Pravmir.com is continuing to publish reflections on parishes' missionary work in response to Fr. Daniel Sysoev's article.
Archpriest John Shandra. Press-secretary of the Diocese of Khust. In October 1999 by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church was assigned as a parish Priest for the Patriarchal Parishes in Canada. In May 2008 returned back to the Diocese of Khust (Ukrainian Orthodox Church).
In contemporary world, preaching about Jesus Christ has many forms. Missionary work or service is an active form of witness about our life in the Lord. We, the Orthodox, cannot preach Jesus Christ separately or outside of the boundaries of the Church, which He has established as a way of continuous presence among us, with us and within us through the Holy Sacraments. Orthodox Christian Mission is a way of introducing others to the way of full liturgical life within the Mystical Body of Christ – His Church. Therefore, in my opinion, we need to introduce non-Orthodox or nonbelievers simply to the Orthodox way of life.
Blessed memory Fr. Daniel Sysoev understood this clearly. His missionary work in Russia was successful and his witness was full. Besides being a good communicator and educated person, he was a good parish priest, who understood the needs of his people, and was able to offer good pastoral care to those who came through him to the Lord.
Missionary work in different places varies. Different countries require different approaches: the ever-wondered “Russian Soul” will more likely respond to deeper spirituality and spiritual enrichment, when, at the same time, so called “Western Soul” might require broader explanation of some religious thoughts. In my personal experience, it is the difference between the deep and wide that can describe variations of missionary ministry. Of course, the result in both approaches is expected to be the same – personal spiritual encounter with the Lord.
Regardless the places on the geographical map of the world, similarities in missionary approach are bound mostly around the needs of our human nature. We all have sense of fellowship, so, why not organize fellowship hour after the service? We like to have good conversation – why not discuss the life within the Church/parish? We are asked to attend special occasions – why not invite our friends to come and see, even if it is only for a change, and help them feel in Church like at home? Why not have meals together after the Church service? Why not offer a drive or company to someone that lives far from the church? These normal human methods create an atmosphere of friendship if they are not pushy, of course. Add to it personal involvement of every parishioner in different ministries like church choir, church readers, Sunday School and Bible Study teachers, greeters and lay ministry, cooks and bakers… Parishes in the West are widely using these “techniques” in their successful missionary work. Could we use these practices in Ukraine or in Russia? I think we are lacking all these customs in our local church life. On the example of the late Fr. Daniel’s parish we can see just how successful these traditions can be!
Dissimilarities of the missionary approach in Russia and in the western countries are based mostly on differences in numbers between the religious denominations. One does not need to perform social studies in order to see that Orthodox Christianity in Russia is holding palm of the majority, while in the West – minority. It is easier to adopt Orthodoxy in Russia than in Europe or in the United States simply because there are considerably more examples to follow. One can see orthodox churches in every little Russian or Ukrainian town and village. Besides, our culture was developed mostly around the Orthodox Church. People in the West require these examples as well. However, not so many Orthodox Churches are out there. Missionary parish must organize this for the interested in the Orthodoxy people on top of showing their loving care for them.
Another aspect of the orthodox mission in the West that needs to be considered is difference in customs and traditions. What is believed to be normal in Russia or Ukraine where majority is following the same long time ago developed customs, might look like little-too-much or little unsuitable in the West. For example, people in the West usually complain about covering heads for the ladies, no benches, long services, and strict fasts in the Orthodox Church. These small points could become issues if overlooked.
Public debates between the representatives of two religions or Christian denominations as a form of missionary ministry would probably not work in the western countries, where people would rather see you have peaceful conversations than religious competition. However, private conversations give a lot of opportunities for missionary work.
Having said that, I must confirm that in our missionary quest we have to draw clear boundaries to what we cannot compromise on. Holding fast to orthodox doctrines and preaching them in a respectful manner establishes strong boundaries of our presence by which we can be recognized as Orthodox Christians. In our missionary ministry we must be fully honest. Sincerity is a key in spreading the truths of the Gospel.
Prayer is a major part of orthodox mission in the society. Prayers must be understood by those to whom we turn our sermon or lecture; therefore, they must be also explained. It is important to pray in the language of the country. In North America, people gather on Sundays and major Feast Days for prayer. Lengthy prayer watch is not used because parishioners in the western countries sometimes live on great distances from their churches. Our parishes used to publish announcements about our services, instead. Local media was very cooperative. Plus, we practiced Church “Open Doors” events. Besides creating new opportunities for people to come and see what Orthodox Church was all about, these special occasions would usually result in new friendships.
Mission must also cover those that cannot come to church – the elderly and the handicapped. Local hospitals and Houses with Assisted Living are full of people that need our Christian attention. Regular visits and talks comfort people. Most of them like talking about Jesus Christ and discuss church matters.
It is clear that different countries require different missionary approaches. Love, sincerity and openness are helpful “tools” for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Prayers and full sacramental life within the boundaries of the Church will hold parish together. Therefore, regardless the country or continent, our active witness to the Truths of the Gospel of Christ must be accompanied by given to us wisdom.
Please also see:
Parallels between Fr. Daniel’s Parish and Missions in North America by Fr. Oliver Herbel
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Fr. Gregory Hallam
On Orthodox Pastoral Work in the Western World and its Differences with Contemporary Russia by Fr. Andrew Phillips
Martyred Priest Daniel Sysoev & American Orthodox Missionary Work by Fr. Gregory Jensen