Monday, January 9, 2017

Some Observations Concerning American Orthodox Missionaries and Their Support

Ma'en Christian's home in far SW Ethiopia

I certainly don’t want to seem ungrateful, or even worse, grasping.  I also need to state from the start that, despite the impression given by my title, I am speaking for no one but myself on this topic.  But having served as a Protestant Evangelical missionary for 11 years, and been supported by Protestant Evangelicals even after I became Orthodox in 2011 for an additional 2 years of transition; and now, having served as an Orthodox missionary for 2 years to the present time, I have observed a few things about the way American Orthodox Christians and American Orthodox Churches support their missionaries.

Monastery chapel under construction in central Kenya

The most striking thing to me about the American Orthodox mission endeavor is how tiny it is.  There are more than two million Orthodox Christians in the United States.  The official missionary sending body approved by all the American Orthodox jurisdictions, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC) in St. Augustine, FL, is currently facilitating the ministries of 19 full-time missionaries in places like Guatemala, Albania and Kenya.  Orthodox Christians are rightly proud of and impressed by what OCMC has accomplished over the years.  But let’s get some perspective.  SIM-USA, the independent interdenominational Evangelical Protestant mission board to which I belonged for 11 years when I was in Ethiopia and then in Kenya, has over 1200 missionaries in more than 40 countries.  There were 100 SIM missionaries in Ethiopia alone when I was there!  I know of another small Protestant denomination (250,000 members) whose denominational mission board has more than 500 missionaries on the field!  All of these missionaries raise their own support, often having budgets between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on family size and particular projects and needs.  All of these missionaries have their own support and prayer teams.  For example, when I was a Protestant Evangelical, we had more than 90 individuals and families contributing monthly towards our support, as well as 7 churches whose mission committees made commitments to give us a certain amount of money every month or quarter.  One church in particular made a commitment to contribute $16,000/year to our support, and did so for more than 13 years.

This missionary preaching when he was a Protestant
and the senior pastor of the International Evangelical Church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I took all this for granted, because it was what this Protestant missionary had experienced.  I thought that most if not all churches were aware of what missionaries did and what their needs were.  I thought that most churches had ‘missions committees’ whose task was to help the church be a good steward of its resources by finding worthy missionaries and projects for the church to engage and to partner with.  I assumed that within every church I visited there would be individuals who were praying and asking God what they should do with their resources, and who were actively looking for missionaries to support and pray for.  Evidently this is not always the case.

This missionary teaching Systematic Theology to Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology
Students in 2009 before he became an Orthodox Christian

I hasten to acknowledge that there are a few Orthodox Churches in the US that are doing tremendous things with respect to missions.  They raise huge sums of money and support many of the OCMC missionaries currently on the field.  There are other Churches who have hosted missionaries and welcomed their presentations and responded warmly to the opportunity to get involved in their ministries.  There are a number of individual Orthodox Christians who have rallied around particular missionaries and missions and given sacrificially to their support.  But let’s face it.  The vast majority of Orthodox Churches in the US have no interest in or concern for the Church’s missionary mandate.  The vast majority of Orthodox Christians are ignorant of what the Bible teaches about missions, ignorant about the history of the Orthodox Churches rich history of missions, ignorant of the unprecedented global expansion of Christianity in the past century, and ignorant of what the Orthodox Church is doing globally today, and of what the current needs and opportunities are.  American Orthodox priests too often share in this ignorance.  And rather than lead their parishes into what should be a central aspect of their stewardship, the priests do little if anything, becoming part of the problem rather than being part of the solution, when it comes to helping each local Church fulfil its missionary calling.

This missionary speaking at an Orthodox Youth Conference
in western Kenya in August of 2016

In spite of the lack of awareness plaguing so many Parishes and their leaders, I have personally experienced astonishing generosity on the part of many Orthodox individuals, priests and Churches.  When I was accepted by OCMC to become a missionary to Kenya, we all thought (feared) it would take more than a year or two to come up with my support (OCMC wisely requires that its missionaries be fully funded before they leave for the field).  I was a convert to Orthodoxy and had never lived in America as an Orthodox Christian - all of my Orthodox experience had been in Kenya, as were all of my Orthodox contacts!  But despite my fears, it actually took me less than seven months to raise full amount of support that I needed.  I had some of my Protestant Evangelical friends who continued to help me.  But the majority of my supporters were new to me - Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Parishes who rallied behind me and enabled me to make the move to Nairobi, Kenya in July of 2015.  So my own experience tells me that American Orthodox Christians and parishes can (and do) support missionaries!

Sometimes missionary travel can be a bit challenging.  On our way to previously
unreached SW Ethiopia.  These places are unreached for a reason.

However, my experience is a bit misleading.  There may be 50,000 people in a football stadium when the football game gets underway.  But only 150 or so people are actually playing the game and facilitating what’s happening on the field.  The other 49,850 people are in the stands watching and otherwise keeping their seats warm.  My observation is that the American Orthodox Church is like that football game.  There are some incredibly engaged individuals and parishes that are making American Orthodox missions possible.  But everybody else is up in the stands, and many of them are not only not paying any attention to what’s happening on the field. Many don’t even know there’s a game on.

