The parish: an evangelism center
Laying an Orthodox Foundation
In a letter sent 11 years ago, on June 19, 1998, to the brethren priests of the St. Louis metropolitan area Orthodox Clergy Association, I suggested the formation of an Orthodox Evangelism Committee. In it I proposed more “formally” an idea I had brought up in previous meetings. I might as well bring the content of the entire letter here, because it’s all there.
Letter to area clergy
Sometime back, in one of our Orthodox Clergy meetings, I had proposed an idea which I would like to reintroduce at this time in a more formal way, because I believe it deserves your consideration and action.
It is common knowledge that we, Orthodox Christians, are doing very little in the area of Missions and Evangelism, although the command of the Lord is very clear: Go to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples, … and teach them… (Mt 28:19-20) Likewise the words of the Apostle to the Nations should ring in our ears: Woe to me, if I don’t evangelize! (l Cor. 9:16)
It is not my intention, nor is it my responsibility, to address this topic on a global level. I will limit myself to this corner of the world, this vineyard, where the Lord has planted us all, to do His work. It is up to us, you and me, all the brothers in Christ, to spread the word of salvation.
We cannot wait for the Evangelical Orthodox Mission and Frank Schaeffer Jr. to do it all. We must do our part, in letting “the best kept secret in America” out. This is our “kairos.” We must act now, today, “while there is time.”
It is my humble suggestion that we respond to the Lord’s call and “preach the word over the roof-tops.” These words inspired a Roman Catholic priest in Italy to found a total of nine congregations, known as the Pious Society of St. Paul (not to be confused with the Paulists), whose purpose is to propagate the faith through the modem media of communication: press, radio, TV, records, CD’s, videos, Internet, etc. These instruments have been in the hands of the “sons of darkness,” but that does not mean that it must be so. The media per se is neither good nor bad; it becomes an instrument for good or evil, depending upon who uses it and to what purpose.
Non-Orthodox Christians have used the media successfully for many years. We have stayed behind. We must, however, awaken to the new reality. We are not in the “old country,” although there, too, there is need for evangelization, and in fact, a great deal is being done in this area. Here too we cannot rely on our services, sermons, bulletins or even retreats, youth activities, etc., because with these we are only “catering” to our own people, and neglect the world “out there.”
I am saying these things, not as if you were unaware of them, but in order to introduce what I propose that we do, namely, to put our resources together, and as we are united in faith, to move united in action, to turn on the Light of Christ and of His Holy Church.
Let us have our own Orthodox Christian Radio Hour, our own weekly TV spot. Let us disseminate the literature and other media that exists (tapes, videos, books, pamphlets) or even create our own. The talents exist among ourselves. Let’s tap them. What is needed is enthusiasm, dedication, prayer, divine illumination and assistance, and the support of our faithful Christians.
To finance these outreach projects I propose that in each of our churches we establish an Orthodox Evangelism Committee, composed of the Priest and two or more lay members (depending upon the size of the church), who share this vision. The members of these committees would meet initially to be fully apprised of these plans, exchange ideas and formulate policies and a unified course of action. Once a consensus is reached and specific plans are formulated, monetary goals for each parish should be set. Thereafter, each committee’s responsibility would be to go back “home” (their parish) and “sell” this idea to their parishioners, especially targeting those of financial means, as sponsors of individual projects.
We should be thinking “big,” in terms of thousands of dollars from specific sponsors, in terms of hundreds from others, with an annual budget in the tens of thousands. But we must motivate others, get them excited about bringing out the truth of the Orthodox faith. Of course, in order to do it, we must first get “hot” ourselves. We must address this as a mandate, a personal mission and a personal fulfillment.
Our parishes must turn into missionary centers. Not in the sense of sending out missionary teams all over the world (although that too ought to be a consideration of every local church), but in the sense that the world “out there” should be perceived as God’s ground, where the word of God must be planted and cultivated.
What is the heart of Orthodoxy? It is worship–primarily the Divine Liturgy. This then ought to be presented in a series of radio and TV segments and commented upon. Other services, such as the Great Compline, with its beautiful prayers and “great” sounds—an appealing and winning combination—should be broadcasted as well, with commentary and the addresses and phone numbers of Orthodox Churches.
Ultimately this means that our churches should be ready to receive the Inquirers and show to them what it is for brothers and sisters to dwell in unity and in love of Christ. This is the challenge of our life.
The time, the kairos, is ripe now. Let us organize ourselves for this sacred mission, of the evangelism of our communities, acting as a unified body, as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Again, what I propose in the form of a motion, is that we establish in each of our churches an Orthodox Evangelism Committee, composed of the Priest and two or more lay members (depending upon the size of the church) for the purpose of organizing a Pan-Orthodox Evangelism Committee, whose purpose would be to spearhead a unified effort in spreading the truth of Orthodoxy in our area.
I further propose that all Orthodox Evangelism Committee members meet at 7:00 PM on Thursday, November 5th, at the Assumption church for an organizational meeting. Fliers for the awareness of the faithful will be prepared, as well as a draft of By-Laws for initial discussion at our October 20 Clergy meeting.
Trusting that the above proposal will meet your unconditional, wholehearted and enthusiastic support, I remain
Your brother in Christ,
Formation and Expansion
Well, it wasn’t until the early part of 2001 when, with the blessing of all the area priests, I began sending out personalized letters to them, with forms to complete by those interested in joining the new organization. We had a good number of interested Orthodox Christians responding. We held our first organizational meeting in June of 2001. It was attended by many Orthodox clergy and people in the area, from Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian and Antiochian jurisdictions.
In the meantime we had filed for incorporation as a not-for-profit in the state of Illinois, and on May 30, 2001 we received our 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. Regional and National Bylaws were developed. The following month our website went up, orthodoxwitness.org, hosted by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Our first publication, Preaching Another Christ, a translation of a letter by Saint Theophan the Recluse, was printed in July of 2001 in 3,000 copies.
Seeking Hierarchical Support
On October 16, 2001, 10 area priests and 16 laymen signed a letter addressed to Archbishop Demetrios, in his capacity as chairman of SCOBA, asking him to bestow his arch-pastoral blessing upon our newly formed organization, a fitting gesture for our pan-Orthodox group.
In this letter we indicated that our initiative was in line with the Millennium Christmas Pastoral Letter, “And the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us”, which states,
Our intention is to make the Gospel of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ known and embraced by more and more people in this land to which God has called us.
The two-page letter drew more material from the Millennium Pastoral Letter, pointing out how a substantial section of this Letter was devoted to “The Joy of Our Witness,” where the sharing of the Good News was described as “the fundamental impulse of the Church.” We said in our letter,
We too feel this impulse within our hearts and the joy of our witness. It is precisely for this reason we named our organization Orthodox Witness.
We have at heart to reach out to the world around us using the means of our culture, such as the Internet, to transform the world around us with the means of our culture. We intend to convey to our society the truths of our faith in relevant and meaningful ways. If the apostles used the dusty roads of the vast Roman Empire, we can use the vaster network of modern superhighways, called Internet. Where they used the Greek language, we can use the .com language, shared by untold millions… We want to strive to turn our parishes into missionary centers, to bring the entire world to the bosom of the Church, to make the entire cosmos Ecclesia, and to bring everyone and everything to the unity of Christ.
Another letter was sent to Archbishop Demetrios on Nov. 13, 2001, this time in his capacity of Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. There we expressed our pleasure that the theme of the upcoming Clergy-Laity Congress of the Archdiocese was “Offering our Orthodox Faith to Contemporary America,” almost identical to our motto that we chose for our letterhead, “Offering Orthodox Christianity to America.” Once more we pointed out that this was precisely the aim of our group. We reiterated the plan of our organization. We asked for an opportunity to discuss our ideas with the members of the Planning Committee. We let them know of our upcoming Conference on Orthodox Evangelism on March 2-3, 2002.
A third letter was sent to Archbishop Demetrios on Dec. 13, 2001, with copies of the previous letters for prompt reference, asking again for a letter of support for our initiative. On February 10, 2002 a yet another letter was sent, asking for a blessing of our first conference, planned for March 2-3, 2002 in St. Louis, Missouri, with Frank Schaeffer Jr. as our main speaker. We added:
Orthodox Witness was founded in May of 2001, five months after the SCOBA Christmas Pastoral Letter was promulgated. It is in direct response to its imperative, “to unite the world into the [Orthodox] faith.” In fact Orthodox Witness does it by following another directive of the Pastoral Letter, by transcending the “artificial jurisdictional boundaries in North America that hamper this mission.
Your Eminence, we are very excited about this new endeavor we have undertaken and are encouraged by the participation and support we have received on part of clergy and laity of all thirteen Orthodox churches in the area representing several jurisdictions.”
We did receive on March 27, 2002, after the conference, a reply to our letter about the conference, with prayers that the participants were inspired. Later, on April 17, 2002, a reply was received about our organization, written, as was the previous letter, by His Grace Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, on behalf of Archbishop Demetrios. The second letter ended as follows:
Many thanks to you and your colleagues in Orthodox Witness for seeking to implement at the local level the thoughts and desires expressed by the SCOBA hierarchs in their Millennium Pastoral Letter. Such efforts are essential for the growth of our Holy Church in this land.
In the meantime we had also communicated with our own Metropolitan Iakovos of Chicago. On November 16, 2001 we requested from his Eminence to bestow his hierarchal blessing upon our newly formed organization, as well as upon our first Conference on Orthodox Evangelism. We included our Mission Statement:
We requested the blessing from several Orthodox hierarchs. We gratefully received a blessing from Archbishop Nathaniel, of the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America. In our letter to him on March 27, 2002, we acknowledged his communication, “An American Orthodox Communion,” which had appeared in the Dec. 2001 issue of Solia, in which he had stated that,
there must be one witness, one good order in the Church, and one synod of hierarchs. The longer we continue to remain separate, the further we go from one another in practice and witness.
We had the same goal of bringing about such unified Orthodox witness in the area of Evangelism in this country. In that letter we pointed out:
In our evaluation the outreach efforts of the various jurisdictions in this country have been piecemeal, sporadic, lame and in a word non-effective. You yourself have correctly characterized these efforts thus far as “fragmented witness.” We would like to see all the Orthodox unite their efforts in order to be more effective. Your Eminence, we are doing our part, small as it may be, toward that desired, blessed big goal of administrative unity.
Our group has the same desire as the one expressed by you, your Eminence, to “unite to bear a single witness to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” That is why we come to you, asking you humbly that you bestow your arch-hierarchal blessing upon our organization. Your Eminence, we approach you for this blessing, because in you we see a hierarch who speaks with boldness, addressing delicate issues with determination and vision, unafraid if you are perceived as not politically correct or controversial.
Your Eminence, you have written, “The Spirit of Truth who brings to fulfillment the Orthodox Witness everywhere, will do so even in this nation of seven million Orthodox Christians. Administrative Unity is not a solution, it is the norm.” Your Eminence, obviously our group cannot bring jurisdictional unity, but it can make a statement, it can give a testimony–and it is doing so, in pursuing “unity of action and effort”, now at a regional and tomorrow, with God’s blessing, at a national level.
Archbishop Nathaniel’s reply of April 10 was received as a spring shower upon a parched land, “as rain upon a fleece and as drops falling upon the earth” (Ps. 71:6): an enthusiastic endorsement of our organization. Among other things Archbishop Nathaniel stated:
Thank you for the invitation to be one of the hierarchs who bestows a blessing on the Orthodox Witness. I accept with sincere recognition that this is the work of the Church… I am humbled by the great goals you have set and moved deeply by the Lord’s own movement of those who love Him and His beautiful Bride. I am pleased to do whatever is of use to the fulfillment of the goals of the organization which is, in fact, the fulfillment of the Great Command of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom be all honor and glory.
We began to work closely under his homophorion.
Plan of action
The “operational plan” of the organization at the beginning was to help the parishes of all jurisdictions establish an Orthodox Evangelism Committee. Then these committees would meet on a regional level to formulate programs in a common effort to spread the Orthodox Faith in their area. This remains to be fulfilled. With the grace of God it will be accomplished. The plan remains viable and ready for adaptation. Very plainly, Orthodox Witness wants to assist every Orthodox church to become an evangelism center. Our goal begins with addressing our own needs first: to educate ourselves in our Orthodox faith and life, to increase our awareness on the need to evangelize, to witness to our own Orthodox people, and then go out to bring the light of truth, hidden in the Orthodox Church, to the world around us.
Our original plan of action included establishing a website, a weekly Orthodox Christian radio hour, and a weekly TV program; to develop, publish and/or disseminate appropriate literature (books, magazines, pamphlets), other media (CDs, DVDs, video and audio tapes, etc.) and icons, for use by Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike; to establish bookstores and have book fairs, and to organize regional talks and lectures as well as national conferences.
What have we done so far?
Our group has published five books, three of which are translations. We began with Preaching Another Christ: An Orthodox View of Evangelicalism, by Saint Theophan the Recluse (2002, 2012); and the lives of two contemporary holy men, Elder (now Saint) Iakovos of Evia (The Garden of the Holy Spirit, 2007, 2018), and Father Dimitrios Gagastathis (Papa-Dimitri: The Man of God, 2009).
Our flagship publication, now in its third edition, is The Heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy, a comprehensive contemporary commentary of the Divine Liturgy, and in 2013, we published Jesus: Fallen? The Human Nature of Christ Examined from an Eastern Orthodox Perspective.
Our group organized a series of six talks to make our faith known in our area (all in St. Louis, Missouri) under the theme “Come and See.” Our keynote speakers have been Frank Schaeffer (2002), Fr. Peter Gillquist (2003), Frederica Matthewes-Green (2004), Clark Carlton (2005), Fr. Patrick Reardon (2006), and Fr. Thomas Hopko (2007).
In addition, we have produced 3 original Orthodox Christmas plays and a library of Orthodox quotation-graphics. We also have an Orthodox Icon ministry and have produced many liturgical services to facilitate the worship of English speaking faithful.
Challenges? Obstacles to overcome?
To speak boldly, our bishops, and then our fellow priests, are the biggest obstacles. If you share this then you are bolder than we are. Although our bishops state that they are for One Orthodox Witness in America, they are boycotting this effort themselves. Our efforts, whether in Missions and Evangelism, or offering a unifying witness locally and nationally, will continue to be fragmented and anemic as long as we remain divided and separate along ethnic lines. A unified Orthodox witness in the area of Evangelism in this country, promoted by our group, is perceived as a threat to jurisdictionalism.
Where we are now
Today, 17 years after founding Orthodox Witness, we continue our ministry quietly, but resolutely, regardless of obstacles. We may never accomplish our ambitious goals. We have learned not to have expectations of others, but to do our part with the gifts the Lord has bestowed on us.
Obviously, I’m not a Roman Catholic priest-monk. I have rediscovered the gold, called Orthodoxy, which oftentimes lays hidden, and you have to dig deep to find. I have been an Orthodox priest for over twenty years, married to presbytera Barbara, with three children and three grandchildren. For all things we give glory to God.
Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis
Priest, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
President, Orthodox Witness
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis