How Can We Evangelize Today?

[January 14, 2022]

Someone once emailed me to ask me about evangelism in Orthodoxy. I wanted to share my reply, because it’s worth discussing.

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After my husband’s and my chrismation, I was frustrated to see that most Orthodox “evangelism” seemed to be aimed at evangelicals. I asked why that was, and they told me that there were so many inquiries from evangelicals that they had to scramble to meet the need.

I thought, “Well, I’m not going to do that.” I decided that I would write for non-believers–for the kind of literate, savvy, New-Yorker-reading kind of person I was, before I came to Christ. So I wrote Facing East and At the Corner of East and Now in that literary way, and then was so surprised that the books were bought mostly by evangelicals and people who were already Orthodox. Why wasn’t I reaching the people I was aiming for?

Gradually I realized that the problem was that the traditional, socially- and theologically-conservative beliefs of the Church that made that audience dismiss it from consideration. Due to our very long history of consistent teachings about sexuality, and about the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, anything else in the book’s quality that might appeal was preemptively dismissed. The particular audience I sought was going to turn away no matter what I said, due to concerns about respectability and peer approval. That was a big heartache for me, for a long time.

But all that time, thirty years now, a sizable flow of converts from other churches, mostly Protestant, has continued. My hunch is that this is going to increase greatly over the next 20 years or so, as hostility to Christians grows. More and more people will be looking for a Church that has roots that are more than a few hundred years old, and has thrived in cultures other than Europe and America, a Church that has been strengthened by enduring repression.

I received an email from someone who made a point that surprised me. She recounted a terrible event in her family, and then said that her “rational, logical” faith had turned out to be useless before such evil. She said that, to cope with outrage and suffering, she needed a church “with serious GRIT to it,” one that puts up “lots of icons of martyrs.”

I think there’s going to be a lot more of that, as Christians are penalized for their beliefs on sexuality, and blocked out of the top professions. Even if you’re able to go to medical school or law school, what if your unacceptable opinions mean that you can’t get licensed to practice?

Christians may wind up on the bottom of society, holding the humblest, non-intellectual jobs–waiting tables, fixing plumbing, cleaning houses. Well, maybe God thinks that’s where we need to be. Christians have thrived in that role in the past. Coptic Orthodox in Egypt do all the garbage collection; a journalist said that the smell of their village was overwhelming. Can we endure that kind of shame? Without a doubt, conditions that force us to focus on our faith, and not ourselves, bring more out of us than comfortable conditions do.

So how would evangelism happen in such times? It seems to me that it can’t be in any “broadcast” way, like making big movies or running news sites that come from a Christian perspective. It’s going to be one-to-one. So I have been encouraging people to be ready to tell their stories, stories of God’s intervention in their lives. Even if it’s not some a big miracle story—maybe just that once you were sad or scared, and you felt God draw near and comfort you. Everybody has at least one of those first-person stories. Identify what your story is and practice telling it to friends—and be ready, when the right time comes, to tell it to an unbeliever.

I recommend this because of all the hunger these days for the supernatural–ghost tours, haunted houses, paranormal research. It reveals how hungry people are for evidence that there really is something more than this material world. When we tell our stories, about how God has cared for us, we can address that hunger and draw it toward the light.

There’s a poignant story in 2 Kings 10 about little Hebrew girl who was captured in a raid and taken far from her parents and from everyone she loved, never to return. This little girl would spend her whole life as a slave in a foreign land, in the midst of people whose ways and language she couldn’t understand.

The story goes that she became a servant to the wife of Naaman the Syrian, a high ranking commander in the army. Naaman had leprosy, and one day the little girl said to his wife, “If only my master could see the prophet in Samaria. He could cure his leprosy.”

This girl has just that one line in Scripture, and we never learn her name–that’s how lowly and insignificant she is. And yet God used her. Naaman went to Elisha and was healed, and said, “Now I know there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” We can picture him coming home and asking this little girl to tell him more about her God. He brought home two loads of earth so he could stand on it when he prayed. Picture him kneeling there with his wife and the little nameless girl.

My hunch is that, in the Christian-hostile future, most of our evangelism will be like that, conversations held one-on-one. God will arrange such moments for us; we just need to be ready, alert to recognize when it’s time to tell our stories, and to be prayerful for those around us. If the past is any patter, we should be prepared to see some miracles.

Here’s an analogy I’ve used many times. Picture the face of an old-fashioned clock, and think of it representing the flow of history. At high noon let’s put a time that was very friendly to Christians, say the 1950s. At the bottom of the dial, at 6:00, let’s put a time when Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith, like the days of the early martyrs.

So the fifties are at noon, the Roman persecution at 6:00. And where are we now? Are we rising or falling? Are we at 9:00, or 3:00? I suspect we’re around 3:00 or 4:00 and on our way down—but only God knows.

When you think about it, though, which was the bad time? Christians suffered a great deal during the early persecutions, but also rose to great heights in offering their witness to the Lord. The Greek word “martyr” means witness. That self-sacrifice was a direct cause of the rise and spreading of the Christian faith. As Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” We still tell the stories of the saints every day, and they continue to inspire us and confirm our faith in God.

On the other hand, the fifties saw a lot of perfunctory, bland, nominal Christianity. A placid kind of faith was taken for granted, and that’s actually an impediment for people who wanted to live a more dedicated life in Christ.  As the sociologists tell us, an organization that demands little is weak, while a high-demand organization is strong. In the fifties, it was easy and expected to be a Christian. We think of what a safe and innocent time it was for raising children, but it can’t have been all that ideal; look what happened when those same kids hit the sixties.