In my office at St. Paul's University

Another thing I have observed about American Orthodox mission support, and I’m not entirely sure what this means, is that it consists almost entirely of one-time gifts, at least in my experience.  As a Protestant missionary, I would occasionally receive a one-time gift towards my support from my Protestant Evangelical friends.  But almost all of my support when I was a Protestant Evangelical missionary came in the form of a monthly pledge and subsequent monthly support.  My Orthodox experience has been almost the complete opposite.  A handful of my Orthodox supporters give a monthly amount (and interestingly almost all of them are converts!).  The rest of my support has come in the form of one time gifts.  It may just be me and I may be finding it difficult to transition from one form of support to another.  Most one-time gifts come unannounced and without explanation.  I don’t know if it is only going to appear on my monthly missionary report  this once, or if it will appear next month, and the next month.  I’m not complaining.  I am dependent on the generosity of other Christians who want to partner with me in the work in Kenya I’m called to do. But it’s hard to tell if this is just a one-and-done and the donor is off to other things, or if the donor is giving and genuinely interested in tracking with me and, more importantly, praying for me and with for the issues I’m wrestling with.  I have noticed from my previous experience that those people who do join my monthly support team do tend to pray for me and even correspond with me are those who also give monthly.  And they are aware of what my issues are when they see me.  I cannot tell if my one time donors see themselves as part of my team.  I cannot tell if they are praying for me or tracking with my concerns.  This is a different dynamic from what I experienced before when I was a Protestant missionary.  I’m tempted to say that a one-time gift followed by no response to my thank-you or to my monthly prayer letters or to my blog posts means that the donor is involved insofar as funds have been transferred, but no further.  If this is the case (and ‘if’ is genuinely subjunctive), then that means that I am seen as nothing more than an opportunity for a charitable donation, in the same category as the SPCA (nothing against the SPCA here, they do good work).  But in terms of being engaged with missions, involved with the mission, owning the mission, this seems to be absent.  There have been wonderful exceptions, but these seem to be the kind of exceptions that end up proving the rule.

Presenting a gift of icons to my friend His Grace Athanasios, the bishop of Western Kenya

If (see the above caveat) this is the case, it would go far to explain the general overall weakness of American Orthodox missions.  Many Orthodox are not aware of the need.  Many Orthodox are not aware of what our Bible and Tradition teaches.  Many Orthodox are not aware of what is already being done.  Many Orthodox have never even met an Orthodox missionary or heard one speak.  Many Orthodox don’t know why they should care.  And even when American Orthodox Christians are aware of, say, OCMC, and when they do read mission literature, and they have heard Orthodox missionaries speak - they still don’t know how to get involved, how to support a missionary, how to become a partner in the work.  The only thing most people know how to do is write a check (or set up an electronic transfer).  And we all (donors and even missionaries) operate under the assumption that this is sufficient.
Talking about the different instruments we play for a group of children at
a concert given at the church in Addis Ababa where I was also the senior pastor.

We American Orthodox Christians have justifiably taken pride in the fact that we have our own mission sending agency and we are sending out American Orthodox missionaries.  But we are living in a spiritually irrelevant bubble if we think that what we are currently doing is an adequate answer to the call that is upon all of us as Orthodox faithful and Orthodox parishes with respect to missions and evangelism in the world beyond our little enclaves.  A Church with the resources that we have, with the depth of spirituality that we have - we could easily field more than a thousand missionaries all over the globe - not the mere 19 that we have right now.  And contrary to fears, such a mobilization will not adversely affect ministry at the parish and local level.  In fact, our parishes and local ministries would be so energised by our participation in the centre of God’s heart for His world and in the very purpose of our salvation, that our parishes would grow and our local ministries would expand.  We would have to build more and more Orthodox Churches to accommodate all of the people who would come because they saw that God was among us and at work through us.  More and more American Orthodox Christians would feel vitally connected with the most important ministry of our Church.  They would not only grow in their own relationship with God, they would be involved in the parish at every level.  We would enter into what Biblical stewardship - the kind assumed by Jesus and the Apostles and the Church Fathers - actually means.  Rather than sit idly in the stands as distracted spectators, Orthodox Christians would stream onto the field of intentional Christian engagement and ministry.  Our parishes would be transformed.  Our communities would feel our love.  We would see conversions.  We would participate in the expansion of the Kingdom of God.

Off to my day job as a university lecturer in 2010,
escorted by my dog Rambo.


But that’s not where most of us are right now.  Most of us are complacent, content with the little that we think we know.  However, engaging with God’s missionary agenda starts with becoming aware.  With learning about what’s most important to God.  With being willing to get involved.  With learning how to give.  With learning how to love.  Because that, in the end, is what Orthodox missions is all about.  It's actually what Orthodoxy is all about.  Not just for “those” missionaries out there somewhere, but us Orthodox Christians right here - our call, our mandate is the same: loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  It surprisingly all becomes possible from here.

Grading papers, made less painful by the astonishing beauty around me.