Archimandrite Irenei on the Orthodox Approach to Mission

Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ commanded us to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation” (St. Mark 16:15) and to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (St. Matthew 28:19). Many of the young Orthodox Christians of today are eager to obey this command, but what form should our missionary enterprise take? Surely washing the feet of the poor is important, but is mission merely the providing of social and material resources? Should Orthodox evangelists emulate in any way the pattern established by heterodox communities and cults like the Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Jehovah’s Witnesses? Should making an Orthodox Church more “seeker friendly” involve the adoption of heterodox songs, materials and approaches to worship? In this video, V. Rev. Prof. Archimandrite Irenei, the Dean of Monastics of the Western Diocese of the ROCOR (The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia), discusses what form a missionary endeavor informed by an Orthodox ethos should take.


I would like to speak today on the topic of the Orthodox approach to mission, the transformation of the heart of the world.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

How is Orthodox Christianity to envision and carry out its missionary calling in the world? Well before trying to answer this very big question it seems fitting to begin with a few more fundamental ones. And this so not only because it is good as a general practice to ask WHY it is that we do certain things before we engage in the activities of actually doing them and hoping that they will bear fruit, but also because of theme of missionary work broadly speaking is one that is very often marred by a drive for action that seems to skip over the need to ask these very fundamental questions.

We are often driven by the desire to do something, to do anything, and this is often impetus behind missionary work, which then becomes based on too strongly on a vision purely of action: to do mission is to do something.

And yet as Orthodox Christians all of our actions are to be grounded in the Truth, and that Truth is not a concept, but is Christ Himself. And without a knowledge of this Truth all of our actions are shallow and the fruit they bear is at best scant and small. So if we are to seek practical guidance on Orthodox mission, if we are to seek a genuinely Orthodox manner to this question we must start by recognizing that it not authentic to the practicality of Orthodoxy simply to “go out and do something” for the sake of the Gospel.

An Orthodox approach begins with a heart turning to God, seeking understanding.

And so we must ask ourselves the most basic question of all as it relates to this theme.

First, what precisely is mission in the mind of the Orthodox Church?

Before we begin to focus ourselves too precisely on how to exercise it, how to accomplish it, we need to look at the concept itself. What is our mission as Orthodox Christians? And what does it mean to be missionary in an Orthodox sense in our contemporary world?

Often when we hear these terms we instinctively, automatically begin to think in a framework provide for us by outside influences.

There are many religions that engage in what they call ‘missionary work’ and they are often quite visible in this. I can think for example of an experience that I had last year when the doorbell rang at the Church and I went to answer the front door and a group of mormon missionaries were standing on the door step. And they looked at me, dressed exactly like this though without the klobuk (monastic veil), though I had the Cross in front of me, and they looked squarely at me and then into my face and said, “have you ever heard of Jesus Christ?” I was not quite sure how to respond to this question but it made for an interesting beginning of a dialogue.

Very often however when we think of missionary work we precisely these sorts of encounters, and our own understanding of what mission is comes to be shaped and influenced by what we see and hear in these others. And in their examples, mission often means telling other people what we believe, trying to get them to believe what we do. In effect the idea of mission is combined with another, that of proselytism, which is the technical term for the work of drawing other people into ones own religious system of belief.

But is this what we mean as Orthodox Christians? Can it be that our mission is, as such examples would suggest, to create more Orthodox Christians? To cause more people to convert? As tempting as such a vision might be, the true testimony of the Church is that the answer to this question is unequivocally “No.”

Creating converts is not our mission, and it cannot be our aim as missionaries in the modern world. But if not this, then what?

For this we need not look at the contemporary society with its norms and expectations even in religious terms. Our mission must not be defined by what the world expects, it must be defined by what the world needs and what God offers into that need.

Our source for understanding mission then is not in popular action plans or Christian marketing strategies, however pious they might be. Our source is in our past, in our heritage, which is vibrant and alive in our present. Our source is in our fathers, who conveyed to us the truth of ourselves, of the world, of God and of His Church. It is by looking to what we receive from the Holy Fathers in the Faith that we will learn what is our true mission as Christian people, and in what true missionary work might consist.

And so we should ask ourselves what do these divine sources tell us?

They tell us something quite clear and powerful, the mission and aim of the Christian life is the salvation of our souls and bodies, and the attainment of the kingdom of God. This is first and foremost and is above every other consideration. It is for this that the Father sent His only begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is for this that this Lord offered Himself into the world, that He sent the life creating Spirit, that we who are fallen and broken, suffering and crippled by sin and by death, might rise up by His power and attain the life that He has fashioned for us, abiding eternally with Him in His heavenly kingdom.

We must not forget this, yet one of the things I feel is very important to stress when talking about mission is that the work of Christian mission precisely does forget just this. And we and you as Orthodox Christians must stalwartly resist this tendency to forget what is the true purpose of our every Christian activity, especially our missionary work. Our aim is not to help the people around us find a more fulfilling life, it is not to help them discover a better form of worship, it is not to help them locate and to become part of a more satisfying religious community. Our mission is to help them find and attain the Kingdom of God, to overcome sin by His power, to be transformed into the Light of His Blessedness. This is our mission as Orthodox Christians and for this reason it is neither a popular nor easy one in the world today. And it is important that we recognize this.

