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Category: Missions and Evangelism (Page 2 of 2)

Ascension Day and the Great Commission


Great CommissionThe feast of the Ascension is one of the major feast days of the Orthodox Church.  On this day our Lord Jesus Christ is taken up into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.  This prepares the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

The feast of the Ascension is also significant because it is the day Christ gave the Great Commission to his apostles.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  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.” Amen.  (Matthew 28:18-20)

The Great Commission can be viewed as an enthronement speech given by the suzerain (king) at his coronation.  In more modern terms the Great Commission is like the newly elected American president giving his inaugural address to the nation and the world.  In it he lays out the agenda and priorities for his administration.

The Great Commission passage is more than a collection of last words or parting instructions by Jesus before he goes away.  Matthew frames it using covenant language.  In the ancient Near Eastern treaties the suzerain (ruler) recounts his might deeds or his conquests to his prospective vassals (followers).  The accounts of healing, exorcisms, and signs and wonders in Matthew’s Gospel announces the mighty acts by the suzerain.  The passion narratives also recounts the mighty acts by the suzerain.  Jesus by his death and resurrection having defeated Death the last enemy now proceeds to reclaim what belongs to him (1 Corinthians 15:24-27).  He sends out his Apostles into the world as heralds of the kingdom of God who invite the nations to submit to the rule of Christ.  To become Christ’s disciple is to submit to his kingly authority.  Covenant initiation is done through baptism into the name of the Suzerain. This calls for fealty (personal relationship) between the vassal and the lord.  If a Reformed Christian attends an Orthodox baptism he will hear strong covenant language. The baptized joins himself to Christ and accepts Christ as king.  After baptism one is no longer one’s own person but Christ’s.

The baptismal formula has an interesting grammatical structure; “name” is singular but is followed by three subsequent names: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This point to the doctrine of the Trinity: we are baptized into one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Another important grammatical aspect of the command to baptize is the collective pronoun “them,” a reference to the nations (ethne, εθνη).    While Christian baptism is profoundly personal, it also has a corporate dimension.  It is an affirmation of our unique ethnic identities.  The early Christians baptized families and social groups.  Paul baptized entire households (Acts 16:31-34, 18:8); later entire nations like the Russian people in the tenth century.  God’s redemptive work in Christ aims at the restoration of fallen humanity through union with Christ (Ephesians 1:10, 3:14-15).

People often misquote the Great Commission when they say: “teaching them everything I have commanded you,” when the actual words are “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV).  Christian discipleship is not about learning a set of doctrines as it is adopting a lifestyle based on Christ’s teachings.  The phrase “everything I have commanded you” is the basis for Holy Tradition which comprises both written and oral Tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15).  That is why Orthodox catechesis emphasizes not just learning a system of doctrines but also learning a way of worship and a set of spiritual disciplines.

Jesus closes the Great Commission using eschatological language.  The phrase “I am with you,” echoes Haggai 1:13: “I am with you, says the LORD” and strongly implies Jesus’ divinity.  It also echoes Isaiah 7:14 which promised that through the promised Messiah God would be with his people.  Furthermore, when Jesus promised “I am with you always” he was asserting his divinity.  In Matthew 28:18 Jesus asserted the universality of his lordship across space, heaven and earth; here Jesus is asserting the eternality of his rule in time.  Many Christians today take for granted Jesus’ divinity but for early Christians, especially for Jews, this was astounding in its audacity.  Jesus’ divinity would become a major issue that would result in the convening of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325 and the Nicene Creed.


The Orthodox Church and Missions

The history of Orthodox Christianity can be viewed as a history of Christian missions.  In the first three centuries the Church evangelized the Roman Empire which gave rise to the emergence of a Christian civilization.  Following that the Gospel was brought to the Western frontiers of the Roman Empire.  Saint Boniface evangelized Gaul (France) and Saints Patrick and Columba evangelized Ireland and Scotland.  Saints Cyril and Methodius brought the Gospel to the Slavs in the tenth century.

More recently, Orthodox missionaries like Saint Herman and Saint Innocent brought the Gospel to the natives of Alaska in the eighteenth century.  Orthodox missions in the twenty first century has resulted in conversions among the Mayans in Central America and the Turkana peoples in East Africa.  There is a growing interest in Orthodoxy in the Philippines and in Indonesia.



There is a mistaken perception among Orthodox and non-Orthodox that the Orthodox Church does not do missionarywork.  This is obviously not the case!

This Ascension Day celebration should be a reminder for Orthodox Christians to commit their lives to help bring the Gospel to all nations.  Fr. Luke Veronis wrote:

Missions does not simply represent a “nice” task of the Church, but it summarizes the essence of who we are as Orthodox Christians, and it embodies the very nature of the Church. Archbishop Anastasios emphasizes this in another way, “Missions is a part of the DNA of the Church’s genetic makeup.”

