Evangelism. After reading that word, most of you probably have some sort of image in your head. Someone going door to door, passing out pamphlets and pocket gospels. Or maybe someone standing on a street corner downtown preaching into a megaphone, proclaiming that “Jesus saves!” or “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” But is this truly what Christ meant by evangelism? In this post, we explore the Orthodox Church’s approach to evangelism, and provide some helpful suggestions for ways you can evangelize in your community.
What is Evangelism?
While this question seems simple enough, it isn’t an easy one to answer. After the splintering of the Western (Roman Catholic) church into thousands of denominations, evangelism has grown to mean different things to different groups of Christians. This often leaves people, including many Orthodox, wondering what the true definition actually is.
Wikipedia defines evangelism as “the spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.” (Emphasis added.) That definition fits that image in your head from earlier, doesn’t it? But it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How are we to preach in public? What is and isn’t allowed? How are we supposed to witness to Christ? You could go out and ask five different Protestant groups these questions. Guaranteed, you would get five different answers.
The practice of evangelism, of spreading the Gospel, has always been at the heart of the Orthodox Church’s life and experience. But so many people feel awkward answering this call, because the examples set for them by men fall short of what Christ truly asks of us. What does Christ expect of us? We turn to the Scriptures to find the answer.
Evangelism in the Scriptures
Evangelism comes from the Greek word euangelion, which translates in English to “proclaiming the Good News.” In essence, it is the act of affirming that entering into a relationship with God through His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, is not only possible, but is the very purpose of human life (John 17:3). Christ and His Apostles call us to proclaim the Gospel on multiple occasions. But never do they tell us to force it on others, or coerce someone into rejecting their beliefs and accepting our own just so we have more people in the seats. What I just described is proselytism, not evangelism. It is crucial we understand the difference.
So what do we do then? If we aren’t supposed to go around bothering people knocking on their doors, and shoving our beliefs in their faces as they walk around downtown, what are we left with? How else can we proclaim the Good News? The answer is simpler than you think.
How to Evangelize Properly
In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ delivers the Sermon on the Mount. During this sermon, He tells us to let our light shine before men the way a lamp shines when placed on a lamp stand (5:15-16). Further, Saint Peter tells us to “sanctify the Lord God in [our] hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks [us] a reason for the hope that is in [us], with meekness and fear” (3:15). Christ calls us to live as examples, to dedicate our lives to Him in every respect. This is the way we draw the interest of others. They notice the way we live as Orthodox Christians. They watch, they listen, they ask questions. And if God wills it, they eventually convert to the Faith.
Christ never calls us to pressure anyone, to constantly bombard them with information about our beliefs, or to go out in public and make spectacles of ourselves preaching on street corners. Unfortunately, this sort of behavior is all we see these days.
True Orthodox evangelism brings the strength of the Gospel message into the hearts of all people. And it does this without having to resort to manipulation or “info-dumping.” All we need to do is live our lives according to Christ’s Commandmentsand allow our actions and way of life to draw others to the True Faith on their own.
Now that you know what true evangelism is, how and where should you begin?
Where Do We Start?
Psychologists tell us this all the time. Change starts from within ourselves. If the Orthodox are to engage in evangelism properly and proclaim the Gospel, first we must assess our own lives. Are we living the way Christ calls us to live? Where do we fall short? How can we improve those shortcomings in our own lives and in the life of our parish?
It all starts with the church community. As Saint Seraphim of Sarov tells us: “Save yourself, and thousands around you will be saved.” There are many things Orthodox churches can do to ensure their parish life accurately reflects Christ’s teachings:
1. Welcome Newcomers
Being a newcomer to an Orthodox Church can be intimidating. So much of what we do as Orthodox Christians may seem strange, and many people have no clue what to expect when visiting for the first time. To make that transition easier, consider having a greeter at the door of the church. Having a friendly face to welcome someone can make a tremendous difference, and actually encourage them to return for future services.
You could also have a couple members of the parish help any visitors find and navigate the service books; give pieces of blessed bread to visitors after Holy Communion and dismissal; and approach visitors during fellowship hour to make them feel welcome in your church. The first step to evangelism is presenting an open, loving Orthodox community that welcomes all, not just those who are like us.
2. Participate in the Sacraments
One of the best ways to practice evangelism is to immerse yourself back into the life of the Church by participating in the Sacraments. The Holy Mysteries bring us closer to God every time we take part in them, especially Confession and Holy Communion. The practice of confessing your sins and working toward true repentance shows a desire to improve; that desire will show when you interact with others, both in and outside your parish. And partaking of the Eucharist is the ultimate way of attaining companionship with God, as we eat His Body and drink His blood.
Attend services. Participate in the sacraments as often as you can. And you will find that others notice this zeal and love for God in other areas of your life.
3. Look to the Saints for Inspiration
Living a godly life is difficult. Fortunately, in the Orthodox Church, we have countless role models to look toward when we find ourselves falling a bit short. As human beings, the Saints endured many of the same hardships we face in our lives. Despite those hardships, the Saints lived lives that pleased God, enough so that He welcomed them into His midst after they passed from this world.
Reading about the Saints and the lives they led greatly benefits the soul. It reminds us that attaining godliness and living a holy life is not impossible. It can inspire us to pray more deliberately, to fast more intensely, to give more generously. Doing so can remind us of the true meaning of evangelism in the Orthodox Church, and help us get back on track when we fall away.
4. Know What You Believe
A key part of evangelism in the Orthodox Church is knowing what you believe and being able to articulate that. This seems obvious, but often Orthodox Christians find themselves unprepared when visitors ask questions about the Faith or the Church. You do not have to be an expert by any means. You should, however, know the basics of the teachings of the Church. At the very least, know who the experts are in your parish, so you can refer visitors to these individuals for more information.
For more information on what the Orthodox Church believes, check out our article on the Teachings of the Orthodox.
5. Have a Great Website
While this last one isn’t completely essential, it can help people looking into Orthodoxy to find important information they need. Maintain a user friendly site with informational articles that are easy to understand. This ensures that people who move to the area can locate you, read your content, learn more about the Faith, and (hopefully) stop in for a visit sometime soon.
A website can’t do all the evangelism for you, but it can serve as a valuable tool. Consider reworking your website by looking at it through the eyes of a non-believer. How could you improve the site to make it attractive to those who know nothing about Orthodoxy?
Through the Sacrament of Baptism, all Orthodox Christians have been called to proclaim the “wonderful deeds” which reveal God’s plan of salvation. Yet it is only when we have personally accepted the Good News and have experienced its power that we are capable of sharing it with others. And we share it with others by living the Gospel, and becoming like the Saints, living a life that is pleasing to God.
What are some ways your parish evangelizes to those in the community? We would love to hear of ways other Orthodox communities engage in evangelism!