Liturgy as a Way of Evangelisation
Evangelisation is the proclamation of the good news of salvation. It is not merely teaching a system of beliefs or transmitting a moral code. In this article Professor Archimandrite Job Getcha highlights the connection between evangelisation and our encounter with the living God in the Orthodox Liturgy.


Evangelisation is the proclamation of the good news of salvation. It is not merely teaching a system of beliefs or transmitting a moral code. Therefore, evangelisation should always be linked with a personal experience, and an encounter with the living God, and not only with a pedagogical method. For the Orthodox Church, mission and evangelisation have always been linked with the liturgical experience. Worship has always been the starting point of mission and the heart of evangelisation.

If we look in history, we can find several illustrations of this. One can recall the story of Cyril and Methodius. In the 9th century, when Rastislav, the chief of the people of Moravia, became irritated by the attitude of the Franc missionaries who were using Latin in the evangelisation process of his people, he asked the Byzantine emperor Michael III to send him missionaries who would know the Slavic language. Then the two learned brothers of Thessalonica, Cyril and Methodius, were sent to Moravia, and started their missionary work by translating the liturgical lectionary into the Slavic language as well as the liturgical books. It is said that Cyril translated the text of the four gospels to be read at worship, as well as the texts of the various liturgical services: matins, hours, vespers, compline and the Divine Liturgy. This is an important detail: the two famous missionaries did not start their evangelisation mission by translating a catechism, neither a handbook of doctrine, nor a compilation of sermons, but by bringing the liturgical texts to the language of the local people so that their mission could be done by the means of the liturgy.

Another great example is the conversion of Kievan Rus’ around 988. In the famous Russian Primary Chronicle, it is said that the decisive point in the Christianisation of the Russian people was the experience of Prince Vladimir’s legates attending worship at Saint Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty”.

Indeed, this beauty, which is transmitted through the liturgical worship, is perceived in the Orthodox Church as an epiphany of Heaven on earth, as a way of uniting to the heavenly beauty, a bridge between the Kingdom of God and this world, a connecting point between time and eternity. Through worship, the Christian message does not remain merely a dead letter but becomes a living spirit, which vivifies and deifies.

This story shows us that one cannot reduce Christianity to a series of moral rules, neither to a philosophical or doctrinal system. Christianity is a way of life, where doctrine is inseparable from the glorification of God. According to Georges Florovsky, “Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second”[1]. Through worship, the true glorification becomes the expression of the true doctrine: “lex orandi” becomes “lex credendi”, since worship is the bearer and transmitter of faith. This is an important fact that one should have always in mind when addressing the question of Christian evangelisation and mission in today’s world.

Recalling his encounter with the Orthodox Church when he was a young student, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia writes:

“As I entered St. Philip’s – for that was the name of the [Russian Orthodox] church – at first I thought that it was entirely empty. Outside in the street there had been brilliant sunshine, but inside it was cool, cavernous and dark. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the first thing that caught my attention was an absence. There were no pews, no chairs in neat rows; in front of me stretched a wide and vacant expanse of polished floor. Then I realized that the church was not altogether empty. Scattered in the nave and aisles there were a few worshipers, most of them elderly. Along the walls there were icons, with flickering lamps in front of them, and at the east end there were burning candles in front of the icon screen. Somewhere out of sight a choir was singing. After a while a deacon came out from the sanctuary and went round the church censing the icons and the people, and I noticed that his brocade vestment was old and slightly torn. My initial impression of an absence was now replaced, with a sudden rush, by an overwhelming sense of presence. I felt that the church, so far from being empty, was full – full of countless unseen worshipers, surrounding me on every side. Intuitively I realized that we, the visible congregation, were part of a much larger whole, and that as we prayed we were being taken into an action far greater than ourselves, into an undivided, all-embracing celebration that united time and eternity, things below and things above”[2].

Even today, in Africa, within the very active mission of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, worship remains the essential and privileged means for evangelisation. When the chief of a tribe comes to see a bishop or a priest, asking for evangelisation, the first thing that the missionary bishop or priest usually does is to go and celebrate worship outside in the fields. The chief would gather his tribe that would attend the worship and listen to the predication, and usually, this experience would lead them to accept the Christian faith and be baptised. For the African people are very sensible to the fact that faith in God should be essentially expressed through a way of life and not merely in a written book.

