Thursday, 14 January 2010

Orthodox missiology

The lure of proclamation-in-power is so strong, particularly in churches with a lot of direct investment in material culture (i.e. the ones with a lot of expensive buildings and gold-coated gubbins). This has long been true of what we might call the historic (ossified?!) churches of Christendom. Even some of their modern writers are happy that evangelism-by-impressing should be considered an important part of mission work.

If I am slightly negative about this approach, don't think I am altogether happy with revivalist tent meetings, either, or that I am an expert evangelist myself. Horses for courses, one might say. But cultures change, and some churches are not really keeping up...

Alexander Veronis (Missionaries, Monks, and Martyrs: Making Disciples of All Nations [Minneapolis, 1994]) comments on Stephen of Perm (1340-1396), a godly and successful evangelist among pagan peoples in what shortly became central Russia. Veronis is quite happy that the celebration of the liturgy as an alien event and the impact of impressive buildings should be considered an important part of mission work. This courageous priest went outside Russian territory, lived among the pagans and spent many hours teaching, arguing, debating as well as working alongside them.

Stephen’s method of preaching was not always so aggressive. His most successful means of converting the Zyrians came through the power of the Divine Liturgy and the majesty of various church structures. Throughout Orthodox history, the beauty of the divine services and church buildings have played an important role in the witness of the church… Stephen had adorned the church with beautiful icons and ornaments because he knew the power such a sight could have on the native population. He only had to recall the powerful influence that a beautiful church and liturgy had on the conversion of Prince Vladimir and the Russian people. (p.61)

Zyrians came to see the church building, not yet for prayer, but desiring to see the beauty of the church, adorned as a beautiful bride (p.62). These visits enabled him to preach the truth to many more than he debates with local religious leaders did.

Fair enough, but such an approach simply did not work (and does not work?) among Muslims. There were plenty of impressive structures and other-worldly liturgical celebrations going on in the former Byzantine empire in the middle ages and early modern period. But putting one's trust in the impressiveness of physical structures is not going to work in the long run: such things decline. And as they did, so did any hope that that sort of ‘mission’ would bear fruit among the conquerors of eastern Christendom...