I was asked to speak on this subject for an audio conference with some folk serving in the missionary ministry under Father Daoud Lamie. It represents only a few introductory reflections, and there is much more to say on the subject. But as an introduction it is offered here as it is.
The Lord bless you all. I am Father Peter Farrington, a priest of the Patriarchal Diocese under the jurisdiction of His Holiness Pope Tawadros, and supervised by His Grace Anba Angaelos in the UK. Perhaps I should say a little about my background.
I was born into and brought up in a devout and committed evangelical protestant household. My parents were very active in this community and supported the service with children, and then my father became responsible for the ministry among the youth of our congregation. As I grew older I spent more and more time involved in congregational activities, and for much of my late teen and early adult years I was taking part in one Christian service or another every day of the week.
As a young adult of about 21 years of age I began to study at an evangelical Bible College to be prepared for ministry within that movement, either as a pastor or a missionary. I spent three years there, and during that time I first became exposed to traditional Catholic spirituality, and then to Orthodoxy and the writings of some of the Fathers. This was not part of the studies I was engaged in. But from my youth I had desired always a closer and richer experience of life with God, and this led me to the few Catholic and Orthodox books in the College Library.
You should not imagine that I left College as an Orthodox Christian. Indeed, I think I had met only one actual Orthodox person at that time. But I was certainly already setting off down a path that has brought me to where I am today, an English priest of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. To a great extent I was not evangelised at first by any persons, rather it was through the spiritual writings I was beginning to discover. It seemed to me at first that I could integrate some of these ideas into my own life and remain as I was, an evangelical with Orthodox interests.
But having returned home it became clear that I no longer really fitted in with the congregation I had been brought up among. My understanding of the Christian faith was already rather different to that which was held by many of the folk there. Over a difficult period, I found myself leaving this congregation, and not quite knowing what the future might hold.
I am passing over many years. This is not intended to represent my life story in detail, but since we are discussing evangelism today, and since I am one who has become Orthodox as a matter of decision, my own background has some relevance.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s it was not easy for an English person to become Orthodox. I had not really heard of the Coptic Orthodox Church at that time, beyond its presence in ancient history. I wrote to the Greek Church in England, and I receive a letter saying that I should become an Anglican since that was the Church for English people. I knew that was not what I wanted. I wrote to the Russian Church in England and received some materials in the Russian language. I knew that having to worship in another language was not what I wanted. There were other folk I corresponded with online, people from a Greek background, who insisted that I could not become Orthodox because I was not Greek.
It was rather fortunate that at the same time I also contacted a group listed in the directory I was using, which called itself the Catholic Apostolic Church. There was a reason I did so, which is not really very relevant, but I sent just a brief note not expecting that the direction of my pilgrimage would be affected by the response.
As it happened, I received a reply inviting me to dinner with the bishop of this group. It turned out that I had made contact with the man who was to teach me much about Orthodoxy and to become my own bishop for 21 years within the Coptic Orthodox Church until this last year when I transferred to the jurisdiction of His Holiness Pope Tawadros himself.
I started attending a liturgy held every six weeks in a local Anglican retreat centre, organised by this group, and my own father came with me. The Liturgy was in English, and this bishop, and those with him, spent time and effort in explaining much about the Orthodox Faith, which complemented all that I was reading. I did not join this group when it was independent, I wanted to be part of the universal Orthodox communion. I became Orthodox when this little group was able to enter into union with the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. And now that this same bishop has left the Orthodox Church this year and returned to an independent state, I am glad that I can remain what I have always been, an Orthodox Christian and now a priest, within the jurisdiction of Pope Tawadros.
I don’t want to talk about the difficult experiences I have faced this year, rather I want to speak for a moment about my experiences as far in the past as 25 years ago which have led me to be speaking now as a Coptic Orthodox priest.
It was important for me that I had some access to information and teaching about the Orthodox Faith in English. I did not want to have to learn another language to become Orthodox or to understand it. I don’t think that this was through laziness or lack of commitment. Indeed, I lost many of my friends and all of the opportunities for employment as an evangelical minister in becoming Orthodox. But I believed and still believe that Orthodoxy, Apostolic Christianity, is for all people in their own language, and that the miracle of Pentecost, when everyone heard the praises of God in their own tongue bears witness to this, and to the reversal of the scattering of peoples at the Tower of Babel.
