The following is an excerpt from the lecture on evangelism which I will be giving in Bethlehem this coming Sunday. This represents some of my first articulated thinking on localist themes with regard to evangelism.
Another aspect to the question of location in evangelism is perhaps a bit less obvious, and that is the need for us to foster human community in the places where our parishes are. Our society is fast moving toward converting every human person into a mere part in a big machine. The relationships that used to govern every aspect of our lives have been disconnected because we have cheap oil and fast transportation. Most of us don’t know who produces our eggs or our milk. Most of us will never meet the people who grow our coffee or build our cars. The casualty of our high-speed economy is relationships. Thus, not only do all the people along this depersonalized chain of production and consumption not care as much about what they produce or what they receive, but it’s also become much harder to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
For the majority of Americans, their homes are a place where they park their cars and sleep at night. They don’t know their neighbors. They don’t work near their homes. They don’t shop near their homes. “Community” is a concept that has more sentiment to it than incarnational meaning. In the past, most people worked with their neighbors, went to church with their neighbors, relaxed with their neighbors, and bought things from each other in their shopping. Now, most of these relationships have been severed and replaced with some kind of outsourcing, usually made possible because of easy transportation. It’s extremely easy to have your family, your co-workers, your fellow church members, your neighbors, and the people you see at the markets all be entirely separate sets of people.
I mention this not to encourage nostalgia for a bygone era nor to suggest that we all need to stop commuting to work or church or the store immediately (though some adjustment probably would help!). Rather, our problem is a theological one, an anthropological one. The more we as human persons are stripped of the community and the communion for which God created us, the more the good news of Jesus Christ will sound like a non sequitur. What’s the point in eternal salvation in Christ, of becoming united to the God-man when I have so many text messages to answer? I don’t need a church community—I have hundreds of friends on Facebook (and I can turn them off whenever I like).
This is not to condemn participation on the Internet or use of modern technology—I myself make a lot of use of such things. But a time is soon coming when people will have to make a choice between being cogs in a machine or being human persons. One of the challenges of the Orthodox Church in the 21st century is not only in bringing Christ to people, but simply in showing people what it means to be human. If we have no sense of our humanity, then we will never understand the nature or the tragedy of sin. And if we do not see sin, then we cannot see why we have need of salvation.
Ironically, these devices which were supposed to save us time take up more of our time, and even while we’re more connected than ever, our collective alienation has grown. We as a culture are becoming lost in a virtual world defined by isolation rather than saved in an incarnate reality defined by communion.
As a result, I strongly recommend that every parish takes the time to get to know the surrounding community, reaching out to them and helping to build community links between people. Not only will this yield numerous opportunities to share Christ with people who need Him, but it will raise the collective humanity of our cities and towns. If we are to encounter the God Who is human, then we need to regain a sense of our own humanity, or else we will find Him inaccessible to us. The point of God taking on humanity was so that we could access His divinity. But if we do not even know what it means to be human, then how can we begin to access God in the humanity of Jesus Christ?
The good news is that momentum is already gathering in parts of the culture to counteract the depersonalization permitted by our technology and promoted by our dedication to so-called “higher living standards.” Whether the philosophy goes by “localism,” “regionalism,” or “agrarianism,” there is a desire afoot among many in our culture to try to find new ways to restore true community, even if it’s just by trying to buy food grown locally or by supporting local charities over ones that are far away.
We have to re-learn how to be humane, how to be human. This is critical not only in terms of our ability to raise the collective humanity of our home towns but also because it is part of our internal ministry within our parishes. In order to keep ourselves human, we have to nurture community within our parishes, real community built on relationships which have multiple connections in them, not solely that we all see each other in church on Sunday. Having more frequent church services helps to build this community, as well as joint projects for local charitable work, deliberately patronizing each other’s businesses, introducing our children to each other for marriage, trying to live near one another, and working to live and work closer to the church.
Whatever we may choose to do, we should always have in mind that God has called us to sanctify the place that we’re in, to make it an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven. We will never achieve the Kingdom fully while we still live the earthly life, but there is much we can to do hold back the darkness and to bring the Light Himself flooding into our neighborhoods.