Holy Scripture as a liturgical element

These examples may sound strange to us who very often associate evangelisation with a distribution of Bibles or other printed material free of charge, with missionaries who knock at the door of houses, or with some educational and training process. If this is the case, it is because we often have the perception of Christianity as a “religion of the book”, forgetting that the starting point of the Christian faith is not a book, but an event: the paschal mystery of Christ. As J. Behr points out in his book, The Mystery of Christ, “it is a stubborn fact that for almost two centuries after Christ there was no such a thing as a book called ‘The New Testament’. Nor, for that matter, was the picture or pictures it presents the only version asserted: there were many other ways of explaining the work of God in Christ; many others claiming to be speaking on the authority of the Spirit or to be representing the true tradition…”[3]

Indeed, the Bible that we know and read today did not fall one day upon men from Heaven. It is certainly an inspired book, or rather inspired books, but they were all written by men belonging to God’s people and for God’s people. The New Testament books were all written within the Church and for the Church, and at the time of their composition, the Church was certainly not perceived as an international institution but rather as a gathering, an assembly (ekklêsia) of the believers around Christ. The Gospels or the epistles were to be read during these gatherings, when the people of God was gathered “to break the bread”, that is for liturgy. In fact, contemporary exegetes have pointed out that several passages from the epistles of Paul were in fact liturgical hymns.

We have to remember that before the arrival of printing, individual Christians did not have access to the biblical text, which was transmitted through expensive manuscripts that were the property of a particular community. Therefore, the reading of the Scriptures and its commentary were done during worship. Tertullian makes a testimony of this in his Apologeticum: “I will now at once proclaim the actual occupations of the Christian association, in order that I who rejected the idea that they were evil may show that they are good. We are a corporation with a common knowledge of religion, a common rule of life, and an union of hope. We come together for meeting and assembly, in order that having formed a band as it were to come before God we may encompass him with prayers. This violence is pleasing to God. We pray also for the emperors, for their ministers and those in authority, for the state of the world, for general quiet, for the postponement of the end. We meet to call one another to remembrance of the Scripture, if the aspect of affairs requires us either to be forewarned or to be reminded of anything. In any case we feed our belief on holy words, we raise our hope, we strengthen our confidence, we clinch the teaching none the less by driving home precepts. There too are pronounced exhortations, corrections and godly judgments”[4].

Until today, the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church, through its lectionary, makes sure that the most essential biblical texts are read during the church liturgical year. Almost all the New Testament, with the exception of the book of Revelation, is to be read in one year at the Divine Liturgy. According to the Typikon (Ordo) of Saint Sabas, the four gospels have to be read at the hours during the three first days of Great Week. Most important passages from the Old Testament, relevant to salvation history, are read throughout the year at vespers, on the eve of major feast days, and daily during the Great Lent. The whole Psalter is read once entirely every week at matins and vespers, and it is read twice a week during Great Lent. We have also to have in mind that the psalms, which were not only the prayers of the Jewish people but of the first Christians as well, together with the biblical canticles, constitute the permanent structure of the different liturgical services of the Orthodox Church. Therefore, one can say that the language of the liturgy is a biblical language. For instance, it has been calculated that the text of the Divine Liturgy contains 98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New Testament[5].

The Word of God ought not only to be read and studied; it has to be heard, meditated and put into practice. Therefore, having in mind that the Holy Scripture was written initially in a liturgical context, and let us say, for the liturgy, the proper place for its proclamation and interpretation should remain within the liturgy, without of course excluding other ways and places for its reading and commentary. In fact, predication, which is intimately linked with the proclamation of the Word of God, remains a constitutive liturgical element.

Didactic Aspect of Worship

The aim of worship is not only the glorification of God, but also the edification of the people of God. As Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has pointed out in his famous book The Orthodox Church, “Certain doctrines, never formally defined, are yet held by the Church with an unmistakable inner conviction, an unruffled unanimity, which is just as binding as an explicit formulation. ‘Some things we have from written teaching’ said St. Basil, ‘others we have received from the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us in a mystery; and both these things have the same force for piety’. This inner Tradition ‘handed down to us in a mystery’ is preserved above all in the Church’s worship”[6].

In fact, Saint Basil himself used the liturgical texts in his theological disputes: taking the defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit against the Pneumatomacs on the eve of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, he made use of the very ancient Christian hymn, O Gentle Light (Fôs ‘ilaron) which is still sung today daily at Orthodox vespers: “It seemed fitting to our fathers not to receive the gift of the light at eventide in silence, but, on its appearing, immediately to give thanks. Who was the author of these words of thanksgiving at the lighting of the lamps (tês epiluchniou eucharistias), we are not able to say. The people, however, utter the ancient form, and no one has ever reckoned guilty of impiety those who say ‘We praise Father, Son, and God's Holy Spirit’ (ainoumen Patera, kai ‘Uion, kai Pneuma Theou)”[7].

