When Jesus begins His public ministry (Luke 4:17-21), He does so be reading from the Holy Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4: 18-19, NKJV; compare Isaiah 61:1, 2).
Jesus doesn’t begin His ministry by explaining the mystery of the Holy Trinity or of His own incarnation “by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” No, He announces Good News to the poor, the blind and the captive. He proclaims the kerygma.
Sherry Weddell in her book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, asks what you might be asking. “What is the kerygma?” She quotes the late Pope John Paul II who says the kerygma is “the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith” (p. 66)
Another way to think about it, she says, is this, it is “the essential nucleus of the Gospel that awakens initial Christian faith.” The goal here is to inspire the person to say, “Jesus is Lord!” More systematically, the kerygma “the basic outline of the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (p. 66).
Orthodox Christians tend to be maximalists (at least in theory). So talking about the “essential nucleus of the Gospel” can sound to our ears like a bad thing. “Why,” you might ask, “would I want to give someone a ‘simplified’ version of the Gospel? After all, we have the fullness of the Gospel?”
That last, theological point, is certainly true. I believe that the fullness of the Gospel is found in the Orthodox Church. But as the saying goes, a thirsty man doesn’t need to drink the whole river.
The kerygma is really an invitation, a starting point, to accept the Gospel. When we proclaim this very basic teaching about Christ we are following the example of the Apostle Paul. Speaking to the Corinthians, he says that he “could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it.” Unfortunately, they “couldn’t even digest spiritual milk and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-4, NKJV)
The kerygma is our starting point. If the Apostle Paul is any guide, the presence in our lives (or parish) of “envy, strife, and divisions” would suggest that even though we have been baptized, regularly attended the service, go to confession and receive Holy Communion, something is wrong (here).
While we ought “to be teachers” we still evidently need someone to “teach [us] again the principles” of the Gospel. We still need the “milk” of the kerygma and aren’t ready yet for the “solid food” of doctrine and the inner life of prayer. These are only fully available to us when we commit ourselves to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Though concerned with the pastoral situation in the Catholic Church, Sherry’s observations are also applicable to Orthodox Christians. “One of the obstacles to calling our own to discipleship is that few Catholics have ever heard of the kerygma or the ‘Great Story of Jesus’ (to borrow a wonderful phrase from Father Robert Barron), and even fewer know what the kerygma contains or have heard it preached clearly” (p. 67). Later she asks
If Christian faith flowers only in the presence of the kerygma, what does that mean for our pastoral practice? How is our generation to believe without someone who proclaims the kerygma? We can no longer presume that people around us already know the story. On the contrary, we have to presume that (a) many don’t know the basic facts of the Story; (b) a good deal of what they “know” may be wrong; (c) they don’t know how the parts of the story fit together to make a whole; and (d) they don’t know what the story means for them personally. Nor do they know what it means for their family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, or the world (p. 203).
When we talk about the importance of preaching the Gospel in fostering discipleship, we mean focusing on the kerygma, on the Great Story. In Forming Intentional Disciples (pp. 207-216) there is helpful summary of the Great Story:
The Kingdom of God
Jesus: Face of the Kingdom
Jesus: The Kingdom in Word & Deed
Jesus & the Cross
Jesus: Resurrection, Ascension & the Church.
Jesus Asks Me to Follow Him
Dropping the Net
The Life of Discipleship
I would encourage Orthodox Christians—clergy or laity (and indeed anyone interested in evangelism)—to read this summary (and really, the whole book).
For now, I think it is important to keep in mind that like salvation, discipleship is a process. We grow in holiness because we grow in our participation in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-4). God calls us ALL grow in our likeness to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Discipleship begins in the sacraments and our personal acceptance of the kerygma. But, to return to the Apostle Paul one last time, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14, NKJV).
Discipleship begins, in other words, not simply in “you” hearing the kerygma but in “me” preaching it.