Posts Tagged ‘Evangelism’

The Transformation of Orthodoxy

July 2, 2012

I apologize. There are many others who can write with far more knowledge and expertise about this topic. I write out of deep gratitude from within the limits of my situation.

On July 1, the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist fell asleep in the Lord. His story, along with that of many others, is part of a modern transformation of the Orthodox Church, an awakening to the work of evangelism for the Church that carried the gospel to the Roman Empire and beyond, and witnessed the conversion of ancient kingdoms across the face of the globe. It was also a Church that, battered by persecution, dominated by hostile states and limited by state policy, had largely seen its role as the care of its own with evangelism left in the hands neighboring, colonial powers.  In America, Orthodoxy was a Church of immigrants, often held in disdain by the surrounding Western European-based ethnic groups. It was viewed as “exotic,” but “backwards,” and ill-suited to the needs of a modern world.

Stories abound in the English-speaking world of those who inquired of Orthodoxy only to be turned away. Met. Kallistos Ware relates how his first approaches to the Orthodox faith were rebuffed. He was told to remain an Anglican. With persistence he was told that he could become Orthodox, but should not expect to become a priest. The late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, came to the Orthodox Church at age 16 with his sister. They attended Holy Trinity Church in Dallas for weeks before anyone spoke to them. Vladyka said that he was 21 before he ever heard a service in English.

The language barrier was difficult for many. Following his conversion in 1958, Met. Kallistos authored one of the first books in English to give a comprehensive introduction to the Orthodox Church. It was published in 1963. The first all-English language parish in the United States (according to my sources) was founded in the 1955’s in Tarzana, CA. It was a novel idea.

My first explorations of Orthodoxy came during my college years in the mid-70’s. In 1981 I lunched with a Greek Orthodox priest who told me that I was “better off staying where I was.” It felt positively ecumenical.

It was not an ecumenical gesture. The priest had no doubt of the nature of Orthodoxy (as the true faith). He simply had no sense that the treasure given to him was meant to be shared. History had divided Christians, and they were best left where they were.

Fr. Peter Gillquist, an extremely gifted writer, speaker and evangelist, was part of a group of evangelical Christians who had begun to explore Orthodox thought and life. In true protestant fashion, the group formed a series of Churches (the Evangelical Orthodox Church). But in true Orthodox fashion, they began to pursue reception into true, canonical Orthodoxy. He related that story in his book, Becoming Orthodox. In 1987, 17 parishes with 2,000 members were led into the faith under the omophor of the Patriarch of Antioch. Though the group would initially have its own unique life and character, by 1995 they were fully assimilated into the life and liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church.

Their reception was greeted in a variety of ways by the Orthodox. Some worried that they would bring corrupt practices and ideas into the Church (in practice, those parishes proved to be more “traditional” than many ethnic Churches). Others worried that their reception itself had violated canons (their clergy were ordained as priests as a group rather than individually – unusual but not unprecedented).

But their journey into Orthodoxy was part of a transformation for Orthodoxy in the Western world. There were many factors that came together in the last quarter of the 20th century that opened the path of conversion. No one thing can be singled out. However, the evangelical commitment of Fr. Peter and others (including figures such as Archbishop Dmitri and Met. Kallistos) coincided with this transformation. Perhaps all of these came at a “tipping point,” as we say today. Recent statistical studies show that in the Greek Archdiocese of America, 29 percent of its members are converts (from Protestant or Catholic) with 12 percent of its clergy being convert. In the Orthodox Church of America (the jurisdiction in which I serve), over half of the clergy and the laity are converts (this does not include the significant number of young clergy who are the children of converts).

Together these converts have brought a wealth of energy and insight. Publishing of material on the Orthodox faith, geared towards the non-Orthodox, has undergone an “explosion” in the last generation. The internet, though very uneven in its content and accuracy, echoes with this same energy.