If God’s revelation is being preserved in the liturgy, this comes from the fact that worship is first of all an interpreter of the Holy Scriptures. Through its prayers and hymnology, worship makes a commentary of the biblical text, adopting a pluralistic interpretation. Each biblical passage is not to being interpreted not only in one particular manner, let us say historical, spiritual or moral, but can be interpreted in each of these ways. Using typology, which brings the Old and the New Testaments together, worship looks at the Old Testament stories with the lenses of the New, in the light of the paschal mystery, in which everything is recapitulated by Christ and in Christ.

But the typological reading of the biblical text used by the liturgical interpretation does not only unite major figures of the Old Testament with Christ in a relation of type and antitype; they also unite any biblical figure – such as those of the parables – with each one of us who participates in the liturgical worship of the Church.

Hymnology reads the Scriptures in a spiritual way, and therefore, following the path of Saint Paul and of the Church Fathers, biblical history becomes our personal history; salvation history becomes indeed the story of our own salvation. Through this typological link, one can say indeed that biblical history recapitulates the history of each human being. The Bible is not a dead book, but a living one, which speaks to each one of us today.

As in the patristic homilies, hymnology proclaims at each liturgical celebration the actuality of salvation. Worship celebrates the eternal “present”, the eternal “now” of the Divine economy. Thus Byzantine hymnography proclaims on Christmas day: “Heaven and earth have been made one today, now that Christ is born. Today God has come upon earth, and humanity gone up to heaven. Today for humankind the One who by nature is unseen is seen. Therefore let us too give glory as we cry to him, ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth, with which your Coming has rewarded us. Our Saviour, glory to you!’”[8]. And at Easter: “Now all things have been filled with light, both heaven and earth and those beneath the earth; so let all creation sing Christ’s rising, by which it is established. Yesterday I was buried with you O Christ, today I rise with you as you arise. Yesterday I was crucified with you; glorify me with you, Saviour, in your Kingdom”[9].

Father Kiprian Kern emphasised this didactic and pedagogical aspects of worship in the Orthodox Church, which ought to be taken into consideration when speaking on mission and evangelisation. He often stated that the theological and religious education in Byzantium or in Ancient Russia was done through liturgy: “There were no seminaries, no academies, neither theological faculties, but the God loving monks and pious Christians were drinking the living water of God’s knowledge from the stichira, canons, kathismata, prologues and synaxaria. The church’s choir and ambo replaced at that time the professor’s chair”[10].

But unfortunately, often this rich liturgical treasure of the Orthodox Church becomes a kind of best-kept secret even for the Orthodox faithful. One can ask the question why Orthodox Christians often do not take advantage of this heritage? Reflecting on this question could be in fact useful when considering the issue of mission and evangelisation. Father Kiprian Kern was already pointing out at the beginning of the 20th century that this hymnological richness is often inaccessible for the modern man who does not understand it for different reasons. One reason might be the usage of an ancient liturgical language, such as classical Greek or Church Slavonic, which are not accessible to everybody. But the reason could be also a question of a different culture. Father Kiprian was pointing out that the people who were raised in the realism of the 19th century had often a difficulty to understand the profound meaning and beauty of the hymnological poetry as they could not perceive the sense of Byzantine iconography. And from there his conclusion: “Having come back to the church, we do not understand what is being sung. It has to be explained, it needs a commentary”[11].

This is even more true in our epoch, when the younger generations have not received a Christian education in their childhood. But this problem could become an opportunity: the “incomprehensible” liturgical texts, the beauty of singing of the endless Orthodox services, the fascinating Byzantine icons could become a starting point for evangelisation. I remember a schoolteacher telling me the success he had with his pupils when explaining the mystery of the Trinity by bringing a copy of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity to the classroom. John of Damascus had already pointed this out when saying: “What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate”. Therefore, mission and evangelisation should make use of this liturgical material, and thus, the explanation of an icon, the commentary of a liturgical hymn or of a service could be the occasion of entering into the mystery of salvation.

The sacramental dimension of Christian life

As we said at the beginning of our paper, the aim of mission and evangelisation is not merely to hand out a system of doctrine or moral values. Therefore, the aim of mission and evangelisation is neither to bring people into an organisation, although this organisation should be called the Church. The Church is not merely an institution, but the living body of Christ. Therefore, the aim of mission and evangelisation should be helping people to encounter the Living, the Risen Christ. And here again, the liturgy could be a decisive element.

