James, in contemplating this week’s national evangelization conference, asks, “My question for Basil, Simeon, Chris, Rick, Bert, Huw, Katie, Sock Monk, and Karl is what does Orthodox evangelism look like?” The conference, entitled “Rediscovering the Great Commission: Baptize All Nations,”, is sponsored by the OCA’s Department of Evangelization, of which Fr. David is a member.
I was going to contemplate the etymology of evangel-rooted words. “Evangelion” is a Greek word meaning, broadly, “good news.” The Greek word, in fact, is also translated Gospel, depending on the context. The Gospel writers are called “evangelists” in Orthodox tradition.
I also pondered an examination of Beauty’s role in many conversions to Orthodox Christian faith. This would include the famous experience, recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle, of St. Vladimir’s emissaries in Holy Wisdom Cathedral (Agia Sophia) in Constantinople. Reporting on their experience of the Divine Liturgy, they exclaimed, “We did not know whether we were on heaven or on earth.”
As good and edifying as such contemplations might possibly be for some, and they are certainly important as part of the explanation, an exercise that I have recently undertaken prompted me to look at the question from a different, yet arguably more Orthodox, perspective. I am currently in the process of handwriting a manual prayers in a Moleskine notebook. I have not, to date, found a perfect prayerbook — i.e., a prayerbook that fits all my needs — so I am making it. Currently, I am transcribing the rule for Morning Prayers.
Today, in transcribing Psalm 50(51), “Have mercy on me, O Lord,” I noticed a phrase which might seem arrogant and overweening in the midst of a litany of confession. “Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.” (Psalm 50(51).13) In contemplating this, I have become convinced that this is the key to the Orthodox model of evangelization. As St. Seraphim of Sarov says, “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand around you will find salvation.”
Repentance is unfortunately conceived in the West as sorrow for sin. Indeed, sorrow for sin is laudable, but it is not repentance. It is compunction. Though the Fathers, especially the Desert Fathers, extol the virtue of tears, of weeping over one’s sins, none of them would extol them over repentance. In Greek, repentance is metania, a single-minded conversion, a turning to God and away from sin. Though compunction is often a result of true repentance, the two do not necessarily imply one another. This important distinction, made over and over again in the Fathers, reminds us that we must never judge a brother harshly for not appearing sorry enough for his sins, nor assume that one is repentant because he is merely sorry.
A Church full of penitents is inherently attractive. Only through repentance, turning from sin to God, do we learn how to love truly. People will want what they see: “What is different about these people? I want it!” Without repentance, pomp and circumstance is not beautiful; it is merely pompous and circumstantial. Without repentance, no teaching or doctrine will be attractive; nothing, however true, will be good news. Because repentance, this turning unto God from our selfishness, our stubborn sinfulness, is the prerequisite to an unselfish love, it is necessarily the prerequisite for evangelization.
People know fakeness when they see it. Without repentance, all evangelization is proselytism, aimed at increasing the numbers in our church. However we try to mask it, until our motives have been purified, they are still selfish and sinful.
If this is the correct way of looking at Orthodox evangelism, it explains why the Orthodox appear “passive” in evangelism. Being able to talk about your faith is important, undoubtedly. But it is not martyria, witness, by itself. Nor is it necessarily the most important part of witness. Without a truly changed life, Christ-centered life, we are merely pontificating with Yet Another Religion. Nobody needs that.
There is more to contemplate here. Although what I’ve indicated here would seem to indicate a passive evangelism, which I’ve already noted, this is not the whole story. More on that to come…