I tried to obtain as many books in English about Orthodoxy as I could. 25 years ago there were not so many. But what I found and read attracted me deeply. I was seeking a deeper and richer experience of life with God and I believed I had found it as a possibility in the spirituality of the Orthodox Tradition. I started to pray some of the daily prayers of the Orthodox Tradition. In my spiritual pilgrimage I had become accustomed to using the written prayers of the Daily Office, but especially from the Western and Catholic Spiritual Tradition. These have much value and are ancient in themselves. To be honest, it was when I started praying the Agpeya that the habit of regular prayer from the Daily Office became a reality for me.
But what made most difference and made becoming Orthodox a real possibility, was the fact that someone was willing to give their time and commitment to me. I imagine that having been convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy I might well have become Orthodox eventually, somewhere and somehow. Or I might have remained an Evangelical, not entirely happy where I was, and with an interest in Orthodox spirituality. Having someone with whom I could speak regularly, who made an effort to provide me with opportunities to experience Orthodox worship in my own language, and who could answer my questions was extremely important in my actually choosing to become Orthodox over 21 years ago.
When I was still at Bible College my best friend there and I used to talk about starting our own Church, and of course in Protestantism this is entirely possible. Even at that time, 30 years ago, I wanted to be an Apostle and he wanted to be a Prophet. I wanted to be one who was sharing the Good News and helping to build up new communities of Christians. I have to say that at that time I could never have imagined that I would see such a desire worked out within the vocation of a missionary priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
In my third year at Bible College I specialised in Mission Studies, and as part of my course I was required to spend time in missionary situation. I felt guided to choose Senegal, and I visited that country twice, staying in all for about 5 months with evangelical missionaries. Even at that time, just beginning to be influenced by Catholic and Orthodox spirituality, I felt that some of the methods being employed in mission in Senegal by the evangelical community were unlikely to succeed because they were too much focused on a mental assent to certain truths and were not an expression of spiritual grace in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I mean that when someone was taken ill the evangelical missionaries, however well-meaning and committed they were, could do no more than offer a prayer. The local people, even if they had become notionally Christian, expected more than that, and so they turned to their magicians and shamans who performed the appropriate rite. Even then, 30 years ago, I realised that the rites of the Orthodox Church would have power in such a context because they answered that universal human need to see something being done. The sacraments are prayer in action as it were. They bring to life the words of prayer and blessing.
When I became Orthodox in 1994 I did not cease to have a commitment to mission and evangelism. I became a priest in 2009, and used those further opportunities which opened to me in seeking to establish small communities of Orthodox, converts and those born into Orthodox families, as well as gathering those who were interested in learning about Orthodoxy. In the last couple of years, I was seeking to be involved in starting two new missionary communities each year as long as the Lord gave me life.
Now, as the path of obedience to God leads me on, I find myself responsible at the moment for ministry in three towns and cities in the UK. In Stoke, Swindon and Windsor. And in these places I am caring for small groups at different stages of their development. In each case I am pastoring groups which are made up of small numbers of Orthodox and of enquirers and catechumens. I am more than willing to travel across the country to support those who are seeking to understand and experience the Orthodox Faith, but I am also well aware that the blessing I have received for my service lays certain restraints and responsibilities upon me, and I am trying to be obedient to these as being the will of God for me.
I am therefore, a convert to Orthodoxy from an English evangelical background. I see in my own life one continuing pilgrimage into a greater experience of God and of greater service to Him. I have not ceased to be committed to sharing the Good News of life in Christ, though I understand the substance of that life so much more than I did 30 or 25 years ago.
I have been asked to speak about Evangelism as a Lifestyle. I am very glad that I have been given this topic. Before we can or should consider Evangelism as a programme or organised activity we must understand that it is an expression of life in Christ. Indeed, I do not believe that Evangelism is one Christian lifestyle among many we might choose for ourselves, but it is the expression of life itself and is therefore non-negotiable.
If we are growing in Christ by union with the indwelling Holy Spirit, then we will discover that our life is itself becoming a means of evangelism. Evangelism should not be something we do, rather it should be an expression of who we are. Of course there are those who are gifted at explaining things in an apologetic manner. There are those who are gifted at preaching in such a way that God touches the hearts of others. The evangelist is certainly one ministry among others in the Church.
I would suggest that just as the teacher is not supposed to be the only one who understands the faith in the Church, but his ministry is to sustain an educated and inspired community. So the evangelist is not supposed to be the only one who shares the Good News, but is especially called to sustain the witness of the whole community to that which they have received in Christ.
The word evangelist is used only twice in the New Testament, but the verb evangelise, or in Greek euangelízō, is used over 50 times. This seems to me to give some sense of the relative importance of the particular ministry of the evangelist and the necessary and universal ministry of sharing the Good News, which belongs to us all. In this sense of bringing glad news it is found in the prophetic books of the Old Testament when they were translated into Greek in Alexandria and formed the Septuagint version of the Scriptures.
Each of us as Orthodox Christians is to become a bearer of glad tidings, one who shares that Good News which we have already received ourselves. And this Good News, this Gospel message, is not something that belongs only to those who have had some specialist training. It is the very heart of the life in Christ which all are called to experience as salvation.
This is why I would hesitate to call this approach a lifestyle, as if there were some choice. Rather, it seems to me, it is the necessary manifestation of the life of Christ within each one of us. We should be concerned to find such a natural outworking of the life of the Spirit lacking in our daily lives, rather than choose to add it to our lives as something optional.
It is easy to be formally religious, and for others to have a high opinion of us, but we can still be lacking in true life in Christ. The Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican was a religious man, as were the Pharisee and the Priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But none of them had spiritual life. They were whitewashed tombs, wonderful and impressive on the outside, but filled with corruption. It is possible to have responsibility in the church, to be a servant, or a deacon in the liturgy, or even a priest, or even a bishop, and to lack spiritual life. The history of the church is filled with examples for us to be warned by.
What Good News did the Pharisee and Priest bear as they hurried past the beat up Jew so that they might not be late for the service or be contaminated by touching someone who had need. This was a member of their own religious and ethnic community. But they had no Good News for him, despite being undoubtedly highly respected. Who was the bearer of Good News, who was it who brought the message of salvation to life in this parable? It was a Samaritan. Someone who didn’t have all of the religious rites and teachings quite correct, but one who was nevertheless a bearer of spiritual life and Good News to the broken and beaten Jewish traveller.
If we look at others in the Gospels who were bearers of Good News, they were not those who had the ministry and calling of an evangelist. They were usually ordinary men and women who had been touched by Christ and wanted to share their experience. When our Lord spoke with the woman at the well, at some point in their conversation she experienced an encounter with God. It was on the basis of this experience that she ran back to her town and evangelised, shared the Good News which she had experienced for herself. What did she say…
Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?
We can see from this missionary message that she could only share what she had received. She does not pretend to have all the answers, as though this were an intellectual matter. She says three things. She says what has happened to her. He told me all the things I ever did. She suggests what this personal encounter might mean. Could this be the Christ? And she invites those around her to share this experience for themselves.
What is offered is not an argument. It is an experience. And it is above all an experience that the woman has received herself, and which is the basis for her proclamation of Good News.
A more seasonal example is that of the Shepherds present at the birth of our Lord Jesus. The angel appears to them while they are on the hillside watching their flocks and says…
Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
This is of course in abbreviated form the whole substance of the Gospel, which is the Good News that God is filled with good will towards men and has sent a Saviour into the world. We read that the angel said that he was bringing good tidings, and in fact the Greek says, I am evangelising you. This was an overwhelming experience for the Shepherds and in obedience to the angel they hastened to Bethlehem where they found the Lord Jesus as it had been told them. Now we see that having received Good News themselves they now share that which they have experienced. And St Luke writes…
When they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marvelled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.
Here we see that the Shepherds become evangelists, or rather do evangelism, not on the basis of some programme they have adopted, but as an outpouring of what they have experienced for themselves. And they did not keep it to themselves, or even their close family, but they made it widely known.
We could take as another example that of the man who was possessed by many demons, all of which were cast out by the Lord Jesus. He also had an experience of the grace of God, and it is recorded in the Gospels…
He who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marvelled.
Who could deny his message, though it might be rejected. It was what had actually happened to him. It was not simply the account of a sick man made well, but it was itself the Gospel. Our Lord commissions him to evangelise saying, Go and Tell. What is he to tell? It is that God has acted in compassion for him, and this is in essence the Gospel message, Good News for all mankind.
One last example of many from the Gospels is that of the man who was deaf and could not speak properly. He was brought to Jesus by those who knew him and had sympathy for him and the Lord Jesus healed him. Then we read…
He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
This is slightly different in that we see not only the one for whom a miracle has taken place being unable to keep quiet about what has happened, but those who had also witnessed the miracle in the life of one who was dear to them are also unable to be silent.
What do these examples have in common? It is that those who have experienced God working in their life in an authentic manner were unable to be silent and they proclaimed what had happened to all who would listen. These are not professional or ordained evangelists. They are not full time workers. They are ordinary people who have encountered God in his mercy and compassion and have experienced this encounter as Good News. They have become those who do evangelism, who bear Good News, naturally and as an expression of this experience. It has become an aspect of their life without being a choice of lifestyle, because God is life, and to experience true life in God is to become those who bear and share this divine life.