Robert Arakaki


See also

Fr. Luke Veronis.  “Our Orthodox Faith and the Centrality of Missions.”

OCMC  (Orthodox  Christians Missions Center)

Fr. Martin Ritsi.  “The What, Where, When, and Why of Orthodox Missions.”

Why We Need an All-English Liturgy


In 2007, Christianity Today published an article, “Will the Twenty First Century be the Orthodox Century?”  In it Bradley Nassif argued that Orthodoxy will indeed grow and expand in this coming century.  But in an Again Magazine article, “The Orthodox Christian Opportunity,” Nassif noted although many people are converting to Orthodoxy, significant numbers of these converts are also leaving through the backdoor discouraged and disenchanted.  Much of the reasons for their disenchantment lie not with the Orthodox Faith per se, but with the realities of Orthodox parishes.  Nassif refers to this problem as Orthodoxy’s backdoor.

One of the major obstacles to the twenty first century becoming the Orthodox century is the language barrier.  In many American Orthodox parishes the Sunday Liturgy is either in a foreign language or a mixture of English and non-English.  Orthodox parishes with an all-English Liturgy tend to be in the minority.  This blog posting addresses why we need all-English worship services, what can be done about the present problem of people exiting through the backdoor, and how we can help make the twenty first century the Orthodox century.


The Liturgy as the Front Door

The Liturgy is Orthodoxy’s front door.  It is often the first place where people encounter Orthodoxy.  There they see Orthodoxy in action: people worshiping the Holy Trinity.  The Liturgy is also essential for becoming Orthodox.  One cannot become Orthodox just by reading Orthodox books or visiting Orthodox blogs, one becomes Orthodox through participation in the right worship of the Holy Trinity.

However, people sometimes find Orthodoxy’s front door blocked when they attend a worship service where the Liturgy is done in a foreign language.  Many visitors walk out after hearing nothing but Greek for the first few minutes of the Liturgy.  It can be a painful experience.  Many feel excluded, bewildered, and lost.


Linguistic zigzags — where the priest prays in English and the choir responds in non-English — are not uncommon in many ethnic parishes.  For the unwary worshiper, it is like driving along on a smooth asphalt road then all of a sudden hitting a pothole.  This can lead to a jarring, frustrating, and tiring worship experience.  What should be a meaningful worship encounter with God becomes more like a tutorial in Greek, Slavonic, Serbian, Arabic, etc.  Even several years after becoming Orthodox, many converts find themselves struggling with the Liturgy in a foreign language.  People lose their place in the order of the Liturgy.  It is not realistic to expect all converts to adjust to the Liturgy not being completely in English; some can make the adjustment, but many cannot.  Continuous exposure to the Liturgy in a foreign language does not necessarily make it easier over time.  As a result converts often find the Liturgy more a burden than a delight.  And so converts are becoming frustrated and some are dropping out.  These are not conditions conducive for spiritual growth.

Worship in the vernacular is the long-standing Tradition of Orthodoxy.  This liturgical principle is rooted in the miracle of Pentecost.  On that day the Christians spoke in tongues to a international gathering who were astonished to “hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  (Acts 2:11, NIV; italics added)  The Apostle Paul emphasized the importance of worship engaging our understanding.  He wrote: “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:19, NIV)



St. Innocent of Alaska

St. Innocent of Alaska

Orthodox Missionary Practice

The history of Orthodox missions is full of examples of the use of the vernacular.  A prominent example is Saints Kyril and Methodios translating the Liturgy into Slavonic.  Another example is Saint Nicholas of Japan laboring many years to master the Japanese language before translating the Liturgy into Japanese.  A third example is Saint Innocent of Alaska who translated the Gospels into the Aleut language.  Non-vernacular worship — so widespread in America — represents a departure from historic Orthodoxy.  Thus, it is an innovation inconsistent with Holy Tradition.  This innovation arose more from circumstance than deliberate choice.  What was the vernacular for the first generation immigrants later became an incomprehensible language for the second and third generations, and for converts from another ethnic background.  An innovation that arose from inaction requires deliberate action to bring the church back into conformity with Tradition.



St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church – Springdale, Arkansas

Let Us Be Attentive!

The word “liturgy” means “the work of the people.”  But the people can’t do their job of worshiping God effectively if the language is not their own.  We are called to love God with all our mind (Mark 12:30) but worship in a foreign language gets in the way of our being able to worship God intelligently.  Rather than assisting in worship, the non-vernacular hinders us.

One reason why the Liturgy should be entirely in English is Orthodoxy expects its members to be fully attentive in their worship.  On several occasions during the Liturgy, the priest will call out: “Let us be attentive!”  But if peoples’ minds start to drift when the priest switches to Greek (or some other foreign language), they are not really being attentive to the Liturgy.  The problem is not with the worshiper, but the fact most people find it difficult to worship in an unfamiliar language.

