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

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me.
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me.
Christ in every ear that hears me.
[1]

Until recently many Christians have made a sharp distinction between what they called home missions and foreign missions.[2] As they see it, home missions involves the evangelism and service done using one’s own language within the context of one’s own culture. In order to do this work, you do not have to travel far, or learn another language, or even get used to another culture. Foreign mission, on the other hand, is a somewhat more difficult and costly task, since it involves taking the Gospel across cultural boundaries. In order to do this, work you would, in all likelihood, have to travel to another country, learn another language, adopt the ways of another culture, and, because of the investment required, spend a lifetime doing it. Seen in this way, whenever the Church is successfully planted in a particular place, it assumes a twofold task: to evangelize the people who inhabit its own area and to take the Gospel to the un-evangelized peoples outside that region.

  1. The Two Faces of Evangelism

    This double responsibility is rooted in the words spoken by our Lord to His disciples at the ascension (Acts 1.8). Christ told them that after they received the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, they would be His witnesses in “Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” The basic idea seems to have been that the Gospel was to be preached in their own region, Jerusalem, and then gradually taken out into the surrounding areas (countries), Samaria, and from there on to all other nations, i.e., to the very ends of the earth. In other words, the Christian message was to be taken to places of ever increasing geographic and, more importantly, cultural distance. Surely, this is what Christ had in mind when he commanded his disciples to take the Gospel to all nations (Mt 28.18–20.

    Judging by the history provided in the book of Acts, this gradual expansion is exactly the pattern followed by the early Church. The story of the Christian mission begins with evangelism in Jerusalem (Acts 2–7). Phillip then carried it to Samaria (Acts 8.4–25). St. Peter continues by taking the Gospel to the Gentiles of Lydda, Joppa, and Caesarea (Acts 9 and 10). Still others succeed in planting a Church in Antioch (Acts 12). And it is from there that St. Paul takes the message (Acts 13) from one regional center to the next leaving the newly planted Churches to reach out into their own areas. In this manner, the early Church spread through the whole Mediterranean region. What is important to note is that even while the Churches at Jerusalem, Samaria, and Antioch were sending missionaries to foreign parts, they continued to evangelize their own areas and continued to grow. There is no indication, for example, that the Church at Antioch suffered any loss as a result of having sent out Barnabas and Paul. Quite to the contrary, they seem to have been blessed in their own local ministries (Acts 14.26–28).

    Orthodox Christians have maintained this same basic pattern down through the 20th Any number of examples can be given. Consider the 9th century work done by Sts. Cyril and Methodius. They took the Gospel across cultural and linguistic borders to the Khazars and then to the Slavs. In doing so they learned other languages, even invented a new alphabet (Cyrillic), thereby providing an ongoing basis for regional evangelism. In the 10th century St. Vladimir brought the Church across geographic and cultural boundaries and, in the centuries that followed, the Russian Church

    Converted to Christianity all the Eastern Slavs and an overwhelming majority of the Arctic, Volga, and Ural Finns. Many Karelians, and Estonians were baptized… also several Turkish, Tungus, and Mongolian tribes, as Yaktuts, Buryats, Kasan Tartars, Orochons, Altai folk Golds, Kamchadals.”[3]

    Even while they evangelized their homelands, “Russian missionaries founded flourishing Churches in Japan and in Alaska, and sizable missions in Corea [sic.], and Iran, also in China and Manchuria.”[4] St. Herman and those who worked with him translated the Gospel, the service books, and the music of the Church in order to plant it in the cultures of Alaska. Those Churches then matured and continued to reach out into their own regions. Each of these examples shows that the missionaries carefully followed the pattern modeled by the early church in Acts, that is, they took the two-fold evangelistic task seriously.

  2. Revisiting the Basic Pattern

    As important and valid as this pattern is, however, two recent developments have made it somewhat difficult to maintain the sharp distinction between home missions and foreign missions. First, because of the faithfulness of Christian missionaries, the Church has been planted in most places. That means that today if we go to another linguistic or cultural area, we are most likely going to find that Christians are already there. They will be worshiping in their own church buildings, teaching in their own schools, singing their own music, and doing all of this in their own language. This does not mean, of course, that those regions have been completely evangelized—that the task has not yet been accomplished. But it does mean that if we were to leave our own homes in order to work there, we would probably be participating in their home missions work. In other words, foreign missions for one person may well be home missions for another in the contemporary moment.

    The other development that makes it hard to maintain a clear distinction between home missions and foreign missions is what has been called multiculturalism. Basically, this refers to the mixing of populations such that cultural and linguistic groupings are no longer limited to particular geographic areas. There are, for example, a significant number of Spanish-speaking Cubans in the Miami area. They have been so successful at maintaining their own language, their music, their food, their dress, and their culture that they retain their Cuban identity even while physically separated from their homeland. The same thing can be said for any number of other ethnic and cultural groups who today live within self-contained cultural enclaves in almost every part of the world. For all intents and purposes, multiculturalism has brought the peoples of the world to our own doorstep. Today it is possible to hear any number of languages spoken and experience any number of cultural contexts right here within the borders of our own country and in our cities. That being the case, it is no longer necessary to go to another country to engage other languages and cultures. The world has come to us.

    These developments raise an important question. Is the ancient distinction between home and foreign missions still valid or useful? Perhaps we can get at the heart of the issue by asking if all of this means that we have now completed the foreign missions part of our task? Do we still need to send missionaries to other parts of the world or should we concentrate all of our resources on our own geographic areas?

    As I see it we are not nearly finished with the foreign mission’s portion of our task. I say this for two reasons. First of all, there are no areas of the world that have been absolutely and completely evangelized. In other words, there are always individuals and groups of people that still need to hear the Gospel. There is still a lot of work to be done. I should also point out that there are many parts of the world that need to be re-evangelized, places where the once-strong witness of the Church has fallen silent. If that is true, the Churches of those areas may well need help from Christians in other parts of the world. This is not, then, the time to stop supporting foreign missions.

    The second development is that although the presence of the world within our own borders creates a new challenge for mission, this certainly does not relieve us of the responsibility to be witnesses to those with whom we share the same language and culture. Home mission is an ongoing project. However, the multicultural makeup of our populations does add another dimension to what home missions means. A careful reading of Acts 1.8 indicates that the ever-increasing “distance” faced by early Christian missionaries was a cultural distance, not a geopolitical This is evident in the case of the Samaritans, who lived in close proximity to Jerusalem, but were of a different culture. Similarly, we do not, in the contemporary moment, necessarily have to travel great distances in order to encounter people of completely different cultures who have not yet heard of Christ. Yet, we are still responsible for bringing them the Good News of the Gospel. So, our task is far from being finished at “home.”

    It seems, then, that the whole array of missionary tasks implied in the home missions/foreign missions distinction still apply, even though the world has changed significantly. The challenge today, however, is to avoid artificially separating those tasks, and to ensure that one is not neglected in favor of the other. In order to do that, it might be helpful for us to drop the older designation of these two tasks and think of our missionary responsibility as taking place along two distinct lines. On the one hand, there is the formal sending of delegates commissioned by hierarchs to preach the Gospel and establish the Church in places where it does not yet exist. On the other hand, there is the informal going out of all the faithful dismissed after the liturgy to bear witness in their world of the things they have seen during the service. No commission for this work is needed other than the priestly dismissal at the end of the Liturgy, which, as some have said, initiates the Liturgy after the Liturgy.[5] If we want more contemporary and accurate terminology, we might distinguish between apostolic extension and evangelistic witness. The former emphasizes the formal, official sending out of emissaries into the entire world to proclaim Christ and plant the Church. The other underscores the general witness-like character of an activity that grows or should grow out of every believer’s life in Christ. In other words, a few believers will be formally commissioned by the Church to follow in the steps of the apostles, while the rest of us, all of us, are called to bear witness to our faith, to what we have seen in the Liturgy.

[1] St. Patrick, “The Lorica,”  <https://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/patrick.htm>, Feb 12, 2016

[2] Some of this material originally appeared as a magazine article by Rommen, E. (2005). The Cross-Cultural Task of Missions. OCMC Magazine. St. Augustine, Florida, OCMC. 21.

[3] Bolshakoff, S. (1943). The Foreign Missions of the Russian Orthodox Church. London, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bria, I. (1996). The Liturgy after the Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective. Geneva, WCC.

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