According to a 2010 demographic study, more than half of OCA clergy and laity converted from Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. In GOA churches, 29 percent of lay persons are converts to Orthodox Christianity and 12 percent of clergy are converts. Doubtless, such an influx of converts has had an impact on Orthodoxy. From all indications, however, the impact has not been to make Orthodox parishes more protestant or Roman Catholic. Converts are often eager to be less like their former associations. At the same time that this influx of converts has entered North American Orthodoxy, monasticism has rapidly expanded. For much of the 20th century, there were three to four Orthodox monastic communities in America – yielding a Church largely devoid of monastic experience. Today there are over 80 monastic communities. Though most are small, they are a growing part of the life of many American parishes. Orthodoxy in America is not becoming less traditional, but more so.

My family and I were received into the Church in 1998. My two oldest daughters are married to Orthodox priests, and a significant number of my extended family has entered the faith. What was relatively easy for me was made possible by many others. Fr. Peter was an untiring evangelist, nurturing individuals in very isolated places. He took time for everyone. He lived in the best missionary manner. May his memory be eternal!

Evangelism and the Ego

June 24, 2012

Do I have a responsibility to rescue the ego-driven narrative of your life? Does the gospel of Christ exist to confirm your opinions and strengthen your arguments against the threats of a world-gone-mad? How should we evangelize the neurotic? I use the term “neurotic” lightly, under the assumption that we can all be described by the term to a greater or lesser extent. The ego, as used here, refers to a false-self, created by our thoughts and feelings:

Even though it is not really a “thing” at all, the ego slowly develops from childhood on, and is expressed as a story-line, complete with expectations (the “how things ought to be” section of our ever-churning imaginations), paranoia (“they” are out to get me, even when I am not quite sure who “they” are) and simple everyday self-centeredness (“I and my needs and opinions have to be heard, venerated and accepted by everyone else, or I am in danger of disappearing without trace”).

The problem we encounter with the ego is that it is often that part of ourselves which is presented to the world around us: the heart (nous), remains relatively hidden. It is largely the ego that we meet in argument (both someone else’s as well as our own). Such an encounter is the meeting of two figments of the imagination, an event destined for non-existence.

Sharing the gospel of Christ with another human being is not intended for the ego. The ego can be very “religious,” but not to its salvation nor the salvation of the heart. It is in the heart, the “true self,” that we meet Christ. Effective evangelism is the difficult task of speaking heart-to-heart.

Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matt. 13:18-33).

The ego never understands. It judges, compares, even “tries an idea on,” but never understands. Understanding is a function of the heart. The ego is riddled with anxiety (its existence is often maintained by constant anxiety). Cares and deceit will rob it of any true planting of the word. In truth, there is no soil in the ego. The heart is the place where we have “root” in ourselves. It is the seat of understanding. There, and there alone, the seed bears fruit.

To speak to the heart requires a word from the heart. The famous visit of St. Vladimir’s envoys to Byzantium are an excellent example. The story is relayed in the Chronicle of Nestor:

Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices in which they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell here any longer.

“We cannot dwell here any longer…” These are the words of the heart. The famous encounter in Byzantium was with beauty – but beauty in such a manner that “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

My small parish does not appear to be a Church from the outside. It is plain. We have given much work to its interior, that we might worship God in beauty. A recent evening visit by a couple surprised me. Walking into the Narthex, the woman began to weep. “What is that smell?”

“Incense,” I answered.

“It smells like heaven,” she said. She went on, opening her heart and expressing a desire to know more about the faith.

There is no argument or explanation that rivals the simple odor of Divine worship. It is, of course, true that the couple had come to the Church searching. They were leading with their hearts.

Where the gospel is effectively preached, the heart is speaking, and the speaker is listening to hear the sound of the heart’s own door opening. The Elder Paisios famously offered this observation:

Often we see a person and we say a couple spiritual words to him and he converts. 
Later we say, “Ah, I saved someone.” I believe that the person who has the disposition and goodness 
within him, if he doesn’t convert from what we say,  would convert from the sight of a bear or a fox or from anything else. Let 
us beware of false evangelization.

