Fr. Matthew Thurman was baptized in a mainline Protestant denomination as an adult in 1989 and was Chrismated into the Orthodox Church in 1998. He graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2006 with a Master of Divinity and from the University of Central Arkansas in 1989 with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Matthew worked for the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas for over eight years, first in grant administration, then in information technology, as a certified public manager (CPM). Since 2008, Fr. Matthew has served as the Pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chagrin Falls, OH. He has been married to Kh. Rachel for over ten years and they have two school-age boys.
At the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus Christ gives this final charge to the Apostles before His Ascension into heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, NKJV)
This final charge is commonly called “The Great Commission.” From the beginning, the Church’s essential character has been to be a missionary church. This means being sent throughout the world, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. The first account of Church history, the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, tells of this missionary character. Acts tells progressively of Christ’s message being spread from the backwaters of Jerusalem all the way to the capital of the Roman empire itself: Rome.
Nothing has changed in this missionary charge 2000 years later. While the Christian faith has been spread to the far corners of the Earth and has had a long history, there are still peoples and places that have never encountered the authentic message of Christ risen from the dead for our salvation.
Usually conversations on missionary work focus very clearly on foreign missions: sending people to countries and peoples abroad to bring the message of Christ. What is almost always missing from these conversations is the topic of domestic missions: sharing the message of Christ to people locally in our own communities.
In some instances, there is the sense that the Orthodox Christian faith is “our thing” and not meant for those outside of the Orthodox Church. Clearly, this is contrary to both the Bible’s account of the Church as a missionary entity and the Church’s history of spreading the faith throughout the world.
It also overlooks that there is a missionary field in our very midst. We might assume that any domestic missionary work is just competing with other Christian denominations or non-Christian religions, but the local need is far greater than this.
Recently, a sobering statistic has been reported. Twenty percent of all adults in the U.S. consider themselves unaffiliated to any particular faith. If you look specifically at adults under 30, the number rises to one-third of the population. That roughly means that for every four people you speak to, one of them will have no religious affiliation at all. The message here is that we are directly competing with non-belief itself.
I heard a story acknowledging this reality. There was a priest who was newly assigned to his parish. He asked his bishop what his parish could do to support missionary work. The priest, of course, was expecting some sort of direction on how his parish might support a missionary or missionary agency serving people abroad.
The bishop gave an unexpected answer: “The missionary field is outside the front door of your home and the homes of your parishioners. You and all of your parishioners are missionaries and need to serve the fields outside of your front doors. Your very own neighbors have not authentically encountered the Risen Christ’s love. Go love your neighbors as Christ loved His disciples.”
How do we go about becoming missionaries in our own neighborhoods? First, we need to be comfortable with Jesus Christ as someone we encounter daily that we can introduce to our friends. We should not compartmentalize Jesus Christ into someone we see privately on Sundays only at Divine Liturgy, nor think that church is simply a place we go to to be with “our people.”
We also need to become comfortable inviting friends to church. When I was a layman, I often invited other friends to come to church with me, typically for Christmas or Easter. Some friends declined these invitations. Some friends accepted these invitations. Some accepted more than one invitation. A few of my friends eventually became active inquirers and ultimately entered the Church. What some might find surprising is that most people are receptive to the idea of coming for one church service.
We can all think of friends, family members, or coworkers that we share other aspects of our personal lives with: why not share what our faith is with others as well? This definitely does not need to be done as a “hard sell” or with heavy expectations lain upon it. Invite someone to church. If they don’t come, God bless them. If they come only once, God bless them. If they come repeatedly and eventually want to become members, God bless them. You have done your work as a missionary in sharing Christ with them.
This is the picture we see throughout the New Testament. Some people responded to the Gospel with no interests or even hostility. Some people responded tentatively and either eventually made a commitment or fell away. Some people responded to Jesus Christ and His disciples immediately and enthusiastically. What was consistent in all of this was the proclamation and invitation. This approach and mindset should be what we have within our parishes as well.
Domestic mission work within the Orthodox Church in the U.S. is still in its infancy and has a long road ahead. Some individual Orthodox jurisdictions have their own departments designated for the work of domestic missions and evangelism. What is missing is a coordinated agency–similar to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC)–dedicated to the work of domestic missions for all Orthodox Christian jurisdictions in the U.S. In the mean time, each of us can be the missionaries serving the fields that are “white for the harvest” outside our own front doors. Introduce your neighbors to your faith and invite them to church.
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