History will continue to roll around and around that dial, and we’ll never have any control over where we’re appointed to live. But at all times God is at the center. He is always completely available, to every Christian of every age, not even a whisper away. He has taken us and placed us in the time that is best for us, the time he thinks we can endure.

It wasn’t that long ago that Christians enjoyed general respect, and were given a place to speak in the public arena. But all the early Christians could do in the public arena was die. But they did that with such grace that they drew the whole world to Jesus Christ.

By doing faithfully what God calls us to do, we stand alongside those early martyrs, and all the rest of the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Each of us will be given opportunities to be “evangelists” on a small scale, speaking to non-believers about our experiences of God’s presence, and why we continue to believe. Those one-on-one conversations can have a surprising effect, and even initiate a chain-reaction of conversions.

The idea of Orthodox “evangelism” has been adapting and changing in my lifetime, and will continue to do so. Our responsibility is to “be ready at all times to give a good account to anyone who asks you” (1 Peter 3:15), ready to bear witness to our risen Lord, and the everlasting glory of the Kingdom of God.

 

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

9 comments:

  1. Frederica, I’ve been an Orthodox Christian since 1993 and I have never felt persecuted for my faith. I think some of the negative reactions to Christianity come from people’s experience with self-described Christians who are anything but Christlike in their behavior. I, too, am offended by those folks.

    1. I was chrismated in 1993 too!
      I haven’t been persecuted. I have had writing that was accepted by a publicaation subsequently rejected when they learned of my pro-life or pro-hetero-marriage beliefs. I wouldn’t call that persecution but it was unjust, parallel to Rosanna Arquette having her career derailed after refusing Harvey Weinstein. In the future it will be younger Christians who will face more severe persecution, and have their careers derailed in more serious ways. This has already begun but I expect it will increase. So that’s what I mean, not being jailed or executed for beliefs (hard totalitarianism), but having one’s career blocked (soft totalitarianism). People who hold traditional beliefs on social issues won’t be able to get into the professional careers.

      1. I am an acupuncture physician and massage therapist and have experienced so very subtle discrimination.

  2. Thank you. Khorea. i was chrismated in 1993 out of the new age movement. My attempts at evangelizing the new age folk has not worked. How do you preach humility to folks who can have their spirituality and keep their pride? It’s hard to explain how incomplete the spirituality of the other religions is compared to Orthodox spirituality. Other religions includes western Christianity. See ‘The spiritual suicide of praying with the imagination’ from Gregory Decapolite on You Tube. I think the greatest gift and the greatest witness we can give to the world is to allow God to make us HOLY!!!

  3. I stopped reading your article when I read the following statement “Christians may wind up on the bottom of society, holding the humblest, non-intellectual jobs–waiting tables, fixing plumbing, cleaning houses.”. You must have a dim view of blue collar workers who are the backbone of this economy and have done more for this economy than someone who sits behind a desk and writes books. The blue collar workers you despise actually create something and move the economy forward.

    FMG: Thanks for letting me know how you took this, Chris. It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be read this way. I personally have great appreciation for those who hold the less-socially-advantageous jobs; they do indeed keep our world functioning and moving forward. But their work is not socially esteemed. It is considered humble. I’m saying that in time (not much time) this may be the *only* jobs Christians are allowed to have. I went on to say that it won’t be a bad thing; there will be spiritual benefits from being humbled in this way, and it won’t be the first time Christians have been viewed in such a way. I think if you’d continued reading you would have understood that I was not demeaning those who hold such jobs. We couldn’t live without them; in time, we may all *be* them, probably to our benefit.

    1. less-socially-advantageous jobs?? Your destain for blue collar jobs is very evident. Blue collar jobs such as plumber, welder, lineman, heavy equipment operator, truck driver or electrician make more money and are saddled with less college debt and hired upon graduation. I’ve seen those with Masters degrees working at Starbucks asking if they want a cookie with their coffee because they can’t find a job in their profession.

      FMG: I’m agreeing with you! Yes, its better to be without those crazy levels of debt, and people with Masters end up as baristas. The whole college thing is screwed up. It is better to be a plumber, welder, lineman, etc. My single point is that these are not jobs the upper classes want their children to take. That’s why these jobs are “socially disadvantageous.” They are not advantageous in social terms. They do not help you up the social ladder. They are looked down upon, by the classes who expect to live in gated homes and fly on private jets. They are jobs regarded with disdain by the upper classes. The 1% would be horrified if one of their golden children ended up as a plumber. I’m fine with it; many of my 15 grandchildren expect to learn trades and not go to college. But the 1% has not considered such jobs to be *socially* admirable. I’m agreeing with you.

    2. You obviously don’t get it. I guess it’s humbling to make $250,000.00 a year as a journeyman plumber or welder. You get paid even more if your a female. I think you need to drop your intellectual snobbery. When’s the last time you made $250,000.00 a year?

      I chuckle at those who stick their nose in the air and hide behind their degrees.

      FMG: Don’t you think people who stick their nose in the air and hide behind their degrees feel humbled, if they can no longer work in professional-type jobs they’re used to? And don’t they see it as less socially impressive if they (or their kids) can’t be doctors or lawyers, but are plumbers and welders instead?
      And isn’t it good for them to experience and learn from that humility? See, we’re saying the same thing.

  4. How interesting! I have been drawn to Christianity for a long time, but it wasn’t until I listened to Orthodox Christians (mainly Jonathan Pageau, but increasingly others, including you) that I could visualize actually being part of a church (I’m afraid it hasn’t gotten much past the visualization phase: but ahem, partly thanks to Covid and some churches offering online services I’m participating in a small way.) I suppose I might be part of a broader demographic but I feel like an audience of one. I would not call myself a “None” though outwardly I look like one. I am far too aware of my fractured post modern identity; there is nothing comfortingly “blank canvas” about it.

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