As Father Alexander Schmemann once wrote: “The Church, the sacrament of Christ, is not a ‘religious’ society of converts, an organisation to satisfy the ‘religious’ needs of man. It is the new life and redeems therefore the whole life, the total being of man”[12]. Being the Body of Christ, the Church is not merely the Kingdom, which is to come, but the Kingdom, which is already present… The purpose of mission of evangelisation, as the aim of the Church, is to proclaim and offer the new life in Christ.

On this topic, I will refer here to the famous conversion of a French atheist called André Frossard to Christianity, which he recalls in his book entitled: God exists, I have met Him (Dieu existe, je L’ai recontré). His testimony could be easily compared to the one of Prince Vladimir’s legates or the one of the young Timothy Ware:

“Having entered a chapel in the Latin Quarter of Paris at 5:10 in the afternoon to look for a friend, I left at a quarter after 5 in the company of a friendship that was not of this earth. Having entered as a sceptic and an atheist...and ever more sceptical and atheistic, indifferent and preoccupied with so many things other than a God to Whom I never even gave a thought even to deny… […] I was twenty years old when I entered. When I left, I was a child ready for baptism, who was looking around him, with his eyes open, this inhabited sky…”[13].

Frossard’s testimony summarizes admirably what the Church is all about, what mission and evangelisation is aimed at. The Church’s raison d’être is to provide salvation through the celebration of its sacrament, of its mysteries as we say in the Christian East. Some time ago, Metropolitan Emilianos Timiadis said: “The chief aim of Christ’s Incarnation was to enable man to participate in all possible divine blessings and to make him a partner and co-heir of God’s kingdom”[14]. While saying this, he was very close to the thought of the 15th century great Byzantine liturgist, Symeon of Thessalonica, who says in his treatise on priesthood that as the Incarnation was necessary for the salvation of mankind, so priesthood is indispensable, since it perpetuates and actualises the work of Christ, who could not remain eternally on earth to work out man’s regeneration[15].

In this sense, the celebration of the sacraments and liturgical services should be aimed at the edification of what Nicolas Cabasilas called “Life in Christ”. Speaking about it, Cabasilas says:

“The life in Christ originates in this life and arises from it. It is perfected, however, in the life to come, when we shall have reached that last day. It cannot attain perfection in men’s souls in this life, nor even in that which is to come without already having begun here. […] Baptism confers being and in short, existence according to Christ. It receives us when we are dead and corrupted and first leads us into life. The anointing with chrism perfects him who has received [new] birth by infusing into him the energy that benefits such a life. The Holy Eucharist preserves and continues that life and health, since the Bread of Life enables us to preserve that which has been acquired and to continue in life. […] In this way we live in God. We remove our life from the visible world to the world which is not seen by exchanging, not the place, but the very life itself and mode”[16].

When speaking of the very first sacrament in the Christian life – baptism – which is at the same time closely linked, as we know, with mission and evangelisation, we shall recall that in the Ancient Church this mystery was not only celebrated but also prepared in a liturgical context. Indeed, the period of preparation of the catechumens for baptism coincided with Great Lent, since baptism was most often celebrated on Easter in the Ancient Church, and consisted not of a preparation in a classroom but attending the liturgical services, receiving appropriate exorcisms and hearing the Scriptural readings and the catechetical homilies. The catechetical homilies of Cyril of Jerusalem are a good testimony of this ancient practice, as well as his mystagogical homilies. For the evangelisation of the catechumen did not stop at his baptism, but was continuing after, during eight days, when the neophyte was remaining in the church, in a liturgical setting, and receiving explanations about the sacraments to which he had participated. In fact, the catechetical homilies dealt most often with the mystery of salvation and the basic elements of faith, as the mystagogical homilies were usually commentaries giving explanations of the liturgical and sacramental actions. This point could also be inspiring our mission and evangelisation today.

For the starting point of our mission should always be the liturgy. As Father Alexander Schmemann once wrote: “Nothing reveals better the relation between the Church as fullness and the Church as mission than the Eucharist, the central act of the Church’s leitourgia, the sacrament of the Church itself. […] The Eucharist begins as an ascension toward the throne of God, toward the Kingdom. […] The Eucharist is always the End, the sacrament of the parousia, and yet it is always the beginning, the starting point: now mission begins”[17].

