Evangelism 2.0: Modern Communication leads to Ancient Faith and Communion
by Fr. Joel Gillam and Peter Schweitzer
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Mt. 28:18-20)
St. Matthew’s Gospel concludes with Our Lord’s 'Great Commission', that we should “Go forth” and teach the entire world what He has revealed. This command is directed to every Orthodox Christian, to each and every one of us, through Holy Baptism. This is the mission that every generation is chosen for; the ministry that each of us as part of the royal priesthood offers (1Pet. 2:9). In order to fulfill this command we must know several things: 1) the message, 2) the people to whom we are delivering the message; and 3) knowing these things we must determine the means to deliver the message.
In the secular world, this is known as a communications plan. In the Church it is evangelism, bringing the people the Good News of Christ. In principle, what we are discussing is no different from any other communications plan devised by businesses, organizations, or political campaigns. Yet at the same time it is so that the world might know “God the Father, and Jesus Christ whom [He] has sent” (Jn. 17:3); the gift of eternal life. This is true mission work and evangelism.
Fortunately for us, the holy Fathers, in their faithfulness to the Word and Spirit of God, to the Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, have already preserved and presented the message. Their teachings and witness in the light of the Gospel and Holy Tradition have already been transmitted to us through the Holy Orthodox Faith. Having received this treasure, this “pearl of great price” (Mt. 13:46), and more importantly understanding it, means that we have the means to accomplish the first of our tasks. This is not simply accomplished by memorizing it, but by living it. To place this in a secular context, you can only sell what you know. At first the disciples understood that they had been given the authority to heal the sick but they didn’t live the faith that was required. This is why, when they could not heal the boy possessed, Christ reminds them that “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Mt. 17:21) The message must live in us, transform us so that St. Paul’s words are fulfilled, “it is Christ in me who lives.” (Gal. 2:20)
Our task now is to identify our audience. Christ in His earthly ministry encountered many people from many backgrounds and situations: faithful and faithless, Jew and Gentile, male and female, righteous and sinful. We will also meet many people at different places in their lives. It helps if we can identify the “crowds” gathered together in our lives.
The most obvious audience to whom the message should be communicated is those in our immediate sphere of influence. They are the so-called “low hanging fruit”. These are our family members, followed by our neighbors, our friends at school, our co-workers, and those with whom we socialize on a regular basis. This is a good starting point for us. It is also where Christ began. Some of His disciples are from his family; children of Joseph and cousins, those in and around Galilee. Living and working with those around us provides us the gift of opportunity, a way to take what we know in thought and make it deed. Some within this group will know about the Faith, some will have no knowledge whatsoever.
Perhaps the next grouping, fruit hanging a little bit higher, concerns those who are Orthodox by faith but have for one reason or another fallen away from the Faith, and those who are Orthodox but new to this country, having not yet acquired a familiarity with English and American culture. Both of these groups have some knowledge of the faith, but may lack the means to express it within their specific context.
Finally, we may identify the fruit that seems to hang farthest out, those who belong to another faith community or no faith community but are longing to hear the Good News. Obviously, these audiences will vary depending upon geography and the particular circumstances of the local church. Likewise their knowledge of Christ, or lack thereof, will be unique. All of these groups present for us the chance to “incarnate” Christ. Clergy, along with a parish council and/or pious Orthodox should come together to determine the appropriate audiences in their particular sphere of influence. We are all called to labor and “bear much fruit”, and these different groups are the harvest for which we labor.
The most obvious yet most difficult method of transmitting the salvific message of faith may be found in the example provided by our own lives. Our first task is theosis acquired through God’s grace and our own repentance and unceasing prayer. Orthodoxia, 'right worship', has to become Orthopraxia, right practice. St. Seraphim of Sarov noted, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” We have to be hearers of the message first, allowing it to transfigure us and all that we do. This is what St. James tells us when he says, “But be ye doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” (Jm. 1:22) Likewise St. Paul says that we should be "transformed by the renewing of [our] mind". (Rm.12:2) Theosis is how we can communicate the message, because it means we are working towards communion with God, who IS the message. Now since “God is love.” (Jn. 4:16) by knowing and living the life of Faith, sharing it, and loving those around us we are able to communicate Christ who is in us.
At no other time in the history of Christianity did love so characterize the entire church as it did in the first three centuries. And Roman society took note. Tertullian reported that the Romans would exclaim, “See how they love one another!” In these early centuries we can see how the message of the Good News transfigured the believer in the light of God’s love, and that love was the means that enabled the spread of the message and the transformation of the surrounding culture.
So now we ask, “How can we re-awaken that apostolic age today?” Traditional forms of communication are always available to us and should be accessible to spiritual seekers who come to us. These include Orthodox prayer books, the lives of our Holy Fathers, icons, and the prayer rope used for the Jesus Prayer. In addition to these sources there are a host of pamphlets, brochures and modern Orthodox commentaries that can increase our knowledge of the Faith and introduce inquirers to the witness of the Orthodox Church.