Another reason for an all-English Liturgy is the Apostle Paul’s insistence that worship be in a language understandable to the listener.  He wrote: “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?  You will just be speaking into the air.” (I Corinthians 14:9, NIV)  The danger here is that the Liturgy will turn into empty worship — something that the Old Testament prophets and Jesus denounced in no uncertain terms: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9, NIV)


The Liturgy as Catechism

The Liturgy constitutes an ongoing catechism for Orthodox Christians.  It continually reminds us of the fundamental doctrines of Orthodoxy.  When understood, the Liturgy has a profound impact on our faith and worship.  But, is not the Liturgy’s power to shape our thinking weakened by it being sung in an incomprehensible tongue?  A danger of non-vernacular worship is parishioners can become so focused on phonetically reproducing the Liturgy they barely pay attention to the great truths being proclaimed in the Liturgy.  If it is shrouded in language that is not comprehended, then the Liturgy will become an ethnic rite having little power to challenge us to live holy lives for God.

I visited a number of Orthodox services while I was at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, but they were mostly in Greek.  It was not until I came to Berkeley and attended the all-English Liturgy at Saints Kyril and Methodios Bulgarian Orthodox Church that I was able to connect with the Liturgy and that the Liturgy began to reshape my theology and spirituality.  It was the two years of hearing the Liturgy there that laid the foundation for my becoming Orthodox.

In addition to teaching us what the Church believes, the Liturgy also protects us from heresy.  However, if the Liturgy is sung in a language poorly understood, its catechetical function is compromised.  A priest once discovered a parishioner did not really believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  He pointed to one of the antiphons which is sung every Sunday, “Only Begotten” (Monogenes), which affirms Mary’s perpetual virginity.  However, the parishioner never got the point because in that parish the antiphon was normally sung in Greek, not in English.  In the long run, a non-comprehended Liturgy makes Orthodoxy vulnerable to heterodoxy and nominalism among the laity, not to mention people dropping out of the Church altogether.  Orthodox laity whose grasp of Orthodox doctrine is weak or hazy will not be able to defend their Orthodox beliefs, nor will they be able to effectively live out their Orthodox convictions.


Ethnic Festival

Ethnic Parishes

Many Orthodox parishes in America today are what can be considered ethnic parishes.  They were founded by immigrants and continue to be under the care of hierarchs in the old country.  The ethnic parish preserves the old country’s culture through the following means: (1) the language used in the Sunday Liturgy, (2) the food served on special occasions, (3) ethnic festivals and holidays, and (4) language classes.  Ethnic parishes tend to diligently celebrate the lives of their ethnic saints while hardly making mention of American Orthodox saints.


Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese observed:

We consider ourselves Americans, and we are proud of it —except when we go to church, we suddenly become Greeks, Russians, Arabs, and Albanians.

(Again Magazine vol. 28 no. 2, p. 5)

Ethnic parishes are an important part of Orthodoxy in America.  It is in large part because of Orthodox immigrants who founded Orthodox parishes that Orthodoxy has such a widespread presence in American society today.  Yet it is not realistic to expect that ethnic parishes are capable of evangelizing America.  Orthodoxy is growing in America, but much of this growth is due to the planting of Orthodox parishes with all-English Liturgies.  Ethnic parishes are not built that way; they are primarily suited to preserving the language, customs, and holidays of the old country.  As such, they are designed for the first generation immigrants and their descendants, but not for American converts.

The term “old country” is not a pejorative term (as some might think) but a term accepted and used by social scientists, especially in the emergent field of postcolonial studies.  Robin Cohen in Global Diasporas: An Introduction described “diasporic communities” as a community who live in one country while acknowledging that the “old country” has some claim on their loyalty and emotions (p. ix) and exerts a powerful influence on their social identity.  Ties between the diasporic community and the “old country” can be especially intense in cases like the Greek-American community.  In the Report to His Eminence ARCHBISHOP IAKOVOS (1990) it was noted that Greek-Americans are understood to be viewed either as an extension of the Greek homeland (homogenia) or as entrants and then participants in American history (p. 22; emphasis added).

Ethnic identity becomes even more complicated and fraught when a diasporic community shares the same social space, e.g., a local church, with Americans for whom the US is the only homeland they know of.  This is what happens when an ethnic parish finds a growing presence of mainstream Americans joining them.  They are confused that people would want to join the parish just because they want to be Orthodox.  Many Americans want to become Orthodox, but very few want to assimilate into an ethnic parish and learn a foreign language and abide by foreign customs of the old country.  To compel others to assimilate into a culture is contrary to the Orthodox tradition of missions and can even lead to cultural imperialism.

Jesus’ parable of the need to pour new wine into new wineskins and the foolishness of pouring new wine into old wineskins (Mark 2:22) applies to the present situation.  Ethnic parishes are not well suited to meet the needs of converts from the outside.  They can handle small numbers of converts, but if the numbers of converts become more than a trickle then the ethnic core can start to feel threatened resulting in a backlash.  They will fear that the new members will undermine the ethnic identity of their parish, especially if the newcomers want more English in the Sunday worship.

