July 20, 2010

Archbishop Demetrios: Reaching Out to Non-Believers

March/April 2010
Orthodox Observer

In our previous reflections, we have focused on the theme "Gather My People to My Home," as it relates to our calling to reach out to all people and invite them to come and see the power and beauty of faith and experience the love of God within our communities.

by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America

As we have examined, this calling is to reach out to those who have become disassociated from their Orthodox faith, to the unchurched, and to others who are struggling to find answers to the questions of life.

Another group of people that we need to engage with the truth and love of the Gospel consists of those who openly profess that they do not believe in God. An initial response to people in this group may be to avoid them altogether or to dismiss their claims. In either case, however, we are facing a real challenge. How do we meet this challenge and provide a faithful and loving witness to those who deny the existence of God?

First, we have to ask if such a position can be a firm one. The goal here is not to enter into great philosophical disputes over the existence of God. While this has its place in applying intellectual principles to the question, such exercises are often far removed from the realities of our human condition and needs. Our approach in gathering people to the Church should be from our own experience of the divine, the transforming presence of Christ in our lives, and the strength, joy and peace we find in communion with Him and one another.

We also need to recognize that statements of disbelief often mask deep struggles and insecurities, tremendous questions about the purpose and meaning of life, or even challenging experiences of the past. When we have this awareness of the underlying issues that may have led someone to express disbelief in God, we can equip ourselves for a ministry of compassion that is a witness of God's love. Souls in this state probably will not find Christ through arguments over truth and faith. The proof of God's existence will be love. This is the love that our Lord revealed and taught. This love, Christ's love that is in us, is revealed when we are ready and willing to reach out to anyone in need. For a brother or sister in Christ, we may act with no hesitation. Our challenge and our calling is to give to and love those who deny the existence of God. This represents true faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring truth and grace into the life of any person.

Second, in our ministry of compassion and witness of faith to those who do not believe in God, we need to be confident in our own faith and relationship with Him. In the face of adversity this can be challenging. But we have to be strong, even bold. This is not a boldness that is directed at another person in hostility, but it is the characteristic fruits of the Holy Spirit, i.e., love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the attributes that should also characterize our relationships with those who do not believe in God. Through our bold and constant witness of faith and love in friendship and in response to crisis or needs, the souls of those who deny the existence of God may be illumined with the light of truth.

A third aspect of our calling to gather unbelievers into God's home is that this is a ministry of prayer and patience. Regular prayer for those who deny the existence of God is necessary as we seek His guidance and as we keep our hearts and minds prepared for every opportunity to show His love. He will hear our petitions for the soul of another and will ensure that a witness of His presence and love will be revealed. Our life of prayer will also nurture patience. Souls filled with disbelief are not always brought to faith through miraculous events. For many it is the careful nurturing through our witness that will lead a person to abandon his or her denial and open their heart to the mercy and blessings of God.

Our efforts to bring unbelievers to God are decisively facilitated by the display of our unity as believers and as community. Our Lord prayed that the believers may all "be one, even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You; that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent me" (John 17:21). We are bound together in Christ, brothers and sisters of faith, gathering to God's home, to worship Him, receive His grace, and proclaim the Gospel of salvation. All of this unites us in a beautiful and blessed way.

In our witness to all, and especially to unbelievers, it is our unity of love and mission that will affirm the presence and power of God. As parishes of love and faith, we live and serve in this world as the embodiment of true communities that reveal the peace and unity of the kingdom of God.

May our good and gracious God make us worthy to be strong witnesses to unbelievers, and lovingly lead them to Him and to the ineffable joy of life and truth granted by Him.