Scripture separated from its context can be confusing, misleading, and even destructive. Take the well-worn Bible college criticism of the way Orthodox and Roman Catholic faithful address their clergy, Matthew 23:9 (call no man father). The literal application of Mark 16:19 (snake-handling) is downright scary. Women's southern summertime fashions being what they are, I'm grateful that no one is advocating an exact application of Mark 9:47 (if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out).
The ripping and twisting of scripture is not the sole domain of the folks who think that mega-churches are "non-denominational" and that the Orthodox Church was "founded" in the 19th century with the rise of nationalism. We Orthodox also know how to play the game of "Bible pick and choose." My favorite contemporary Orthodox exegetical distortion is Luke 15:4: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it?"
America's Orthodox Christians look at the beautiful image of the Good Shepherd returning home with the lost little lamb around his neck and say to themselves "Let's find all of the people who have ethnically Orthodox last names and get them 'back' in the pews!" Behold, another Lost Sheep Committee is born.
For all of the Lost Sheep Committees that have come and gone, this is an evangelical paradigm that has yielded little or no fruit. Why? Persons with "Orthodox" last names who don't live the life of the Church do so by choice. They are sheep who have fled the flock -- if they are even sheep at all. More importantly, Lost Sheep Committees don't work because they are based on faulty exegesis. Luke 15:4 must be placed in the broader setting of verses four through seven:
15:4 "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? 15:5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 15:6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.' 15:7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Emphasis added.)
Jesus uses the image Luke 15:4-7 to tell us that He is the good shepherd who calls each human being to repentance, and to remind us that His redemptive ministry is focused not on maintaining the status quo of the righteous but on the reclamation of the fallen. If we are to follow the words of the Lord, then we must go after the lost sheep. We just need to make sure that we know who those lost sheep are.
Who the Lost Sheep Aren't
Igor Czht came to the United Stated from Slobovia when he was in his early twenties. After spending a couple of years working for his cousin in Chowderland, USA at the Chowderland House of Pottery (Slobovians are renowned pottery makers), Igor moved south to Countryland, USA. Twenty years after arriving in America, he operates the lucrative Countryland House of Pottery. He spends Saturday evenings consuming copious amounts of Slobovian brandy and playing cards and passes his Sundays fishing on his pontoon boat. He last sat through Liturgy two years ago, when his mother was visiting from the old country.
When Igor is asked why he doesn't come to church, he answers with no hesitation: "They're too judgmental."
"But the priest, Father Boris, is energetic and hard working."
"He's the worst. He hates all Slobovians."
"Have you talked to him?"
"I don't need to. I've heard all about him at the Slobovian Men's Club."
"But Father Boris' dad was Slobovian and he speaks the language. He even co-authored the book "Slobovian Pottery and the Major Feasts of the Church."
"Look," says Igor. I don't need to go to no gee-dee church to be no gee-dee Christian."
Igor might be described as a certain four-legged animal with three letters in its name, but he is certainly no lost sheep. He has never been part of the flock and has no recognition of his need for repentance. Yet, Orthodox churches around the country spend countless hours wringing their hands over the fact that the Igors of the world could care less about the Church.
Am I saying that Igor doesn't deserve a phone call, card, or a visit? Of course not. But wasting too much of the parish resources on getting Igor "back" in Church is irresponsible. Worse than Igor's not participating in the life of the community would be Igor's hanging around the parish with the destructive attitude that he harbors. Instead of reclaiming a lost sheep for Christ, the parish would be deliberately introducing a disease into the flock.
Who the Lost Sheep Might Be
Panagiotis and Panagiota Pappas moved to Countryland three months ago. For a long time they had no idea that there was an Orthodox parish in their new city. The Slobovian parish has a one line listing in the white pages and their website has been under construction since the days of dial-up. When Panagiota finally found the number for the parish, someone answered the phone "Slobovian Church."
Undaunted, she and Panagiotis drove to Liturgy the following Sunday. They drove past the church the first time (the sign is three feet by three feet). Then they drove around the block twice trying to find the entrance into the parking lot. After walking into the narthex, they were shown which were the "one-dollar" and which were the "five-dollar" candles. After the Liturgy, the priest made a point of welcoming "Mr. and Mrs. Panagiotis" and invited them to come next door for coffee hour-where no one spoke to them.
The Pappas' are sheep in search of a flock. Meeting their needs requires only a little more money and a little less parochialism. Instead of placing their light under a bushel, the Slobovian parish needs to spend some money on a decent phonebook ad and Web presence. Dare I say it? Even an occasional radio spot would be nice.
Get some signage that helps people find the church. Do something about the parking lot traffic flow. At least pretend to be happy to see visitors. And please, please, please stop calling yourself the "Slobovian Church."
Who the Lost Sheep Are
Jane and John Whitebread live in a 2800 square-foot house in a gated community. Both are educated and have good jobs. Jane was raised Baptist, but hasn't set foot in church for years. John's folks were never part of a faith community.
The Whitebreads work hard. Like most Americans, they enjoy creature comforts that antiquity's royalty couldn't even dream about. John goes through a bottle of scotch per week, and Jane is into retail therapy. Weeknights they fall asleep on the couch and love seat watching cable news. Saturday evenings are spent having gin and tonics with the neighbors.
They wake up with headaches Sunday morning. John stumbles out to the curb and retrieves the Sunday paper. A pot of coffee and a crossword puzzle later it's time to think about mowing the lawn and getting caught up on the laundry.
Meanwhile, the Whitebread kids carry out their Sunday morning ritual. Their 13-year-old son IM's his friends while checking out porn sites. Their nine-year-old daughter is glued to the TV. The six-year old plays video games.
Jane and John feel like something is missing in their lives. They wonder if it might be religion, but abandon the idea. They can't relate to the fundamentalists that are always preaching to them at PTA and neighborhood association meetings. They think preachers in golf shirts and khakis look silly. Pithy church signs, services that start at 4:48 p.m., simplistic answers to complex questions, and moral stances that seem to accommodate society's trends leave John and Jane cold. "Isn't there a religion that offers a set of practices and beliefs that doesn't require you to throw out half your brain or agree that gay marriage is a necessary step in cultural evolution?" they wonder.
The Whitebreads are America's lost sheep. They don't even know it, but they're the reason that God became man. They have a life of comfort that is anything but abundant. What will we Orthodox do to help them out of their stupor and into the light of the Kingdom? This is the defining question for American Orthodoxy.
I don't pretend to know the answer to this question. But I do know that fulfilling the Great Commission means that we must stop squandering our time and energy on going after ornery pottery makers and start going after the real lost sheep. Along the way we might want to make ourselves more visible and accessible.
And if a visitor wants to pay one dollar for a five dollar candle, it's cool. The church pays less than a quarter for them in the first place.
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.