What is the Nature of the Evangelistic Task? (Part 2)

The Informal Lay Witness of the Church

For too long we have neglected this as an aspect of our lives in Christ and as a result few new believers are being brought into the Church. Sometimes we do manage to organize something formally evangelistic like an “open evening,” a lecture, or a concert to which we invite non-believers. But we rarely see anything like the parish-wide, spontaneous urge to witness that characterized the early believers. Some will suggest that this has to do with the fact that our people simply don’t know how to witness. That is, if we could just train them properly, everything would start working as it should. True, they need to know more about their own faith than they do and certainly they do need to be taught how to articulate that faith in an understandable way. To their credit some of our leaders have formed committees and working groups, written articles, given papers, and offered seminars, all designed to give practical tips on the “how to” of witness. Yet there is still something missing. In spite of all the workshops on evangelistic technique, there seems to be very little active enthusiasm for the task.

So, what are we to do? More seminars are certainly not the answer. Better training will not, by itself, cause the flame of evangelistic desire to well up in the hearts of the faithful. The best apologetic lectures will have little effect. No! We to need stop “doing” and start “being” what we were intended to be in Christ, that is, to rediscover the spiritual power that has always energized the witness of the Church.

Throughout the history of the Church, successful witness has always been based upon and driven by a spiritual base of power. This power was variously centered in: monasteries, the residents of which devoted themselves to ascetic labor of prayer for the salvation of those around them; Mother Churches that developed a vision for evangelization and the willingness to share of their own resources to fulfill that vision; Family units who willingly turned their backs on the world, devoted themselves to the spiritual work of missions; Individuals, lay people, clergy, and monastics who through prayer and holy living attracted those around them to faith in Christ. Speaking of 14th century revival of hesychast spirituality in Russian monasteries, one author likened their spiritual power to “…a magnetic field …spiritual energy [which] attracted loose elements and filled the surrounding area with invisible powers.” and triggered “one of the most remarkable missionary movements in Christian history.”[1] In every case, there was recognition of the fact that “those who live always according to the Spirit of Christ are, without the use of words, the best preachers of Christ and the most convincing apostles of Christianity.”[2]

If our task is to introduce Christ to unbelievers, then they will have to “see” Him someplace.  One of those places is the Eucharist, during which the Holy Spirit makes the personal presence of Christ real to us. Because human beings have been created as persons in the image of God, we are actually able to perceive this divine presence. So, when the Holy Spirit transfigures and sanctifies the visible and insignificant elements of communion offered by the Church “we experience the unconfused interpenetration of created and uncreated life, of life and death, of movement and motionlessness, of mystery and rational thought, of miracle and law, of freedom and nature.”[3]  Based on what we ourselves have actually seen in the Liturgy we can confidently invite others to “come and see” the same thing. The confidence we have is not only that the person invited will come to the Church, but that they will, while there, become aware of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and in the faithful. I really believe that this divine presence during the Liturgy is something that even our non-believing guests are also aware of. So, when we have visitors, I often go to them after the Liturgy and ask them what they thought, if they have any questions. The first thing they say is “wow, that was different.” To which I usually reply “Yes, that is the point.” I then ask them what it was that they found so different, so impressive, and nine out of ten will say, quite spontaneously, I felt the presence of God, or Christ was here. That gives me an opening to say, “that’s right, he was/is here so let me introduce you to him.” Then we sit down and I tell them who Christ is, who it is that they encountered that morning. This general approach has revolutionized my post-liturgical conversations and has brought a constant stream of individuals into communion with Christ. So, the Divine Liturgy is one of the places that Christ is present.

The other place that the non-believer can see the Savior is in the life of the Christian. If the individual believer is aflame with vibrant spiritual maturity we will not have to “motivate” them to witness, they will spontaneously spread the light that is within them. We are repeatedly told that Christ lives in us, that we are the temples of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of God. In 1 Cor 3:16 St Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” In a way, analogous to the Old Testament passages about the Tabernacle, we find that the individual Christian is both the temple and the altar of divine presence. So, when we ask, where is Christ today? We have to answer that he is in us, the faithful. If that is the case, then those around us should be able to see that presence. Maybe that is why Jesus says, “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) Obviously, the theme of light indicates some perceptible divine presence in the believers. The same idea is expressed when St. Paul calls us to be lights in a dark world, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord.” (Eph 5:8). If believers are burning with the active light of communion with Christ, others will see it, be drawn to it, and the whole issue of privatization will fall by the way.

Remember what Motovilov saw when he looked into the face of St Seraphim.

“I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in.”[4]

Imagine what would happen if the people around us saw even a small portion of that divine glory in us. They would, like Motovilov, spontaneously cry out, “I want to understand this as well.” They would come to us to find the Christ they see in us, like the Greeks who came to Philip (Jn 12.20) “asking him to show them Jesus whom they wanted to see because they were continually hearing good things about Jesus. They wanted to worship him and attain the object of their desires.”[5] But, you say, we are not all apostles or saints like Seraphim. Certainly not! But, according to the Fathers, spiritual maturity and power is available to all of us[6] and I am suggesting that without it, effective evangelism is at worst impossible and at best an ineffective human contrivance. So, my basic thesis is that no effective evangelism is possible without vibrant, spiritually mature witnesses! By the way, I am not suggesting that we have to do anything extraordinary here? This is not some kind of new technique, some innovative strategy. Basically, we just have to live our lives in Christ to its fullness and then truly and actually engage, develop communion with others, so they can see Christ in us. But that requires considerable spiritual maturity.

The maturity of which I speak is, of course, not a function of a certain number of classes, or a certain amount of time spent in Church, but rather of a willingness on the part of the believer to allow Christ to so fully live in his or her life such that he radiates out as light into the darkness (Phil 2.15). There is no need to think in absolute terms here, since each one of us is always (supposed to be) learning, growing, gradually moving toward Christ-likeness. Even after 45 years of active Church work, I am sorely aware of my own spiritual immaturity and deficiencies. So, no one is ever actually, really “ready” for witness. We are not Saints, but we should be growing and this growth has to be deliberately cultivated in the Church. So, the effectiveness of the local witness is a function of how well we as pastors prepare our parishioners for the task at hand.

[1] Billington, J. H. (1966). The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. NY, Vintage Books.

[2] Theophan (2010). Thoughts for Each Day of the Year. Platina, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.

[3] Vasileios (1984). Hymn of Entry: Liturgy and Life in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood, N.Y, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

[4] Crabtree, C. T. (2007). Transformational discipleship. Springfield, MO, Gospel Publishing House.

[5] St Cyril of Alexandria. “The Gospel of John,” 8 in Oden, T. C. (1998). Ancient Christian commentary on Scripture. New Testament. Chicago, Ill., Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

[6] According to St. Symeon the New Theologian, On Faith, “it is good that we make God’s mercy known to all and speak to those close to us of the compassion and inexpressible bounty He has shown us. For as you know I neither fasted, nor kept vigils, nor slept on bare ground, but—to borrow the Psalmist’s words—”I humbled myself” and, in short, “the Lord saved me.”  Or, to put it even more briefly, I did no more than believe and the Lord accepted me (Ps 16:6, 10; 27:10 LXX). Many things stand in the way of our acquiring humility, but there is nothing that prevents us from having faith.” Nicodemus, Makarios, G. E. H. Palmer, P. Sherrard and Kallistos (1983). The Philokalia : the complete text. London, Faber and Faber.

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