Our egos speak in order to hear themselves. We listen to our own “evangelization” and admire the argument and think ourselves to be “obedient” to the gospel, or to be doing a good work. God is so merciful that he takes words from us (using them like a “fox” or “bear”) and makes them into arrows for the heart. Those whose conversions follow such encounters are not the fruit of our efforts – they bear fruit despite our efforts.

Evangelization of the ego yields fragile converts. Their own ego-driven needs may create a great deal of energy, but with possibly  destructive consequences. Fascination with fasts, feast days, cultural artifacts, correctness (the ego’s panoply) create a pastoral nightmare and a parish riddled with conflict.

True conversion (which happens over an extended period) occurs as we learn to dwell in the heart. Such conversion is an equal requirement within the Church. When it comes to life in the heart – we are all “converts” at best.

Follow-up: Speaking to the heart.

The Chariot of Israel and Its Horsemen – The Repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas

August 28, 2011

And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.”  Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. (2 Kings 2:9-12)


These verses came to mind when I heard the news this morning of the repose of Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas. There are a number of saints within Orthodox history who are given the title: “Equal to the Apostles.” I cannot rush beyond the Church and declare a saint where the Church has not done so, but I can think of no better description of the life and ministry of Vladika Dmitri here in the South than “equal to the Apostles.”

Many people whose familiarity with the presence of the Orthodox faith in English-speaking lands are unaware that until 1962 there was no particular standard work of introduction to Orthodoxy available in English. Thus pioneers, such as Met. Kallistos Ware in England (who wrote that first standard work), or Archbishop Dmitri (who entered the faith along with his sister – as teenagers – in 1941) were extremely rare individuals and generally found conversion a nearly impossible feat.

Vladika Dmitri began life as a Texas Baptist, and, in my experience, never spoke ill of his background. I can recall him saying, “I like Baptists – they make great Orthodox!” accompanied by a sly smile. Indeed, I frequently heard him caution converts to Orthodoxy to refrain from disparaging their roots: “Most likely, it’s where you first heard of Christ.” His conversion as a teen led to a life as a scholar, missionary, teacher, leader, pastor – all in the context of kindness and love.

He cared deeply about the Christian faith and expressed concern, even dismay, as he saw many surrounding Churches that once would have been considered “traditional,” moving away from many of the primary teachings of the Christian faith. He was particularly expressive about the weakening of the doctrine of Christ’s Incarnation. He insisted that the understanding of God becoming Man was the only possible foundation for the dignity of human beings. It was a thought shared by men such as C.S. Lewis.

His advice to priests was very clear: “When you have opportunity to speak about the faith, never turn it down. And when you speak, don’t waste time on ethnic concerns. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that is the great treasure of Orthodox and that is what you have to offer.”

In 1977 he was almost elected as the Metropolitan of the newly-autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. The Holy Synod seemed less than sure that the OCA was ready for a convert-bishop to be Metropolitan. In 1978, the Holy Synod formed the Diocese of the South, with Dallas as its see city. Bishop Dmitri was appointed as its first diocesan bishop. The new diocese had little more than a half dozen parishes, strung from Florida to Virginia to New Mexico (mostly Florida). Vladika Dmitri would always smile and call it his “consolation prize.”

However, it became a great apostolic opportunity for a man uniquely suited to its apostolic task. He saw the Diocese grow over ten-fold with a remarkable spirit of kindness and hospitality. During World War II he met an Orthodox priest in California who spoke about a vision of an American Orthodox Church. It was the first time the young Dmitri had encountered the concept. It became his vision as well. In the course of a life-time, he saw that vision mature in his beloved South. Having been its apostle, he now becomes its intercessor. May his memory be eternal!