Wednesday, September 12, 2007

can we ever make them happy?

I want to start out by clarifying the tone of my title here. It's not an exasperated exclamation, but a thoughtful and honest inquiry. I don't know the answer, but it bears considering. That said, what am I talking about?

Today I ran across a talk given by Hieromonk Damascene about a year ago, on the subject of Orthodox Evangelism. Whenever I encounter such things, I'm initially excited about the prospect of passing them along to Evangelical friends, or at least taking away useful tidbits for possible discussion. In most cases, however, as in this one, initial excitement gives way to frustration. I don't mean to blame Fr. Damascene here, or any other writer or speaker whose materials have provoked this kind of response. There's nothing they're doing wrong. It's just that I know how some of what they say will be received, and how it will tend to color the reception of their overall message.

I wrote last year about how it seems that Evangelicals react negatively to Orthodoxy in opposite directions, when they judge its view of salvation as both too legalistic and too universalist. Here, it seems like there's something similar at work. On one hand, they accuse Orthodoxy of ignoring the Great Commission. And certainly, Orthodoxy has had its share of problems in this area. Although there are plenty of historical examples one can point to, where Orthodox saints have brought the Gospel to unreached peoples, in recent history they seem to be few and far between. Although present trends in America and some other places are more favorable, with Orthodoxy experiencing significant growth, the reaction is often that they are growing mostly by taking in disgruntled Protestants. (This is not altogether accurate or fair, but there is a certain amount of truth. Case in point--I recently listened to an interview with the editors of Death to the World, an Orthodox punk zine, who set up shop at Christian music festivals, where presumably most of the target audience already has some connection with Christianity.) There is important stuff happening, to be sure, but it still looks rather inward focused by comparison with what a lot of Evangelicals are used to.

On the other hand, when you do find someone promoting evangelism with an Orthodox audience, as in Fr. Damascene's talk, there is another problem for Evangelicals. To motivate Orthodox to take the Great Commission seriously, he stresses that it is not enough for Christianity to be spread around the world--it must be Orthodox Christianity. So (Evangelicals reply), now Orthodoxy has the only true Gospel, and what the rest of us are doing is worthless! Well (we say), which do you want? First you don't think we get what a pressing need there is to go out and preach the Gospel, then when we do, you think we overestimate the message that we uniquely have for the world.

I think I know the Evangelical response--we don't want you to evangelize on your own terms, but to join us in evangelizing on ours. At least, that would be the honest response. Evangelicals obviously aren't going to accept Orthodoxy's claim to be the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church. For one thing, if there is such a thing, it can only be the invisible Church comprising all believers everywhere. For another, if they accepted the Orthodox view on this point, they would themselves become Orthodox--there would be no other rational response they could give. So they'll always see a claim to be the one, unique Church as exclusivistic. For Orthodox to evangelize properly (they would assume), they must first straighten out their ecclesiology and enter the arena of evangelism as part of the Protestant team. If Orthodoxy does not proactively evangelize, it will be judged as ignoring the Great Commission; if it tries to evangelize on its own terms, it will be perhaps worse yet--it will be working against the Evangelical effort.

So, to return to my question, can we ever make them happy? Is there a way for Orthodox as Orthodox to evangelize the lost without antagonizing Evangelicals? Should we bother trying? One thing that I think needs to be communicated as clearly as possible is that we're not in the business of proselytizing Evangelicals or other Christians. We believe Orthodoxy is the true Church, but we don't generally go around telling people they need to leave their churches or face the wrath of God. For one thing, we don't believe that per se--mostly we're agnostic about what will happen if they stay where they are. For another, we just don't see that kind of thing as our mission. A lot of Evangelicals have come into the Orthodox Church, but for the most part, they've done it on their own initiative. If anything, Orthodox have probably been less helpful than they could have been to these Evangelical seekers.

Holding to the idea of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church may sound like "us vs. them," but that's not how we treat it. This may sound offensive, but in a sense, there can be no "us vs. them," because there is no "them." It's never "our church vs. your church"--there is only one Church. We think we're in, and we think everyone else should be too. But whether they are or aren't is a matter of individual standing--there's no other team "out there" for us to play against. (Not a Christian one, anyway.)

I could go on with this, but I think I've already dug myself a deep enough hole, with no hope of climbing out. Maybe I'm trying too hard for something that doesn't exist. Maybe this is one of those things that you only get once you're in and can see it from a place of faith. Maybe I'm not the one they should be listening to, anyway.


Jim N said...

I think that you answered your own question when you noted that for us, "there is no them".

To say it anotherBTW, why arent we evangelizing the evangelicals? They need Christ in all his fullness just as much as we do.

Trevor said...

Well, perhaps, but I think I was using "them" in two different ways. In the title, I had in mind individual Evangelicals--specific people I know, whose reactions I guessed at. When I said "there is no them," I was talking about viewing the Orthodox Church's claim to be the one Church as exclusive of other definable groups.

I think in some sense we are evangelizing Evangelicals. When they bring it up, we engage in dialog with them. It's more that we're not proselytizing them, which I see as a different issue. We're not trying to "convert" them per se. Perhaps there's some room for doing this, and perhaps part of the reason Orthodox tend to avoid it is because of the ways they've suffered aggressive proselytism in their own lands at the hands of Western missionaries.

More than that, though, I think the approach is along the lines of what Fr. Thomas Hopko describes at the end of his series on the Apocalypse, when he talks about the Buddhists. We love them, we care what they think, and we're genuinely interested in talking to them about faith issues. If that leads to one or both of us being in a better spiritual place than when we started, we can give glory to God. And yes, sometimes it does lead to their conversion to Orthodoxy.