Indeed, the Church is a gathering: it is the assembly of the people of God, of the body of Christ, around Christ, for the celebration of the Eucharist through which it already partakes of the Kingdom to come. But this reality, this experience, should become the starting point of mission and evangelisation, which is witnessing the Risen Christ, witnessing the new life in Christ in the world, “not seen by exchanging the place, but the very life itself and lifestyle” as Nicolas Cabasilas would say.


The time has come to conclude our paper in which we were asked to reflect on the liturgy as a way of evangelisation. We should perhaps retain three important points.

1.    Evangelisation is the proclamation of the good news of salvation and not merely teaching a system of beliefs or transmitting a moral code. Its aim should always be a personal encounter with Christ, and therefore evangelisation should always be linked with a personal experience. We have seen many examples showing that liturgy is the most proper context for this encounter with the living God. Indeed, the beauty transmitted through the liturgical worship is perceived in the Orthodox Church as an epiphany of Heaven on earth, as a way of uniting to the heavenly beauty, a bridge between the Kingdom of God and this world, a connecting point between time and eternity.

2.    The role of the liturgy is not only to implore, glorify and thank God, but is also didactic and pedagogical. Indeed, the Tradition of the Church, that is the transmission of God’s Revelation, is being handed on through the Scriptural readings, which are a constituting part of worship, and the different texts of prayers and hymns that could be considered both as a commentary on the Scriptures and as means of transmitting the oral tradition. Therefore, one could easily agree with Fr. Kiprian Kern that the church’s choir and ambo, since many centuries, replace the professor’s chair. Having said this, one can understand that worship should always be the centre and the heart of any missionary enterprise. In order that the liturgy could fulfil its pedagogical role, it is important that the liturgical texts would be comprehensible and accessible to the people. This explains, as we have seen, the preference that was always given by Orthodox missionaries to the use of the vernacular language in the liturgy precisely for that purpose.

3.    But understanding the language does not necessarily means understanding the Mystery. It is not sufficient to understand the meaning of the words of what is being sung or read in the worship: one has to be initiated into the Mystery of Christ. The liturgical and sacramental actions have to be explained, need a commentary. Therefore, both liturgy and evangelisation need mystagogy. It is through mystagogy, the explanation of the mysteries, that someone who has encountered the Living Christ and decided to join His Church could grow in the knowledge of God and move on towards His Kingdom, “by exchanging, not the place, but the very life itself and mode” as Nicolas Cabasilas once said.

[1] G. Florovsky, “The Elements of Liturgy in the Orthodox Catholic Church”, One Church 13 (1959), nos. 1-2,  p. 24.

[2] Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, Crestwood, NY, 2000, p. 1-2.

[3] J. Behr, The Mystery of Christ. Life in Death. Crestwood, NY, 2006, p. 45-46.

[4] Tertullian, Apologeticum XXXIX, 1-4 (English translation A. Souter, 1917, p. 112-113).

[5] P. Evdokimov, L’Orthodoxie, Paris, 1965, p. 241, note 96.

[6] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, London, 1993, p. 204-205.

[7] Saint Basile le Grand, Traité du Saint-Esprit 29, 73 (SC 17, éd. et trad. B. Pruche, Paris, 1945, p. 250). English translation from: Schaff - Wace, (ed.), Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series II, v. 8, tr. by the Rev. Blomfield Jackson, London 1894.

[8] Menaion, December 25. Second idiomel at the Liti by John the Monk. English translation by Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash).

[9] Pentecostarion, Paschal Matins. Ode 3 of the canon. English translation by Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash).

[10] K. Kern , Kriny molitvennye. Sbornik statej po liturgiheskomu bogosloviœ, Belgrade, 1928, p. II-III [2nd edition : Moscow, 2002, p. 4]. See also: K. Kern , Liturgika. Gimnografiå i qortologiå. Paris, 1964, p. 4 [Moscow, 2000, p. 10].

[11] Ibid., p. III-IV [p. 5-6].

[12] Ibid., p. 216.

[13] A. Frossard, Dieu existe, je L’ai recontré, Paris, 1969, p. 10-11.

[14] E. Timiadis, The Orthodox Understanding of Ministry. Joensuu, 1990, p. 125.

[15] Symeon of Thessalonica, On the Priesthood, PG 960A-D. Cf. our article: J. Getcha, “The treatise on the Priesthood by Symeon of Thessalonica”, Studia Patristica 42 (2006), p. 310-311.

[16] Nicolas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, Book 1, 1-6. English translation by C. De Catanzaro, Crestwood, NY, 1974, p. 43-50.

[17] A. Schmemann, Church, World, Mission. Crestwood, NY, 1979, p. 214-215.

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