MISSION AND EVANGELISM
There remains very much land yet to be possessed" (Josh. 13-1) With these words, dear brothers and sisters, the Lord addressed His faithful servant and brave warrior, Joshua.
When he was old and advanced in years. Joshua spent his life in conquering the land which God had promised to His people Israel, part of which had been already conquered by Moses. And still, there was very much land "yet to be possessed" and divided among the Jewish tribes.
Now, the topic of my speech is not "Old Testament Theology", but "Mission and Evangelism". How come, then, I started off not with a classical missionary text, as "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mk. 16: 15)? Because, I most firmly believe that after several years of intense missionary labor, there remain numerous people who have not heard about the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the Cross for sinners. These people still sit in the region and shadow of death (ref. Mt.4:16). And not only in Africa or Asia, but also in the heart of the civilized and yet barbarous, Christianized and yet not converted and apparently rich and yet spiritually starving Europe. Idolatry abounds. Not the idolatry of a Hindu; it is a rather retired one. People worship their loved ones, their possessions, their ambitions. Consequently, for any devout minister of the Gospel, there remains very much land yet to be possessed, there remain thousands of opportunities for evangelism.
Evangelism forms an indispensable part of missionary work. Of course there has to be some balance between evangelism and other aspects of missionary enterprise e.g. medical or educational work. But, still, the Christian doctor, for instance, should not miss the opportunity of pointing his patient to the physician of souls and bodies. Medicine, education or any other type of charitable or social work ought to be handmaids to the Gospel and not to take precedence over its proclamation. The Apostles main work was to preach the good News to the poor, not to establish schools or clinics.
The mission of the Church is to free the world from the dominion of Satan and the slavery of death and of sin and all other bondages. This liberation is the real Gospel for mankind. Therefore the ministry of evangelization is a ministry of liberation. The Messiah was anointed "to preach deliverance to the captives … to set at liberty them that are bruised'(Lk.4:18) To the hard task of evangelization, the even harder task of evangelism is being added; more and more nominal believers need to be challenged afresh with the message of the Gospel.
I called evangelization a hard task. I will now go on to mention a few of the main obstacles to be encountered by any evangelist in his work. The first main obstacle is the prince of darkness himself. That may sound absurd to twentieth century Christians, but it is true and anyone who has worked for God can testify to this.
Evangelism invades Satan's dominion. Consequently, he reacts and tries to nullify the ministry of the Church "For the mystery of iniquity does already work" (11 Thes. 2:7). The devil today uses new methods. He utilizes education, technology and the mass media to de-christianize mankind. The modern man from infancy is influenced by all those demonic methodologies, which he does not consider evil at all; for to him they are all natural. So much of what we hear, see or read is contaminated by the lethal poison of sin. Our sinfu1ness is another obstacle. It prevents the fire of the Holy Spirit from burning within us and filling us with sacred zeal, faith and enthusiasm so that we can transmit the light of Christ to others, as happened in the case of the Apostles. And not only that. By our faulty presentation of Christianity we also cause those enquiring about Christ to lose their interest. Every sin of ours, no matter how trivial, every compromise with the evil environment of the satanised world system, is a hindrance to the Gospel.
Secularization is another problem. The modern man organizes his life independently of God, as if God does not exist. Our secularized society may tolerate the Church as one of the many values of our civilization, or as a national institution which, through its feasts and ceremonies, gives a somehow festive colour to the monotony of our lives. Moreover, many so-called believers have what is termed a 'Sunday religion'. They spend the entire week as unbelievers, but attend church services on Sundays. Evangelism therefore is a task which we can only accomplish with God's help. Christ warned his disciples "Without Me, you cannot do anything" (Jn 15:5 ).Evangelism thus needs to be centred in Christ and proclaim Him "as the Way, the Truth and Life" (Jn 14:6). There is no true evangelism, if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.
Furthermore, evangelism necessarily implies and demands a vital and commonly shared acceptance of the message. The Gospel naturally inaugurates a new living Community, the Church. Adherence to the message of the Kingdom of God is adherence to the Church. We have reviewed some of the major hindrances to evangelistic work. Let us now examine some of the qualifications necessary for evangelistic work. What might these be? A degree in theology? Well, perhaps! Several years spent in a monastery? Possibly, but not always! What then? The primary qualification is a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior; and that in accordance with the teachings of our Holy Orthodox Church. This implies a serious concern by the would be evangelist for his spiritual progress. Otherwise, how can he benefit someone else and invite him to know Christ, if he neglects himself and displays obvious defects in his life? The words of our Lord are striking "How can you say to your brother' Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?" (Lk.6:42). St John Chrysostom, himself a keen supporter of missionary work, comments: "Let us strive to persuade others with our lives and not with mere words. Because, even if we can speak very philosophically, but we do not give an example of godly life, there is no profit at all. Unbelievers pay more attention to our deeds, than to our words. If we describe to them the glories of eternity, but we remain attached to earthly enjoyments, we are contradicting ourselves". Another qualification is a deep feeling of responsibility for the souls of those who "perish for lack of knowledge" (Hos. 4:6), who have fallen into the mire of sin or the darkness of heresies. Indeed, we have a great responsibility for such people. Of course, the primary responsibility lies with them, for they have freely chosen their path.
