Does your parish have a dedicated outreach or missions and evangelism team? Fr. Evan Armatas boldly suggests that the Great Commission cannot be sequestered to committee - it must be at the heart of parish life!
Reflecting on Hebrews 13 where the Apostle Paul summarizes, "Do not neglect to good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God," Fr. Evan demonstrates how there's always room for one more at the table. He affirms that the degree of diversity within the parish directly correlates to the degree of parish health.
Fr. Evan shares how the Great Commission is inextricably linked to parish health in his new book, Reclaiming the Great Commission: A Roadmap to Parish Health. The book is written as a practical guide for parish leaders to digest and implement in order to reclaim the Great Commission toward parish health.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You're listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. Father Timothy Lowe is our co host. He's a retired priest and former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. And our special guest today is Father Evan Armatas, author of the newly released book, Reclaiming the Great Commission: A Roadmap to Parish Health. So hello, Fr. Timothy, and welcome Fr. Evan. So excited to have you join us again today!
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:44
Greetings to both of you.
Fr. Evan Armatas 0:45
Thank you, Hollie. And Fr. Timothy, it's good to be with you again.
Hollie Benton 0:49
Thanks so much. We're really happy that you're here with us. So let me share with our listeners a bit more about you, Father Evan. You serve at St Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado. And you're the host of Orthodoxy Live on Ancient Faith Radio, which is every Sunday night. You have two books out. The first is Toolkit for Spiritual Growth, A Practical Guide to Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. And then your latest book, as I mentioned before, Reclaiming the Great Commission, A Roadmap to Parish Health. Parish health is an important focus for the work that we do with the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And I really love how the title of your book suggests that parish health is inextricably linked to doing what is commissioned in the gospel of Christ. Could you say a little more about parish health and how it is linked to the Great Commission? Do you think that sometimes we're tempted to separate parish health from the Great Commission or to prioritize one over the other?
Fr. Evan Armatas 1:56
Yeah, I do. I think, unfortunately, many of us will take the Great Commission, extract it, and form a committee or a team, as opposed to seeing parish health as part of the Great Commission and vice versa. You know, sort of like the chicken and the egg, which came first, you know. If we're healthy, the Great Commission is part of our life as a community. And if we pursue the Great Commission, we become healthy. I once infamously said at the first ever national outreach and evangelism conference, when asked the question about outreach and evangelism, that not a single parish should have an outreach and evangelism team. But instead, we should be pursuing our overall spiritual and communal health and outreach and evangelism follows, you know.
Hollie Benton 2:55
I love that it's, it's kind of like seeing the church as the body of Christ, you know, you can't really separate it all out and expect it to function. Right?
Fr. Evan Armatas 3:04
Yeah. And I think, you know, look, when you have a healthy Christian, and when you have a healthy Christian community, the Great Commission is part of that. Right? If you are unhealthy, or if you're growing in your faith, and you encounter the Great Commission, you will, in growing, incorporate it. So that's why I'm saying, you know, it kind of comes from either end. What I love about it, too, is it's not as if at any point, we can say, well, I'm healthy enough. Or I've fulfilled the Great Commission, I'm done. I love that it's more of a continuum. It's a goal we are in constant pursuit of, and we don't have to compare. We don't have to have regret. We just simply begin where we are. And we move forward.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 3:49
You're talking about the last four verses of the entire Gospel of Matthew, the final command. Can you imagine a church without adhering to his last words?
Fr. Evan Armatas 4:00
Well, I can't, but I can say, Father, that you know, many people have said the Great Commission becomes the great omission. It's unfortunate because, I talk about in the book, there are I think, several reasons why that occurs in our communal life and in our personal life. But I'm with you. How can we imagine a church that does not pursue the Great Commission? It should be primary to our existence, right? Especially when we're excited about what we've received, you know, in the experience we've had, you know, that's just it's through that pearl of great price. You know, when once you've received it, you're gonna, you're gonna get rid of everything else in pursuit of it.
