Saturday, June 20, 2009

Church Growth Orthodox Style

by Kevin Allen

Church growth has become a buzzword in the Protestant and Evangelical
Christian world. Being ³evangelical² 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 ³experts² have developed strategies and marketing plans to reach
demographic sub-groups like ³seekers² and ³post-moderns.²

Churches often change or modify their approaches to accommodate these
demographic groups and their perceived ³needs.² I recently received an
attractive, glossy postcard from a local community church, for example,
promising Sunday services would be ³fun for the whole family!² It is now
quite common to see, as another example of this trend towards ³user
friendliness,² ³coffee bars and kiosks² inside churches, serving free latte
and crumb cake! The philosophy seems to be, ³If you want to hear the sermon,
fine! If not, come and have cake!² Church services often include elaborate,
high-tech musical presentations to connect with the MTV generation. You hear
of skits and short performances being offered &lsqauo; instead of sermons (let
alone liturgy or communion!) &lsqauo; in the attempt to create ³seeker friendly²
church environments. In the frenzy to grow the numbers, many churches are
even leaving their traditional denominations, dropping (even) the words
³Christian² and ³Church² from their names, for cooler ones like ³The Rock²
or ³The Flow.²

Obviously, these contemporary marketing strategies are not the approach the
Holy Orthodox Church should take to draw people to the ³one, holy, catholic
and apostolic church.² 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 ³mind of the Church.² As our Bishop
JOSEPH has reminded us time and again, ³Our goal must be on quality, not

But is Christ¹s call to ³Go 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 you²
(Matthew 28:18-20), a command only to the Protestants? Are we Orthodox
Christians not especially called to present to our culture ³the faith which
was once for all delivered to the saints² (Jude 1:3)? I think the answer is
clearly yes. As our visionary Metropolitan PHILIP wrote in The WORD in 1985,
³North 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?²

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 Metropolitan¹s
³vision² to North America. But we can¹t 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 &lsqauo; 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 isn¹t a ³text book² for Orthodox ³church
growth² (nor should there be!), I submit there are some common factors that
exist in ³growth-oriented² parishes within our Archdiocese, factors that
make the ³soil² 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 God¹s direction for your parish. Ask God to
show you how to be open to inquirers and converts. It¹s not about programs,
advertising or special events. It¹s about inviting people to church and
knowing what to do with them when they come! It¹s 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 &lsqauo; east and west &lsqauo; 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 ³greeters² at the door. Make sure visitors and inquirers
know they are welcome! Let them know they do not have to ³do² anything (kiss
icons; venerate the cross; stand during services) if they don¹t feel
comfortable. Encourage them to ask questions after services about anything
they don¹t understand. Consider having several friendly and outgoing
parishioners assigned to meet and talk to visitors if you don¹t have
greeters. I hate to say this, but I have been in too many Orthodox parishes
where &lsqauo; after Liturgy &lsqauo; no one has come forward to greet me, ask me where
I¹m from, or smile at me. Coffee klatches of parishioners and family often
form and ³newbies² 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. It¹s especially
important for youth to greet and welcome other youth. Invite him or her to
³hang² with your friends and talk. Encourage the entire parish to ³be on the
lookout² 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, ³Without so and so taking me by the hand when I first
came, I would never have come back.²

Have service texts available

Newcomers don¹t 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 &lsqauo; especially from Protestant
traditions where the written text is so emphasized &lsqauo; like to follow the
services with service books; it makes them feel ³connected² and ³safe.² 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 can¹t 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 ³save us²!), why we kiss the hand of the
priest, why we ask for the intercessions of the Saints. We can¹t rely on our
over-worked priests and deacons exclusively to address all these questions
when they come up. Ask newcomers, ³Do you have any questions about what we
do!² Or you can say, ³So you made it through your first Liturgy? Are your
feet tired (from standing)? Have any questions?² Recommend good Orthodox
books to read. Have pamphlets (Conciliar Press) available for newcomers that
address these common problems.

Integrate newcomers

Are you comfortable if newcomers don¹t look like you, are of a different
race or ethnicity from you, don¹t dress like you, or make the same income as
you? Can your parish welcome the homeless, the poor, the needy, the
prisoner? We don¹t 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 &lsqauo; who had begun Orthodox catechism in prison &lsqauo; 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 ³mentors.² 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 ³sub-culture² youth come to
our parish. Trust me, they don¹t 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 ³Death to the World² which is impacting ³sub-culture²
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 ³sub-culture² youth recently came to us, after
being told by a more ³traditional² parish (not in our Archdiocese, thank
God) they would be ³better off² going somewhere else. Lord Have Mercy!

Commit to catechize

Whether it¹s one or twenty newcomers, they need to be catechized. We have
inquirers¹ 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 &lsqauo; when we were a small parish &lsqauo; 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!

Don¹t use a ³cookie cutter²

By that I mean, don¹t 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 I¹m trying
to draw here. There¹s a difference between big ³T² tradition, and small ³t²
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.

Let¹s face it. There are plenty of easier places to be a ³Christian² than in
the Eastern Orthodox Church, if you struggle to live this faith. Most people
who visit and come back aren¹t looking for ³easy.² Many have already had
that and are looking for something deeper and more meaningful. They are
looking for ³real.² 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 weren¹t historical or
doctrinal. They were practical. He asked me, ³How has becoming an Orthodox
Christian changed you from the inside?² Don¹t 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 ³converts² isn¹t only a
job for ³converts.² Newcomers have as much or more to learn from mature
Orthodox who have lived the faith longer than those of us who are ³eleventh
hour laborers.²


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