Planting Grant Applications Being Accepted

Applications for 2017 Church Planting Grants are now being accepted by the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Evangelization.

Applications may be downloaded here.

Applications must be received by the Department of Evangelization no later than August 26, 2016 to receive consideration.  Grants will begin on January 1, 2017.

“Grants of up to $24,000.00 are awarded to first-year recipients,” explained Priest John Parker, Department Chair.  “The grant may only be used to help provide a salary for a full-time resident priest and must be matched by the qualifying mission, deanery, or diocese.  Grants may be renewed for a maximum of three years.

“Three dozen missions have received Church Planting Grants since the program was initiated over 15 years ago.  Most of these missions have successfully transitioned to full parish status,” added Father Parker.

Missions that received grants in 2016 must apply anew for the coming year.

Grant applications must be reviewed and approved by the diocesan bishop before they are submitted.  After a review by the Department, recommendations for qualified missions will be submitted to the Holy Synod of Bishops for final approval.

For additional information, please contact Father John Parker at 843-810-9350 or evangelization@oca.org.

A Little Quippy, but it tells a story…

ten little orthodo

Evangelism or Re-arranging the Deck Chairs?

This Opinion piece raises interesting questions for Evangelism.  Is it what we are doing?  How are we making disciples who are strong, committed followers of Jesus Christ?

 

Full Text HERE

 

The Guardian view on disappearing Christianity: suppose it’s gone for ever?

 

Is the end of western Christianity in sight? The most recent British Social Attitudes data shows that “No religion” is now by far the largest single identification in England and Wales. It is very nearly half the adult population, and more that twice the proportion who self-identify as Anglican; it is four times the Catholic population, and more than five times the total identifying with non-Christian faiths. The same pattern is seen all across Europe and increasingly in the US too, where the first chair for the study of atheism has just been endowed in Florida.

 

The study also shows that Christianity is extremely bad at either making converts or retaining cradle believers. The two big denominations, the Catholics and the Church of England, lose at least 10 members for every one they convert. The figure for Catholics would almost certainly be worse were it not for immigration from Eastern Europe and South East Asia. It is only the smallest and most self-consciously sectarian forms of Christianity that manage to retain believers, in part no doubt because they feel cut off from the society around them.

 

This decline in self-identification probably has very little to do with belief. The people in the pews have always been heretics with only the vaguest notion of what official doctrines are, and still less of an allegiance to them. The difference is now that they are outside the pews, even if they still hold the same vague convictions about a life spirit or a benevolent purpose to the universe.

 

These theological or metaphysical convictions are connected with more firmly held values: contemporary humanists, just like the Christians of previous generations, believe in reason, fairness, freedom and decency. But they no longer have a set of religious stories and rituals with which to justify these beliefs, and charge them with emotion.

 

Over the last 50 years “religion” has come to stand for the opposite of freedom and fairness. This is partly an outcome of the sexual revolution and of the long and ultimately futile resistance to it mounted by mainstream denominations. “The religious” now appear to young people as obscurantist bigots whose main purpose is to police sexuality, especially female sexuality, in the service of incomprehensible doctrines. Institutional resistance to the rights of women and of gay people was an exceptionally stupid strategy for institutions that depends on the labour of both. But the Church of England was so much a part of the old imperial state that life in post-imperial Britain was never going to be easy.

 

It’s hard to see a route back for normative Christianity. One of the most striking features of the BSA data is that the few conversions that there are tend to be from one Christian denomination to another, rather than from unbelief or even from other religions. “Evangelism” turns out to be a game that Christians play with each other, and not with the outside world. Anglican Christianity, which used to be as straightforward a route into the transcendent as Buddhism now appears in the West, has become very much alien and more apparently irrational. Nor are any other religions seriously competing with it. Although much popular hostility to religion focuses on Islam, there are still eight times as many self-identifying Christians as Muslims in this country.

 

Such an enormous change is bound to have implications for the rest of us. A post-Christian Europe will of course have a morality but it won’t be Christian morality. It will likely be less universalist. The idea that people have some rights just because they are human, and entirely irrespective of merit, certainly isn’t derived from observation of the world. It arose out of Christianity, no matter how much Christians have in practice resisted it. Although human rights have become embedded in our institutions at the same time as religious observance has been in decline, they could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics.

 

Tennyson produced his famous line about “Nature red in tooth and claw” as a contrast not to human nature, but to human optimism, which “trusted God was love indeed and love Creation’s final law”. Some such trust in love and goodness underpins all belief in progress and all faith in the future. But, as Tennyson clearly also saw, Nature “shrieks against it”. This century will be one in which humanity faces gigantic challenges, brought about by our own success in colonising the planet. Global warming and the still present threat of nuclear destruction both need a sense of global solidarity to overcome, and a vision of humanity that transcends narrow self-interest. If Christianity no longer can supply that, what will?

The Interior and Exterior Evangelism of Great Lent

By Fr John Parker
The Great 40 Days are generally considered to be a time of introspection and repentance. The very first words of the Great Canon of St Andrew indicate the way, “Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first-fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation?”

The Kontakion we sing in the Great Canon is resoundingly personal:

My soul, my soul, arise!

Why are you sleeping?

The end is at hand; destruction hangs over you!

Come again to your senses, that you may be spared by Christ our God

Who is everywhere, filling all things!

The Prayer of St Ephraim likewise turns inward:

O Lord and Master of my life:

Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk!

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother—

For thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

Our fasting, while a corporate practice (those who are able all fast from the same things at the same time), is personal, and for the change of my own heart, my own willfulness, my own ways.

