161. Christ for the World! and How to Do It

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19 That seems clear enough.

The Situation

So how are we doing lately? Not well. Examples:

Yes, Christianity is growing fast in Africa, but for the most part it’s a sort we Orthodox can scarcely recognize. And Mormonism, despite (or maybe because of?) its peculiar teachings, is everywhere doing very well, thank you.

Russia (which according to statistics is the majority of our 250 million Orthodox in the world) is openly Orthodox again – but our people there seldom go to church or pray. *

  • See: https://www.pewforum.org/2017/11/08/orthodox-christianity-in-the-21st-century

Western Europe has now been lost to secularism.

America? In the last twelve years the number of Christians here has declined from 76% to 65%, while those religiously non-affiliated has risen from 18% to 25%. * (And little wonder, say I.) Project that out three or four more decades and…

  • See: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/  

Liberal Protestantism, in particular, is collapsing. Despite their reported stats, it’s no secret that the American Roman Catholic Church is in major decline: few priests, attendance is way down. American Evangelicals are barely holding their own now.

Here’s an interesting article, written by an Evangelical a few years ago *, who says the Evangelical churches are about to collapse, and he thinks the great beneficiaries will be us Orthodox, if we’re ready. If.

  • See: http://ww1.antiochian.org/content/will-we-be-ready-coming-evangelical-collapse

So what about us Orthodox? Some claim there are six million Orthodox in the U.S. That must include anybody who ever sniffed incense while walking by an Orthodox church. But back in the real world, apparently we’re growing! According to the latest stats I can find, between 2000 and 2010, the number of Orthodox parishes in the United States increased by 17%. *

  • See: http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/news/research (which has much interesting information about Orthodoxy in America), but then go way down to “Eight Facts about Church Attendance in US Orthodox Christian Churches”. Hmm…

Enough statistics.

The conclusion: The fields are ripe for harvest. We Orthodox, as the authentic Apostolic and Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ, need to get off our comfortable tails and get busy with our mission. Christ for the world!

So How to do It?

Follow Christ’s example: Jesus, like a good Jew, went to synagogue. Luke 4:31 for example. Even He sought that foundation. But His ministry was chiefly out in the world. He was baptized not in a beautiful font but in a River. His greatest sermon was proclaimed not in synagogue but “on the Mount” Matthew 5:1-7:27 and then again “on the Plain”. Luke 6:17-49 He was crucified not on a lovely altar in a church but “outsider the camp” Hebrews 13:7-16 on the lonely hill of Golgotha. He arose not inside the Church of the Anastasis but in a cave.  He gave His Great Commission atop at mountain. You get the point.

So what is the purpose of our church buildings, our budgets, our social gatherings? Of course we love being in church on Sunday mornings: absorbing the beauty of our temples, gathering to worship our great God and receive the Holy Eucharist and enjoy fellowship with our brothers and sisters. But that is not an end in itself. The purpose of all this is to shape us and train us for our mission: so that like the Apostles we, each in our own way, can “go out to all the world” and share what we have, draw others to Christ and his Holy Church. So that then they also can do the same.

Some Techniques of Varying Usefulness

Usually we hear just enough about taking Christ to the world to make us feel guilty, because we don’t know how to do it.

In days of yore, all you had to do was convert Emperor Constantine and the Empire came along, or Prince Vladimir who then commanded all his people to be baptized. The modern world isn’t like that.

First, here’s what not to do. You eager converts especially, do not talk Orthodoxy incessantly to your friends and family in hope of converting somebody. That will drive them away. And above all, don’t argue with people about the Faith, even if they egg you on. That almost never works.

The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses go door to door seeking converts Left: Oh, no. Here they come again.The Witnesses are lately are handing out literature in downtown Cedarburg. Orthodox do that? That’ll be the day! whether it works or not. So let’s not even go there.

Here are some more workable ways we have tried at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, with not much visible success. But who knows? Maybe we’ve planted some seeds.

 At our annual Cedarburg Festivals, summer and fall, we keep our church open to welcome the curious, with parishioners there to guide visitors around and answer questions. The personal touch helps. We have Orthodox literature clearly displayed and available there and also at our booth downtown where we sell delicious pastries. You should stop by.

