The Eastern Orthodox Church and Evangelism
The Eastern Orthodox Church is often criticized for its “lack of emphasis” on evangelism; the Orthodox Church just does not care about “The Great Commission” or spreading the “Gospel” to the world—or so the argument goes. In my experience, the major proponents of this criticism are often low-church evangelicals who define evangelism according to a specifically narrow rubric. Within such communities, buzzwords like “The Great Commission,” “Gospel,” and “Evangelism”—and more recently “building the Kingdom”—are thrown around without any substantial definition. Instead, these concepts are defined by a commonly held, though not explicitly stated, meaning within the context of the culture of the church. And in low-church evangelism, where the culture within the church walls is often an imitation of the culture outside of it, evangelism looks far different than it does in the ancient Orthodox Church. To those outside of the the Orthodox Church, it may appear that we discard “evangelism” altogether—but is this true?
Saint Tikhon of Moscow
I recently came across some pertinent comments about this issue in the newly published Saint Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings to the American Orthodox Faithful. Preaching in 1899, Saint Tikhon addresses critics who claim that the Orthodox Church is “lifeless” because of a “lack of missionary activity:”
Perhaps it is true that the life of the Orthodox Church does not catch the eye as much and does not shine with so many bright colors as the life of other church communities, where there is more noise and luster, but where in return there are fewer innermost fruits of the Spirit of God.
Orthodox evangelism is most concerned with cultivating the inner man and the fruits of the Spirit of God and less concerned with bringing outside people into the church through the use of “noise and luster.” For this reason, to the evangelical, Orthodox evangelism looks a lot less like what evangelicals consider evangelism and a lot more like what is often considered pastoral care. Saint Tikhon continues to note that,
we do not spend as much money on this pursuit as they do. But nevertheless, the Orthodox Church remembers Christ’s commandment to spread the evangelistic message, and the spirit of missionary activity is not at all foreign to Her—only, Her missionary work has a different character.1
Orthodox evangelism is differentiated first and foremost by its difference in character—in a sense, it’s difference in mission. This is why Orthodox evangelism looks different than Evangelical evangelism and explains why evangelicals often do not recognize Orthodox evangelism as evangelism—because it does not fit their cultural definition of it.
Differences Between Orthodox and Evangelical Evangelism
How we evangelize (method) is preceded by why (reason) we evangelize: that all men might come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Orthodox and evangelicals may be able to agree on the reason why we should evangelize, but we have different visions of what “coming to the knowledge of the truth” means. That is, the most substantial difference between Orthodoxy and evangelicalism is soteriological.
Difference 1: Different Visions of Man and His Salvation
The Orthodox vision of man, his salvation, and the Church differ radically from that of evangelical communities. Because of this, Her missionary work and activities in the world look different. The chief area this manifests itself is in the Orthodox vision of salvation: we believe that the human person, and his salvation in Christ, is dynamic, not static. This difference in soteriology goes deeper than many may think: it is wrapped up in a different understanding of the human person, man’s calling, his fall, and his restoration in Christ. I am not going to get into all of this today except to say that man’s salvation is an ongoing reality not a one-time profession of faith.* Because of this, evangelism (or what we might call “initial conversion”) of a person and continued pastoral care (perpetual conversion**) go hand-in-hand—they cannot be separated.
Difference 2: Changing Worship in order to “Evangelize” the Culture
Orthodox evangelism is not based on changing how we worship God in order to make it more appealing for the world. More and more often it seems that the term “evangelism” and “relevance” appear, by necessity, in the same sentence. It is not the job of the Church to be relevant and on par with the current culture—because the Church transcends culture and time. Truth is timeless and always relevant. For this reason, Saint Tikhon rightly comments that the Orthodox Church “does not strike bargains with the prejudices and passions of man, and She does not distort the purity of the evangelical Truth in order to acquire for Herself more members, since She is concerned not only about the number of the faithful, but also about the quality of their faith.”2 She doesn’t try to bring the world into the church by offering worldly entertainment within Her walls under the name of worshipping God.
Difference 3: Evangelism in the Spotlight
Orthodox evangelism at its best is tends to stay out of the spotlight. This is why Orthodox missionary activity is not well-known, as Orthodox missionaries do not “trumpet their own successes before the world, and they attribute them not to themselves but to the might of God.” Instead, She, “conducts her missionary work quietly, with humility and reverence, being conscious of the powerlessness of man and the strength of God. Missionaries of other confessions often do not mind to make noise, to make a din about their work. They meticulously record their heroic deeds so that the whole world might know of their actions and glorify them, and it is for this reason that they are much spoken about.”3 Perhaps this brings to mind the multi-million dollar para-church organizations within evangelicalism, where the entire organization’s funding is based on their ability to show, in number, how many “lives they changed.” Within these organizations, stories of “renewal,” “revival,” and “conversions” are meticulously recorded, branded with the company’s logo, and blasted out to the world through every outlet possible.