Hollie Benton 4:44
So Fr. Evan, you suggested Hebrews 13:16 for today's scriptural daily bread. "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God." And this comes near the end of the Epistle to the Hebrews where the Apostle Paul reiterates brotherly love, showing hospitality, remembering those in prison, honoring marriage, and being content with what you have. This letter reminds me of the interaction that goes on between parents and children just before they'll be apart for a significant time, you know, maybe leaving them with a babysitter or leaving them at their college dormitory for the first time. "Do this. And be sure to do that. And remember to do this and don't forget that." So this verse that you suggested seems to summarize all of the litany of instruction Paul is packing into this last chapter so well. "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have for such sacrifices are pleasing to God," a great reminder from any parent to his child. So is there anything else that we should consider about the context of this verse in Hebrews?
Fr. Evan Armatas 5:54
Yeah, I mean, I think for myself, I can recall the first time I came across the words in my gospel reading that recounted Jesus's admonition comes in the Gospel of Luke, where he says, you know, "Why do you call me Lord, and not do the things I tell you?" And it hit home from the standpoint of being, you know, one of five children and my mother saying, "You're not listening to me." And my response was, "Yes, I am." And she said, "No, you're not because you haven't done what I asked you," right? And there's a sense that obedience can be a sort of a negative term, or, perhaps a duty or a task. But really, at least my understanding of the word as it appears in the original Greek in the scriptures is it, it really has more to do with being attentive to listening. What that means is, you know, St. Paul himself, being a devout follower of Christ, and sharing all that he shared, is I think you've beautifully summarized in your summation of the verse, He's attempting to share what he's received, and what he's lived. And then like a good parent, I think your statement works. He's now saying, look, it's really not enough if those instructions and this way of life remains within you. Of course, it begins there, but it then has to move out. And so that's why I love that, "Do not neglect to do good, and to share what you have." And in a sense, I suggested this passage, because, you know, it's not a passage that made it into the book, but it's a passage that could have, because we can look at that within our communities. I talked about the barrier of, you know, really becoming, if you will, parochial, not building bridges, and being insulated, as opposed to being welcoming. This verse challenges us. And I love how it turns into the idea of sacrifices that are pleasing to God. Because, you know, sacrifice is worship. You know, that's what worship is. It's offering sacrifices, and what Paul's equating to good and sharing, you know, preaching and teaching, you know, the gospel, and doing the things that are acts of love and service to others is a sacrifice. That's worship. Because we as Orthodox can just think, Well, we did the liturgy, and we did it beautifully. You know, we, we sort of shared our beautiful hymns and theology with ourselves. And that's enough. But it isn't. You know, there's the liturgy after the liturgy. And that's what speaking to me when I read the verse.
Hollie Benton 8:42
Yeah, more than just in one ear and out the other, but in one ear and out to your feet and your hands, for sure. You know, the liturgy after the liturgy.
Fr. Evan Armatas 8:51
Yeah. Right. Right. Indeed, yeah.
Hollie Benton 8:55
So in what ways does this instruction, "Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God," in what ways do you see this clearly aligning to the Great Commission and even to parish health?
Fr. Evan Armatas 9:10
For me, when I began to write the book, I kind of have a litmus test, at least I did with the first book and that is, share it with my children and have them read excerpts and see if I'm capturing their attention and their hearts, right. So I was sharing an excerpt of the new book, reclaiming the Great Commission with my second daughter. I've got three daughters and a son. And my daughter, Eleni said to me, why are you writing this book? And my immediate response was, I said, Well, it has to be written. And she said, why? And I said, because there's a great amount of sorrow in my experience of going from parish to parish with how they are lining up with the Great Commission and I feel that while I might not be the best spokesperson, and I'm certainly not the person who should have written this book, I feel kind of like Paul, woe is me if I don't preach the gospel, like, I've got to write this book. And I want to encourage and stimulate the communities of the faithful across the US and the globe, to reclaim and begin building again, that fervor and that desire to share what we've received. And so when you look at this verse, as you said, that comes at the end of Hebrews, Paul is assuming, it's there in the text, that they are now in a position of having received an inheritance, right. And we could get a little more technical. And we could say that they have now a paradosis, which is the word that is translated as tradition. But a paradosis is something that you received, and then you faithfully without adding or detracting, hand over to someone else. And so Paul is, if you will, at the end of this letter saying, Okay, you have something now, you have an inheritance, you've moved from darkness to light, you've moved from justice to mercy, you've moved from selfishness to generosity, you have been initiated in the mysteries of God, you've been built up as His people, you cannot neglect that good that you've received by failing to share it. That's the neglect, you don't share it, then you failed. Right. And so I think it directly connects because, you know, someone said to me recently, Father, isn't it weird that there are these new people that are very different than us showing up in our churches? And I said, Why do you think it's weird? And they said, well, because they're different. And I said, so is weird the right choice? And they said, Well, maybe it's maybe it's unusual. Behind that really is, in my view, a misapprehension or a misunderstanding. And I said to them, Do you believe Orthodoxy to be good enough for you? And they said, Oh, it's my greatest treasure! And I said, Well, then why wouldn't it be good enough for anyone else? Why isn't it good enough for anyone else? So we all need a sense of urgency here to wake up and to start offering what we've received back out into the world, otherwise it spoils. It's like a piece of fruit you got, and you don't eat it, nor do you share it, you just let it sit and spoil.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 12:46
As Paul started chapter 13. And talking about showing hospitality to strangers. That word hospitality is love of the stranger.
