In May 2009, Bradley Nassif, Professor of Theology at North Park University in Chicago visited Romania for the launch of the Romanian translation of the book Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (J. Stamoolis, (gen. ed.), Grand Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan, 2006), which took place at the University of Cluj. During that visit, Dr. Nassif told me about an Orthodox project that might benefit from any potential support I could provide through the budget I was managing as part of my World Vision responsibilities for the Middle East & Eastern Europe Region, as Director for Faith in Development. The project, formally initiated in June 2004 at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS) in Cambridge, under the leadership of Professor David Frost, later Principal of the college, was called THE WAY (it took its name from the earliest term by which followers of Christ referred to themselves), and aimed ‘to teach basic Orthodox Christianity as a journey of life, centred on Christ, in terms that communicate to a secular and largely pagan world’.
As Dr. Frost explains in one of the presentation documents,
the need for this educational outreach programme was established by consultation with the various Orthodox jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, whose bishops are concerned that the youth of their churches are drifting away because of ignorance, the challenge of western secularism, alienation from the cultures of the ethnic churches, and a desire for worship and instruction in the language of their adopted country.
THE WAY was, basically, an adult catechism, addressed initially to people 18 to 40 years old (though in practice it proved to appeal to anyone from 18 to 80). It used the acclaimed methodology and structure used by the Alpha Course (an adult catechism programme created by an Anglican charismatic church, Holy Trinity, Brompton Road, London), whilst preserving a specifically Orthodox perspective. Each meeting in the 12 session series ended with a much-appreciated innovation, a closing ‘Question-and-Answer’ time. Dr. Frost has subsequently defined the relation between Alpha and THE WAY as a question of function: ‘Alpha breaks up the ground: THE WAY builds a church on it’.
I offer here a succinct presentation of the approach, from a document outlining the history of THE WAY:
Each session begins with a communal lunch, where the human contacts generated by eating together build up the gathering as a Christian fellowship. The meal is followed by a video or a live presentation of between 45-55 minutes by one member of the team on a major aspect of the faith.
Participants then divide into small groups, each with a leader trained to facilitate free discussion. No question is treated as foolish or improper and no position thought unworthy of consideration. No group is larger than 10 persons. The aim is to build up friendships, so that Christianity is caught, in C.S. Lewis’ phrase, ‘by good infection’.
Group discussion concludes with a ‘Question-and-Answer’ session, where Group Leaders put questions from their group to the Presenter and other staff. The panel is presided over by the bishop or senior priest, but may comprise presenters and staff, clerics and lay, people of both sexes who are willing to answer questions ‘off the cuff’. This addition to the Alpha format has proved both valuable and highly popular.
The Presenter usually introduces the session as a model of how the Church makes its decisions, ideally by the Bishop in consultation with his clergy and people; and those who have conducted presentations report a remarkable operation of the Spirit – that however varied the responses and the responders, there has never once been a major clash of opinion.
Each session begins or ends with an act of worship, and the talks and discussion are linked to the liturgical worship of the Church. Where possible, the whole course closes with a celebration of the Liturgy and a final agape or communal meal of celebration.
After five years of hard work and field testing in various contexts, in Great Britain, Singapore, Australia and the United States, the course was ready to be packaged into a marketable tool, with video presentations, student hand-outs, visuals and music. However, the enterprise had never been funded, the course had been created by unpaid volunteers, and the project was stuck: hence Bradley Nassif’s request to me. A few weeks after that, in June 2009, I travelled to Cambridge, met with Dr. Frost and the organizing committee in order to better understand the programme, and, finally, met in Oxford with Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. He had overseen the whole venture, giving spiritual guidance but also examining each talk in detail, sending material back for revision, and eventually contributing its crowning piece, a central talk on the ways in which scripture understands the salvation wrought by Christ. My own concern was to make sure that the project did not take any polemic stance toward other Christian traditions, since this would have made it incompatible with the values of World Vision.
Since I was more than satisfied, even delighted with the answers I received, I obtained the approval of my supervisor and released what was essential funding for the final stage of the project. In the meantime, I discussed THE WAY programme with my World Vision colleagues in Romania. They were as enthusiastic as I was, and they showed the draft course to Patriarch Daniel, head of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Seeing its potential for meeting the catechetical needs of his Church, Patriarch Daniel asked us to seek approval for an adaptation of THE WAY into Romanian. Following a second visit to Cambridge, this time with my colleague, Fr. Constantin Naclad, who is in charge of catechism in the Romanian Orthodox Church, and after a further meeting with Metropolitan Kallistos, we received the necessary permissions and the adaptation process began in earnest, and was completed within a few months, even before the official launch of the programme, which took place in London in October 2010.
Since then, this instrument has become available as a box-set, with DVD recordings of all the talks and a CD with complete instructions and materials for running the course, from Amazon, from Gazelle in Great Britain and world-wide, and in the United States from Ancient Faith Publishing (formerly Conciliar Press).
Besides Romania, where the programme was first field-tested as part of staff spiritual nurture activities of World Vision offices in this country, and is presently being trialled in a number of Orthodox dioceses, THE WAY is under adaptation in Bulgaria, a Greek version approaches completion, and Albania is contemplating its use there. I believe this is only the beginning.
Looking retrospectively, this was one of the best investments I have made from my World Vision budget. And I consider it a great privilege to be able to support the Church in its mission, in so concrete a manner. Moreover, this is extremely important for me as an Evangelical Christian. I believe strongly that the power of the word of God, released anew in a Christian community, be that young or ancient, can revive the faith of many, can build up the Church, and can transform society, resulting in a better life for children and adults alike.
NOTE: We are preparing presently the second Romanian edition, which also includes new introductions, written by Dr. Stelian Tofana (Orthodox) and Dr. Danut Manastireanu (Evangelical). The Book will be published by Editura Casa cartii Oradea.