Difference 4: Conversion as a One-Time Event
Finally, evangelical evangelism is bolstered by their belief in a one-time event profession of faith. Conversions in this context are in danger of becoming tokens or numerical facts. But it makes conversions quantifiable and makes it easier to record who is “saved” and who is not. Once-saved-always-saved (also propagated by most evangelical congregations) allows for overly showy celebrations when a sinner utters the prescribed words—in the worst cases, the utterance of the word is where it ends. In the best, the “newly-saved” is encouraged to “read his Bible, pray, and attend church”—and more recently “join a small group and get involved”—with little more instruction. The Orthodox Church does not “convert” people by getting them to make a profession of faith. In order to convert to Orthodoxy, a physical Church has to be present along with a priest and an Orthodox community. In addition, catechumens (as those looking into the faith are called) go through a process of learning what the Church believes, and beginning to live an Orthodox life, before they are accepted into the fold. But that person’s salvation does not stop at the person’s acceptance into the Church as one of the Orthodox faithful—in fact, that is just the beginning! The Orthodox Church stresses the entire sanctification of the person and requires us to “be perfect” according to Christ’s command (Matthew 5:48). This takes time—and extended effort on the part of the Church and Her faithful parishioners.
So How Does the Orthodox Church Evangelize?
So how do we actually evangelize? In an article on Patheos, Fr. Joseph Huneycutt mentions three ways: 1. By dying to self. 2. Being present with God. 3. Being present with others. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said we must first “acquire the Spirit of Peace and then thousands around” us will be saved. If we can become little christs by dying to ourselves daily (by getting on the cross with Christ) then we will have a greater impact than any program, campaign, or “relevant church service” ever could. But this just presents us with another problem: how do we become little christs? How do we take up our cross and follow Him?
Gandhi is recorded as saying, “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians.” As Christians, we are called to be little christs, but this requires us to be crucified along with Christ. And this is a painful path—but it is the only one that leads to the Resurrection. Sin is a sickness that needs healing, and the healing of the human person is a process that takes time. Most evangelicals know from experience that even after a “profession of faith” there are still things inside of us that need to be uprooted. This is where Orthodox evangelism starts: in the heart of the Orthodox faithful, in every moment of every day. And this why the Orthodox Church does things the way She does: because we are broken and we need healing. I believe this is the reason, also, so many Orthodox converts are accused of “preaching Orthodoxy and not Christ” (which is a critique that comes from evangelicals as well as Orthodox Christians). The point is, we need help from a physician.
The Church, acting as the body of Christ and as a physician for our souls, helps us through the Sacraments: participation in repentance and absolution, partaking of the precious Body and Blood of Christ, and working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). The entire aim of the Orthodox way of life is to make saints and in this way glorify God—as Saint Irenaeus said, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”
But how do you know that will work? It takes time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears. It is not as easy as designing a brochure, creating a light show, or organizing a “worship set” but the only way anyone can ever know if this kind of evangelism, this kind of life in Christ, works is to try it. And this requires getting on the cross, being spat and cursed at, but results in the resurrection.
One final thought that may be of interest is the fact that the Orthodox Church is also criticized for is expenditures in architecture and beautifying its churches. I find it somewhat ironic that the evangelical church and the Orthodox Church are polar opposites in this fashion: the Orthodox Church spends money to make the temple of God beautiful while the evangelical church spends a comparable amount of money in order to make itself relevant. The Orthodox Church building is adorned and beautified while the evangelical church building stands, most often, as an empty warehouse with little that makes it appear like a house of God. For the Orthodox, our Churches are beautified and adorned like the tabernacle built by Moses or the temple built by Solomon. In this way, even our Church buildings, inside and out, proclaim the glory and the beauty and the love of God; the buildings themselves are evangelistic and inviting.
And this is where I will end. The Orthodox Church stands in humility, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, amid turmoil and power struggles, open to all who dare enter. The best way to see if these claims are true is to enter in—come and see. And it is those words, the words of Christ, that stand at the center of Orthodox evangelism: come and see. We are here, open-armed and waiting for you.
My brothers and sisters, please forgive me if in any way I have offended you. I am not sure if this article was even worth your time to read, as I am not convinced I had anything to say: so forgive me, at least, for my idle words and talkativeness, and pray unto God for me.
*I am speaking here of such methods like “asking Jesus into your heart”—which are often accompanied with select scriptures leading one to acknowledge their sinfulness and Christ’s atoning work, and “accept it” to be “applied” to their life. By contrast, salvation according to the Orthodox Church is an ontological reality—that is, it has to do with our being. Sin is a sickness—leprosy of the soul—that must be healed.
**For a helpful introduction to salvation as a dynamic reality, see: Fire from Ashes: The Reality of Perpetual Conversion by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt and Steve Robinson.Show Sources
1 Alex Maximov and David C. Ford, eds. Saint TIkhon of Moscow: Instructions & Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898–1907). Waymart: Saint Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2016. 15. Print.
3 Ibid. 16.