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Evangelism in "Christian" societies: an orthodox homiletic approach.


The globalisation of the economy and the unthinkable development of mass media and transportation and communication have transformed the oldest Christian societies of the northern hemisphere and especially of Europe into multicultural societies.

Re-evangelisation is the answer to the question of what must be done. Faith originates from hearing the missionary preaching that is directed toward the people who are ignorant of the world-saving work of Christ needs to be articulated, keeping in mind the scheme of communication and the special significance of the following factors: transmitter, receiver, topic, message, channel and code. The gospel is addressed to all ages. Youth and intellectuals exhibit more difficulties in acceptance, which calls for the adoption of a special code of communication. Of the utmost necessity is the flame of the transmitter. Electronic channels of communication offer unthinkable possibilities for the transmission of the message of the gospel to innumerable receivers by the use of a variety of codes.

"Christian" societies

It is widely ascertained that societies in the northern hemisphere, and particularly in Europe, are no longer Christian. In the past, those who belonged to one particular Christian tradition or more were statistically the majority. (1) Societies were considered Christian, since religion was seen as a main aspect of culture. In the late 20th century, the abolition of the bipolar political-economic system--with the fall of totalitarian regimes in eastern Europe and the unimaginable technological development in the field of transportation and communications--led to the globalization of the economy. At the same time, this facilitated the movement of various cultural elements and encouraged the massive displacement of people for a range of reasons, from country to country, from continent to continent, and from hemisphere to hemisphere. In this way, predominantly Christian societies became multi-religious. Alongside the historical Christian traditions of Europe, some of which have their roots in the Apostles themselves, newer branches of mainstream Protestantism have been added during our time in various ways. (2) Usually characterized by impetuous missionary zeal, these branches have mostly come from the southern hemisphere, where, during recent decades, the centre of gravity of Christianity has shifted according to common consensus. (3)

However, today's multi-faith, multicultural character of the oldest Christian communities in Europe is not only due to the addition of new members, who are members within the most secularized societies or living on their fringes. The same historical churches gradually lose their flock as the younger generations remain mostly indifferent, while older generations rarely confine themselves to outdated customary habits that were previously associated with the worship of the true God. Today, the essential content has been forgotten and its cultural exterior remains. There are also many who are scandalized by improper conduct and those who do not receive answers to their crucial questions. Subsequently, in the era of numerous options, they look elsewhere.

In this sense, the Christian societies of the past might be considered Christian today only in reference to their cultural roots, as long as there are no more impermeable geographical boundaries for others; however, the same churches seem unprepared to develop a creative dialogue with the contemporary culture, in order to be modernized. There is always a need for courage and the illumination of the Holy Spirit to distinguish the variable elements of a centuries-old tradition from the constant element.

The risk is everywhere: both in the attachment to the past and in the rejection of it. (4)

Even simple observation leads to the conclusion of either partial or complete cases of dechristianization, considering the percentage of people who go to church, their average age, the number of churches served, and the answers given in surveys regarding the personal relationship of people to the church in which direct ancestors were members.

The finding is obvious, yet at the same time painful for churches that have deep roots in the early Christian period and have to show an unbroken testimony of faith amid sorrows, suffering and persecution from the rulers of this world. Furthermore, they must rely on monuments of high artistic creation and profound thought from the past.


The question is clear: What should be done?

The answer, since there is no room for complacency or the exclusive passing on of responsibilities to external factors, is simple and implicit: re-evangelization.

According to the definitions found in the relevant bibliography, (5) the terms "mission" and "evangelism," or "re-evangelism," are distinguished mainly with respect to the recipients of the preaching of the gospel. The first term refers to people who do not know Jesus Christ and his world-saving work, while the second refers to people who have some knowledge, memory or experience of the Christian faith. However inconspicuous this is, it is quite remarkable to observe many people exhibit ignorance, confusion, indifference or opposition to their various Christian cultural backgrounds. In this way, one wonders if the churches are called to re-evangelization or to mission not only "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), but also to the ends of their neighbourhood. This is because the younger generations show many similarities to various "nations," despite the fact that they are surrounded by wonderful monuments of culture, which in their silence recount what the pious have experienced from the greatness of God (6) and subsequently impressed on works of art.

However, the language of art is not always directly understood. Its importance--what we see, hear or touch with our hands--can impress us, lead us to admiration or make us curious. But to understand the connotations, that is, the source of inspiration and the spiritual experience of the author, the appropriate person who has historical knowledge and the same spiritual experiences is needed to give them a voice. In this way, when the external elements, such as of a cathedral, an icon or a hymn, obey styles of earlier times, the question is how viewers or listeners today can consciously access their content, beyond an emotional flare or a qualitative aesthetic enjoyment. This is certainly difficult, because in every period, art that expresses the human search presents different tendencies and employs different material means to express them. Nevertheless, from what we hear from people when they narrate their journey to Christ, surprises are never out of the question. It happens at times that young people who spend hours in squares overlooking an imposing cathedral, which they usually notice only to tell the time on its large clock, are moved to open the door. In the beginning, it is out of curiosity to observe the services going on there, which subsequently becomes a conscious choice.

The sermon, given in a language that the recipient understands, unquestionably holds the pre-eminent place in conveying the message of the gospel and the inclusion of human nature in the body of Christ. Faith originates by hearing (ex auditu) (Rom. 10:7), by the personal testimony of those who live the great mystery, as in all human situations; the spoken word always precedes the written. Regarding the question of St. Paul--"how will they believe, if they do not hear" (Rom. 10:14)--the same answer has always been understood: the undeniable necessity of preaching.

In classical rhetoric, (7) there are three stable factors involved in human communication: the speaker, the listener or interlocutor, and the subject referred to their discussion. Following the scheme of communication (8) that prevailed from the widespread use of technological media following the second world war, the factors that affect the dissemination and uptake of a message have doubled. From the three stable factors, speaker/ transmitter, listener/receiver and subject, three additional factors were added: the channel/medium, the message and the code, which all apply to all vernacular process. Each factor has its own utmost importance for contemporary preaching; however, the successful combination between them would certainly lead to satisfactory results.

Contemporary multicultural society

The world, in which the testimony of life in Christ is given, now enjoys religious freedom, (9) cultivates respect for others, offers an abundance of audio-visual messages, facilitates the swift alteration of media and raises the possibility of numerous choices. In contrast to the intense extroversion and volume of multifarious messages, this form of communication contributes minimally to contemplation, reflection and critical thinking. Its recipients are people of all ages who seek answers to the pressing needs of living, for social injustice, exploitation, corruption, violence, xenophobia and fanaticism, and they seek to discover the meaning of their life in the here and now. Certainly, looking inwardly they seek for meaning beyond the temporary things of this world, since a piece of human nature is to learn both the beginning and the end of God's creation.

The outlet for the proclamation of the gospel: The factors of communication

"Behold, a sower went out to sow...." (Matt. 13:3)

The channel of communication is the medium that selects a transmitter to transmit a message to an audience. In the New Testament, Jesus interprets the Law and the Prophets to people who were familiar with the scriptures, in the temple of Solomon, in synagogues, in homes, in various open spaces (plains, lakeshores, mountains). After the resurrection, the Lord's commandment to the apostles to make disciples of all nations increases the variety of teaching. The Acts of the Apostles, excluding synagogues, referred to the ancient theatre in Ephesus, the agora of Philippi and Corinth and the Areopagus in Athens, the famous podium of public speech of classical antiquity. In these cases, the gospel of grace and truth is directed to people who innately search for the transcendent God (Acts 17:23), but ignore the scriptures. For this reason, the joyous and simultaneously shocking news is encoded accordingly, as per the documentation and its expressive means. (10) This missionary preaching (11) leaves the confines of the church community to go out and meet them and to share with them their great treasure: the God that out of nothing gave people life and the freedom to choose their society together or apostasy. When they themselves voluntarily refused the source of life and were brought to decay and death, God himself took their human flesh to seek them. He assumed human nature in order to grant it life and resurrection by means of his voluntary suffering and death on the cross. (12) Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, is not a theoretical concept, not a transcendent authority hidden within the inconceivable to the human mind time and infinite universe. It is God who remains constantly among people, calling them (Matt. 11:18) to become members of his body, via baptism in the name of the triune God. If they synergize with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, then they draw infinite forces for the daily struggle with the harsh reality and courage for works of love, peace, justice and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18).

This treasure is the fair tidings, the pleasing news, the shocking news that the churches are called to convey again to those who are near, while never disregarding those who are far away. (13) They will meet them face to face in daily contact or use modern methods of communication. Not to lecture them, to examine or to criticize them, but to suggest that they come to know the God of love, mercy and compassion, who offers hope and a way out of pressuring impasses. By no means is this an easy task, since it requires honesty, inspiration, training, affability and distinction in the approach, knowledge of the problems facing modern human beings, and above all a common code of communication in order to avoid "speaking into the air" (1 Cor. 14:9).

The code is the language, the system of linguistic rules that should be shared (14) in order for the content of a conversation to become understood. It goes without saying that when someone speaks only Spanish and the interlocutor only Swedish, there is no verbal understanding between them. Perhaps they may communicate with gestures and with general body language, (15) but linguistic communication, which eminently characterizes people, has a primary importance. Language expresses the human experience and consists of two levels: the signifier and the signified. Nevertheless, it is often possible for the interlocutors to belong to the same linguistic community and be able to recognize the signified, but ignore or differently understand its meaning.

Often it is said that the church should adopt the code of the youth, approaching them using their own code or social dialect--words, expressions or exclamations with a special meaning that young people use when they talk among themselves. This approach can create a favourable emotional affiliation, (16) but it works only as a starting point. Ultimately, it is not the use of the vocabulary of youth that will gain their interest and trust, but honesty and consistency between what is said and what is done by the same preachers in their daily lives.

In the parable of the sower, the seed falls on the whole field. However, the various parts of the field are not equally fertile. This means special care must be taken in sowing and in cultivation. For "the mystery which was hidden for ages and generations was now revealed to the believers. To them God wanted to make known how rich and glorious is this mystery, which extends to the nations. And this mystery is none other than Christ who is among us and it is the hope of their participation in future glory" (Col. 1:26-27). The apostle Paul stresses how much effort it takes, advising and teaching until everyone is perfect in the model of Jesus (Col. 1:28-29).

Dialogue with the intellectuals in the early church

Just over 1700 years ago, when the Edict of Milan (313) concluded the major persecution of Christians, the spread of the message of the gospel faced opposition from intellectual--the orators and philosophers of the time.

For them, the logic of the cross was foolish (1 Cor. 1:18), since it presupposes the acceptance of the revelatory Word and not substantiation by logical arguments, not with persuasive words of human wisdom (1 Cor. 2:4). Similarly, they felt the holy scriptures of the Christians to be worthless--the spoken language of fishermen (Hellenistic Koine) written in a plain style, without stylistic decoration or artistic accumulation of rhetorical figures. Neither of these approaches at that time were seen by intellectuals as expressing any form of high literature (Hoch Literur) or any high meaning, much less the truth.

The dialogue between the great teachers of the undivided church and the intellectuals, during the decisive fourth century of the church, was built on the adoption of a common code. (17) They had attended the same schools with pagans and had excellent knowledge of philosophical thought and of the art of rhetoric. They had a deeply spiritual experience of the light of Christ that shines in the hearts of people and opens the eyes of the mind, (18) so that the message of the gospel is understood in every era. It is precisely their living faith that made them different from their pagan contemporaries, their orator teachers and philosophers of the fourth century in the Mediterranean basin. For this reason, if one compares the works that survived from the renowned orator Libanius (19) with the works of his pupil St. John Chrysostom in the great city of Antioch, one will notice the same linguistic rules and unparalleled use of rhetorical figures. (20) We often still notice the same enthusiastic applause from the audience. (21) However, Libanius applies the available means of persuasion, to emphasize high meanings, while Chrysostom uses them to make known the scriptures to reveal God's wonders that he experienced. Their characteristic difference is the illumination, the flame, the warmth and aura of the Holy Spirit.

It should be noted that in the fourth century, orators and sophists had great public resonance, because they articulated public speech and shaped the public opinion of their time. They played the role of today's politicians, who also take seriously the requirements of Rhetoric in making a speech, placing importance on both the voice and physical gestures. (22) Similarly, many modern preachers of the gospel use various expressive techniques to attract the attention of their audience, who listen to and follow the politicians of the day.

It is always necessary to highlight the essential difference between politicians and ecclesiastical orators. The words of another great Christian orator and philosopher (23) of the fourth century, St. Gregory the Theologian, are timeless: (24)
   Dogmatically, not disputatiously;
   As a fisherman, not as an Aristotelian;
   Spiritually, not mischievously;
   Ecclesiastically, not forensically;
   Beneficially, not ostentatiously.

The aim of the great teachers of the church during the fourth century was clear: they wanted their audience to know the boundaries of the human mind, which seeks God and God's abundant love, out of which he comes to pursue human beings. (25)

The mind does not easily understand these stunning truths. Jesus clearly says that anyone who has a clean heart (Matt. 5:8) is a better recipient of the mystery of the salvation in Christ and will see the face of God. It is the church's duty to be in dialogue with everyone and to do so in a creative way. The example of the God-bearing teachers of the fourth century and the prime example of the mission of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century remain magnificent in the life of the church throughout the centuries and bring clear criteria to the controversial issue of gospel and culture.

Contemporary channels of communication

Our age boasts a multitude of digital media, which are constantly advancing and are able to convey messages with images and words to the ends of the world. These unprecedented and remarkable capabilities proportionally affect all factors of communication. The number of transmitters, receivers and messages are growing to an incalculable degree. Although access to these means is not universal, since it requires familiarity with their use, which is generally not possible in old age, but also requires the means to pay for them. Nevertheless, this technology is spreading everywhere.

It goes without saying that churches must use all social means available to convey their messages, their teaching, their activities and their care for social groups. Moreover, a particular dialogue develops among members of a church or with interested others. In this way, church members are not only formed in their faith, but other newcomers and indifferent people find interesting answers in their search, if they can find genuine answers through the hubbub of messages that appear with only one command on the Internet.

With the contemporary Internet media, the mission discourse of the Acts of the Apostles now has unparalleled possibilities to be expressed to many recipients and with incredible speed. However, what remains irreplaceable is the crucial importance of human presence for communicating and receiving the messages. Without underestimating what they offer, modern media do not cease to be an indirect channel, which does not guarantee live communication between the speaker and the audience. Their voices may be heard talking to each other on a screen from one part of the world to another, but they do not have a direct connection. The first meaning of the word "speech" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], homilia), from which the discipline of homiletics takes its name, is "fellowship." (26) For evangelization and re-evangelization to work, fellowship has a specific meaning. The ethos (27) of the speaker, his consistency, his dedication and above all the breath of the Holy Spirit, which inspires his life, become evident in the lives of those who embraced, preached, and apply it. "And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true" (John 19:35).

From catechesis to baptism

Christ's commandment for the evangelization of the nations, which also clearly applies to re-evangelization, reveals two aims: catechesis and baptism (Matt. 18:19).

The first is the departure of the faithful from the community to meet the nations and to pass on the good news: Christ God "has led us from death to life and from earth to heaven." (28)

The second is the voluntary entrance into the church of anyone who will believe in the life-giving truth. The introductory mystery into the body of Christ is baptism, but in order for the neophyte to continue "in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4), his own free cooperation is required with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The fruits of the Holy Spirit blossom with spiritual cultivation and in the battle against the passions, which darken the mind and drive people to break God's commandments and sin. Instead of works of light and sacrificial love, those who fail in this course slip on the works of darkness, self-absorption and arrogant behaviour. Certainly there always exists a way of return, with repentance and therapy. Jesus affirms: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:56). While the eucharistic community, as it prepares to receive the Holy Gifts during every Divine Liturgy, prays:
   Make us worthy to partake of your heavenly and awesome Mysteries
   from this holy and spiritual Table with a clear conscience; for the
   remission of sins, forgiveness of transgressions, communion of the
   Holy Spirit, inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, confidence
   before You, and not in judgment or condemnation.

Liturgy and the liturgy after the divine liturgy

The definition of "liturgy" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], leitourgia) is well known in ancient Greek: the work of the people of the municipality for their common interests. The Divine Liturgy is a thanksgiving ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], eucharistia) of the people of God for his endless gifts. (29) It is the remembrance of the world-saving work of Jesus Christ. This is a remembrance of the mystery of the divine economy, which with the energy of the Holy Spirit is experienced as a present event, liberating from sin and submission to death for those who partake in the life-giving body and blood of Christ.

Freedom from the evil powers of decay and corruption is not an instantaneous spiritual elation that lasts as long as the Divine Liturgy is celebrated within the walls of the holy temple. It is the driving force that propels the faithful to a way out to society, to fulfill the "liturgy after the Divine Liturgy," in daily life, to all the active places, "to liberate people from all of the demonic structures of injustice, exploitation, distress, loneliness and the creation of one real society of people in love." (30)

Within contemporary society, where religion comprises a product of choice for people, without the requirement by law or by cultural backgrounds, the church has reserved rights, which allow it to transfer its message by all the available lines of communication and with all the potential semiological codes. (31) The faithful can raise their voice of protest together with other social groups against hate, injustice and exploitation, which destroy the natural environment, and against the bombing and levelling of cities and villages that bury countless lives within the ruins. They can criticize the devaluation of human dignity, the violation of fundamental human rights, the replacement of human values with the stock market and consumer purchases. They can alleviate human suffering and can deal with the problem of human suffering in various ways, and Christ identifies himself (Matt. 25:40). They can give vision, hope and meaning for life to people.

This liturgy of the faithful within the community requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the sharing in the light (Luke 24:4) that flowed from the tomb of the risen Christ and the mindset (in Greek, phronema) of the cross and of the resurrection. In this way, their light will shine before the people, so the people can see their good works and for the glorification of our Father who art in heaven (Matt. 5:16).

The church goes out to meet people, not to judge, frighten or condemn them, but to give witness to them that our God is among us, that he is the conqueror of death and is the inexhaustible source of love, justice, peace and hope. All who accept the truth enter the sanctuary in order to become, by baptism, members of the body of Christ, communicants of the holy body and blood of Christ, so that the gifts of the Holy Spirit may bear fruit in the liturgy after the liturgy. Subsequently, the people themselves come out to the altar of the society to be united with other groups in the struggle for social justice, peace and reconciliation.

(1) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (John Petrou, Religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue in today's society),

(2) Dana L. Robert, "Witness and Unity in 21st Century World Christianity,"

(3) Hubert van Beek, Revising Christian Unity, Revisioning Christian Unity: The Global Christian Forum (Oxford: Regnum Books International, 2009), vii--ix, 3-28.

(4) -eglise/?searchterm=vivre%20autrement.

(5) Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing landscapes (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2013), para. 85.

(6) "... They led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men...." The Christianization of Russia (988),

(7) Aristotle, Rhetorica a, 1356a.

(8) International Encyclopedia of Communication, Vol. 3, Models of Communication (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 36-43.

(9) John Petrou, "The Importance of the World Conference on 'Church and Society' and Its Methodology: An Orthodox Critical Approach,"

(10) D. E. Aune, "Diatribe," Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), Kindle edition, location 3485--3542.

(11) Alistair Stewart-Sykes, From Prophecy to Preaching: A Search for the Origins of the Christian Homily (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 4.

(12) St John Chrysostom, Divine Liturgy, Prayer of Anaphora.

(13) Archbishop Anastasios, Mission in Christ's Way: An Orthodox Understanding of Mission (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press and Geneva: WCC Publications, 2010), 25-41.

(14) Andre Martinet, Cours de linguistique generate (Paris: Armand Colin, 1970), 6-21.

(15) Pierre Guiraud, La semiologie (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1973), 60.

(16) Cicero, De Inventione, exordium (proemium), captatio benevolentiae.

(17) George Kustas, Studies in Byzantine Rhetoric (Thessaloniki: Analecta Vlatadon, 1973).

(18) Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, prayer before the gospel reading.

(19) A. J. Festugiere, Antiochepaienne et chretienne: Libanius, Chrysostom et les moines de Syrie (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1971); G. V. Bowersock, Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

(20) A. M. Patterson, Hermogenes and the Rennaissance: Seven Ideas of Style (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970).

(21) Eusebius, Historia, 7, 30.

(22) Cicero, De Inventione, pronuntiatio (performance), vocis figura (figure of the voice), corporis modus (mode of the body).

(23) Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gregory of Nazianzus: Rhetor and Philosophus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969).

(24) Gregorius Nazianzus, Or Theol. PG 36, 13CD, 25A.

(25) Double theological methodology of the Greek Fathers: charismatic referring to the uncreated God and academic dealing with the manifestation of the faith in the created space and time. Experimental theology/knowledge about the creation: see Nikos Matsoukas, Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology (Thessaloniki: Ed. Pournaras, 1996); in Greek.


(27) Aristotle, Rhetorica, 1355 b sqq.

(28) 1st Ode of the Paschal Canon of John of Damascus.

(29) Alkiviadis Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy, Vol. 4, Church, Clergy, Laity and the Spirit Life (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2013), 73-75.

(30) Anastasios, Mission in Christ's Way, 94-96.

(31) Jeanne Martinet, Clefs pour la semiologie (Paris: Seghers, 1975).

Dimitra Koukoura

Dr Dimitra Koukoura is Professor of Homiletics at the Faculty of Theology of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH). She studied Classics, Linguistics and Theology (AUTH, Sorbonne, Institut Catholique de Paris) and has been involved in the ecumenical movement for many years, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. She is a former member of the Plenary Commission and the Standard Commission on Faith and Order and is a current member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.
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Author:Koukoura, Dimitra
Publication:International Review of Mission
Geographic Code:4E0EE
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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