Fr. Evan Armatas 12:56
Philoxenia. Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 12:59
So your your parishioner, as an example of someone was like, What's going on here? This is so fundamental. Philoxenia as opposed to just fear of the xeno. (xenophobia) And that comes up so much in daily life. You know, we call it racism or whatnot. But I have too many personal examples of seeing this that I wouldn't want to share because it's private, but it happens day in and day out both in our parishes. And until there is love of the stranger, which is the Great Commission. Why go out? Why bother? Why make the effort to teach because ultimately as the command is to baptize and to teach and not everybody of course can teach, right? But they can share. Whatever it is that they have, whatever it is they've been given, they can share it with their neighbor. And that's transformative. Any of us who have ever experienced hospitality in all of its myriad of forms, you know, not just material, but other. It transforms the little place where you are. You know, I live in a neighborhood, that's a cul de sac, which is wonderful, because it's quiet, right? There's no through streets. There's eight houses. I've been here two and a half years. I have not had a meaningful conversation with any of the eight houses except two. And we have not shared a meal in any capacity. So you have eight strangers. Now is that the lack of love of the stranger? Hospitality? Or is it just the degeneration of culture and everybody's busy and we cohabitate in suburbia, but literally, I can go six months without seeing, visually seeing my next door neighbor, which means you go to work, you don't see each other, you come home, you shut the doors, that's it. It is none of this fellowship, if you will. And it's so impoverishing, for everybody. And this is a key point if people can share it, it is enriching to everyone to both the giver and the receiver. And if we don't get this basic fundamental of life, because it's not sophisticated spirituality, it is so fundamental to social interaction and being part of something greater than ticky tacky little life.
Fr. Evan Armatas 15:08
Yeah, yeah, in the book, I tell two stories, one of them being from my own upbringing. My grandmother of blessed memory, on Sundays would always have an afternoon meal. She would cook all day Saturday. And then after liturgy, her home was open, and the family would come over. But if you met someone at church, you'd bring them, if there was a visitor from out of town, they'd come. My grandparents weren't well off, and so, you know, I remember their tableware, and the furniture was mismatched. She did have a dining room table, that was the nice table that we sat on Sundays and on holidays, and she'd set that, and then there'd be a card table with, you know, a different plate, and cup and set of silverware. And she would set it for who she thought was coming over. And then invariably, somebody would show up. So she'd get another little broken down card table out and a chair off the back porch and she'd put that and then she'd grab a plastic plate, and it just kept going, right. And she'd make room. And it didn't matter if the people who came use their knife and fork rightly, if they understood the rules of the house, because her perspective was, well they'll sit and eat with us. And as they eat with us, they'll learn. Now, our communities often do not operate in that way, right? We kind of have our elbows out. And we don't set the table for others. And we don't give them a place of honor. And we don't allow them to eat with the family. And there's lots of reasons for that. You know, Father, you were mentioning some of them. The second story I tell in the book is a modern day parable of a life saving station, where its initial idea is to save lives, and it sets up its business on a dangerous sea coast. And shipwrecks occur and they're rescuing people. And pretty soon people like what they're doing and they join in. But, you know, they take the ramshackle lifesaving station and they improve it a little bit. And pretty soon they they don't want these wet bedraggled sea wrecked people, you know, shipwrecked people to be brought into their nice clubs. So they build outdoor showers and an outdoor facilities. And in fact, eventually, they don't even want to go out to sea. So they hire some people to do the work for them. And then pretty soon, there's a split in the membership. And some people say, Well, isn't this our job? Because inside the nice clubhouse, all I see is sort of a framed life buoy, and a shellacked old rowboat that we used to use. And people in the club say, Well, if you want to do that, you know, take that somewhere else. And so off they go to start another. And I think that comes in our churches. We forget that we're about saving lives, and that this is our work, and we get invested in other important, not necessarily bad things, but we lose sight of our main purpose, welcoming in those who not only are strangers, but oftentimes don't smell good or look right or have different perspectives, you know. So anyway.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 18:24
You know your story about your grandmother's amazing, amazing and transformative, truly.
