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The difficulty of Orthodox evangelism

21 May 2009

Here’s a very interesting account of Orthodox evangelism — “gossiping the gospel” — and some of the attendant difficulties. If people are interested in more, where do they go?

They seemed impressed, in the sense that it made sense and they wanted to know more.

And that’s the problem: where can they go to get this ‘more’? They won’t get it directly from any of the Orthodox churches around here, or anywhere else. They’re not really likely to get it from any other church either, although Julianne’s friend Gwen, also at the party, mentioned that her pastor talks a lot about NT Wright in his sermons so I know this is what he’s on to; and in those places, the rest of the story— the wisdom tradition and the spiritual practice that’s part of it— is altogether missing.

That narrative is there in our churches, and certainly the wisdom tradition as well, but none the less, Israel is buried and forgotten, and we don’t talk much about Abraham as the key and initial turning point of the whole story. So we don’t actually tell the story of the Bible all that effectively.

Well, not quite.

One of the more effective tellings I’ve heard came from an evangelical Protestant, Ralph D. Winter, who points out that the Bible may be divided into two sections. No, not the Old Testament and the New Testament, but Genesia 1-11, which describes the problem, and Genesis 12-Revenation 22, which tells of God’s solution, beginning with Abraham. He calls it The Kingdom strikes back, and you can read it here. As an Orthodox Christian I wouldn’t necessarily tell it in quite the way that Winter does, but I think he generally has the right idea.

But even when we can tell the story, what happens when someone is interested in hearing more? As John Burnett in his blog goes on to say,

And frankly, I’m pretty sceptical about the value of passive listening to foreign sounding music sung by a few more (or less) proficient specialists— often inaudibly and incomprehensibly— that we consider to be “liturgy”. Maybe it will catch him; maybe not. But I can’t really suggest anywhere else for them to go, so I said, Well, you could try this out. But be patient if it doesn’t seize you.

That was one of the things we had in mind when we started the parish of St Nicholas of Japan in Johannesburg a little over 20 years ago. Most of the Orthodox churches in Johannesburg (and indeed in Gauteng were ethnic enclaves, singing the songs of a far-away homeland somewhere in the Balkans or in Russia. We needed to have somewhere where we could say to people “Come and see”, and there would be something to see and hear. We chose St Nicholas of Japan as our parton for this reason — he was a Russian missionary who went to Japan and planted a Japanese church, not a Russian one.

Many of the people who started St Nicholas parishhad been members of another parish that was founded as an English-speaking parish. But it was founded as an English-speaking Greek parish. It was founded because of a concern that the youth, the children and grandchildren of Greek immigrants, not knowing the Greek language, would find Greek services incomprehensible, and many of them would go off and join Protestant churches (and in fact many did). It was not founded primarily with mission in mind, and in fact in that particular parish the services have now reverted to being mostly in Greek.

As John Burnett points out, the story is there, in our churches, but in many cases we can’t hear it, and people who visit can’t hear it either. According to people in the missional movement, that is perhaps not a bad thing. I gather that they regard being “seeker sensitive” and “attractional” as among the more serious sins to be confessed and forsaken. So perhaps we should deliberately strive to keep the services  incomprehensible to any seekers who may pop in, and behave insensitively to such seekers (and there are several Orthodox Churches in Gauteng that have done that too — telling visitors straight out that they don’t belong). But I think that that is where people in the missional movement may have got it wrong. Being seeker sensitive is not necessarily a vice, nor is being seeker-insensitive necessarily a virtue.

On the other hand, Jesus himself was not seeker sensitive; he did not encourage volunteers. He called the fishermen from their nets, but the rich young man who came volunteering went away sorrowing. The lawyer never did get an answer to his earnest question “Who is my neighbour. All he got was “Go thou and do likewise.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 May 2009 10:23 am

    What the Missional movement is critical of is the excessive pragmatism of the seeker sensitive movement, excessive being the operative word. Some pragmatism is ok, but there are baby in bathwater considerations. I don’t think the Orthodox church is in danger of falling into a Missional definition of excess 😉

    • 27 May 2009 6:51 am


      That’s one of the things that makes me feel that the emerging/missional movement is bound to a particular culture and to certain cultural presuppositions, which many people involved in it (them?) find hard to examine. See, for example, my comments on something that Tim Victor quoted in his recent synchroblog post.

  2. 26 May 2009 4:24 pm

    The Kingdom strikes back? Rather an unfortunate analogy… Christianity as the oppressive empire – hmm though, bishops do wear black and so do Sith Lords and those who have gone over to the dark side of the Force – and y’all do dance widdershins… 😉

    • 27 May 2009 6:44 am

      Ralph Winter (who died a few days ago) was referring to the then-current film The Empire strikes back, and noted that in the film it was an evil empire. He said that the Christian story is one of how the good strikes back.

      Genesis 1-2 tells the story of how God made the world and pronounced it good. Genesis 3-11 tells of how evil entered the good creation of God and spoiled it. And from Genesis 12 to the end of the Bible we read the story of how the good comes back. And that’s why he used the title The Kingdom strikes back


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