How then do we also become those who bear Good News naturally and as an aspect of our life?
Undoubtedly there are benefits in following a course if we are serious about sharing our faith. There are lessons we can learn from apologetics and from a proper understanding of the teaching of the Church. Ignorance and a casual attitude towards the Tradition of the Church are not the best basis for sharing truth in love. Gaining a better understanding of the teaching of the Church is useful for us all.
But I am convinced of this, the proper basis for becoming those who bear Good News as a natural aspect of our lives is union with God in Christ by the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is only as we become those who are united more and more closely to God that we are able to be used by God as bearers of Good News. This is indeed the substance of our Orthodox Gospel. It is not essentially that we may avoid punishment in Hell. It is not that we may be rewarded by God if we do things that please him. It is that God has become man in the incarnation so that we might share in the life of the Holy Spirit in union with God.
What does this require of us in the first place? It is that we must be and become more committed to Christ and to seeking the Kingdom. We must be those who value the sacraments, those who are often in Church to offer prayer and praise according to our Orthodox Spiritual Tradition. We must be those who pray much in our daily life, using the Agpeya and the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. We must be those who love the Scriptures and who read spiritual works by the approved and proven spiritual fathers of the Church. All of this is indispensable to one who would become Good News.
Of course we begin where we are, and often this means that we have a long journey ahead of us. But it begins with the first step, and if that step is taken with God and in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit then we already have some experience of God to share with others. What has become clear to me is that the Gospel is not an intellectual argument that we can present without any real commitment, or can use to defeat various objections as if it were an academic competition. It is essentially an experience of the life of God and must be an experience which we have ourselves received if we are to be able to share it authentically.
God has made a way for this to be so in our own lives. The Orthodox Spiritual Tradition is not an accident of history that we can dismiss in the interests of something more relevant. On the contrary it is the way that God has provided for us to experience this unity of life in grace and mercy by the Holy Spirit, and in committing ourselves more thoroughly to it we discover in the structure and substance is provides that God is present with us and in us, and transforms us as we allow ourselves to be transfigured by the encounter with him in this Orthodox Life.
When I was with Bishop Kyrillos in Milan he would often say that love was everything. At first I took this as the sort of thing a kind and holy Bishop might say. But very quickly I realised that he was entirely correct. There was no other more complicated message or instruction for me to receive, as an advanced level Christian. The truth and the whole truth is that love is everything. This is the Gospel. That being so, it is as we seek to be filled with the life and love of God, and as this life and love transforms us, that we become bearers of the divine life and love in the world.
Before we worry about how we do evangelism in any formal sense as a teaching of the Christian message, we must ask ourselves how much we love, and what experience we have of the life of the Holy Spirit. As the Scriptures show us, we cannot share what we have not received, and what we have received above all is love and mercy.
We have an old man who attends our services in Stoke. He is not Orthodox. Unable to walk very well, he arrives in his motorised wheelchair, stays for the liturgy and then shares some food and fellowship with us. He is a simple, honest man. I am not sure that the details of Greek philosophical and theological terminology would mean a great deal to him. But I think he knows he is loved and he returns because we unconditionally love him in the name of Christ. On Christmas Day one of the people in the community in Stoke, a convert from an English background, cooked a plate of Christmas Dinner for him, and walked over to his house with her sons, and sat with him a while, so that he might not be alone on Christmas Day.
It seems to me that this is what is means to be Good News. Of course he hears my sermons, and we talk about our faith, but if Orthodoxy does not mean sitting with a lonely man on Christmas Day then it is not the life of the Holy Spirit.
I know that we also want to consider how we do share our faith, and although I am convinced our faith is life and not words, it is necessary also for it to be preached, so that there is an explanation of how we live. What I am resisting is the idea that without an experience of life in Christ we can share the life of the Holy Spirit as Good News. I don’t believe we can. I really do believe that this personal encounter in increasing message is absolutely fundamental to all evangelism.
But I will speak a little about how we are also able to live as those who wish to share this life as a deliberate commitment.
It seems to me that we have to become those who have an experience to share. I will take that as being clearly established. We cannot say, come see a man, if we do not know this man. But there is more. It seems to me that it is also essential that we learn to be obedient. Evangelism as a universal calling does not take place within a programme of human organisation. There is a time for that. But if we are doing evangelism then it requires us to be attentive to the Holy Spirit and obedient to his calling. We learn obedience in the simple things before we can be used by God.
What are the simple things? It is being obedient as far as we are able to all who ask us to serve in any way. I don’t mean in Church necessarily, and I don’t mean in important things. I mean in the home. When we are asked to do the dishes, or to tidy up. When we are asked to drive someone somewhere, or take someone shopping. As far as possible, unless we have some definite other obedience to perform, we must put ourselves last and all others first. This attitude should also be manifested in our life in the Church. Is there a job which needs doing? Then we should be first to volunteer for those things no one wants to do, and last to volunteer for those things which everyone wants to do. There is no need for us to put ourselves forward at the altar if we have a service there. In all things, as far as possible, we should put our own desires last and seek to serve all others who ask us.
Why is this attitude necessary? It is because while we still think of ourselves we are not able to be of service to God and we will not be bearers of Good News. The one who brings Good News is one who thinks of others first. And it is by humbling ourselves in obedience that we re-orientate our concerns. Indeed, once we begin to obey those who ask us for any service we begin to notice how we can serve others who have not asked us, often the neediest, the most vulnerable, the loneliest and excluded.
When we have learned to put down our own activities and respond to others we will also have begun to be aware of the prompting of the Holy Spirit, who also calls us to obedience in many small things. The Gospel teaches us…
Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.
Yet we have to learn to be faithful in many small things, things that often seem inconsequential. We have to learn to be obedient and to persevere in obedience. When we become practiced in obedience in the smallest things then we are more easily able to respond to the movements of the Holy Spirit. And many of the opportunities for evangelism, for being bearers of Good News, are found in very simple and humble service to others.
Becoming aware of the needs of others and responding to them is much of what it means to be bearers of Good News. People who are facing trials and difficulties of many kinds rarely want an argument. They usually do not want a theological lecture, but they will usually respond to sincere and unconditional love, that love which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Such love cannot be made the subject of a programme or organised activity.
I was in Stoke a few weeks ago. I was blessing an empty shop we are using as a location to reach out to the community. Among those who came for the service of blessing was a local man. I had not met him before. After the prayers he asked to speak to me. We sat together for a while and with much emotion he shared some of the problems he was facing. I could not offer any easy solutions to these problems. But I listened and sympathised, and I told him that he should consider us friends who would always give him a warm welcome and would support him as best we could. I did not preach the Gospel, but I hope that I shared Good News, and that this was a beginning with him in finding peace in Christ.
I started to serve in Stoke because I made myself available on Facebook to respond to people. One of the people in my community there, before she became Orthodox, had some questions and she liked the way I answered them. I spent a lot of time answering a lot of questions, and I offered to drive up to Stoke to meet her, and some of her family and friends who were also interested in Orthodoxy. I am not sure how much my time with them on that first occasion helped them to understand Orthodoxy, we prayed some of the Agpeya in English and I answered more questions. But I think they were especially touched by the fact that I was willing to drive four hours to meet them, and then spend four hours driving home. They realised how much Orthodoxy meant to me because they saw what I was willing to do to share it with them.
This is how I understand evangelism as a lifestyle. It is the expression of a fruitful spiritual life and it is found in the humble service of others in love. It requires us to be aware of the movement of the Holy Spirit leading us to take up each opportunity. But very often indeed these opportunities are not ones for talking a lot but for serving in love. There may well be a time for talking in the future as these relationships develop. And evangelism seems to me to take place in the context of a relationship.
But very often the bearing of Good News begins with service in love in the name of Christ.
What do we do? We must be prepared for evangelism. This requires an increasing spiritual relationship with Christ, and an increasing understanding and love of our Orthodox Tradition. We must learn in increasing measure to put others first, since evangelism requires a focus on the needs of others, not ourselves. And then we must begin to make use of those opportunities which God gives in grace and with faith and hope.
We should begin each day in prayer, offering ourselves to God for the service of others and the Gospel. And we should look for these opportunities which we have asked for. Then with confidence we should do what is required in each opportunity.
In one opportunity we might be called to simply share the love of God. In another we might be called to share something of our own membership of the Church. And in yet another we might be asked a question that allows us to begin to speak in detail about some aspect of our faith. Many times an opportunity will be given to tell someone that we will pray for them, and to show some concern for their personal trials and difficulties. At other times we might be given an opportunity to provide some practical support, as a manifestation of Good News.
We should not imagine that two days will be the same. It is not a matter of standing on the street corner handing out leaflets. That might indeed be a programmed activity that we play our part in. But evangelism as a lifestyle is essentially a spiritual responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit, looking for opportunities as God provides them, and seeking to serve others in love and obedience. The little service is often the most important since it opens the door to relationships and to that deeper sharing of the life of Christ which leads to faith in others. This is my experience at least. When we give ourselves to God in obedience he will use us in his service.