Mission is often presented as fun, but mission is struggle as is so much in the Christian life, though that struggle may of course bear reward.

To be a missionary is an ascetical endeavour and requires a confident boldness in the face of a world that will resist it.

To fulfill this mission, the true mission of the Christian, we must proclaim boldly and without hesitation that there is but one God, not many gods, not many ideologies and spiritualities which the world tries to foster today. To fulfill our mission, we must tell the world that this one God is our God who does great and wonderful things, and He alone is true and is the Truth, and not the endless variety of truths and ideas and wisdoms that the world embraces all around us.

To fulfill our mission we must proclaim into the world that there is such a thing as sin, that there is a right, that there is a wrong, that there is good and there is bad, and it can and should be identified as such, even if the world might call this judgemental.

And to fulfill this mission, perhaps most importantly of all we must tell the world that there is a way out of this sin. Namely the life in Christ and the mystery of His Church. Our mission is to attain the Kingdom of God, to draw those around us, even the whole world itself, into that Kingdom. To be a missionary then is to live our lives in such a manner that these two things are possible, and more than simply possible so that they actually take place.

But how are we to do this?

I’d like to spend the remainder of my time in this lecture exploring in practical terms what this properly Orthodox understanding of mission might mean for each of us as members in His Holy Church. And indeed as these lectures are aimed at clergy, priests, pastors, speaking in terms that may cause us to act and lead others around us to act in a manner that reflects our true Orthodox life. And the main practical points I’d like to consider are these, three in fact.

The first is that mission depends on developing a burning love through repentance in the mystical life.
Second, that mission depends on living a distinctly different manner of life in the world.
And thirdly, that mission must be a response to the true needs of the world around us.

So firstly, the development of a love through repentance in the mystical life.

At the foundation of our missionary work in the world, it’s a missionary work that has to start in our own heart. It is a fundamental teaching of the fathers of the Church that we cannot share with others what we do not ourselves possess. And so it is a non starter to believe that we can share with the world a way into the Kingdom if we are not working with all of our energy to receive it in our own hearts.

The foundation, the very beginning of practical missionary work then begins in the heart, in your heart, in mine. It begins with repentance. Our hearts must see their brokenness and turn from our sin towards redemption in Christ. Without this, we are seeking to share with the world something that we don’t have, and we seek to point the world toward a kingdom that we are not ourselves moving towards or within. And what good can we possibly hope to accomplish? This can never work, if we attempt it we are like a foolish man attempting to build his house on the sand, as our Lord Himself told us, “that house will surely fall.”

But one might ask, “how is this understanding mission beginning in the heart, a practical step towards missionary calling and work?”

And we might answer this way. It is practical in that it defines for us a clear starting point for a life of true missionary activity and power. Missionary work, let me put this very bluntly, begins in the Holy Mysteries, in confession and communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. It does not begin in a travel plan or an outline for catechesis. It does not begin in a useful translation of the Sacred Writings, or a manual for encountering people in different circumstances. It does not begin even with an idea for a good Christian bookstore, or a coffee shop discussion group. It begins with an epitrahilj (stole, also called epitrachelion or the Priest’s amayah in the Coptic Rite -> duty and service) laid across our head and our heart laid open by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the sins that bind us to death and to darkness are defeated by the power of God.

It begins when we through this sacred mystery we are freed from the burden of our sins, we are made ready to draw near to Christ Himself in the Divine Liturgy, receiving in soul and body, Him who shows us His Father’s kingdom.

In this way we can proclaim a truth that is made known to the world by Saint Isaac, that the Kingdom of God is within you, then only then are we able to share with the world the truth of that kingdom. Open your heart there wholly and completely to God, holding back nothing from Him so that no corner of your life may remain divided or separated, rebellious towards Him. Run eagerly as if this confession was important to you as your own breath, to that mystery by which His power might conquer your sin and draw you out of darkness towards the Son of Righteousness.

If this is how we make a practical beginning to our missionary calling then we will have something far greater than a plan for spreading the Word or offering just the right counsel. We will have hearts that are alive and burning with the grace of God. We will have within us that which is promised by our Saviour and delivered on the Holy Pentecost. The Holy Spirit Himself alive in our hearts, filling our lives, our words, our actions, in the same way that He filled the lives, the words and the actions of those great missionary saints of every generation.

This is the Spirit Who draws all creation to His Son, Who in turns presents it to His Father. This is the Spirit that enables the journey into the Kingdom of God, and if we begin with repentance, confession and communion, then we carry within ourselves this Spirit Who will find in us a willing partner for the work of drawing the world into the Kingdom.

We should remember one of the greatest missionary saints of the last century, St Seraphim of Sarov and his famous saying “acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand around you will be saved.”

We cannot assist others in finding their way into the Kingdom of God unless our hearts burn with this Holy Spirit.

The second key ingredient of the genuinely missionary life is intrinsically tied together with the first and this is living a distinctly different manner of life in the world. Unless we are freed by the Spirit, given life by Him, freed from our sin by the mysteries of the Church, our life is always going to be defined by the world, created by it. We will live life that others have lived, even if in this way or that we might give it our own flavour. If we dwell first and foremost in the world, if we are shaped by the world, all we can ever show the world is itself, no matter how often we might talk about God or spiritual things.

If however we are given grace to repentance to live as those in the world but not of it, then we are able by our lives to show the world something different, something strikingly unexpectedly different. But only if we truly committed to living the other-worldly life of the Gospel.

As an example of this, I would like to call on an episode of the era of the Apostolic Fathers, who were the immediate successors of the Holy Apostles, who lived and wrote in what was still the first generations of the Church. And this time the Church was in human terms still relatively young and new, few people in society yet knew of Her. Those who had heard of Her rarely knew what She really was, what She actually believed, and there where no convenient introductions to Orthodoxy to be read, even the Creed had yet to be written.

The only way to learn of the Church was to see Her, to behold Her, to gaze upon the Christians themselves, and thus behold the Body of Christ. And what was it that people saw when they looked at the Christians in those early days?

Well we have a way of knowing and to answer that question in the form of an anonymous text written at the time, which offers us a characterization of one person saw when he beheld the Christian manner of life and how he chose to characterize what he beheld to another. And it is perhaps one of the most beautiful texts ever written. I’d like to read it and it’s slightly lengthy in its entirety:

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs.
For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life.
Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are.
But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.
They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.
They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring.
They have their meals in common, but not their wives.
They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh.
Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives.
They love all men, and they are persecuted by all.
They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.
They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life.
They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things.
They are dishonoured, and yet they are glorified in their dishonour. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated.
They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect.
Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life.
War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility.
In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world.

The Epistle to Diognetus, v, vi-1

Think of how the early Christians must have lived their lives that one could look at them and say such things as these. And then we must ask ourselves what kind of life do I live? Am I living my life in such a manner? Will the world look at me and say such things? Or will it look at me and see someone trying to fit in, to be acceptable to the norms and expectations of the world around me?

If we are to genuine missionaries we must not aim to fit into the world, we must not aim at popularity, at comfort, at acceptability. We must live distinctly different manners of life so that the world might look upon our good works and thereby glorify God Who is in heaven.

This brings me to my third main point, the need for us to respond to the true needs of the world. It is only when we have a heart transfigured by God’s power, when we live a true Christian life and bear its witness in the world that we can then see what the world truly needs and not simply what it thinks it needs much less what it wants, it is precisely in seeing the difference between true life and a life of worldly desire that we can point to this dimension or to that and say “aha, it is that which must be cure if my patient is to be well.”

We can then see this through our lives and the way our lives interact with those of the world and now, only now do we have the right tools to enable us to act with wisdom, a wisdom that comes from the experience of Christian life and beholding the needs of the world through it. That it is only in this way, that this or that activity may authentically meet the needs of those around us.

This need may be for instruction for living in the virtues, it may be for drawing young people to Church activities, but not simply a social activity but in direct response to the needs of these specific people. Missionary work is always pastoral, it is aimed not at world, not at people generically, but at a person. At a person seeking repentance.

Our missionary activities may involve organizing alms to give to the poor, to reach out suffering communities, but again, not as a generic good work, or good deed that some might see and be drawn to our example, but as a concrete response to the needs of those who are suffering responding to that suffering with grace and the potential to transform it into new life.

Only in this way will we construct our missionary activities in a manner that will actually fulfill our Orthodox mission to draw the world around us into the Kingdom of God. Sometimes our missionary work will be friendly, casual, even I suppose depending on circumstances, a bit playful. Other times it will be formal, even stark, difficult. Not all patients are treated with the same medicine, and also the same treatments, the same cures do not work for every disease. If we are true missionaries, then whatever our state in life, whether we are a Priest, a Deacon, whether we are a Layperson, whether we are old or whether we are young, we are participants in the spiritual transformation that the Church offers to the world. We are helpers in that spiritual hospital, by which souls are saved.

As then we live our lives as those called by Christ, to let our light shine in the world, let us strive to remember that in every context, these fundamental realities must guide us as Orthodox Christians seeking to be missionaries in the modern world.

Firstly that we must begin always in our own hearts, seeking a burning love through repentance and the sacramental life of the Church.

Secondly that we must seek to live truly Orthodox lives bearing witness to the world of a distinctly different calling and different way of life.

And Thirdly then in this wonderful life, we must turn our fellow man, to the whole of God’s world and seek to respond to its needs that it may join us in this God given life of grace and transformation.

The world does not need more generic missionaries, does not simply need Christian flavoured social work, it does not need and it will reject it. But the world desperately needs to be shown the way into the Kingdom of God and each of us may receive the power from God to help this suffering world, to join Christ in offering Himself as the Priest says during the Proskomedia (Oblation) “for the Life of the World,” and thus become true missionaries, true lights to our fellow man.

May the Lord bless us and all His servants in this Holy Work.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.