However, our own apathy, cowardice and idleness contribute towards the perdition of so many souls. If we feel convicted by this statement, we ought to take up evangelistic work. Let us once more heed the warning of St. John Chrysostom "Each one of us is responsible for the salvation of his neighbor".
The knowledge of scripture, as it is taught and interpreted in our Orthodox Church is of paramount importance. St. Paul the Apostle, instructs Timothy that "All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim.3:16-17).
Sadly, the members of the numerous cults and sects often outdo us in Biblical knowledge, although they twist it to suit their particular errors. Anyone who has devoutly studied the Word of God will know the purpose of our life and the destiny of man. He will know how man can approach God and what solutions God can give to the manifold problems of mankind. And then he will be "always ready to give a defense to everyone who asks him for a reason for the hope that is in him" (l Pet. 3:15).
Self-denial and sacrifice are also needed in evangelism. No great achievement came with ease and rest. On the contrary, all achievements require sacrifice, effort and suffering. The same applies to evangelism. Nonetheless, missionary labor will invariably result in great peace and joy. This I can verify from my own personal experience. Self-denial is linked to patience. Patience in all adversities. The fishing of men requires patience in every situation and circumstance. As laborers of the Lord's harvest, we should work patiently and persistently. Conversions may not be instant. Perhaps we shall only sow the seed, another will water and someone else will reap. But this does not matter. God will reward all His workers according to their efforts.
Evangelism requires discretion and politeness. Without sulkiness and a style of reprimanding, with meekness and, even more, with respect, full of the joy which is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, we should tell others about the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. St Paul commends "Let your words be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Col.4:6).
Even though we meet with opposition and bitterness, if we are scolded and reviled, we still have to treat those who come against us with kindness and gentleness, imitating our Lord, who is meek and lowly of heart. Didn't He warn us about being reviled and persecuted for His Name's sake? Didn't He say "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven" (Lk.6:23).
I left prayer for last, although it is the most vital necessity in any form of Christian work. For any Christian worker, prayer has to be his continuous resource, his solace and his weapon. Through prayer he will receive divine strength and illumination and words will be given to him so that he will fearlessly make known the mystery of the Gospel (Eph.6:19). It is by no means accidental that St. Paul asks for the prayers of believers so frequently. Nowadays, we need people who like Epaphras will be always wrestling in prayer for those engaged in evangelistic work (Col. 4:12). Through prayer also we can ask God to open the hearts of those to whom we are witnessing, as He did in the case of Lydia.
Before I finish my address on 'Mission and Evangelism', I would like to mention as briefly as possible, the issue of re-evangelization. Unfortunately, this topic has become a sign of contradiction, not to say a stumbling block to many who find the idea repellent. Yet, re-evangelization is absolutely necessary and we have to devote to it part of our missionary work. It is sad but for many of the so-called believers "they claim to know God, but by their actions they deny Him" (Tit. 1: 16a).
Many of our people, who are Orthodox by birth, have adopted an attitude similar to that of the Jews who were saying "We have Abraham as our father!". They believe that mere membership of the Orthodox Church will guarantee them an entrance into Heaven. Some of them, although ardent believers and regular churchgoers, know virtually nothing about the treasures of our Holy Orthodox Faith and sometimes they are spiritually immature "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Eph.4:14).
All such people need re-evangelization. Those with an unrepentant life need to be called to repent and believe the Gospel. Those with a superficial and some times ludicrous lack of knowledge of our doctrines, need to be taught and edified in order to progress spiritually. However, let me stress that re- evangelization can be an even more difficult task than that of primary evangelization. It is unfortunate that people who hear the Gospel often tend to become immune to it. When they are challenged, they feel threatened and react negatively. But, let us not forget that our God is an Almighty God, with whom nothing is impossible.
As you realize, it is impossible to exhaust such a vast topic as " Mission and Evangelism" in a single lecture. I have but tried to share a few thoughts with you, resulting mainly from my personal experience of eighteen years spent in the Lord's vineyard in East Africa. Finally, let us not forget, that the Church is sent into the world to call people and nations to repentance, to announce forgiveness of sin and a new beginning in relationship with God and with neighbors through the Lord Jesus Christ. This evangelistic calling has a new urgency today: whether among the secularized masses of industrial societies, the emerging new ideologies around which societies are being organized, the resurgent religions and cults which people embrace, the movements of workers and political refugees, the people's search for liberation and justice, the uncertain pilgrimage of the younger generation into a future both full of promise and overshadowed by nuclear confrontation — the Church is called to be present and to articulate the meaning of God's love in Jesus Christ for every person and for every situation.
The missionary vocation of the Church and its evangelistic calling will not escape the confrontation with the harsh realities of everyday life, if it is not sustained by faith, a faith which is not simply academic but rather practical and supported by prayer and praise. Christians ought to lay their entire beings on God's altar, knowing that from worship comes wisdom, from prayer comes strength and from fellowship comes patience. To be united with the Lord Jesus Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit is the greatest blessing of the Heavenly Kingdom and the sole abiding ground of our missionary activity in the world. The same Lord who challenged Joshua about the un-possessed land, is the One who still today commands His laborers to cross all frontiers and to enter into the most unknown territories in His Name, and assures them " Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" (Mt. 2 8:20).