Becoming Truly Human: the Spirit of Orthodox Christian Evangelism
Many of you may be familiar with the new Antiochian Archdiocese program Becoming Truly Human. Becoming Truly Human is a new evangelism program available to every parish in the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, and the ministry has been blessed to be shared with other jurisdictions.
While some may be weary of programs, this program has proven to be different. More than several priests and lay people have admitted they were wrong about their initial concerns. Others recognized right away that this program captures and shares the spirit of Orthodox evangelism. They applauded the Archdiocese for having a program which is effective, loving, Orthodox in spirit and nature, and above all helping our North American churches reconnect with our history of evangelism. We even have some overseas churches wanting to run the program.
The format is simple. Each week, for several weeks, a two hour session is held at either a home or public venue. The session begins with fellowship and a dinner or maybe refreshments, is followed by a presentation, and concludes with a small group discussion. The small group discussion is the key ingredient to the entire program. The reason why so many have praised this program is due to the technique of the small group discussion. The technique allows for the guests to deeply and safely discuss the presentation.
This technique is so effective that a side effect has developed. This was anticipated by the founders of this program, but we needed parishes to test the course before we could verify the results. Almost every parish which has run the course has admitted to this side effect; parish revitalization. While this is not the goal of the program, I do believe parish revitalization is proof that the program is bearing good fruit. For everyone in our churches, myself included, a re-connection to the faith is needed on a regular basis to successfully evangelize. This program provides a vehicle for that re-connection.
Like salvation, parish revitalization is a constant struggle. Anything available which can help a priest with this task should be taken seriously. In my home parish the course has stimulated conversations about everyday matters. During our first internal running of the course, when everyone present is Orthodox for the purpose of training and orientation, several mothers were able to freely express their sadness and anxiety. These mothers all had grown children leaving the church. The guilt and fear of failure in raising Orthodox Christians was heavy on them, to the point of tears. In this small group they felt safe to share this struggle and received encouragement from other parents experiencing the same struggle. In a separate session one of the parishioners admitted he was hesitant about the course because of a painful experience with evangelism in his previous denomination. He told me and the group that, “this is the type of evangelism he had always hoped for. This model of love and listening in the small group discussion is needed.”
They were all thankful for this program. They were thankful because they knew an evangelism vehicle was missing and that this could be one of the solutions. One of the founders of this program, Charles Ajalat, said the words of John Chrysostom were inspirational in starting this program, “I do not believe in the salvation of anyone who does not try to save others.” The Becoming Truly Human program is helping our church communities invest in the salvation of those outside the church and those within. We are being given a tool to help us invest in the salvation of everyone.
A church in the mid-west witnessed a depressed woman laughing and smiling during the training, and the priest had not seen her do that in months. That same church embraced a member who had a different political view from everyone in the church, because the technique of the discussion gave him the courage to share his opposing view for the first time to anyone at church. In the south-east one of the priests called the program providential while he was planning some needed adult education and re-catechesis of his parish. Two churches in Florida, one in Virginia, and another in California are using this program to reconnect with members who have drifted away over the years.
The focus of the program is and will be evangelism, but the list of positive side effects is growing. People are healing from previous evangelism experiences. Parents are finding resources to help them with disconnected grown children. Clergy are being given outside support when telling their parish that more outreach is needed. Christ told us that, “a prophet in his own land is not heard.” Many of our clergy face the challenge of being prophet in their own land. This program of the Archdiocese brings the voice of our prophetic Metropolitan into the local parish saying, “we must work together to spread the beautiful faith that is Orthodoxy... For this reason I have directed the program “Becoming Truly Human” be established, so that our churches would be equipped to share the Orthodox faith effectively.” (Word Magazine, June, 2015)
Volunteers are also enjoying unexpected fruits of labor. The leaders of the small group discussions, known as moderators, are learning the value of listening in everyday conversations. Relationships within the church are rebuilding among those who were not talking. The list of good fruits from this program is growing and , God willing, will continue to grow. This side effect can be seen in re-catechesis, adult education, and a building up of the church community. All of this happens before the program is taken out into the local community. These good fruits must happen first for us to be genuine in our loving expression of evangelism. This is how we show the world our joyful Christian community.
During the blessing of the waters, my priest explained how the blessings of God need to exist beyond the walls of our church. While standing on the bank of the Harpeth River, he reminded us that our entire community is always in proximity of this river. This river can be a symbol of an outpouring of God's love and blessings upon the community. This river is a symbol of the way we are called to be in the community but not of it. May this program run through your community as a river of God's blessings.
Adam Lowell Roberts is the full-time Project Director for Becoming Truly Human. He was also a co-founder of Camp St. Thekla, an Antiochian Orthodox summer camp located in South Carolina. Adam has been an ordained reader since 1998 and is the sexton at St. Ignatius in Franklin, Tennessee. He is currently enrolled in the St. Stephen's Program of the Antiochian Archdiocese with the goal of becoming a deacon.