As Saint Aidan’s undertakes a formal outreach to the local community, we naturally find ourselves grappling with the meaning of Orthodox Christian mission. The Lord commands us to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20) What vision and practical principles will guide us as we go about fulfilling this Great Commission?
According to Church teaching, God entered creation to make it a part of who He is. He literally immersed the cosmos in Himself, so that, as Saint Paul says, “He has put all things under His feet and has made Him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:22-23) Through the Incarnation, God’s Spirit and being is “everywhere present and fills all things.” Although fully revealed and proclaimed in the Church’s sacramental life, His Presence can be found in all places and in every person, though concealed and obscured to varying degrees.
Imagine the Church as a great bonfire, and her members as living coals inside it. The bonfire is visible and its dimensions are clearly definable. However, not all the coals are accounted for. Scattered in all directions outside the bonfire are multitudes of embers, alive and glowing, but hidden in the earth. These are the human souls outside the canonical Church whom Christ has recreated through the Incarnation, but whose new identity as a members of Christ’s Body is as yet obscured in the life of this world.
In this vision, the ultimate goal of mission is to extend the nature of the Church outward. To use the bonfire analogy: the scattered and buried embers must be fanned and kindled until they burst into flame and the world itself becomes a bonfire. That is where we come in. Our mission is to inspire the world to burn brightly with its true life, the life of Christ’s Body. It is a vision of the world attaining its true identity by becoming Church.
In the short term, this may or may not mean that people will actually convert to canonical Orthodoxy. It is possible, according to the Gospel, for one to grow in a churchly spirit, to become Christ-like according to the Orthodox tradition, without changing one’s Church membership, or even becoming a Christian at all. We may recall the incident in Saint Mark’s Gospel where St. John the Theologian tells Jesus, “‘Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.’” (Mark 9:38-40)
Of course, we still hope and pray that those outside of the canonical Orthodoxy will come into full sacramental communion with us (we will need several more members if Saint Aidan’s is going to survive financially!). Indeed, we will encourage anyone who is interested to be received into the Church at the appropriate time. Still, the primary task of our evangelism is not to devise strategies to change a person’s Church membership. That is a matter of God’s providence, His mysterious working in the various complex personal circumstances that combine to bring people to the Orthodox Church. Our efforts must take a different focus, which is to bear to others the fire of divine love that we have received in the sacraments, and to inspire the same life that lies buried in the lives of those outside the Church. The tangible results of our efforts, including conversion to Orthodoxy, are up to God.
This means two things for us. First, we must immerse ourselves in the full sacramental life we have received—the life of personal and communal prayer and asceticism—in order to ensure that we are truly filled with the fire of God’s grace. After all, how can we spark the Presence of God if we are not ourselves in the process of absorbing His consuming fire, especially through quiet prayer and weekly participation in the Eucharist?
Secondly, we must actively seek contact with, serve and love others, firstly through our actions. As the desert father Poemen once said, “When asked a question, answer; otherwise, keep silent.” If we are truly bearers of God’s divine fire, our deeds of love will inspire love in those around us. Christ within us will beget Christ in our neighbours. The churchly spirit of our lives will fan to life the churchly spirit waiting to be born in the world.
Coupled with these individual acts of love, we can also implement planned outreach activities as a community. These, of course, should not be ends in themselves, like an advertising campaign whose results can be measured by increased sales. Rather, activities such as publications, talks, open houses, festivals and so on, are simply contexts to spark personal relationships, and the true evangelism of loving action and service.
In all our missionary efforts, our attitude should demonstrate an utter lack of expectation. Whether or not the people whom we encounter ultimately choose to become members of the canonical Orthodox Church should never be a criteria for judging our success. The Gospel vision of “the world becoming Church” tells us that as long as we fulfill our call to partake of the sacramental fire of God’s grace, and to kindle that fire to our neighbours, God Himself will in the fullness of time gather His scattered people into one Body—His Body filling the whole universe with His love and life forever.