether they are served inside, outside, or in a pavilion. The priest needs to verbally state his willingness to answer any questions people may have as well as offer the opportunity to answer questions. I would not recommend having the picnic just to introduce people to the Faith. Our parish-related events should be designed and be sensitive to the possibility of someone not of “our people” being present at the event. Though this may cause most readers to stop reading the article at this point, the question of whether to have alcohol at certain events may need to be discussed by parish leadership as the answer to this question may depend on your local community’s values.
Our Evangelization Should Reveal the Transcendence of God.
Christians have the blessing and the challenge to balance God’s immanence with His transcendence. This is the idea that God is unique and distinct and “not of this world.” This “otherworldliness” of God is what we look for at the Lord’s Return in Glory and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven. This element of the Christian Faith reminds us that we are created and that God is Uncreated, and therefore we will never be able to fully understand what it is to be God though God knows exactly what it is to be human because of God becoming man in the person of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:14-18). How can Christians attempt to relate the transcendence of the Divine Uncreated God in a manner that positively impacts our ability to share our Faith?
Minimize our worries.
I am no different than most. I worry about a lot of “stuff.” In fact I even worry about my worrying. Some things I worry about are more important and some are less important. I have found that the amount of worry I express impacts my ability to live like Christ and share Christ with others. How can I believe in and dedicate my life to God who created me, saves me, and provides for me while worrying about trivial matters. The more I can turn my concerns over to God and allow myself to reminded that no matter what happens in this world God is the victor in the end; the more my words and actions match with my belief.
The more we can enter each day focused on glorifying God and not worrying about the things in life we are unable to control the more we can give comfort to those who have little to no reason to be conscious that we are sojourners, or nomads, in this world and that our true home is God’s Kingdom.
Does our worship strive to mirror the “Heavenlies”?
One layer of historical interpretation found in our services (Divine Liturgy primarily) is that we are participating in Heavenly worship…the Liturgy that is never-ending in the Kingdom. One powerful prayer the priest offers during the Divine Liturgy before the Little Entrance is the following (typically said quietly during the entrance):
O Master and Lord, our God, You have appointed in heaven orders and hosts of angels and archangels to serve before Your glory: grant that with our entrance there may be an entrance of holy angels, serving with us and glorifying Your goodness. For to You belong all glory, honor, and worship: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
We must ask ourselves, “Are we on-time? Are we offering our best? Are we singing to be understood? Are we brining glory to God or trying to bring glory to ourselves?” Most of these questions and others need to be asked of clergy and laity. Is our worship merely getting together and singing/saying a few litanies, hymns, and Scripture reading? Though those elements are important, we must also balance these with the notion we are participating in something in this world but also outside of this world.
Laying aside all earthly cares.
We pray this prior to the Great Entrance. Though this could be another way of saying not to worry (already mentioned above), I want to approach this from a more parochial/ecclesial angle. I want to apply this liturgical phrase to our clergy, parish councils, and faithful of our parishes in a way that focuses on these groups working together in the parish. In order for us to be an effective witness of God ‘s love to those outside of the Church; our local Eucharistic communities must be at peace. Squabbles over minutia and secondary or tertiary items of importance (what most squabbles are about) drain us of the energy that should be invested in our primary reasons for gathering: Love of God, love of neighbors, bringing glory to God, making disciples, and taking care of the poor.
The infighting over minutia eventually gets pickup upon by potential new members of our communities. We need to keep our parishes and parish leadership accountable. Look at a council meeting agenda once in a while. If significantly over 50% of the agenda is budgets, bills and building related items; then we need to speak up and lovingly encourage our parish leadership to begin investing more time, energy, and resources in the real reason our parishes exist. More focus on positive, ministry-related items should help our parish leadership to focus on the important areas of parish life and not endlessly debate items that have little to no direct relevance to the parish fulfilling her reason to exist.
I Still Do Not Feel Prepared to Share
Even with many of the above items being order, we still may feel under-equipped to speak to others about the hope we have in Christ. I want to conclude with a few last thoughts regarding this,
The answers to most questions are available.
There are more websites, books, and pamphlets than we can list to refer people. There is nothing wrong with replying to someone with a question by saying, “I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s a good question so I am going to find the answer(s) and get back to you.” People will appreciate and even be curious someone would invest the time and effort to answer a question regarding one’s own faith. It is actually pride on our part if we don’t encourage questions for fear we may not know an answer. I do not know all of the answers, but I usually know where to look or who to ask. Sometimes providing a person with the information to locate some answers on their own may be helpful as long as we are still striving to answer most of their questions.
How we live the Faith is at least equally important to any actual answers we provide.
Living the Faith is essential to sharing the Faith. If you pray, fast, and give alms; then you most likely have what you need to share God’s love with others.
Be sure to communicate with your priest when questions arise.
Your pastor may be able to help provide you with resources. Once someone begins to visit the church, they need to be introduced to him in order for rapport to begin being developed and to let them know it is acceptable and encouraged to speak with the parish priest. The more he knows about the questions people are asking, the questions that the faithful appear to need help answering, and what resources the parish needs; the more he can include in parish bulletins and make sure helpful resources (books, pamphlets, handouts) are available for the faithful.
Its Our Job
The most serious mistake we can make regarding evangelization is to think it is someone else’s “job” whether it be the priest, or other laity. Being prepared to share our Faith with others is a parish-wide initiative…no one is exempt. Everyone must be willing to explain our Faith to others wanting to learn. Everyone has the calling and ability to live an authentic Christian Faith that balances the “already here but not quite yet” nature of the Church in a manner that reveals God love and majesty to an unbelieving world.