There is no question that people have come to Orthodoxy via ethnic parishes, but their numbers are such that the long term impact will be minimal.  If America is to embrace Orthodoxy, this trickle of converts will need to become a broad stream of converts.  Ethnic parishes throw an unnecessary hurdle for non-ethnic for the above reasons.  When it comes to evangelism ethnic parishes are like the eagle which is well suited for soaring in the sky, but unlike the duck is not well suited for life along the lake.  In short, ethnic parishes are not set up for effective evangelism.

If Orthodoxy is to effectively evangelize America, an all-English Liturgy is essential.  Orthodoxy’s future in America depends on the availability of an all-English Liturgy to ordinary Americans.  The vast majority of Americans are monolingual English speakers.  They are not comfortable with worshiping in a foreign language; nor will they be interested in shedding their American identity at the church entrance on Sunday morning.  See my article on the three waves of Orthodoxy in America.


Changing Ethnic Parishes?

Can ethnic parishes be moved towards all-English liturgies?  For the most part, I don’t think so.  I’ve heard priests tell me they are gradually moving towards more English in the Liturgy, but what I have seen has been more of a back and forth movement in which very little change is made in the long run.  Many parish priests are caught in a difficult situation of holding together a diverse parish community.  While they personally may favor an all-English Liturgy, they also need to accommodate the needs and concerns of the longtime members (many of whom contribute substantially to the priest’s salary).  It is a good idea to tell your parish priest you want an all-English Liturgy, but my advice is not to expect much to happen.  Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that ultimately it is the bishop who has the final say over the language used in the parish’s Sunday worship.

There are Orthodox hierarchs who have called for the “preservation and promotion of our Hellenic ethos and tradition.”  Thus, ethnic Orthodox parishes are more than the result of circumstances, rather they have their roots in the priorities and policies of both local parishes and the hierarchy.  Those of us who desire all-English Liturgies need to respect their understanding of Orthodox missions and work actively with Orthodox jurisdictions that support all-English Liturgies and the evangelization of America.


Pan-Orthodox Parishes?

Pan-Orthodox parishes represent a different kind of missions strategy.  Where there is not a large enough immigrant community to form an ethnic parish, one finds various ethnic groups cobbled together to form a single parish.  In these parishes one can find the Lord’s Prayer in Greek, Slavonic, Serbian, Arabic, as well as English.  The underlying premise of pan-Orthodox parishes seems to be that we should all hold on to the culture and languages of the old country, even though we’re all Americans, and our children are Americans, and most of us have no intention of moving back to the old country.  The problem with pan-Orthodox parishes is they hold little appeal for many Americans.  Pan-Orthodox parishes resemble the synthetic culture of the United Nations than real cultures that people inhabit.  Because the culture of pan-Orthodox parishes are alien to mainstream American society, they are not capable of effective evangelism.

Pan-Orthodox parishes are like ethnic parishes in their retrospective focus on the old country.  They therefore share all the problems mentioned above in regards to ethnic parishes.  People without doubt will join these parishes but in the long run such parishes will exert only a minimal influence on the city or area they live in.


Dual Track Strategy

If we are to bring America to Orthodoxy then we need a dual-track approach.  We need Orthodox parishes with all-English worship services, and we need ethnic Orthodox parishes whose ethos and language reflects that of the old country.

The dual track strategy is as old as the book of Acts.  In the beginning of Acts, we read how multitudes of people converted to Christianity.  But what is often overlooked is the fact that this movement was taking place among the Hebrew speaking Jews of Palestine.  When we come to the sixth chapter, tension was growing between the Hebrew speaking Jews and the Greek speaking Jews.  Communication difficulties led to many Greek speaking widows being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.  Unlike the Jews who were fluent in Hebrew, the Hellenistic Jews’ mother tongue was Greek.  The root of the problem lay not in sinful attitudes, but in honest linguistic and cultural differences.  The problem was resolved by the creation of a dual track or bicultural leadership structure.  The Apostles who were ethnically Palestinian Jews appointed Greek speaking Jews to the diaconate.  This is evident by the prevalence of non-Jewish names: Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas (Acts 6:5).  Also noteworthy is the fact that one of them, Nicolas, was a Gentile who converted to Judaism.  The result was that “the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.” (Acts 6:7)

Precedence for the dual track strategy can be found in the Antiochian Archdiocese allowing for both the Byzantine rite and the Western rite.  A parish can elect to use one or the other but not both.  This policy makes much sense and is practical.  It also gives a parish liturgical stability.  I would suggest that each parish be given the option of worshiping either in English or in the language of the old country, but not both.  As noted earlier, mixed language worship is an innovation that has no precedence in the history of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy can learn something from the experience of the Japanese American churches.  They encouraged their children to learn English, and they gave strong support for English services.  Where the older isseis (first generation) worshiped in Japanese, the younger nisseis (second generation) and sanseis (third generation) met in a separate service to worship in English.  In other words, what looked from the outside like a single parish, was in actuality a dual-track parish.  This missions strategy allowed the Japanese American churches to preserve church unity in the face of inter generational differences and avoid large numbers of youths dropping out for lack of interest.

Under the dual track strategy, the parish will have a main sanctuary for the English-speaking congregation and a side chapel for the ethnic congregation.  This is needed to follow the rubric that only one Eucharist be celebrated per day.  This means that a dual-track Orthodox parish will need to have at least two priests assigned to the parish to celebrate the Eucharist.  This calls for a deliberate longterm missions strategy fully supported by the bishop of that city.    If successful, we will see a network of dozens Orthodox parishes in each major city.  Some parishes will worship in the language of the old country, but the majority of the parishes will worship in English.  In this twenty first century diocese, Orthodoxy’s ethnic diversity is affirmed without any blurring of ethnic identity.  This arrangement will reflect not just America’s growing cultural diversity, but also the catholicity of the Orthodox Church.

People might object that liturgical rubrics call for only one Eucharist to be celebrated in a parish per day and that the dual-track strategy being proposed is contrary to the established rubrics.  My response is that what is being called for is an oikonomia or pastoral dispensation in light of unusual circumstances.  It should be noted that we already have a de facto oikonomia given the widespread tolerance of two violations of Orthodox canon law: (1) multiple bishops in the same city, and (2) the widespread usage of non-vernacular in the Liturgy. The dual track strategy should be seen as an oikonomia, a temporary measure, until we have an American Orthodox Church.  What is presented here is more of a suggestion to get a discussion going.  The Orthodox community, both laity and clergy, need to have an open and frank discussion about how Orthodoxy can deal with the serious problem of the non-vernacular Liturgy.


Antiochian Breakthrough

In The Bridges of God, Donald McGavran, former professor of missions at Fuller Seminary, observe there are two approaches to missions: the mission station approach and the people movement approach.  The mission station approach tends to be static with the mission station serving as the religious and cultural center for a group of expatriates and their converts.  The people movement approach is dynamic with multitudes becoming Christians.  The difference lies in their long term focus.  Where the mission station is content with establishing a beachhead presence in a country, the people movement approach seeks to move inland to where the vast majority live.  Orthodoxy today is situated in an awkward in-between situation.  Thanks to the immigrants who founded ethnic parishes, Orthodoxy has a beachhead presence in every major American city.  At the same time, Orthodoxy has barely moved inland where the vast majority live.

In the book of Acts we see the tension between the mission station approach and the people movement approach.  In the opening chapters of Acts we read how thousands accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  The early Christian movement was largely Jewish in makeup and centered in Jerusalem.  This is characteristic of the mission station approach.  Although we read of Gentiles becoming Christians in the early chapters of Acts (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius the Centurion), these conversions represent little pockets of converts that lay on the margins of their culture.  Christianity did not become a broad people movement until the Antiochian breakthrough.

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.  Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.  The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.  (Acts 11:19-21, NIV; italics added)

What is notable about this passage is that some spoke “only to the Jews.” Although the persecution dispersed Christians geographically, much of the communication of the Gospel flowed within the confines of Jewish culture.  It was not until Antioch that some spoke the Christian message “to Greeks also,” that is, to the non-Jews that the long standing cultural barrier was breached; Christianity became a broad multicultural movement and the evangelization of the Roman Empire began in earnest.


Opening the Door to the Future

Business as usual cannot continue.  Orthodoxy in America needs to restructure and retool itself if we are to effectively evangelize American society.  One important (if not essential) way of retooling is to encourage and support all-English Orthodox services across America.  If we have the Liturgy in English, people will come and they will stay.  There is a growing spiritual hunger in America, and we can help these spiritually hungry people discover Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and Life.  By committing ourselves to all-English services, Orthodoxy will be opening the front door and closing the back door.

Having an Antiochian breakthrough in twenty first century American society will require brave men and women who will sacrificially commit themselves to starting Orthodox missions in areas where there are no Orthodox parishes or where there are language barriers.  The aim here is to have all-English Orthodox parishes across the country within reasonable driving distance.  Two particular jurisdictions have been notable for their willingness to engage in starting up new missions:

Interested readers are encouraged to contact these offices and inquire about opportunities for starting up an all-English Orthodox parish in their area.

It is also important that we not seek to change ethnic parishes.  Attempting to do so is likely to be met with stiff resistance, while wasting precious time and energies.  Rather than complain about the difficulties of non-English services, the better approach is to have a positive attitude and to take positive steps like helping to start all-English Orthodox missions.  It is also important that mainstream Americans be supportive of ethnic Orthodox who wish to affirm their ethnic heritage.  Ethnic Orthodox Christians have a rich cultural heritage that has been shaped by the Orthodox ethos over many generations.  This is something many modern Americans lack.  I once asked an Orthodox friend how he understood his ethnic heritage, all he could say was that he was a “mutt” — a hybrid of Scot, Irish, English, German and what have you — and that his ethnicity is “American.”  We need to regard each other with respect and charity.

Twelve Reasons

Here are twelve reasons Orthodoxy in America need an all-English Liturgy:

  • Liturgy in the vernacular is part of Holy Tradition;
  • Scripture teaches the importance of intelligible worship (Acts 2:11, I Corinthians 14:19);
  • Scripture teaches the priority of loving God with our mind (Mark 12:30);
  • The Liturgy means “the work of the people” and the use of incomprehensible non-vernacular languages hinders people from doing their work of worshiping God;
  • The use of the non-vernacular impairs the Liturgy’s function of educating worshipers in fundamental Orthodox doctrines;
  • The use of non-English met the needs of the first generation immigrants but is ill-suited for the needs of second and third generations, and mainstream Americans;
  • Compromise solutions like pan-Orthodox parishes have in many instances failed to work;
  • The use of the non-vernacular have caused visitors to walk out;
  • The use of the non-vernacular have frustrated converts and caused some to become discouraged and drop out of church life;
  • The use of the non-vernacular combined with a parish identity centered around a particular ethnicity have caused many converts to feel like outsiders;
  • The use of the non-vernacular is contrary to Orthodox missionary practice; and
  • The use of the non-vernacular is a major impediment to the evangelization of American society.


Orthodoxy in 2100?

As we stand at the start of the twenty first century, we need to ask ourselves what our vision is for Orthodoxy in America.  If we maintain the present course, what will Orthodoxy in America look like in the year 2100?  Will there be the same small number of ethnic Orthodox parishes (maybe a little bigger) or will there be dozens of Orthodox parishes all over our city and people coming to Orthodoxy by droves?  This is beginning to happen.  The May 2007 edition of The Word reported that twenty-five catechumens were received into the Orthodox Church at St. Barnabas, Costa Mesa, CA.  If we pass up this challenge, American Orthodoxy could end up an obscure religious curiosity.  The present interest in Orthodoxy represents both an opportunity and a challenge for Orthodox laity, clergy, and hierarchy.  If we rise up to the challenge, we can expect to see unprecedented growth and vitality for American Orthodoxy, and the twenty first century will be on its way to becoming the Orthodox century.

Robert Arakaki

Amended 25 January 2013 in response to a correction provided by Fr. James Kordaris, Director of Stewardship, Outreach and Evangelism for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Fr. Peter Gillquist: Evangelical Pioneer for Orthodoxy







On 1 July 2012, Fr. Peter Gillquist reposed in the Lord.  He is widely known as the author of Becoming Orthodox. He is also known for being part of a group former Campus Crusade for Christ leaders who led some 2000 Evangelicals into the Orthodox Church in 1987 (see video).  The numerous comments on the website of All Saints Orthodox Church in Bloomington, Indiana revealed his influence on the lives of so many people in America and abroad.

There are certain people who weave in and out your life leaving a lasting impression.  Fr. Peter Gillquist is one of them.  Like so many others, I have been richly blessed to have known Fr. Peter.  I have read many of his books but it was the personal time with him that has left the biggest impression on me.  I remember this tall blonde man with a warm smile and deep soothing voice.  For me and I believe for many, you left Fr. Peter knowing how much he cared about you than about how much he cared about Orthodoxy.  This personal concern for the other person in many ways lies at the core of Orthodoxy.

In the reflection below I will be describing my encounters with Fr. Peter.  My relationship with him is far from a simple one.  We come from quite different backgrounds.  His was in mainstream Evangelicalism: Dallas Theological Seminary, Wheaton College, and Campus Crusade for Christ, mine was in the Reformed tradition: conservative Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, the liberal United Church Christ, and the high church Mercersburg Theology.  Eventually, our paths would converge in Orthodoxy.  I close this reflection with an assessment of the contribution made by Fr. Peter and his colleagues to American Orthodoxy.

Fr. Peter’s Books

I first got to know Peter Gillquist through his books.  In the mid 1970s I read Let’s Quit Fighting over the Holy Spirit.  I found the book helpful and balanced giving the tensions between the Evangelicals and the Charismatics back then.  Later I read Love is Now.  By the late 1970s his thinking began to move in a more liturgical and sacramental direction.  In The Physical Side of Being Spiritual, Peter Gillquist argues for a more traditional understanding of the sacraments and for the need for liturgical approach to worship.  Fr. Peter’s The Physical Side of Being Spiritual stood alongside the Chicago Call (1977), Robert Webber’s Common Roots (1982) and Thomas Oden’s After Modernity …What? (1992).

