Is Evangelism Orthodox?
I have been reading quite a bit lately, in several Orthodox periodicals and books, about evangelism. I have been Orthodox all my life and have always thought that “evangelist,” “evangelism,” etc. were Protestant terms. Why is the Orthodox Church in this country using these terms all of a sudden?
The words evangelist and evangelism come from the Greek word for “Gospel,” eu-aggelion (Eu: “well” and aggello: “to announce”) which means, “good news.” The word evangelist is used many times in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments.
An evangelist is one who proclaims the Good News of Christ’s coming to earth and reconciling us to the Father through His life, death and resurrection. (The word “angel” also comes from the same root. Angel means “one who announces.”) As such, evangelist is an Orthodox word, and it can be said the Protestants borrowed it from us! Sometimes, because of well-publicized scandals connected to men who call themselves evangelists, we might wish to disassociate ourselves from this word. These men have indeed proven themselves to be false evangelists. However, we must not forget that in many of our traditional languages within the Orthodox Church (Greek, Slavonic, etc.), the word for Gospel is something close to “evangel.” As such, we should not be ashamed of the word, or hesitant to use it, but instead become diligent in our reclaiming of it in its full and true meaning!
As baptized Orthodox Christians, all of us are called to be evangelists, in the sense that we are called to bear witness to the fullness of the Gospel, the Good News of Christ (which is the treasure of the Orthodox Church alone) and proclaim it to those who would hear it. Orthodox history is full of men and women who were evangelists, starting with Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. St. Mary Magdalene (sometimes called the Apostle to the Apostles) was the first to proclaim the Good News of the resurrection of Christ to the world; in turn St. Paul and the other Apostles traveled throughout much of the known world announcing the resurrection. Sts. Cyril and Methodios evangelized the Slavic peoples; Sts. Herman, Juvenaly and Innocent first proclaimed the Gospel on the North American continent. St. Alexis Toth’s evangelical work brought many Eastern-Rite Roman Catholics (Uniates) back to the Orthodox Church at the turn of this century. Currently, there is Orthodox mission work going on in Africa, Asia, Central America, Mexico, as well as in the United States and Canada. We are also finding that many of the countries that were traditionally Orthodox are having to be re-evangelized, to some degree, since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
For many Orthodox in North America, however, evangelism might very well be a new concept. In the past (in some cases, the present) many of our communities were more concerned about maintaining various ethnic identities rather than actively evangelizing. The thought of bringing in “outsiders” was not a priority. It was even discouraged in some places. Some even had/have the notion that the Americans had/have their own churches to go to (i.e. any non-Orthodox church), that they should leave the Orthodox Church to “our kind.” Tragically, the result has been that many of our once large communities in this country have dwindled down to a few aged souls. In my own home parish, for example, the membership has dropped from a couple of hundred people in the 1950’s to about 25 in 1998. The parish has lost at least one whole generation of “its own” to non-Orthodox churches due, in part, to its attachment to ethnicisms and family feuds that their children found to be quaint but actually became anachronistic barriers to their learning about the Faith.
Yet these very people are still resistant to opening the doors to any one other than “our kind,” while bemoaning the fact that their children and grandchildren are not Orthodox and that the parish might very well close after their deaths. On a positive note: we are seeing a number of new Orthodox parishes being formed throughout the South and in other parts of the country. Many of the older, large churches have opened their doors and are now filled with people, laity and clergy alike, who are coming to Orthodoxy in droves, from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. This is due to the calling of the Holy Spirit. Over the past twenty or thirty years, visionaries such as Frs. Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff and Archbishop Dmitri, among many, many others, have called the Orthodox Church in this country to rouse itself out of its apparent slumber and begin to rediscover and follow the example of the great evangelists and missionaries of the Church. They have held up, like a beacon, the work begun here by the likes of Sts. Herman, Innocent and Tikhon, which is to preach the Gospel of Christ to the inhabitants of this land. In recent times we seem to be witnessing an astounding fruition of this work. Individuals as well as whole congregations of non-Orthodox people are converting to Orthodoxy; people who have left the Orthodox Church are returning; “cradle Orthodox” are thrilled to learn “new things” about the Church of their ancestors; and Orthodoxy is finally becoming a Church that is being recognized by the American public.
Let us give thanks to God for all the wonderful things He is doing in our midst and ask Him that we may be accounted worthy of being good and diligent evangelists to those who are seeking the Truth of Orthodoxy.
Sunday, September 9, 2001 The Dawn: Evangelism
Page: 1 (c) Copyright 2000 OCA Diocese of the South.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis