by Kevin Allen
Church Growth Orthodox Style
Church growth has become a buzzword in the Protestant and Evangelical Christian world. Being “evangelical” has tended to become a numbers game, and a virtual cottage industry has emerged to figure out how to grow churches. Books, seminars, research companies, seminary classes and church growth “experts” have developed strategies and marketing plans to reach demographic sub-groups like “seekers” and “post-moderns.”
Churches often change or modify their approaches to accommodate these demographic groups and their perceived “needs.” I recently received an attractive, glossy postcard from a local community church, for example, promising Sunday services would be “fun for the whole family!” It is now quite common to see, as another example of this trend towards “user friendliness,” “coffee bars and kiosks” inside churches, serving free latte and crumb cake! The philosophy seems to be, “If you want to hear the sermon, fine! If not, come and have cake!” Church services often include elaborate, high-tech musical presentations to connect with the MTV generation. You hear of skits and short performances being offered — instead of sermons (let alone liturgy or communion!) — in the attempt to create “seeker friendly” church environments. In the frenzy to grow the numbers, many churches are even leaving their traditional denominations, dropping (even) the words “Christian” and “Church” from their names, for cooler ones like “The Rock” or “The Flow.”
Obviously, these contemporary marketing strategies are not the approach the Holy Orthodox Church should take to draw people to the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Becoming an Orthodox Christian is a serious commitment to live in community with the faithful according to the apostolic tradition, which is not subject to change in order to accommodate the needs of our fallen culture. Choosing to become Orthodox is not a decision that should be encouraged to be made lightly. Our tradition, our liturgy, our rubrics, our theology, our faith must be understood and internalized. It takes time and effort to adopt the “mind of the Church.” As our Bishop JOSEPH has reminded us time and again, “Our goal must be on quality, not quantity.”
But is Christ’s call to
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20),
a command only to the Protestants? Are we Orthodox Christians not especially called to present to our culture “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)? I think the answer is clearly yes. As our visionary Metropolitan PHILIP wrote in The WORD in 1985,
“North America is searching for the New Testament Church. North America is searching for the Church which was born on Pentecost Day. North America is ready and waiting for us, but are we ready for North America?”
Has progress been made since those words were written in 1985? Well, with over 100 new Antiochian parishes formed since 1987 (with more being added annually), tens of thousands of new Orthodox faithful, truckloads of books and magazines published, 24/7 Orthodox Internet radio now being streamed, our God-protected Archdiocese is certainly doing its part (or more)! Those of us who have been catechized and received will be eternally grateful to our beloved Metropolitan and the faithful of our Archdiocese for opening its doors to us. I also take my hat off to the Department of Missions and Evangelism for being a significant catalyst in bringing the Metropolitan’s “vision” to North America. But we can’t rely on the Missions and Evangelism Department alone to grow the Orthodox Church. Growth must occur by adding from the outside (as they are doing), and by growing from the inside — by local church growth.
My parish, Saint Barnabas Orthodox Church in Costa Mesa, California, as an example, received twenty-eight adults and children into the Holy Orthodox Church on Lazarus Saturday (2007). Last year, the parish received eighteen catechumens. Saint Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, California received over twenty five newly-illumined in 2006 and continues to grow numerically. There are other parishes like them across the country.
parishes like these? While there isn’t a “text book” for Orthodox “church growth” (nor should there be!), I submit there are some common factors that exist in “growth-oriented” parishes within our Archdiocese, factors that make the “soil” right for new growth. The following are some but certainly not all of them.
Be interested in outreach & growth
Everything begins with an attitude, an interest, a desire, with prayer. If your parish is satisfied with the status quo, that is probably what you will get. If nothing else, pray for God’s direction for your parish. Ask God to show you how to be open to inquirers and converts. It’s not about programs, advertising or special events. It’s about inviting people to church and knowing what to do with them when they come! It’s about keeping them once they have visited.
It helps to be located near Evangelical colleges, universities or seminaries
Many of the new wave of converts coming into our parishes are from Evangelical colleges and seminaries. I recently spoke with one graduate from a local Evangelical college (of which we have several) and asked him what drew him to the Eastern Orthodox faith. He said he studied the early church fathers — east and west — and early church history in college and discovered a different church and faith from what he had known in Evangelicalism. He said he wanted to be part of that faith himself.
Be a welcoming community
Consider having “greeters” at the door. Make sure visitors and inquirers know they are welcome! Let them know they do not have to “do” anything (kiss icons; venerate the cross; stand during services) if they don’t feel comfortable. Encourage them to ask questions after services about anything they don’t understand. Consider having several friendly and outgoing parishioners assigned to meet and talk to visitors if you don’t have greeters. I hate to say this, but I have been in too many Orthodox parishes where — after Liturgy — no one has come forward to greet me, ask me where I’m from, or smile at me. Coffee klatches of parishioners and family often form and “newbies” stand on the sidelines, like awkward teenagers at a high school dance. If a newcomer is standing around awkwardly, go up and introduce yourself and bring him or her to your table. It’s especially important for youth to greet and welcome other youth. Invite him or her to “hang” with your friends and talk. Encourage the entire parish to “be on the lookout” for newcomers and to welcome them sincerely. The key word is sincerely. People can see a fake a mile away! At our parish we have had several people say,
“Without so-and-so taking me by the hand when I first came, I would never have come back.”
Have service texts available
Newcomers don’t know our services. Perhaps they even have questions about what we believe and what our faith is. They need to know what we are praying, what we are chanting. Newcomers — especially from Protestant traditions where the written text is so emphasized — like to follow the services with service books; it makes them feel “connected” and “safe.” Keep these books in a visible place when they enter, or hand one to someone who looks confused by what is going on. If you do not have printed, upto- date service books, consider making them or ordering them.
Understand the challenges converts face
I can’t overemphasize the transition required of people visiting us, or journeying towards us from other Christian faith traditions. You may find what I am about to say surprising, but many of our catechumens are actively discouraged by their Christian friends and family members from becoming Eastern Orthodox. Misunderstanding, sectarianism and outright heresy come into play when some inquirers express an interest in the Orthodox faith. These inquirers need to have people in our parishes who can work through the issues and explain to them why, for example, we venerate the Theotokos (and what we mean when we ask her to “save us”!), why we kiss the hand of the priest, why we ask for the intercessions of the Saints. We can’t rely on our over-worked priests and deacons exclusively to address all these questions when they come up. Ask newcomers, “Do you have any questions about what we do!” Or you can say, “So you made it through your first Liturgy? Are your feet tired (from standing)? Have any questions?” Recommend good Orthodox books to read. Have pamphlets (Conciliar Press) available for newcomers that address these common problems.
Are you comfortable if newcomers don’t look like you, are of a different race or ethnicity from you, don’t dress like you, or make the same income as you? Can your parish welcome the homeless, the poor, the needy, the prisoner? We don’t know who God is sending our way; our job is to figure out how to welcome them, to love them, and to form them. Several years ago, Fr. David Ogan of the national Orthodox Prison Ministry referred a newly-released prisoner — who had begun Orthodox catechism in prison — to our local parish. The man was released on a Wednesday afternoon and his first stop (bless his heart!) was to our parish that night for Vespers. Our priest met with him, warmly welcomed him, and assigned two men from our parish to be his “mentors.” It worked like a charm! Now that man is a wonderful and viable part of our parish community. Over the past two to three years we have had an influx of precious “sub-culture” youth come to our parish. Trust me, they don’t look like the average Orthodox! We had to get comfortable with tattoos (on the guys and girls!), piercings, Mohawk haircuts, purple and bright green hair color (on the guys and girls!). But these kids were searching for something; thank God they found it in the Holy Orthodox Faith. Now several of them have started a vibrant ministry and publication called “Death to the World” which is impacting “sub-culture” youth all over the world. Several others have become frequent visitors to monasteries in the area and are considering the monastic life. On the other hand, and sadly, several new “sub-culture” youth recently came to us, after being told by a more “traditional” parish (not in our Archdiocese, thank God) they would be “better off” going somewhere else. Lord Have Mercy!
Commit to catechize
Whether it’s one or twenty newcomers, they need to be catechized. We have inquirers’ classes and catechumen classes throughout the year. Our priests teach these classes and cover theology, history, the Creed, the sacraments, and spiritual formation. Questions are encouraged and answered on any and all subjects. Our catechism classes — when we were a small parish — were in the apartment of one of our priests. Now we have them in a parish meeting room. We also have several Bible study groups led by Orthodox laity. We are also very fortunate in our Archdiocese to have many well-known and knowledgeable people who are willing to speak to our catechumens. Recently, for example, one of our catechumens sent Frederica Mathews-Green, a well-known author, an e-mail about something she was dealing with. She was surprised, but very grateful, when she received a quick and lengthy response from Kh. Frederica!
Don’t use a “cookie cutter”
By that I mean, don’t expect everyone to come along the same way on their journey, in the same amount of time, or express their piety in a prescribed way. Yes, we have customs, traditions and rubrics that (eventually) need to be followed. But, for example, must every woman in your parish wear a head covering? Must every newcomer do a metania when we pray, Lord Have Mercy? Must every newcomer say his prayers from the long Russian prayer book? Must all male newcomers grow long beards? I think you get the picture I’m trying to draw here. There’s a difference between big “T” tradition, and small “t” tradition. We need to know the difference and emphasize those traditions which are necessary for their salvation. Obviously, it is the job of the priest to determine this.
Be real. Be Orthodox.
Let’s face it. There are plenty of easier places to be a “Christian” than in the Eastern Orthodox Church, if you struggle to live this faith. Most people who visit and come back aren’t looking for “easy.” Many have already had that and are looking for something deeper and more meaningful. They are looking for “real.” They want to meet real people, whose lives have been transformed by the Orthodox Faith. Recently a very bright, educated, young former Lutheran began attending our parish. He had read deeply in patristics and asked me to have coffee with him. I expected a discussion about church history or doctrine. But his basic questions weren’t historical or doctrinal. They were practical. He asked me, “How has becoming an Orthodox Christian changed you from the inside?” Don’t be afraid to share your conversion story if you are a convert, or what the faith means to you if you were born into the Holy Orthodox Church. Welcoming “converts” isn’t only a job for “converts.” Newcomers have as much or more to learn from mature Orthodox who have lived the faith longer than those of us who are “eleventh hour laborers.”