Orthodox America

Missionary Principles

Priest Alexey Young

Today, as never since the first century, we live in a sea of disbelief. This polluted "sea" even seeks to penetrate and drown world Orthodoxy itself, making authentic missionary work more difficult than it otherwise would be, for when the Church is not sure who and what she is, and where lie her boundaries, then how can she effectively preach the Gospel to those outside?

In general, today, we find two ideologies, two ways of thinking about mission. One of these methods is rooted in Protestant ways of thinking, the other in traditional Orthodoxy, the lives of the saints, etc. In the 1980s an influx of sincere converts from predominantly Protestant evangelical backgrounds unfortunately brought with them a condescending way of looking at things.

Converts coming from a Protestant background often assume that while the Church may have preserved Right Belief, she does not know how to do missionary work, to "reach out and grab" Americans. All kinds of "techniques" are suggested for increasing the numbers of converts, and some hierarchs have been seduced by the worldly dream of a rapidly expanding "American Orthodoxy."

They do not understand that in Protestantism the convert is brought to a vague church experience that is quite undemanding, is extremely comfortable, and is oriented toward this world rather than the next - the exact opposite of what one encounters when entering traditional Orthodoxy. So, in order to make Orthodoxy "fit," some Orthodox leaders are espousing the idea that Orthodoxy must sever her roots with the old world and become Western and American.

In today's atmosphere of unparalleled spiritual decline, this means minimizing the differences between Orthodox Christians and the non-Orthodox. Wherever possible, wherever the appearance of traditional Or-thodoxy seems to be in conflict with modern Western ideas and feelings, Orthodox externals are being jettisoned. In the name of mission, beards, cassocks, authentic monastic life, relics, saints' names, spirituality and piety in general - all of these are downplayed or even, where possible, eliminated. The Divine Liturgy itself is undergoing revision in order to make it shorter and more "palatable" to both non-Orthodox and radical feminists. The wonderful "otherness" and warmth of Orthodoxy, her experience of genuine repentance, as well as her ascetic spirit, is being watered down.

This "Protestant" approach to Orthodox mission has succeeded in attracting some people, it is true, but increasingly these sincere seekers find themselves in a superficial and even phoney kind of Orthodoxy, non-traditional, and even anti-traditional, and therefore not able to give meaning and purpose to one's life. But, as Fr. Andrew Philips has explained in his book, Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition: The Orthodox Christian Faith is nothing other than the Holy Spirit incarnated and rooted in human life and culture down the ages through ascetic efforts, leading to our 'theosis', our transfiguration. And anything less than this would be but a cultural reduction, a human adaptation of this Saving Orthodox Faith of Christ.

Historic Orthodoxy knows no "techniques," no special public relations' "tricks" for bringing people to her fold, other than those which are recorded in the New Testament. We must, of course, take every appropriate opportunity to witness quietly to our neighbor -"and always about spiritual profit", as we are told Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk did (Journey to Heaven). Sometimes we may be called upon to give a heartfelt witness in public; the Holy Spirit has a way of bringing such opportunities our way when it is needful. We can also be somewhat creative in our outreach. But no matter what else we do, our witness should be founded on two basic principles: FIRST, our best missionary work takes place in the quiet witness of our own example, devoid of pretense or "technique." When we live lives of quiet humility and modesty, of contentment and gratitude to God, of peacefulness in the face of adversity - then we preach a mighty sermon indeed. The Holy Fathers have told us that a good example is worth a thousand sermons. Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, "Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved."

SECOND, since we Orthodox are by definition "right-worshipping," we can and must rely upon the Divine Services of the Church (which are, truly, "divine") to teach and attract those outside the Orthodox fold. The Divine Services must be the very center of our lives, around which everything else, no matter how important, must revolve. Also, we must pray, and pray, and pray, swimming in prayer and liturgy like a fish in water, praying for the salvation of our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers. Such heartfelt prayer is more powerful than we can imagine.

What the world is longing for today is not missionary "techniques," Orthodox "mega-churches," and especially not Americanism and social "relevance." What people want is something that lifts them above this life and this world of sin, something which brings them into close and meaningful contact with Heaven, something that is radically different from what is around us now. In order for us to give this to those who come to our doors, we must ourselves, as the late Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) wrote, "be always aloof from the attachments and passions of this life, even when they center about some institution or leader of the church organization; [he must] be first of all a citizen of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the City on high, towards which all our Christian labors are directed, and only secondarily a member of this world below which perishes." (The Northern Thebaid)

If we do these things, we will not only be saved, but God will be able to make better use of us as missionaries than all of the modern techniques and tactics for "how to grow a church" can possibly do. For by living and being and praying the Faith, we can become spiritual magnets that attract others to our Holy Faith.

Priest Alexey Young
All Saints of Russia Church, Denver, CO