Fr. Evan Armatas 18:28
Yeah, I did a sermon once, which I literally just acted it out. I set up a table, I put one place setting, I asked someone if they'd like to come sit at it. They did. And then I said to him, Do you think there's room? And it was a small table. And they said, Yeah, Father, I think you can get another person. I brought another person, I set the table. And I said to them, Do you think there's room for more? Yeah, I think so. So we brought another and I just kept going until you know everybody was like, oh, we get it.
Hollie Benton 18:56
Yeah, there's a tradition in a lot of Eastern European countries that you don't split the table. You have it wind through the hallways, there's always enough room, you just keep adding boxes and furniture and whatever you need to just get everybody seated around the table. I love it. Those weird and different people, in many ways, I see them extending a degree of mercy and generosity by making room in their lives and their schedules to show up and to assume that, you know, they don't see us as different, at least not as different enough that they can't meet us and participate and see what's going on in our churches.
Fr. Evan Armatas 19:34
Yeah, and that measure, Hollie, of diversity is a measure of health. If we're not idea diverse, if we're not age diverse, if we're not economically diverse, politically diverse, those communities that become monolithic, you know, it's just like we would see in the natural world if the genetic pool isn't mixed up. It gets disfigured and you get weak and we want to see the diversity. It's the hallmark of health, but we've often pursued the opposite. Just people like us, right?
Fr. Timothy Lowe 20:07
Fear in all of its manifestations. Yes.
Hollie Benton 20:11
Right. So I'm going to provide a link for your book so that people can get their own copy of Reclaiming the Great Commission: A Roadmap to Parish Health. I will say too, that the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative has also promoted your book at our conference. And I love how each chapter has the review of main ideas. It has just some simple action items and some questions for further contemplation. I know with our peer learning group among the clergy, they've taken your suggestion of entering into their church with new eyes, fresh eyes, how would a visitor see my church through the doorway, the restrooms, the signage, you know, all of that. And I also know a few other parishes have reached out to me saying, Hey, we're doing a book study with this book. Love it. Thank you. And so thank God for His provision through you for making it clear to you that the book just needed to be written. So thank you, Fr Evan.
Fr. Evan Armatas 21:06
Well, I'll be honest with you all, I think that there's a lot of us within the Orthodox world who are becoming more and more attentive to this topic and seeing it as kind of a linchpin to what can occur moving forward. In many ways we could say some parishes for their first 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, were just surviving and welcoming in those who came as refugees from different parts of the world. But we're positioned now differently. And as such, we can no longer live attached to a paradigm of 100 years ago, or 50 years ago. The paradigm shifted, and we have to shift and we have to position ourselves differently and serve the needs of the community next door to us. Because I asked the question in the book, you know, if your parish ceased to exist would anyone in your community notice, right? That's a good question. Right? So I'm glad to hear that people, within the sphere of influence that Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative has, has begun to use and I appreciate your constant support. I think that this organization and the work it's doing is transformative and essential.
Hollie Benton 22:21
Thank you, Fr. Evan. So grateful for your time today. Thank you for the resource for so many parish leaders who really want to embrace the paradigm shift and to just be responsible to the neighbors, to the community around us.
Fr. Evan Armatas 22:37
Pleasure. Great to be with you again.
Thanks to both of you.
Hollie Benton 22:39
Thank God! Thank you so much. Appreciate the time.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai