"Orthodoxy and our Global Village: Challenges That Lay Ahead."
"Orthodoxy and our Global Village:
Challenges That Lay Ahead."
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
“Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” (William Carey) These words of an 18th century missionary sum up well the attitude we must cultivate, as we think about the challenges that Orthodoxy faces in relation to the world that we live in.
These words also reflect the spirit of St. Paul, when he writes in his one of his prayers to the Ephesians, that God “is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine.” (Eph 3:20) Well, what are we asking from God? What is the best our imagination can do? St. Paul reminds us that through God’s power, we can accomplish FAR MORE!
Today, as we discuss “Orthodoxy and Our Global Village: Challenges that Lay Ahead,” we need to discern carefully the vision of our Lord for the world, and struggle to develop as a Church a very clear plan on how to fulfill this vision. We must cultivate within ourselves and within the Church as a whole, the “mind of Christ” – a mind that can never be limited by any parochial attitude, but which encompasses all people in every nation throughout the world.
St. John Chrysostom preached, “There are two kinds of bishops. One bishop is a pastor who says, ‘My parish is my universe.’ While the other bishop says, ‘The universe is my parish.’”
Throughout the history of the Church, we know that too many accepted this heresy of “the parish as my universe,” and thus, turned the “the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is, who was, and who is to come, the Lord Almighty” (Rev 1:8) into a tiny, local, often ethnic or national idol. It is this false deity that even today, too many Orthodox Christians, clergy and laity alike, worship.
“My parish is my universe, or the universe is my parish?”
Archbishop Anastasios, one of the most respected Orthodox hierarchs in the world today, recently spoke at a mission symposium at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and talked about “The Church Rediscovering Her Apostolic Identity.” In his paper, he gave a clear vision about how the Church must face the world – it must be missions-minded! He noted, “The spirit of apostleship is indelibly wrought in the very nature of the Church and should be lived in every age… Mission is part of the Church’s genetic material, a fixed element in her DNA.”
During my talk today on “Orthodoxy and our Global Villages: Challenges that Lay Ahead,” I want us to go beyond simply accepting the fact that the Church must be involved in missions, and begin concretely evaluating the situation we face in the 21st century. As we think about this global village in which we live, let us do as St. Paul prays, by asking and stretching our imagination with the mind of Christ, and planning how the Church can faithfully respond to her apostolic responsibility.
In order to accomplish this, we have to do two things. First, let us look at the world around us, and understand her complex situation. What is the reality of Christianity worldwide? What peoples have been evangelized, and how are they fulfilling their duty in sharing God’s blessings with the rest of the world? Are there still people groups today, 2000 years after Christ, who have never heard the Gospel message? Many within the Church are totally ignorant of the world reality. If we are going to be serious about our responsibility in completing our Lord’s Great Commission to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations,” then we need to be aware of what our world situation is!
Second, we need to take a careful look at the reality of the contemporary Orthodox Church in America. What is our present mindset? What are the main obstacles in cultivating a missionary mind within our Churches and among all our leaders and people and thus, fulfilling our Lord’s missionary mandate? Once we clearly understand our situation, how must we respond?
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Christiantiy and the 21st century
Almost 2000 years have passed since the greatest event occurred in the history of the world – the Incarnation of God, who through His life, death and resurrection destroyed the greatest evil plaguing all humanity, renewing creation, and giving hope and life to all people! This event, upon which history hinges, was to be proclaimed in all languages to every people, race, nation, and tribe throughout the world (Rev 7:9).
“All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 18:18-19). “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Our Lord Jesus Christ, through his words, as well as with the overall message of His life and mission, offered a crystal clear vision, and yet two millennia have passed, and we must ask ourselves, “How has the Church fared in her apostolic endeavor? The test of faithfulness is not to see what percent of the world is Christian, for we must take into account the freedom that everyone has to accept or reject the Gospel. Instead, the test of faithfulness to the Great Commission can be seen in what percent of the world has had an opportunity to hear the Gospel in their own language and within their own culture, and then, to decide for themselves whether to receive or reject the good news.
St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek (and may we extend his comparison to say there is no distinction among different ethno-linguistic people groups of today); the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news!” (Rom 10:12-15)
Centuries ago, missionaries used limited means. St. Kosmas Aitolos, the great Greek missionary of the 18th century stated, “If it were possible for me to climb up into the sky and to shout with a great voice, to preach to the entire world that only our Christ is the Son and the Word of God, true God and the life of all, I would have done it. But because I can't do such a big thing, I do this small thing. I walk from place to place and teach my brothers as I can, not as a teacher but as a brother.” This missionary walked to hundreds of villages throughout modern-day Greece and Albania, preaching the Gospel to the ignorant masses.
In our modern, technological and scientific world, however, it is inexcusable for the Church to not use all the most up-to-date means available to fulfill her mandate. Archbishop Anastasios said in his recent talk, “The world outside the Church is inconceivably complex. One must be constantly charting new ground, drawing new maps, staying alert to new developments. Such mission also demands creative thinking about how best to execute and make viable the apostolic ideal within each context.”
One way to begin doing this is to study the statistics of the six billion people on planet earth and try to understand the makeup of this vast family of different ethnicities, languages, cultures, religions and histories. As we better understand the world, we see a clear picture which can help us better prepare to face the task before us – the duty to offer a concrete witness of God’s love and truth to the ends of the earth.
So our most basic and first question, as with think about the challenges for future missions, must be a simple one. At the start of the 21st century, do all people on earth have the opportunity to hear the Christian message?
I. Worldview of Religions
Let us begin answering this question by first looking at some world religious statistics. According to David Barrett, one of the leading scholars of religious statistics, among the approximately 6 billion people in the world today, 33% claim a Christian identity and belief. This means 67% of the world is non-Christian. In the chart, you can see a clear breakdown of the largest religious groups.
Graph 1: Statistics of Religion in AD 2000 (pg.39):
Christians - 2,000 million (33% of population)
Roman Catholic - 1,057 million (17.5%)
Independents - 386 million (6.4%)
Protestants - 342 million (5.6%)
Orthodox - 215 million (3.6%)
Muslims - 1,188 million (19.6%)
Hindus - 811 million (13.4%)
Non-Religious - 768 million (12.7%)
Chinese folk-religions - 385 million (6.4%)
Buddhists - 360 million (5.9%)
Animists - 230 million (3.9%)
Atheists - 150 million (2.5%)
Jews - 14 million (0.2%)
More important and starling figures, however, are not the percent of the world that is Christian or non-Christian, but an analysis of the non-Christian world. This can be seen in a common manner in how modern missiologists separate the world into three parts:
Show Graph 2: World A, B, C with explanation
- “World C” represents the 2 billion Christians, which account for 33% of the world population.
- “World B” represents “evangelized non-Christians.” This means non-Christians who have heard about the Gospel of Jesus Christ or who have an opportunity to experience the witness of a local Christian community, but who have not yet accepted this message. World B non-Christians make up 2.4 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population.
- “World A” represents “unevangelized non-Christians.” These are people who have not rejected the Gospel, but people who have never even heard about the name of Jesus Christ. No Christian has ever offered a living witness to them, and the Church worldwide has never given them the opportunity to enter into her embrace, and decide for themselves whether to accept or reject the good news. The so-call “unreached peoples” of World A make up 1.6 billion people, or approximately 27% of the world’s population.
Imagine, more than one quarter of the world’s population has never heard the “Good News” or even the name of Christ. This is an incredibly large group of peoples who have not rejected the gospel, nor ignored it. No, these are people within various ethno-linguistic people groups who have never had an opportunity to hear the Gospel because no Christians have responded to God’s call to live among them and witness the good news. The vast majority of these unreached peoples live within what missiologists call the “10/40 window,” which represents an area of the globe 10 degree to 40 degrees above the equator, spanning from North Africa to the Far East. Within this general area, we have:
Show Graph 3: 10/40 Window with map
70% of the world’s Muslims
99% of the world’s Hindus
93% of the world’s Buddhists
75% of the world’s Atheists
59% of the world’s population
Well, with such a situation, it should be unmistakable what the vision of the Church should be. We have a sober duty to “be a light set on a mountain, not hidden under a bushel.” The Church, through her missionaries, needs to go to the unreached peoples, and share the good news!
As obvious as this may appear for one who has accepted the apostolic vision of the Church, it is not so apparent when we review missionary history and evaluate the statistics of contemporary missionary efforts.
Christian Churches send out approximately 403,600 long-term, foreign, cross-cultural missionaries. They are broken up as follows:
Show Graph 4: Missionary Break-up
- 200,700 Protestant, Evangelical, Independent or Pentecostal
- 200,430 Roman Catholic
- 2,470 Eastern and Oriental Orthodox
(which to me seems to be a very generous number given to us Orthodox. I would dare guess that there are no more than 100-200 Orthodox missionaries worldwide).
The fact of interest for us in this presentation is not the number of missionaries, but WHERE these missionaries offer their witness. Unfortunately, a common principle which determines where missionaries go is the idea, “The missionary should go where he/she is invited by the local Christians.” This well-intentioned but misguided principle ignores the fact that there are 1.6 billion unevangelized non-Christians who could never send out such an invitation, and since no Christians live among these people, they themselves could not make the invitation.
The fruit of this misguided strategy can be seen clearly in the present placement of missionaries and mission funds:
Show Graph 5: Placement of worldwide missionaries
- 73.1% of all missionaries serve (in World C) among peoples who already profess Christianity. And these missionaries spend 86.6% of all foreign mission funds among these neophyte Christians.
- Only 24.5% of all missionaries try to reach out to non-Christians who live among an ethno-linguistic people group that already has some living witness of Christianity (WORLD B). Among these people, the Church’s foreign missions spend 11.7% of all their resources.
- And among the least privileged in the frontier mission field (WORLD A), the 1.6 billion unreached peoples who have never had the opportunity to see or hear any Christian witness, only 2.4% of all missionaries serve, and only 1.7% of all foreign mission money is spent on this unevangelized world.
The idea and strategy of cross-cultural missions, in general, and along with these ideas about unreached peoples, and missionaries serving in WORLDS A, B, or C, are concepts totally foreign in our Church. And yet, don’t we have a serious and noble responsibility to properly understand and then respond to our world situation?
David Livingstone, a pioneer missionary who in the mid-19th century opened a new era of missions when he became the first person to travel across Africa, challenged the students at Cambridge University in 1857 by saying, “Can the love of Christ not carry the missionary where the slave trade carries the trader?”
Economic globalization has touched the four corners of the world, and may offer us a modern analogy. I recently heard about one of the Coca-cola Company’s millennium goals – to give the opportunity for every person on planet earth to drink a Coke. And they are spending vast sums of money in their effort to achieve this financial objective.
Dare I repeat the words of Livingstone, and question ourselves today – “Can the love of Christ and the mandate of the Church not carry the missionary where the financial incentive carries the businessman?”
Christian globalization is not solicited by any reward of the economic market, but is solely motivated by the universal love of our Triune God “that elevates the human being toward God, creating him anew.”
As we study the world, we learn that Christianity has reached 9000 out of the 12,600 different ethno-linguistic peoples in the world. Yet, we must ask ourselves, “Who will accept the challenge to bring the love of Christ to those who still have never heard? Who will accept the risk to live in difficult and dangerous places, to follow the path of the early apostles and possibly martyrs, learning new cultures and languages, in order to give everyone the opportunity to hear the Gospel?”
St. Paul rightly proclaimed, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news” (Rom 10:15)
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II. Social and Economic Worldview
Besides looking at world statistics from a religious perspective, we, especially who are Americans, need to remind ourselves of what the world reality is from a social and economic viewpoint. Although this may seem to be unrelated to our religious identity and missions, it does help us understand the role of missions from another point of view – of becoming good and faithful stewards of all that God has given us.
Jesus Christ said, “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Lk 12:48). In the first part of the talk, we could realize abundantly clear that we have been given much – in fact, the greatest of all blessings, by being among a people who have heard the Gospel and received it in our lives. That is not something to be taken for granted, considering that one quarter of the world still has not received that privilege. Yet we Orthodox in America have not been given only the blessing of faith, but we also live in an unprecedented era of material prosperity, comfort and power. Our living standard is something unimaginable to people only a century ago, and incomprehensible to many people in the world today. With such blessings, spiritual as well as material, come great responsibility!
And yet, too many of us don’t even realize what we have. We have been so brainwashed and blinded by the materialistic, consumeristic mentality of our age, which continually emphasizes what we don’t have and plants seeds of discontent and unending desire for more, that we take for granted things that the rest of the world cannot even dream of.
Imagine if we saw a village in the middle of some third world country. Out of the 100 villagers, only one person was educated with a college degree. He, along with 19 others, controlled 74% of the land and all wealth. In order to avoid looking at the destitution all around them, the wealthy 20 build a wall around their magnificent and elaborate homes. In fact, within these walls, one would think that they are in the midst of the finest neighborhoods of the West. These walls helped the wealthy forget the poverty right outside their walls. Like the wealthy man in Christ’s parable of the Rich Fool, this group of 20 chose to ignore
- the 8 people in the village who were on the verge of starvation.
- the 38 others who lived day by day, unsure where their food would come for the next day.
- almost half the village who lived on less than $235/year.
- the 35 people in the village who have no safe drinking water
- the 40 people who have no electricity
- the 25 people who have no access to medical care
Of course, from time to time, the wealthy 20 would hear about the abject poverty outside their walls, and out of their extreme excess would offer tidbits of aid which temporarily helped a handful of people, and more importantly, greatly eased their consciences. Time passed, as the vast majority of the village continued in their agony, while the select few lived in their little bubble of comfort and pleasure.
How will Christ judge this wealthy group of associates? Can we excuse their self-centeredness, greed, and desire for comfort and pleasure? St. Basil the Great represents the mind of the Fathers when he criticized the wealthy of his own day for a piety that cost nothing: “Those who withhold any of God’s gifts for their own enjoyment, failing to offer help to others, are condemned like the servant who ‘hid his master’s money’…To the extent that you abound in wealth, you are lacking in love. You do injustice to so many, since you could help others, but don’t.”
From a global perspective, we need to look at the social and economic injustices of the world, remembering that the majority of the Christian world represents the rich, while the “unreached non-Christians” make up the vast majority of the poor and mega-poor:
Show Graph 6: Social Inequalities of the World
Look at the world reality. Of the world’s 6 billion people:
- 2.8 billion people (46% of the world) live in 26 countries each with a per captia income of less than $235/year.
- 500 million people (8%) are on the verge of starvation
- 2.2 billion people (35%) do not have access to safe water (25,000 die/day from bad water),
- 2.5 billion (40%) have no access to electricity,
- 1.5 billion (25%) have no access to medical care.
- 940 million (15%) have little or no access to school
- 40 million infected with HIV (600,000 children infected yearly; 20 million have died from AIDS)
- 50 million abortions/year compared to 124 million births/year
I offer these statistics not to overwhelm us – knowing that such numbers sometimes are so mind-boggling that they scare people away from any serious reflection – but I risk these statistics hoping to make a point clear, we need to be aware of the global village in which we live. We cannot live in our own little fantasy world, with large walls separating us from the rest of the world.
St. John Chrysostom noted, “I do not believe in the salvation of anyone who is not concerned with the salvation of others.”
“To whom much is given, much is required.” This implies both spiritual as well as material blessings. A serious Christian cannot take his blessings for granted, and then ignore the vital consequences of such blessings.
Unfortunately, we see this mistake occur again and again, from the ancient Israelites forgetting that God blessed Abraham SO THAT he and his posterity would be a blessing for all families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3), up until the modern Church. God blesses us SO THAT we can become a blessing for others, so that we share those blessings with others!
We Orthodox Christians in America have been twice blessed. What did we do to deserve to be born or raised in a country where we have unlimited opportunities and resources, and what have we done to deserve a faith whose spiritual treasure greatly exceeds any material one we may have.
Our call and action to mission is the means by which we share these God-given blessings with all people throughout the world.
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All these religious and social statistics I gave may appear daunting, especially to a Church that is simply trying to “rediscover her apostolic identity” and begin the first stages of fulfilling her missionary mandate. On one hand, a realist may remind us that we Orthodox in America have only one missionary center with 21 long-term missionaries and a budget of $2 million dollars. One temptation can be to think that if the other 400,000 Christian missionaries with their $15 billion budgets aren’t doing the job, then why are we even talking about this? Why not just ignore the statistics given today, and excuse ourselves by saying that we are a small Church still at the neophyte stage of our modern missionary movement.
In the logic of the world, this may be excusable. In the eyes of God, it is unacceptable. As we heard yesterday, we are the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” and we must live up to our calling by having the faith and boldness needed to address the task that confronts us.
No longer can we as a Church accept a limited and parochial vision. God “is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine.” Thus, we have an opportunity today to begin opening up the eyes of our future clergy and leaders so that we may understand the entire world reality and task ahead.
It won’t be easy though, because numerous temptations and obstacles will try to hinder the missionary movement and misdirect the Church into deceptive heresies. In this final part of my talk, I will only discuss two of the most precarious threats that face our Church today: parochialism and secularism.
From the first years of the apostolic era, we see the old mentality of ancient Israel, with its parochial, triumphalistic air, threatening the early Church. The first Christians saw themselves as Jews, and despite the teaching and witness of Christ himself, they still believed that one had to become a Jew in order to be a follower of Christ. This is why the apostles reacted so negatively when St. Peter entered the house of the Roman Cornelius. Only gradually, and rather reluctantly, did they accept his defense when he said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation, whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him… If then God gave [these Gentiles] the same gift he gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” (Acts 10:34-35, 11:17)
Yet, even after Peter’s vision and declaration, it took years for the early Church to fully accept this universal idea. St. Paul fought continuously with those who tried to confine the Spirit of God in his ministry among the nations.
The “other,” those who are different, always poses a threat to people who have not been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. The best of our Orthodox tradition, however, accentuates the exact opposite. Our tradition has respected those who are different, lifting up their cultural identity to an equal level as our own. True unity is not destroyed by a lack of external uniformity. Archbishop Anastasios writes in his article “Culture and Gospel,” “Imprisonment in any of the cultural forms of this world is inexcusable; there is no justification for the closed circle of chauvinism … Imposing a culture of uniformity and monotony always threatens to lead humanity to an appalling state of impoverishment.”
Sts. Cyril and Methodius represent one of the greatest examples of this when they brought dignity to the Slavic peoples by respecting their culture and language. Their main opponents, the Frankish missionaries, attacked them precisely at this point – how dare they use a “barbaric” language to glorify God, instead of using one of the three traditional “holy languages.” The so-called barbarians had to become culturally like us; we should never lower the Gospel to the level of others, these missionaries believed. And yet, Cyril and Methodius understood that by planting the Gospel in the soil and hearts of the people, this would transform their culture and raise up the identity. The differences of “the other” were not a threat, but were seen as another strong link on the beautiful chain of the Church.
The best of Orthodox missionaries have carried on this tradition, refuting any closed mentalities. And yet, we must admit that at times the Church herself has suffered, and continues to suffer, from the small-mindedness of her leaders and people. When St. Stephen of Perm carried on the great tradition of Cyril and Methodius, translating Holy Scripture and Divine Services into the language of the Zyrian people of northern Russia in the 14th century, his opposition did not come from Frankish missionaries, but from Russian authorities themselves, who accused him of using a “barbaric language” to glorify God, instead of using one of the “FOUR holy languages,” obviously including Slavic among the select few.
This common temptation has plagued the people of God throughout history. Israel fell into this mistake countless times throughout the Old Testament. The early Church gave in to this temptation in the first century, with its Judaic prejudice. And in each generation, the heresy returns – whether through Roman arrogance, Greek pride, Slavic bias, or even modern American haughtiness. God is too great to be limited by any one culture, language, people, or worldview, no matter how great!
Archbishop Anastasios says, “The opposite of love is often called hatred. But its real name is egoism. This is the denial of the Triune God who is a koinonia of love. Christian life means continual assimilation of the mystery of the cross in the fight against individual and communal selfishness.”
Another missionary noted, “An inward turned Christianity is a dangerous counterfeit, an alluring masquerade. It is no Christianity at all… Christianity must be a force that moves outward, and a Christian community is basically in existence “for others.” That is the whole meaning of a Christian community.” (Vincent Donavan, Christianity Rediscovered)
In contrast to a closed Christian community, we must remind our people that the ministry of the individual Christian and the Church is a continuation of the ministry of Christ. If we are an extension of the Lord, then we must radiate his unconditional love unto all people throughout the world. This surely does not mean that we ignore our own people and our own needs. It implies that we have a simultaneous ministry among our own, and to the “other” near by, as well as to the “other” who lives at the ends of the world.
Our Lord promised his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). This clear directive means the Church’s ministry is in Jerusalem AND in Judea AND in Samaria AND to the ends of the earth. It is a simultaneous and complete ministry, which today could be understood as pastoral care to our own Orthodox people and communities in America, AS WELL AS to the non-Orthodox and non-Christian population in this country AS WELL AS to the mission fields we have in Albania, Mexico, Guatamala, India, Indonesia and Africa, AS WELL AS to the 1.6 billion unreached peoples of the world. A simultaneous witness! Not “either or” but “and and.”
Whether we feel called to offer this witness personally or not does not matter. The body of Christ must have the mission mind to be active in a wholistic and complete witness. I may be a priest focusing on my local parish in Lancaster, PA, but my ministry also needs to support and partake in the worldwide witness of the Church – through my prayers, through my finances, and through my effort to educate and inspire others to go!
This sickness of parochialism needs to be addressed and healed, and a “missions mind” needs to be cultivated at every level of our Church – from hierarchs and clergy who show little interest in a universal vision and ministry, to our theological institutions that treat missions as an occasional elective class instead of an essential part of the core curriculum, to our local parishes where the common believer isn’t taught, no less challenged, to participate in the missionary mandate.
Thank God, though, some progress is being made. The Orthodox Churches in America, at the local, seminary, and national level, are slowly breaking out of their ethnic cocoons and spiritual ghetto mentality, and are beginning to offer a more visible witness. We still have a long way to go, but we see a beginning! We can see a growing witness in America, and even internationally. With the growth and vision of the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) and the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), we have taken steps in the right direction. The Mission Center has grown from two long-term missionaries 10 years ago, to 21 missionaries today. And their goal of 100 long-term missionaries by the year 2010, together with 100 short-term missionaries yearly is showing vision and positive progress. We must take care, though, not to congratulate ourselves too much. Our 21 missionaries and $2 million mission budget is miniscule compared with the 118,000 Catholic and Protestant long-term missionaries being sent from the USA. Even the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses combined, who numerically are only slightly more than Orthodox Christians in the US, send out more than 15,000 long-term missionaries.
So we have our work cut out for us. But let us keep praying and dreaming, knowing that God “is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine.”
A second formidable danger and temptation for the modern Church in general, but especially for our Church in America, is secularism. The radical growth of secularism this past century was something totally unforeseen 100 years ago. In 1900, 99.8% of the world claimed allegiance to some religion. Today, there are approximately 770 million people who do not accept or practice any religion, and another 150 million who outright profess atheism – a total of 15% of the world today. This is a direct challenge to the church, especially since secularists are increasing at a rate of 6.5 million/year, and many of them come from a Christian heritage.
Here in America, we can see the growth of secularism, and the sometimes antagonistic relationship between secularists and believers. In general, however, secularism doesn’t see religion as an enemy. It simply views religion as something irrelevant, and thus, pushes it to the sidelines of life.
Some in the Church readily accept this relegated position, thinking that the Church must flee from the evil of the world and even glory in her role as a “separated paradise.” This attitude leads the Church into becoming a closed, spiritual ghetto – proud of herself, self-righteous towards the world, and blinded by her own ego. In such a case, the Church becomes an irrelevant museum of the past, instead of a living yeast that leavens the present society. As the Archbishop stated last night, “Jesus did not found a static community that was withdrawn from the world… The community He established had mission – a sending out – as its inner force.”
The Christian Church, regardless of her size, must always be a creative, enlightened element within society, transforming everything that it has contact with. We must be in the world, but not of the world.
The overwhelming influence of such secular ideas, however, has already infiltrated the Church, and we are now in danger of a new period of captivity. The main danger of secularism is that it compartmentalizes one’s faith, making it not the central element of one’s identity, but only a small, private part of a greater whole. For example, on Sunday we may be Christians, but Monday through Saturday our life is controlled by our professional work and pursuit for money and pleasure. If our faith influences aspects of our personal lives, we hesitate to share such beliefs with others, because we don’t want to offend them or impose our beliefs upon them. The whole idea of being “the salt, the yeast and a light of the world” is something totally foreign to the secularized Christian.
This secularization of the Church’s spirit diminishes a crucial aspect of the Christian life. Comfort instead of ascesis, pleasure instead of self-denial, lukewarmness instead of radical dedication and sacrifice, all become the norm in the Church. In our liturgical calendar, we remember the great saints, martyrs, ascetics, and missionaries in pompous ceremony, but we forget or consciously ignore the sacrificial lives they lived. We unconsciously fulfill St. Paul’s prophecy about the last days, when he warns his disciple Timothy, “People will be self-centered and lovers of money, proud, haughty… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of religion, but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:2-5).
Archbishop Anastasios has written, “One of the greatest dangers for Christian mission [and we can say for the Christian life in general] is that we become forgetful in the practice of the cross and create a comfortable type of Christian who wants the cross as an ornament but who often prefers to crucify others than to be crucified himself!
All those who ever made a significant contribution to mission and the pastoral ministry of the Church lived in ascetic vigilance, compunction and penitence, in unceasing struggle against the dark abysses of the human ego – i.e. in continuous, relentless, persistent struggle “in the Holy Spirit.”
Only through a continuous assimilation of the mystery of the Cross; a sacrificed love and humility, as well as an ascetic struggle of abstinence and self-control can we achieve our goal.
This surely does not describe a secularized, compartmentalized, comfortable Christianity. It describes a sober, serious, radical and wholistic faith. We need such a spirit if we are to avoid the temptations of secularism and fulfill our missionary responsibility in the world.
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In conclusion, we can understate ourselves by saying the apostolic task ahead is immense.
Our global village offers a complex picture of more than six billion people, of which 1.6 billion remain unreached, 3,600 ethno-linguistic people groups still exist without any knowledge of the Gospel, and the Christian missionary force is basically ignoring the most unevangelized places of the world. A terribly unbalanced distribution of wealth and resources adds to the injustice and urgency. Finally, many temptations and obstacles, not the least of which are parochialism and secularism, threaten to hinder, blind and confuse the very Church that is called to respond.
Does the Gospel have an answer to these questions and dilemmas? Surely, no narrow, confined, or closed Church can present an adequate respond. Only a Church with a healthy apostolic identity that understands the universal dimension of God’s love can offer an acceptable answer. Only a Church that has cultivated a missionary mind in all her people, so much so that the idea of mission is no longer a supplement or an appendix, but rather a basic expression of our ecclesiastical self-understanding and self-conscience, will there be hope.
In the end, the authentic missionary will give a concrete answer through his/her life – a life that accepts “dangers, deprivations, humiliations, a life which overall accepts the experience of human powerlessness while simultaneously witnessing God’s power” (Archbishop Anastasios). This life and witness will be an answer to the challenge ahead of us.
Barrett, David B., Kurian, George, Johnson, Todd M., “World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world,” Oxford University Press, 2001.
Barrett, David B. and Johnson, Todd M. “World Christian Trends AD30 – AD2200: Interpreting the annual Christian megacensus,” William Carey Library, 2001.
Donovan, Vincent, “Christianity Rediscovered, Orbis Books, 1978.
“Rediscovering Our Apostolic Identity in the 21st Century” 2003.
“The Apostolic Responsibility and Worldwide Dimension of Orthodoxy” 2000
“Your Will Be Done” 1989.
“Culture and Gospel” 1984.
“ Mission and Pastoral Care” 1977.