The Orthodox Approach to Mission

The Orthodox approach to mission

Remarks Given at the XII All-Diaspora Youth Conference, Paris, 5th July 2011

Archimandrite Irenei
Archimandrite Irenei

Your Eminence, Your Grace, Reverend Fathers, Beloved Brothers and Sisters:
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.

It is a joy for me to be giving what amounts to the first ‘formal’ lecture of this blessed conference, in which our whole aim is to explore mission and missionary work, especially in practical terms which you as the youth of our Church—spread out as she is to every corner of the world—might take up and live out when you return home.

Given the timing of this talk here at the beginning of your reflections, I thought it best to take advantage of its position and to ask a few fundamental questions. I do this not only because it is good, as a general practice, to ask what we do and why we do it, before we engage in any activity that we hope will bear fruit; but also because the theme of missionary work, broadly speaking, is one that is very often marred by a drive for action that ‘skips over’ this very need to ask fundamental questions.

Driven by the desire to do something, anything, missionary work is too often based purely on a vision of action. And yet, as Orthodox Christians all our actions are to be grounded in truth—the Truth that is Christ Himself; and without a knowledge of this truth, our actions are shallow, and the fruit they bear is scant and small.

So if we are to seek ‘practical’ guidance on Orthodox mission, and if we are to seek it in a genuinely Orthodox manner, we must start by recognising that it is not authentic to the ‘practicality’ of Orthodoxy simply to ‘go out and do something’. An Orthodox approach begins with a heart turning to God, seeking understanding.

And so we must ask ourselves the most basic question of all, as it relates to our conference here: just what, precisely, is ‘mission’ in the mind of the Orthodox Church?

What is ‘mission’ in the mind of the Orthodox Church?

Before we attempt to focus ourselves too precisely on how to exercise it, how to accomplish it, we must took at the very concept itself. What is our ‘mission’ as Orthodox Christians? And what does it mean to be a ‘missionary’ in our contemporary world?

Often, when we hear these terms we instinctively, automatically, begin to think in the framework provided for us by outside influences. There are many religions that engage in what they call ‘missionary work’, and they are often quite visible in this; and so our understanding of what it means to be missionary, and what mission itself might mean, is regularly influenced by what we see and hear in these others. And in their examples, ‘mission’ often means ‘telling other people what we believe’, and ‘trying to get them to believe as we do’. In effect, the idea of ‘mission’ is combined with another, that of proselytism, which is the technical term for the work of drawing other people into one’s own religion or belief system.

But is this what we mean, as Orthodox Christians? Can it be that our ‘mission’ is, as such examples would suggest, to create more Orthodox Christians—to cause more people to convert?

As tempting as such a vision might be, the true testimony of the Church is that the answer must be ‘no’. Creating converts is not our mission, and it cannot be our aim as missionaries in the modern world. But what, then, is?

For this, we must not look toward our contemporary society, with its norms and expectations—even in religious terms. Our mission must not be defined by what the world expects; it must be defined by what the world needs, and what God offers to it in that need.

Our source for understanding mission, then, is not in popular ‘action plans’ or Christian marketing strategies, however pious they might be. Our source is in our past, in our heritage—which is vibrant and alive in our present. Our source is in our Fathers, who convey to us the truth of ourselves, of the world, of God and of His Church. It is by looking to what we receive from our Fathers in the faith, that we will learn what is our true mission as Christians, and in what our true missionary work might consist.

And so we must ask ourselves, what do these divine sources tell us?

The Mission of the Orthodox Christian: The Salvation of the Soul

The ‘mission’ and aim of the Christian life is the salvation of our souls and bodies, and the attainment of the Kingdom of God. This is first and foremost, and above all else.

It is for this that the Father sent His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, into the world; it is for this that He offered Himself and sent the life-creating Spirit—that we who are fallen and broken, suffering and crippled by sin and death, might rise up by His power and attain to the life He has fashioned for us, abiding eternally with Him in His heavenly Kingdom.

We must not forget this! Yet one of the things I feel it important to remind you of today is that the work of Christian mission does often forget this, and we and you as Orthodox Christians must stalwartly resist this tendency to forget what is truly the purpose of our every Christian activity, especially our missionary work.

Our aim is not to help the people around us find a more fulfilling life; it is not to help them discover better worship; it is not to help them locate and become part of a more satisfying community. Our mission is to help them find the Kingdom of God, to overcome their sin by His power, to be transformed into the life of His blessedness.

This is our mission as Orthodox Christians; and for this reason, it is neither a popular or easy one in the world today. I want you to recognise this. To be a missionary requires struggle, and a confident boldness.

To fulfil this mission, we must proclaim boldly and without hesitation:

  • that there is but one God, not the many Gods, ideologies and spiritualities that the world likes to foster today;
  • that this one God is our God, who ‘does great and wonderful things’, and He alone is true and the Truth, and not that endless variety of truths and wisdoms the world embraces around us;
  • that there is such a thing as sin, that there is right and there is wrong, there is good and there is bad and it can and should be identified as such—even if the world might call this ‘judgemental’;
  • and, perhaps most importantly: that there is a way out of sin—namely, the Life in Christ that is the mystery of His Church.

Our mission is to attain the Kingdom of God, and to draw all those around us—even the whole world—into that same Kingdom. To be ‘missionary’, then, is to live our lives in such a manner that these two things are possible, and more than simply possible: that they actually take place.

How Are We To Do This?

I should like to spend the remainder of my short time with you this morning exploring, in practical terms, what this properly Orthodox understanding of mission might mean for each of you as the youth of the Church. And your status as the Church’s youth makes this important, for ahead of you is a whole life shaped by the Church. We are often told that ‘the future of the Church is our youth’; but this is of course quite wrong. It is the other way around. As others have said before, the future of our youth is the Church—as it is indeed the future of the whole world.

Here are the main ‘practical points’ I would like to consider together today:

(1) Developing a burning love through repentance and the mystical life.

(2) Living a distinctly different manner of life.

(3) Responding to the true needs of the world.

(1) Developing a burning love through repentance and the mystical life

At the foundation of our missionary work in the world is the missionary work that must take place in our own heart. A fundamental teaching of the Fathers is that we cannot share with others that which we do not possess ourselves; and thus it is a non-starter to believe we can share with the world the way into the Kingdom, if we are not working with all our energy to receive it in our own hearts.

The foundation of practical missionary work, then, begins in the heart—in your heart, in mine. It begins with repentance. Our hearts must see their brokenness, and turn from our sin towards redemption in Christ. Without this, we seek to share with the world what we do not have, and we seek to point the world toward a Kingdom that we are not ourselves moving toward or living within.

This can never work. If we attempt it, we are like the foolish man attempting to build his house upon the sand (cf. Matthew 7.24-27; Luke 6.46-49). As our Lord Himself told us, this house will surely fall.

But, you might ask, how is this understanding of mission beginning in the heart, a ‘practical’ step towards the missionary calling that you all share? And I answer: it is practical in as much as it defines for us a clear starting point for a life of true missionary zeal and impact.

Missionary work begins in the Holy Mysteries, in confession and the communion in the holy Body and Blood of Christ. It does not begin in a plan for travel, or an outline for catechesis, or a useful translation of the sacred writings or a manual for encounters. Nor does it begin with an idea for a good Christian bookstore or coffee-shop discussion groups. It begins with an epitrachilion laid across our head, our heart laid open by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the sins which bind us to death and darkness defeated by the power of God. It begins when, through this sacred Mystery, we are freed of the burden of sin, and are made ready to draw near to Christ Himself in the Divine Liturgy, receiving in soul and body Him who shows us His Father’s Kingdom.

In this way the truth proclaimed by St Isaac is made clear, that ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’; and then, only then, are we able to share with the world the truth of that Kingdom. Only then can we not only say, but show the world what it means to attain this Kingdom and live a life wholly shaped by it.

This means that if you as the youth of the Church, and all of us as her members in Christ’s Body, wish indeed to attain our mission and be genuine missionaries in the world, we must begin by whole-heartedly embracing repentance—repentance not as an obligation, not as a requirement, but as a joyful and joy-creating foundation for a truly spiritual life.

We must foster in our hearts a burning love for the Life in Christ that the Church gives us. If you wish to be fruitful missionaries, begin by rushing with full zeal, eagerness and seriousness to confession, often and with full devotion. Open your heart there wholly and completely to God, holding back nothing from Him, so that no corner of your life remains divided from Him, rebellious towards Him. Run eagerly, as if it were as important as your own breath, to that Mystery by which His power might conquer your sin and draw you out of darkness towards the true Sun of Righteousness.

If this is how we make a practical beginning to our missionary calling, then we will have with us something far greater than a plan for spreading the word or offering just the right counsel. We will have hearts that burn with God’s grace. We will have within us that which was promised by our Saviour and delivered upon the Holy Pentecost which we have so recently celebrated: the Holy Spirit Himself, alive in our hearts, filling our lives and words and actions in the same way He filled the lives, words and actions of the great missionary saints of all generations past. This is the Spirit who draws all of creation to the Son, who in turn presents it to His Father. This is the Spirit who enables the journey into the Kingdom of God; and if we begin with repentance, confession, communion, then we bear in ourselves this Spirit, who in us can find a willing partner for the work of drawing all the world to the Kingdom.

We must remember one of the greatest missionary saints of the past century, St Seraphim of Sarov, and his famous saying: ‘Acquire the Spirit of peace within you, and a thousand around you shall be saved.’ We cannot assist others in finding their saving way into the Kingdom, unless our hearts so burn with the Spirit of Truth.

(2) Living a distinctly different manner of life

This second key ‘ingredient’ of a genuinely missionary life is intrinsically tied together with the first, for unless we are given life by the Spirit and freed from the bonds of sin by the Mysteries of the Church, our life will always be defined by the world. We will live the life others live, even if in this way or that we might give it our own ‘flavour’, our own twists. If we dwell first and foremost in the world, if we are shaped above all by the world, then all we can ever show the world is itself, no matter how often we might speak of God or other things.

If, however, we are given the grace through repentance to live as those ‘in the world but not of it’, then we are able, by our lives, to show the world something different. Something strikingly, unexpectedly different—but only if we are committed to living the truly ‘other’ life of the Gospel.

As an example of this, I would like to call upon an episode from the era of the Apostolic Fathers, who were the immediate successors to the Holy Apostles and who lived and wrote in what were still the first generations of the Church. At this time, the Church was, in human terms, still young and new, and few people in society yet knew of her. Those who had heard of her, rarely knew what she really was, what she actually believed; and there were no convenient ‘Introductions to Orthodoxy’ to be read—even the Creed had yet to be written. The only way to learn of the Church was to see her, to behold her, to gaze upon the Christians themselves and thus behold the Body of Christ.

And what did people see, when they looked at the life of the Church in those early days? We have an anonymous text from the time, which offers us a characterisation of what one person saw when he beheld the Christian manner of life and how he chose to characterise it to another, and it is perhaps one of the most beautiful texts ever written:

“Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellously distinct and confessedly contradicts expectation.

“They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, yet they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, even as they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.

“They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are poor and beg their bread, yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in everything. They are dishonoured, and yet they are glorified in their dishonour. They are spoken of as evil, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they show respect. Doing good, they are punished as evil-doers; then, being punished, they rejoice as if they were thereby quickened unto life. War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried out against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot identify a reason for their hostility. In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world.”1

Think of how these early Christians must have lived their lives, that one could look upon them and say such things as these! And then we must ask ourselves: am I living my life in such a manner? Will the world look at me and say such things? Or will it look at me and see someone trying to ‘fit in’, to be ‘acceptable’ to the norms and expectations of the world around me?

If we are to be genuine missionaries, we must not aim to ‘fit in’ to the world. We must live a distinctly different manner of life, so that the world might ‘look upon our good works, and glorify our Father who is in heaven’ (cf. Matthew 5.16).

(3) Responding to the true needs of the world

This brings me to my third main point: the need for us to respond to the true needs of the world. It is only when we have a heart transfigured by God’s power, when we live a truly Christian life and bear its witness in the world, that we can then see what the worldtruly needs—and not simply what it thinks it needs, or what it wants. It is precisely in seeing the difference between the true life we live as Christians, and the life of the world, that we can point at this dimension or that like wise doctors and say ‘Aha! It is that which must be cured, if my patient is to be well!’ We see this through our lives, and the way our lives interact with those of the world.

And now, now we have the right tools required to act. It is only now that we can say to ourselves, with the wisdom that comes from the experience of Christian life and the needs of the world, that this or that activity will authentically meet the need of those around us.

This need may be for instruction in living the virtues. It may be in drawing in fellow young people to Church activities—but not simply as a ‘social activity’, but in direct response to the needs of these specific people.

It may be in organising activities to give to the poor or reach out to suffering communities; but not simply as a generic ‘good activity’, but as a concrete response to a need we see around us, and a means of helping such people see and behold the life of the Kingdom.

Only in such a way will we construct missionary activities that actually aim to fulfil our Orthodox mission: to draw the world around us into the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes our missionary work will be friendly, casual, even playful; at others it will be formal, even stark. Not all patients are treated in the same way, and the same medication does not work for every disease. And if we are true missionaries, then whatever our state in life, we are participants in the spiritual transformation the Church offers. We are helpers in the spiritual hospital, by which souls are saved.

The Way Forward

As we then move forward with our conference, with our discussions, workshops, seminars and discussions, let us strive to remember in every context the fundamental realities that must guide us as Orthodox Christians seeking to be missionaries in the modern world.

(1) We must begin always in our own heart, seeking a burning love through repentance and the mystical life.

(2) We must always seek to live truly Orthodox lives, bearing witness to the world of a distinctly different manner of life.

(3) Then, in this wonderful life, we must turn to our fellow man, to the whole of God’s world, and seek to respond to its needs, that it may join us in this God-given life of grace and transformation.

The world does not need more generic missionaries. It does not need simply ‘Christian-flavoured’ social work. It does not need it, and it will reject it.

But the world desperately needs to be shown the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. And each of us, each of you, may receive the power from God to help the suffering world, to join Christ in offering Himself ‘for the life of the world’, and thus become true missionaries and lights to your fellow man.

May the Lord bless you in this work!


Archimandrite Irenei (Steenburg) is the Dean and Director of Studies of Saints Cyril and Athanasius Institute for Orthodox Studies, responsible for its development and foundation as well as its academic program. He is also the core lecturer in patristics and Church history.

Father Silouan

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