Besides printed material, Orthodox parishes may be so organized that pious laity gather on a regular basis for prayer in the home or other suitable gathering place. Such gatherings could be arranged geographically so as to promote accessibility and build community. For instance, one neighborhood group may choose to pray Vespers in common in a particular Orthodox home that has an established icon corner. Another group may choose to hold a Bible study on a particular evening or read from the Holy Fathers. During periods of fast, especially the Great Fast, neighbors might share a common meal (taking turns preparing it) and prayers. These same groupings may take on other tasks such as ensuring all those without proper transportation are able to attend the Divine Liturgy or other services at church. These groups may also form a “prayer chain” that remembers and prays for those in the community with special needs e.g. the sick, the suffering, those in captivity, those who are suffering from physical, spiritual or psychological ailments or lack of gainful employment. Besides being a time for the faithful spend time in fellowship these gatherings also allow us to communicate with the “fruit” from other spheres in our lives, in essence saying to them “Come and see.” (Jn. 1:46)
The Apostles gathered in the public spaces of the synagogues and the marketplaces and proclaimed the Good News. St. Paul himself stood in the crowds at Mars Hill and declared the God "who so loved the world". (Jn. 3:16) This visible presence in the marketplaces is also within our grasp. In our contemporary society the new marketplace is the internet, and no Orthodox parish should neglect to have an “online presence” that’s vibrant, warm, inviting and attractive to those who utilize the 'Web'.
Such a presence may include a website with a “blog” (a web log or journal that devotes a paragraph or two to specific feast days, spiritual practices or aspects of parish life). There are many good examples of these blogs already present. Here are just a few of them: http://roadsfromemmaus.org, http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com, http://frsergei.wordpress.com.
These are well-done, thoughtful, and easy to maintain. Along with a website and blog, parishes should consider developing a social media presence using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. All three are free and very easy to maintain. New content from the parish’s main website may be shared on these social media sites so that one’s parish web efforts are maximized and the opportunity for more people to find this content is made readily available.
Some Do’s and Don’ts Regarding Websites, Social Media and Email
- Make sure your website and blog are current i.e. your parish calendar and schedule of services and activities should always be current with clear descriptions of the time, date, and location of the service or activity.
- If you have a blog, the blog should be updated with posts at least once a week, preferably two or three times a week. These posts don’t have to be long. They may be a brief description of the saint of the day, an aspect of Orthodox spirituality, or a quotation from the Fathers.
- Make sure every page of your website has a Contact Form that is visible and easily completed. The phone number, email address contact for the parish, and the physical address of the church should also be on every page of the website.
- Emails should be read and responded to within a 24 hour period. In this age of instant communication, it’s crucial to respond promptly to all email inquiries. If the pastor is too busy to respond promptly, perhaps a designated parishioner can handle these inquiries or a group of parishioners can be designated on a rotating basis to handle all email contacts. This is very important and can’t be over-emphasized. If you have an online presence and you make available an email contact, it’s critical to not allow emails to pile up.
- The true genius of online communication-whether it’s a parish website or social media platform is to be found in the ability to share and communicate with others. Websites and social media platforms are designed to build networks of relationships with others including parishes, missions, dioceses, and other Orthodox friends. Incorporate photos and video into your website or social media strategy. Blogs and Facebook are wonderful platforms by which you can post photos of parish events, services, and parishioner directories online. Most web platforms have the capability to make this a straightforward and simple process. The key is online involvement and interaction.
If a parish is located in a rural area and regular communication is difficult, online media can be a valuable means for the community to stay in touch during many types of events. Skype, one such communication option, is essentially an online video phone that works well to promote regular communication with parishioners that may be otherwise inaccessible, such as shut-ins. In order to use Skype, a phone and computer with a webcam installed is all that’s needed to use this technology. Most newer computers and laptops come with webcams already built in when you purchase the device. Thus a way is easily provided to minister to the sick and suffering.
As in normal human relationships networking is a paramount goal in our online marketplace. This is improved with regular, consistent, quality communication as well as “link building”. Links are crucial to establish and grown any online presence. This is a relatively simple task. It’s somewhat similar to citing references in any research paper. As an example of a website that links to other similar sites and has developed a relationship with other websites you can visit http://roadsfromemmaus.org, and note the items highlighted in red. By hovering over these highlighted areas of text and clicking on them, you are taken to another website that provides more information on the particular subject. When we do this we can provide inquirers of any background with the treasures of Orthodoxy, all at their fingertips.
Finally, in our discussion of means, since most people today communicate via email, it is important to gather and maintain an email list from which you can communicate with large groups of people. Here to there are various software tools available: 1) Constant Contact www.constantcontact.com/index.jsp; 2) Active Campaign www.activecampaign.com; and 3) Vertical Response www.verticalresponse.com are just some. There are many, many more but these are generally the most effective and easy to use.
If you’re unsure how to accomplish or implement these different opportunities, any decent blogger or webmaster can show you how to do this. In fact there are probably some right in your own parish, our first sphere, the "low hanging fruit". All of us are called to use our talents to glorify God. Someone that is technology minded may wonder how their work could be useful to the Church. This work, which is vital to the Church in the modern era, becomes a way to minister to them, and gives them the opportunity to 'bear more fruit'. As leaders within a parish community we should find those close to us that can help and guide them into a deeper life within the Faith, giving them the chance to live in Christ as well.
So now we have worked through our listed goals. We know that there is much we need to learn to effectively live the life of Faith revealed in the Scriptures and witnessed to by the Fathers. We have seen that there are many opportunities given to us by God to share the Word with the people around us, from family to friends, to co-workers to the stranger we welcome in. We have looked at the world around us and we see a huge marketplace, the internet. Just as Christ spoke openly, we too should have a presence in the modern square that is the 'Web'. However you choose to build a communications plan for your parish, the important thing is to do it. It is much like our Orthodox faith. We can spend inordinate amounts of time talking about God. However, if we aren’t talking to God through our own private prayer life and participation in the Divine Services, nothing much is accomplished. For us, following the witness of the Apostles and the Fathers, standing up and boldly declaring Christ in the world is Faith itself, even if it's on the 'World Wide Web'.
Fr. Joel Gillam is pastor of St. George Church in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Peter Schweitzer is an Orthodox Christian and business consultant who lives in Florida.