So while I enjoyed reading Peter Gillquist’s book, he was not that influential in my theological development, mostly because we were moving along different paths during the 1980s.  At the time I was reading Calvin and the Reformers, and also Mercersburg Theology.  I was also deeply involved in the evangelical renewal movement in the mainline United Church Christ, while Fr. Peter was on his way looking for the original apostolic church. In 1987, I saw an odd article in Christianity Today about a group of Evangelicals joining the Orthodox Church with a picture of men in clerical suits hugging each other then forgot about it.  This was a picture of Peter Gillquist and his colleagues being received into the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese.

Personal Encounters

In 1990, I left Hawaii to study at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.  In 1993, I met Fr. Peter in person at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Newburyport which is not far from Gordon-Conwell.  He spoke about his journey to Orthodoxy in the social hall in the church’s basement.  At the time I was more curious than serious about Orthodoxy.  But it was more than an idle curiosity because I was coming to appreciate the value of the church fathers in combating theological liberalism.  I went up to Fr. Peter and asked him: “If I were to become Orthodox would I have to give up my Calvinist theology?”  Fr. Peter humbly admitted that he was not familiar with Reformed theology to answer my question.  I appreciated his kind honesty but was also frustrated because it meant I would have to find the answers for myself.  But I did appreciate Fr. Peter’s kindness in light of the fact that I had asked Frank Schaeffer the same question and was taken aback by his in-your-face bluntness: “Yes, you would because the Synod of Dort was off the map!”

In many ways my frustration with Fr. Peter Gillquist and Frank Schaeffer planted the seeds for the OrthodoxBridge.  I want this blog to be a welcoming forum where inquiring Reformed Christians could find good solid answers to questions about Reformed theology and Orthodoxy.  Looking back on Frank Schaeffer’s reply I can see the validity of his reply but still do not think this was the best way to deliver the answer.  Years later I still remember Fr. Peter’s kind and humble response.  I like to think that the example of his courtesy in dealing with non-Orthodox has set an example for the OrthodoxBridge.

I met Fr. Peter again in 1999.  He was in Hawaii recovering from a recent cancer operation.  I had just become Orthodox a few weeks earlier and found myself drafted into organizing a speaking event for Fr. Peter.  It was also my introduction to Byzantine politics.  We had planned to have Fr. Peter speak at the local Greek Orthodox parish but that was vetoed by the church hierarchy.  In desperation I called my former home church and asked if we could hold a public event there.  I can still remember the feeling of being tongue tied with embarrassment when my friend asked me: “But couldn’t you have him speak at the Greek church?”  To which I could only mutter: “It’s a long story.”  Fr. Peter ended up speaking at a nearby United Methodist Church.

In 2003, I met Fr. Peter at an Orthodox missions and evangelism conference at the Antiochian Village.  When we met he asked me: “So Robert, when are we going to have an all English Orthodox mission on Oahu?”  To which I could only reply, “I’m working on it!”  At this conference I also had the pleasure of meeting his son, Peter Jon, a recent college graduate and talented musician.

I saw Fr. Peter not too long ago at the Antiochian Village for the St. Stephen Course of Study in 2009 and 2010.  He was leading the class sessions on Orthodox evangelism.  Afterwards we would talk briefly about the prospects for starting up an all English Orthodox mission on Oahu, the main island where over half a million people live.  Although there were two ethnic parishes on Oahu, there wasn’t an Orthodox parish that could effectively reach the mainstream of Hawaii’s population.  As director for the Antiochian Archdiocese Department of Missions and Evangelism, Fr. Peter was well aware of the need for an all English Orthodox parish in Hawaii.

Evangelical Pioneer

Fr. Peter Gillquist and his colleagues in the Evangelical Orthodox Church opened a path for Evangelicals to become Orthodox without laying aside their American identity.  Many converts to Orthodoxy even now struggle with the ethnic orientation of the local parishes but thanks to Evangelical pioneers like Fr. Peter, Fr. Jack Sparks (+2010), Fr. Richard Ballew (+2008), and Fr. Harold Dunaway (+2012) many have come to see that Orthodoxy in America can take on an American identity.  It must also be recognized that Metropolitan Philip and Patriarch Ignatius IV took a bold step of faith when they decided to welcome the 2000 Evangelical Orthodox into canonical Orthodoxy.  This bold step forwards would not have been possible without the visionary courage of Orthodox hierarchs like Metropolitan Philip and Patriarch Ignatius IV.  (Fr. Peter wrote an informative biography: Metropolitan Philip Saliba: His Life and His Dreams.)

An Assessment

Fr. Peter Gillquist’s ministry can be summed up in the following themes: Accessibility, Contextualization, and the Task Ahead.

Accessibility.  Fr. Peter and his colleagues at Conciliar Press helped make Orthodoxy accessible to many Evangelicals.  Fr. Peter noted in an interview that many Evangelicals don’t quite have the background to read scholarly introductions like Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church and the Apostolic Fathers so Conciliar Press prepared versions with notes that made Orthodoxy more approachable and understandable to Evangelicals.  Many people’s interest in Orthodoxy began with their reading Fr. Peter’s Becoming Orthodox.

Contextualization.  The Antiochian Archdiocese’s decision to welcome Fr. Peter and his two thousand member Evangelical Orthodox denomination into canonical Orthodoxy in 1987 marked a major advance for the contextualization of Orthodoxy in America.  Orthodoxy in America is no longer viewed as only an exotic ethnic religion.  Anyone who has met Fr. Peter and heard him talk comes away with the feeling that one can indeed be fully Orthodox and genuinely American at the same time.

The Task Ahead.  As much as people have commented on the significance of the 2000 Evangelicals becoming Orthodox in 1987, we also need to be mindful of the limitations of this breakthrough.  American society is becoming increasingly diverse ethnically and culturally.  The 1987 breakthrough consisted of a mostly WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) group becoming Orthodox.  (The term WASP is used broadly; Fr. Peter was proud of his Scandinavian ethnicity.)  I once asked him about what we were doing to evangelize America’s ethnic minorities which would soon become the majority.  He admitted that they were not doing much and that this lay in the future.  Again while I was disappointed with the answer, I admired his humble and kind honesty.

The Road Ahead

There is still much work for us to do.  The road ahead contains a number of major challenges for Orthodoxy in America.  One major challenge is raising Orthodoxy’s public profile.  Even now when someone finds out you’re Orthodox, the response is a blank look or a puzzled: “Orthodoxy?  What’s that?”  We as Orthodox need to take more intentional steps towards raising Orthodoxy’s public profile.  The public needs to be aware of Orthodoxy as the ancient Christian faith holding out the eternal truths of Christ to an increasingly post-Christian society.

Another major challenge is planting Orthodox parishes oriented to the American mainstream.  Reaching out to the mainstream of American society will require the planting of Orthodox churches that worships in English and whose parish life will reflect American culture.  We need to respect the contribution of the ethnic parishes and we need to support the planting of more all English American Orthodox parishes.

Another major challenge is the fact for many inquirers the nearest Orthodox parish is some distance away from where they live.  We need to redouble church planting efforts around the country.  This will require the dedication and hard work of laity and clergy.  We will need Orthodox clergy who are equipped to do pastoral ministry with a missionary mindset.  We will need more clergy who can start up missions where there has been zero Orthodox presence until now.  This is different from the usual pastoral ministry where the priest works to uphold the current parish life, not start a new parish.

The Three Waves of Orthodoxy in America

Orthodox evangelism can be viewed as several waves.  It has been said that the immigrants brought Orthodoxy to America, but that the time is coming when we will need to focus on bringing America to Orthodoxy.  In the first wave, the immigrants began Orthodox parishes as a way of passing on to their children their Orthodox faith and their way of life from the old country.  These are the ethnic Orthodox parishes.  In the second wave, Whites from the American mainstream began converting to Orthodoxy.  Fr. Peter Gillquist was part of the second wave bringing the Orthodox faith to those for whom America is the only home they know.  What began as a small trickle is growing into a significant trend.  These are the all English Orthodox parishes.  The third wave involves bringing Orthodoxy to the minority groups that are rapidly becoming the new majority.  This trend is just on the horizon.  Glimpses of this exciting future can be found on the Ancient Faith Radio series “The Illumined Heart” which features stories by people from diverse backgrounds: New Age, Witchcraft, Judaism, Lutheran, Buddhist, Hinduism, Hare Krishna, Islam, Rastafarian etc.  These are the mosaic Orthodox parishes who reflect America’s increasingly diverse society.

Let us remember Fr. Peter’s life and his dedication to the Gospel.  Below is a prayer used at the Conference on Missions and Evangelism.

Outreach Prayer

You who at all times and in every hour, both in heaven and on earth are worshipped and glorified, O Christ God, long-suffering, plenteous in mercy and compassion, who love the just and show mercy to sinners, who call all men to salvation through the promise of good things to come: assist us in fulfilling Your charge to gather individuals from the highways and byways of our nation [or community] so that we might fill the banquet hall of Your Church.  Grant us wisdom in our conduct toward outsiders that we might make the most of the time.  Let our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that we might know how to answer every one.  Awaken all men to Your salvation, and in due time make them worthy of the laver of regeneration, the remission of sins and the robe of incorruption.  Unite them to Your Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, and number them with Your chosen flock.

That with us they may glorify Your all honorable and majestic Name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Robert Arakaki
Videos of Fr. Peter Gillquist:
Finding the New Testament Church” – St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Church at Oklahoma City, OK in 2001.
“‘Welcome Home’ The Story of the EOC.”  (You can hear Fr. Peter at 2:55 to 3:41.)
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