The Orthodox Church has a venerable tradition of evangelism. In many sectors of Western Christianity, it is largely unknown, despite its great success. After all, Orthodox Christianity reached Alaska somehow and Christianity has existed in Eastern Europe and Asia since times before that. Often, one looks to the work begun by Ss. Cyril and Methodios, putting the Gospel into the language of the Slavic peoples, but it was there before that. There are, of course, complications in any narrative, especially when one realizes past societies did not share all of our values, but all in all, Orthodoxy was spread and spread well. In some situations, it even spread through the work of Orthodox clergy and monastics finding creative ways to integrate with the local cultures (though flat out imperialism also occurred).
Unfortunately, in today’s era, we have additional complications. Indeed, if one looks around the world, one might suspect our current narrative runs something along the lines of implosion. I dare say such a suspicion would not be so far from the truth. Here are some current examples:
The link above shows that ethnocentricism is alive and well (ROCOR exists to serve Russians abroad) and also shows that a good number of bishops do not want unity–they do not want to restructure dioceses, which would be required for administrative unity to happen. Why is this important? Well, because Orthodoxy has a LOT of problems and a lot of issues to address: we haven’t yet fully come to terms with modernity, we duplicate institutions (like seminaries), we are very inefficient in our current diocesan structure, etc. These might seem like minor problems to some people, but once one starts to think on the ripple effects, one realizes they are not minor at all and they do impact the mission of spreading the message of God’s love and holiness as his will for humanity. Furthermore, I must say, it is sinful not to work together with your brother and sister in Christ to your utmost ability. And yet, we Orthodox fall well short of that. We definitely are missing the mark.
Or, take this:
One might wonder how this affects the great commission. Isn’t this just internal debate about whether to dialogue with Rome? Well, it is internal debate, but one that also affects whether we are about the Great Commission. Internet chatter in support of Moscow has been rather sectarian, from what I’ve seen. I won’t link to such discussions or call out anyone. That’s not fair, but my read of it is that it has been sectarian. It comes from some basic mistakes: primacy is wrong (no, sorry, it’s not–just abusive forms of it); primacy led Rome into heresy (again, no, it did not–theological differences between Eastern and Western Christianity arose from factors other than Rome’s bishop being considered “first among equals” and this is a slippery slope fallacy if I ever heard one anyhow). Sectarian infighting diverges energy best spent engaging the world around us. Dialoguing with Rome is important and in light of the decreased Christian presence in Europe, getting Rome and Orthodoxy on the same page is not a bad thing and can help in spreading the Gospel.
But those are not all. Take an honest look at Orthodoxy in many places across America. There are some areas where we were once strong but have dwindled in size–significantly so. We tend to emphasize the influx of converts in the 1980s and 1990s and my own recent book highlighted the importance of converts to Orthodoxy. (http://www.amazon.com/Turning-Tradition-Converts-American-Orthodox/dp/0199324956/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389892248&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=turnin+to+tradition). Despite this, in many parishes we have maybe 20-30 people showing up trying to maintain large physical structures. Many a time, it is possible to see pictures of hierarchical liturgies, where the bishop visits and there seems to be as many attending clergy as there are people “in the pews”! This is a problem and the longer Orthodoxy denies this, the more it will continue to implode.
Of course, this is not all. We have priests who do not take advantage of the gifts of their flocks. The priest does not need to be the one teaching every adult education lesson. Nor does he even have to give every single sermon. Many of our parishes have very talented, gifted teachers and speakers, who are committed to Christ. Yet, in far too many parishes, you wouldn’t know that. We also like to pride ourselves on our Orthodoxy, and poo poo the moral failings of some of our hierarchy and clergy (unless it makes the news and then we’re forced to bend over backwards to explain it away). That is to say, we still fear transparency and accountability (but this is part of fearing modernity).
Ultimately, all of this overlaps and works together for a “perfect storm.” It is difficult to produce strong social outreach and ministry if jurisdictions are spending $ duplicating efforts. It is difficult to engage the poor neighborhoods around our parishes (at least the ones that didn’t flee to the suburbs) when we focus on trying to look as much like an imagined 17th c. Russian Cathedral or 12th c. Hagia Sophia as we can. It is difficult to have the time and money and energy engaging non-Orthodox and creating relationships and alliances if we’re committed to fighting over whether we should even engage them. it is difficult to unite if we prefer to turn blind eyes to serious moral misdeeds amongst our clergy and hierarchy.
Is the future necessarily bleak? Do Orthodox just all want to implode? I don’t think so. I think there are bright spots, such as FOCUS (social outreach we do) or various theologians critiquing the the superficial anti-Westernism that often passes for theological profundity in Orthodox circles (sadly). There are also some very committed priests who realize being a priest is not just about wearing fancy vestments and imitating a picture of an imagined past. Rather, they are pastors, who seek to facilitate the gifts of their flocks and do work on the ground. Many are selfless, subsidizing their local parishes by working full time or part time jobs themselves (or having wives who do).
Moreover, non-Orthodox churches have similar problems. I am not saying Orthodox are the worst in all these categories. We very well may be, but that’s not my point. My point is that we have these problems, we have this implosion, going on. Frankly, I think the first step we need to do is own up to them. Do an AA sort of thing: “Hi, we are Orthodox, and we’re more messed up then we have even admitted to this point.” That’s step one. It also fits with the Great Commission. Many potential converts come to our parishes with their own views of an imagined, glorious past, with rose colored glasses clouded with incense. One of the best things we could do for them, would be to adopt honesty and discuss the beauty of the Orthodox faith in the midst of the sinfulness of Orthodoxy institutionalized.