"The Mission of the Church?"
The Mission of the Church
Fr. Edward Rommen
I come to this subject after a lifetime of direct involvement in missions and evangelism. I have served as missionary (15 years in Germany) and as a professor of theology and cross-cultural studies in Norway, Germany, and the United States. I am currently an adjunct professor at the Divinity School of Duke University where I teach regular courses in Orthodox theology and spirituality, including the theology of mission.
Although I have not been Orthodox all of my life and have not formally studied at an Orthodox seminary, I believe that after 20 years as an Orthodox clergyman and 15 years of intense study of and teaching of Orthodox theology I may have finally grown enough in my understanding of the Church to re-articulate my understanding of this important area of missions: namely, its theology.
As I have indicated, this has been my primary area of study and publication, and I would like to make use of both the ancient and the contemporary insights of the Eastern Church in order to re-articulate a theological rationale and framework for the mission of the Church in the world today. I believe that a fresh, re-articulation of the theological basis of the Orthodox mission in the world is not only important but also timely for three reasons: 1) the unique nature of Orthodox theology offers insights that can benefit not only us, but our Protestant friends; 2) the Eastern Church’s rich experience with missionary work in the past shows that we have already spent a great deal of time reflecting on the key questions raised by our missionary involvement in the world. This history provides a point of departure and a set of guidelines as we move forward; and 3) the reawakening of an awareness of the Church’s missionary responsibility in our Church indicates that this may be an opportune time to teach and recommit ourselves to fulfilling that mission.
While I am generally interested in the whole discipline, missiology, I am particularly concerned about the theology of mission, that is the theological description of and justification of our mission in the world. My methodology for this inquiry can be defined in terms of three distinct steps.
First, theology involves gathering relevant data from all valid sources of Orthodox theology. That data can be grouped into two general classes. One is divine Revelation, i.e., the self-revelation of God as evident in creation, in the life and work of Christ, in Scripture, and in the Tradition of the Church. The other source is the human situation that is everything that is observable (experiential) including the negative and the positive, the contemporary and historical aspects of human existence. This two-fold categorization is not intended to imply parity between the divine and human classes of data, but rather some degree of correlation.
The Second step in this process is determining the meaning of each piece of data as it has been interpreted by the Church. Here we will make use of general exegetical tools as well as hermeneutical and historical principles. However, this work also has to be subjected to the scrutiny of the “mind of the Church.” We will not simply trust our own interpretive skills or those of our contemporaries But since the Church, under the leadership of its bishops, is the proper context for interpretation, we will always want to ask how particular passages of scripture are and have been understood by the Church.
The Third step involves using these understandings to create a coherent system of axiomatic summary statements or principles. These statements will become the blueprint of the actual execution of the missionary work. They will help us determine what we can and cannot do in the name of outreach. For example, our understanding of the nature of the Church will clearly prevent us from making use of secular business tactics, such as branding, marketing, etc., in our effort to expand and plant the Church.
Obviously, the constraints of this lecture do not allow us to review all the data gathered during this study. However, I can lay out my conclusions, that is, the basic principles that I think should define and guide the mission of the Orthodox Church. There are six of them.
- Mission begins with the Sending of Authorized Delegates in order to proclaim, that is, personally introduce Christ to everyone who does not yet or no longer knows Him.
1.1. On the Act of Sending itself.
1.1.1. This move will have to originate within the Church and not some extra- or para-ecclesial entity such as an independent mission society.
18.104.22.168. The informal sending (home missions) takes place at the end of the Liturgy and results in the general witness of the faithful to what they have seen during the Liturgy, the resurrection, the true light, the one faith, in other words, to Christ himself. This is what we have called the Liturgy after the Liturgy.
22.214.171.124. The formal sending (foreign/cross-cultural missions) is intended to extend the Church, that is, to establish Eucharistic Communities, in areas in which they do not yet exist.
1.1.2. The entire process (both formal and informal) will remain the responsibility primarily of the presiding Bishop and secondarily of the local clergy.
1.1.3. The formal sending will have to be done in accordance with the canons of the Church that prevent one bishop from working in another’s area of jurisdiction.
1.2. Authorizing Delegates
1.2.1. The actual authorization or commissioning of these delegates remains the prerogative of the Bishop, who will also provide specific instruction for the work (he and not the academy is the primary source of missiological instruction and thought in the Church).
126.96.36.199. In the case of the informal mission of the faithful, authorization comes at the hand of a local priest delegated by a bishop.
188.8.131.52. In the case of the formal extension of the Church, only the bishop can authorize.
1.2.2. This means that there can be no legitimate sending, either formal or informal, through extra-ecclesial, so called para-church agencies. They are not Eucharistic communities and thus cannot send the faithful to give witness to what they have not seen (in the Liturgy), and they cannot be tasked with extending the Church. However, some such groups may be needed to accomplish specific sub-tasks (translation, social services, medical services, and specialized training) all under the authority of a bishop.
1.2.3. Choosing the delegates sent out.
184.108.40.206. The informal sending presupposes a certain level of spiritual maturity, knowledge of the Scriptures, and personal holiness. This is to be taught and fostered by the local priest in each parish. It is primarily a spiritual state and not a particular set of apologetic skills, publications, or techniques. While it is assumed that all the faithful will participate, we need to be sensitive to the gifting by the Holy Spirit for specific ministries and allow the exercise of these gifts to be distributed along the whole range of the charismatic structure of the Church. Not all are teachers, etc.
220.127.116.11. Selecting delegates for a formal sending is also done in accordance with the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifting of the Spirit and not on the basis of contemporary hiring practices (education, resumes, recommendations, psychological evaluations), which have little place in the spiritual/charismatic structure of the Church.
1.3. Proclaiming the Gospel
1.3.1. The primary focus of the sending must be centered on the effort to introduce the person of Christ.
18.104.22.168. This involves witness and not proselytizing. It is a dialog with others, an intense and completely kenotic engagement.
22.214.171.124. In addition to the personal introduction, information about God's redemptive plan in Christ has to be communicated in the language and culture of the recipient. While this will certainly involve translation and cross-cultural sensitivity, it must remain a personal witness, true engagement, and not a mechanistic technique. It is an offer, an invitation and not the imposition of information.
126.96.36.199. This proclamation is to be done in deliberate reliance on the empowering and validating work of the Holy Spirit and not our own persuasive techniques, marketing abilities, or communicative skills.
188.8.131.52. All other activities, however good in their own right, will have to be considered either secondary to the primary mission or not even part of the Church’s task.
1.3.2. A secondary focus of this sending will be preliminary the telling of the Grand Narrative of Redemptive History.
1.4. To All Nations (ethnic groupings)
1.4.1. There can be no peoples, demographic groupings, or places excluded from the list of recipient populations. This means that Christ is to be introduced, without exception or reservation, to all peoples even of other social, cultural, secular, or non-Christian religious persuasions. This may mean bearing witness under opposition and willingness to suffer or even be martyred.
1.4.2. Identifying these populations is the work of the whole Church aided by the Holy Spirit. This is not a function of a census, of statistical, or cultural analysis. It is rather the direct result of being led to our listeners by the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit.
1.4.3. The content of the proclamation must always be delivered in the local language and in keeping with the social structures (tribal, familial, lines of authority) present in the local culture. This will involve sociological and anthropological expertise on the part of the missionaries and require timely translation by expert linguists of the Scriptures, the Liturgy, other service books, and catechisms.
1.5. For All of Time (unto the end of the age).
These activities are fixed aspects of the Church’s activities and are to be continually performed until the great day of Christ’s coming again. Until then we must never voluntarily suspend our witness.
- The next Phase of Missions involves Making Disciples, which includes bringing men, women, and children to the point of conversion, baptizing them, and teaching them all that Christ has commanded.
2.1. Making Disciples
The overall goal is to bring individuals into a personal relationship with Christ such that they are willing to follow Him in all that He is and teaches. This involves issuing the call of Christ, helping individuals to trust (have faith in) Him, to follow and imitate Him, to submit to the authority of His word, and negotiate their ongoing relationship (transformation) to Him within the context of the Eucharistic Community.
2.2.1. The first step toward becoming a disciple involves a definite act of turning around, that is, away from a life of sin. It is a conscious decision to follow Christ, to make Christ and his message one’s own.
2.2.2. This cannot be reached by means of coercion. It is not something that a person is argued into or humanly persuaded to do, but rather the result of the convicting power of the Holy Spirit validating the words of witness and mediating the personal presence of Christ.
2.2.3. This represents only the first step of a life-long journey. It cannot be seen as a one time, never to be lost experience that settles all accounts forever. It is rather induction into the process of salvation, transformation, and deification.
2.3.1. The modus of baptism is to be in accordance with the instructions of Tradition, that is, triple immersion in the name of the Holy Trinity.
2.3.2. This is the initial sacramental act that cannot under any circumstances be neglected. There can be no life in Christ, no life in the Church, without baptism.
2.3.3. This sacrament generally presupposes the authorization of a bishop, usually in the form of a properly delegated and ordained priest.
2.3.4. Given the proliferation of Christian sects, the question of whether to re-baptize or not may have to be determined by the bishop.
2.3.5. Baptism is to be followed by chrismation, sealing the candidate with the Holy Spirit. If re-baptism is not necessary, then the candidate will be brought into the Church by chrismation.
- Next the missionary needs to establish the Eucharistic/Liturgical Community,
which will serve as the setting for the sacraments, the context of life in Christ, and the basis for an ongoing missionary operation. This is not done in strict chronological sequence after the previous phase. It may well be happening conterminously. This is true because
3.1. All Mission Work Presupposes the Church
3.1.1. As we have seen, the great commission requires baptism and anticipates communion. Without the Church these things cannot take place.
3.1.2. As a result, we conclude that the Church is a necessary component of mission and is, even in the pioneer stage of the work, already present in the missionary situation in the person of the bishop or his delegate.
3.1.3. Because of the Church’s indispensability, one of the primary tasks of the pioneering missionary is to make use of all the gifts of Tradition in order to establish a local expression of the Church, initially a mission outpost, which grows into a full-fledged parish.
3.2. First and Foremost the Eucharist
3.2.1. Given the immediacy of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, missionary proclamation is unthinkable without the Eucharist.
3.2.2. The celebration of the Eucharist presupposes the presence of a duly ordained representative of the bishop. Authorization.
3.2.3. The initial celebrations of the sacraments in a new area represent a foothold or beachhead in or among a particular population.
3.3. Fully Liturgical Communities
3.3.1. The gathering of the newly won disciples to celebrate the Eucharist constitutes the Church.
3.3.2. A regular and full cycle of liturgical services should be established as soon as possible.
3.3.3. In keeping with the notion of the priesthood of all believers and the missionary intent of the Church’s liturgical cycle, these communities become the local point of departure for missionary witness.
3.4. The Ongoing Missionary Activity of the Newly Established Eucharistic Community.
3.4.1. Once established these local communities become the permanent point of embarkation for the witness of the faithful into the surrounding region, the place to which non-believers are ultimately invited, and the context in which they are ministered to.
3.4.2. They also constitute the potential platform from which the Church can be formally extended into additional non-ecclesial regions.
- The Next Phase of the Work involves Teaching the Fundamentals of the Faith,
which includes all that Christ taught, everything he passed down to his apostles, and it should involve all educational ministries (opportunities) of the Church.
4.1. The Fundamentals of the Faith. The Church is responsible for teaching everything that Christ passed on to his disciples. In essence this is the whole grand-narrative of the history of God’s redemptive efforts on behalf of humankind.
4.2. This has to be pursued using every educational ministry possible in the Church. This will include homilies, discipleship classes, Church School, as well as the ecclesially supported teaching by parents in the homes of the faithful.
4.3. This teaching will have to take place according to the requirements laid down in the canons of the Church and be gentle, non-violent, and complete.
4.4. As new disciples are brought into the Church this pattern repeats itself indefinitely.
- Another aspect of Mission involves Addressing Social and Humanitarian Needs by taking up the ancient practice of almsgiving
5.1. Social Needs
5.1.1. While the ordinary social needs of the faithful are to be taken seriously, it is not the purpose of the local Eucharistic assembly to meet those needs. For that reason it is not to be distracted from its main task by unrelated activities such as yoga and exercise classes, sports programs and the like.
5.1.2. However, the assembly can and should act as a family of faith, with all of the intimacy and trust implied by that term, fellowship.
5.1.3. This involves providing any and all support and aid needed by the members of the community. This involves the faithful taking care of their own.
5.1.4. This also involves this family of faith forming a fellowship of service to meet the needs of those outside the community.
5.2. Humanitarian Needs
5.2.1. One of the signs of Christian love for others must be the local Christian concern for humanitarian needs (hunger, education, justice, housing) of the populations that surround it.
5.2.2. While these things are not the initial concern of formal missionary outreach, once the Eucharistic assemblies have been established, they become necessary expressions of our love for others.
5.2.3. While the Church cannot replace the work of secular institutions (hospitals, aid agencies, governments), the local parish should actively support their work and the never use the presence of these entities as an excuse for inaction.
5.2.4. Almsgiving. In general the specific nature of this ministry is captured in the multi-faceted ancient and practice of almsgiving.
- 6. Finally, Re-evangelizing Peoples and Areas that were once Christian.
Given the modern threats and challenges to the Christian faith, there are now many individuals who have been lured away from the Church, who have converted to other religions, who have reverted to their former ways, or to no belief system at all. In some areas this is so widespread that we can now speak of whole regions as formerly Christian.
6.1. Focusing on Peoples. We can analyze populations by their demographic characteristics and conclude that they have abandoned the faith. In many cases these groups remain within the jurisdiction of an authorizing hierarch and can thus be re-addressed by the informal witness of the local Church.
6.2. Focusing on Areas. We see clearly identifiable non-Christian geographic regions, which can then be the object of a renewed formal missionary effort. Obviously this will take great sensitivity and an understanding of why people have turned from the faith and maybe even a humble acknowledgement of the Church’s own failings.
In order to craft a coherent statement of a theology of the Church’s mission in the world, I set out to gather as much theological information as I could from every available source. There is no lack of data and so, the challenge has been to bring that all together in a way that practically informs our practice of mission. While I cannot specify every detail of every missiological eventuality, I have identified the Church as the recipient of the ancient promise made to Abraham. I have affirmed that the new people of God, the new nation of priests, have been authorized to go into this world and give witness to what we have experienced in Christ and, where necessary, establish new Eucharistic communities, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching them. I have learned that these activities are to be done in the power of the Spirit and not the efficiency of modern persuasive techniques. As these communities mature, they are to actively minister to all the needs of those they are surrounded by and continue to teach the faithful all that Christ commanded until he returns.
This, then, is the mission of our Church in the world.
 While it is beyond the scope of this study our missions theological work would also have to include a basic Orthodox approach to the non-Christian religions. Some indication of how this might be developed can be seen in the following: “An Eastern Orthodox Perspective, “ in "Wheaton and the Controversy over Whether Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God," 27. <https://www.emsweb.org/images/occasional-bulletin/special-editions/OB_SpecialEdition_2016.pdf>. “Synthesis” in Edward Rommen, Christianity and the Religions : A Biblical Theology of World Religions, Evangelical Missiological Society Series (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1995), 241–53. “Dialogue with Islam from an Orthodox Point of View” in Anastasios, Facing the World : Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003), 103-26. “A Theological Approach to Understanding Other Religions” in ibid., 127–54.