Today, I saw an interesting Tweet (Twitter message) shared by a friend:
The great commission wasn’t given to a missions organization, it was given to the Church.
This is a great quote, and one which I wanted to share with my readers, most of whom are Orthodox Christians. Our context may be different than the Protestant world in which this quote was uttered, but it nevertheless provides a platform to discuss a critical topic.
Mission organizations in modern times and in the Protestant context are generally para-Church organizations that seek to coordinate the efforts of training and supporting foreign missionaries. From what I can tell, these are usually distinct from Church planting or evangelistic organizations, which seek to reach the lost in one’s own nation.
This type of organization is mostly indigenous to Protestantism, while Orthodox missions are generally under the guidance of the hierarchy of the Church. Commissions were made at various times to various peoples, but there was not, until recently, any effort to create a permanent missions department or structure.
In the last century, however, the New Calendar Greek Church created the “Orthodox Christian Mission Center” to support foreign missions in various parts of the world, such as its sister Church in Albania, which was emerging from communism, and local missions departments have been created in various jurisdictions to facilitate the establishment of new Orthodox parishes domestically. In one sense, greater organization and cohesion is a benefit to missions, but there is a potential drawback, which the above quote illustrates.
In the Protestant world, missionaries have mostly “gone professional.” A person or family feels a call to serve, researches a way to accomplish his goal, and selects the missions organization that is the best fit for them. They are trained, serve abroad, and occasionally return for support trips. Some do this as their career, while others serve a pre-set term and then return to their country of origin to assume a “regular” life. Church planting is likewise professionalized in many cases.
This is not always the case; there are certainly some bi-vocational ministers and Church planters out there, along with missionaries who are working secular jobs in their host countries. I do not want to give the impression that I think it is a problem to have a professional, trained, full-time missions team or evangelism team, per se. However, there are some potential pitfalls as this model of mission has become dominate.
One problem is that these mission organizations often act more like businesses than as a faithful group of believers united and acting together locally, knowing each other intimately, as a family. Another problem is that they make it easy for others to see missions and evangelization as someone else’s job. Because a Church member cooks for Church functions, or cleans the Church, or serves as the secretary, perhaps he or she feels that this is his or her role, while it is someone else’s role to share the Gospel and invite new people to the parish, or go abroad to serve. Sometimes, it is assumed that it is the pastor’s primary job to bring in new members, and Church boards will often have serious “sit downs” with pastors who are not getting the numbers up in a way that hits growth targets.
In an Orthodox Christian context, it is the priest who is often assumed to be in charge of bringing new people in. Of course, it is also the priest’s job to teach, to minister to the sick, to serve the liturgies, conduct correspondence, and represent the parish at important ecclesiastical and civic functions. Laypeople often imagine their only role is to support the Church financially and do things around the Church that need to be done such as cleaning, cooking, and managing the finances.
In reality, the priest’s primary responsibility is to equip the people, to teach them and guide them, so that they grow in Christ and go out and live as Christians, sharing the Gospel in both word and deed. Yes, a priest has a natural advantage in inviting others to Church since he is often recognized in public due to his specific priestly garb, but people expect a priest to invite them to Church. People don’t always expect their family members, friends, or neighbors to invite them, and often they will come, if just asked.
People also tend to expect that a priest will explain the Christian faith in some official manner, and it is almost as if they can tune it out because they already know what he is going to say. For instance, if a layperson begins discussing the latest spiritual fad to appear on talk shows, and a priest criticizes it, even constructively, some people assume he’s biased or it’s his job to say things like that. When a concerned and educated lay member of the Church engages someone with such ideas, though, often one’s guard is let down, and hearts can be changed.
Instead of acting as if it were someone else—be it a department, an organization, or a clergyman—who is responsible for doing the work of sharing our holy faith, let us grow in Christ ourselves, becoming spiritually mature. St. Peter instructs us thusly: “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
We may not be the most articulate, knowledgeable, or experienced at this, and in fact we might find the prospect frightening at first. However, if we are open to Christ’s will, are enthusiastic, and we develop a genuine love for those around us and concern for their salvation, we will be given many opportunities to minister to and witness to them, in ways that we will be able to do so successfully. If we all share in the work, we will find many more people added to the rational flock of the Great Shepherd, and will have multipled the talent that was given to us (c.f. Matthew 25:14-30).
Let’s get started today!