When we were new in town, we put some ads in the local paper. Pretty clever ones too: “Are you looking for a Biblical Church? Why not try the Church that wrote the Bible?” (I think we stole that from a Conciliar Press pamphlet.)

3 Twice we hosted movies of a religious nature at local theaters, with a critique afterwards. People came to the movies but not to church. Also, since Cedarburg’s little old-fashioned Rivoli Theater shows local ads before the movies, we promoted an evening class at Saint Nicholas. Again nobody came.

More effective these days is to have a presence on the internet. Parish websites function very much like the Yellow Pages did in the old days.

Some promote Orthodoxy on Facebook. But this needs to be done very carefully. I’ve seen Facebook accounts which have inaccurate information about the Faith, or are mostly personal opinion. And in some cases they can be nasty and confrontational and give a bad face to Orthodoxy.

Or you might even have someone write a Blog! However, the only person who (I think) found Saint Nicholas via this Blog commented that he refused to go in because we don’t allow guns in God’s house. So…

And then, for general Orthodox outreach to the world, support Ancient Faith. I know of no better and more effective internet “mission” work than this. (The preceding was an unpaid  and very sincere commercial.)

The best ways for you to bring Christ and His Church into the World

These are more subtle, more indirect, they take longer and are more “mysterious” and therefore more Orthodox. “It’s a mystery!” 

1 The Personal Touch. This is the most important one. Christianity is above all “relational”. “God so loved the world”; He didn’t just tell us what to do. So love your neighbor. Go out of your way to get to know people. Don’t lay Orthodoxy on them. Just be good to them. Be kind. If they have troubles, sympathize – like Jesus who knows our weaknesses and sympathizes with us Hebrews 4:15 and offer to pray for them. Just “be there” for people. A ministry of presence, some call it.

And then if you find people who are seeking, don’t be shy. For heaven sake, literally, tell them you’re Orthodox. Invite them to Liturgy. Or better, offer to bring them to Liturgy. As Father Peter Gillquist used to say, about 10% of the people you invite to church will come, but 100% of the people you bring to church come! But be sure to tell them that if they don’t like it, you’ll still be friends. Leave it in God’s hands. This is a cheap analogy, but the first time I tasted pizza I disliked it, but suddenly two weeks later…! and I’ve loved pizza ever since.

2 Quiet witness. When I was in college and ignoring religion, I was invited to visit my roommate’s family for a weekend. In their dining room a crucifix hung on the wall. Before meals they always prayed and made the sign of the cross. At school, every morning during Lent my roommate got up early and walked a mile to Mass. He never said a word about it nor did I, but I was impressed. These people believed something; it was important to them. That was part of my spiritual awakening which got moving later elsewhere. We lost touch, and he and his family never knew the effect they had on me. But thank you and God bless you, David Weisgerber, wherever you are.

Have icons visible at home, where visitors can see them. At meals at home, pray and make the sign of the cross, and in restaurants at least the sign of the cross, and even quietly when you’re at meals in other peoples’ homes. When you have visitors at home, come to Liturgy if you can, and invite them to join you. Wear your Orthodox cross visibly. Orthodox men, get a short chain for your cross left and wear an open collar if you can. In today’s culture we need to witness visibly to who we are. At work, if it’s permitted, have an icon on your desk or wherever. You needn’t say a word about all this. In fact it’s better if you don’t. Be mysterious. That is, be Orthodox. Actions speak louder than words. Probably you’ll never know the result. As Jesus said, someone plants the seeds and someone else gathers the harvest

3  Raise your children right. This is our chief mission to the world. They are the next generation of Orthodox Christians whom we will send out into the world. Bring your kids to church regularly. Have an Orthodox home. Make it “a little church”. This is why during Epiphany the priest comes out to bless homes. Have an icon corner. Say prayers at home especially at meals. Set a moral example for your children. Most important, fill your home with love. Teach your children, show your children how to love God, how to love people. Love your family as Christ loves, unconditionally. When you fail, show your children how to say “I’m sorry”. When somebody hurts you, show them how to forgive. And everybody at church, give our young people some attention. Last Sunday at coffee hour I watched a five year old girl bring a picture she had made and give it, all smiling, to Father David. She is starting out loving the Church, and then she will carry that out into the world.

4 Reach out to the needy. This is so obvious. Reach out with Christ’s love to those who need it most. This was Saint Basil’s great mission to the world: his city for the poor, sick and hungry which he built outside his see city of Caesarea. It endured long after him, and the example of his mercy even longer. Give to Orthodox (and other) charitable organizations. If you can, get personally involved, working at a food pantry or meal program or whatever. Christ’s love for the world!

5 Have a solid parish. So that when visitors come to your church they will find something the world is not giving them: people united in the Faith, people who know and love Jesus Christ and his Church and who love each other, people who are growing in the Spirit, becoming like Christ, focused on something deeper than “me”, who are being set free and are on their way into the Kingdom of God. When people come out of this confusing world seeking something better and find these things in a church, usually they stay. This they understand even if they don’t yet understand the Liturgy. Or to put it negatively, when people come to a church and find people fighting like cats and dogs, they flee.

So go out of your way to welcome visitors. Don’t leave them standing or sitting alone. You needn’t say any more than “We’re glad to have you here.” And if you’re afraid they’re parish members you don’t know (!) just introduce yourself.

6 Christ for the natural world! which He created, in conjunction with His Father and the Holy Spirit – and for which He made us His stewards. This is the clear and obvious meaning of our annual Orthodox Epiphany Blessing of the Waters, when we process out the doors of the church and bless the nearest lake or river. Water, the most abundant element (by the ancient definition) of the world, water which gives life. We Orthodox bless not only people but also the material world, beginning with the waters of Baptism, and Holy Bread and Wine and Oil, and our churches and our homes and animals and almost anything else which will hold still for it – because we believe that all good things will finally be lifted up into the Kingdom of Heaven. So on Epiphany the Bishop or Priest throws a Cross into the waters three times to bless them. Then in warmer climes men (and now sometimes women!) often dive for it.

In Russia they cut a Cross-shaped hole in the ice, and people dive or dip in it – pre-lubricated with vodka perhaps?

A priest in full vestments? Oh, thank God I don’t have to do that! You can find many more shiver-inducing pictures and videos of this online.

Hey, dip an Orthodox Christian in the water, and it’s automatically blessed!

But there is a serious purpose to all this seeming silliness (one can be silly and serious at the same time): By submersing the Cross we are blessing the waters of the world – literally. For when we in Cedarburg bless Cedar Creek, the blessed waters will then run into the Milwaukee River, into Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls into Lake Ontario, down the Saint Lawrence River out into the Atlantic and then everywhere. Meanwhile some molecules of blessed water will evaporate, go into the water cycle and fall as rain or snow wherever clouds take them, for people to drink and crops to grow. With all the gazillions of gallons of Baptismal and Epiphany water we Orthodox have blessed in 2000 years, by now probably every drop of water in the world contains holy water. So when we dump cattle manure or chemical waste or trash into the water, we are contaminating God’s holy water.

What we do by blessing the waters is above all a symbol of reclaiming the whole material order for Christ, because “God so loved the world”- not only the people in it, but everything which He created and called good. All things have fallen under the dominion of the Prince of this World. Our mission as Christians is to restore and protect and transform the whole created order. (And judging by the evidence, I think we had better hurry up and get at it.) This is Orthodox Christian environmentalism. How ever did “environmentalism” become a dirty word? 

I wish more Orthodox leaders would speak out about this. I wish you would read even a little of what Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has written about this. See   https://www.patriarchate.org/bartholomew-quotes https://  also   www.patriarchate.org/the-green-patriarch

Christ for the World! Every bit of it!

Next Two Weeks: finally and unless I change my mind again The Divine Liturgy – the Pro-Anaphora

One comment:

  1. Father Bill, I appreciate how candid you are about what has seemed to work (and not work) as you evangelize/promote your parish. I can assure you that as a Protestant I thought Greek-fest was great fun and it gave me absolutely ZERO desire to be Greek Orthodox. I don’t even count it as an encounter with orthodoxy, in my mind. What struck me, as Orthodoxy did start to seem like an option (many years after I danced at greekfest), was how loving and prayerful my Orthodox friends and acquaintances were. It wasn’t that they were perfect or got everything right, but there was something so humble and attractive about them. And Liturgies. I know it’s hard in our modern cities, but I wish that parishes would do at least one weekday liturgy a week. The more we pray and gather for communion, the more God will bless us! I believe that!

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