The Sunday of the Last Judgment, which we have just completed, shows the balance point between the inward and outward foci of Great Lent. To summarize using the words of St James, “faith without works is dead”. Or in the words of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John, in his first epistle, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.” Or, in another place, read on Meatfare Saturday: “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

The season of Great Lent is, to a significant degree, a return to conformity to the likeness of God, a transformation back into a human being. Having lived in the world almost a year since the last Pascha, we fall into the routines and device of what St Paul calls “the old man”. Precisely into those ways enumerated in the Prayer of St Ephraim—the facets from which we ask God to deliver us.

Some of us, thinking that we can earn God’s love, seek to do good deeds in Lent, as if it were a way to store up or to regain merits, in a deficit personal spiritual economy. But neither is this the case, nor is it the way God works. He already loves us—on his part, there is no love lost, or lack to regain. He doesn’t love us less—we love ourselves more than we love him!

One surprising aspect of the Gospel from the Sunday of the Last Judgment is how the righteous reply when Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” They didn’t deny doing these things, with a false sense of humility. It just didn’t dawn on them that there was any other right thing to do. That is to say, their actions were based on love for those in need, not on some perceived benefit, temporal or spiritual, to themselves.

The inner work of evangelism: to hear the Good News afresh ourselves, and to return to Christ, intends to produce external evangelism: the sharing with others, rooted in gratitude, of the bounties given to me by God who is love.

Standing outside the closed Gates of Paradise with this coming Sunday’s “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise”, what is our practical evangelism? It is, through the services, through the prayers, through the fasting, through acts of mercy, to become a human being, perhaps for the first time. All of these ascetical practices are an opportunity to see and experience God for who He truly is, and to be transformed ourselves into whom we are called to be.

The gift is offered to you and to me. Why deny it?

Evangelism is for Every Christian

By Fr John Parker

“God is Good!” “All the Time!” These words are so common in the cultural and Christian memory of the United States South. It is a call and response akin to “Christ is Born!” “Glorify Him!” or “Glory to Jesus Christ!” “Glory Forever!” And this call-and-response reminds each of us to reflect on God’s goodness and mercy, grace and forgiveness in our lives, and to respond in two ways: the first is to give God thanks for such gifts. The second is to bear witness to such grace and goodness in our thoughts, words, and deeds. The former is prayer and worship. The latter is evangelization.

Have you ever heard the following? “He who loves what he does will never work a day in his life.” For those who love God and wish to honor him in their daily lives, being a witness to him will be natural, however unnoticed it may be to themselves. They simply wish to thank God and tell others about it. This, I believe, we can see in the words of the disciples when Jesus said, “When I was sick, you visited me…when I was naked you clothed me…”, and they replied, bewildered, “when did we do such things to you?” Of course, we know the answer: when you did it to the least of these, you did it to me. The disciples were not looking for an alms “program”—they simply fed the hungry. They weren’t establishing a ‘visitation ministry’—it was in their Christian nature to visit the shut-in. It is likewise with missions and evangelization. “He who loves God and bears witness to him in his daily life will be a missionary without ever thinking about it.”

Evangelization is an attitude more than anything else. It is not a strategy, though we must have one. It is not a plan, though we must organize our efforts. It is not a program, though lectures and books and how-to’s are important. Evangelization—or perhaps more simply evangelism—is an attitude, a vocation common to all Christians. If you, dear reader, would take nothing else away from this essay, take this: evangelism is a vocation, an attitude, a way of looking at and living the Christian life.

While it is true biblically that some folks are given a very specific spiritual gift called “evangelist” (see Ephesians 4:11), each and every Christian is a bearer of the Good News, and has a specific, personal task: bear witness to God in your life.

Evangelism does not mean “be nice”. Evangelism is not moralism. But evangelism begins with a smile and by an outwardly recognizable good example of Christian character. A dear monastic friend of mine was told by his spiritual father, “do not look glum in the daytime. Smile, be joyful, share the love of God. At night, in the privacy of your cell, you can do your repenting and express you sadness or dismay. This you share with God privately. His love and mercy and joy you share publicly.” These are good words! If we would each practice them, how many souls would find the love of God daily?

In a parish, evangelism (when folks are coming to us), starts with my favorite Greek word. It is the Greek word used for the beautiful icon which is the font of Rublev’s Trinity. The word: philoxenia. “Philo” from the Greek “to love” and “xenia” from the Greek “stranger”. The love of strangers. How do we render this in English? “Hospitality”. We must welcome visitors with open arms, smiles, hand-shakes, and gestures of kindness.   We must not ask, “What are you doing here?” or “Why are you here?” Rather, we must rephrase such questions in welcoming ways, “What brings you to our parish today?” “How did you come to visit us this morning?” These (latter) questions are questions which show interest. The former questions reflect more of a border-patrol agent.

I recently heard a story of a fellow who moved from our area to another city in another state. He desperately needs the love of God—we had been working with him here. I gave him the address of the Orthodox Church in his new town. I called the priest in advance to give him a heads-up. Excited to try his new church, he arrived well ahead of the service—so much so that the church doors were still locked. So he parked and sat on the steps of the Church. His welcome was the Deacon, who arrived first with keys, shouting at him, “Hey! You can’t park there! What are you doing here?” Should we be surprised that he will not return? How would you feel with this welcome? Does it reflect the love of the father of the prodigal son? “Where the h*** have you been? Sorry—too late!” This is not God’s love.

Nor can we expect Orthodox Christian behavior, dress, and customs from those who do not know. If this scandalizes you, speak to me: God doesn’t care about headscarves and dresses, especially from those who are drawing near to him for the first time. Whatever our inner traditions are for Christians, let’s reserve those for the cathechumens who are learning them, and from the Christians who adopt them. Welcome the stranger in your midst as they are.

Evangelism also requires long-suffering and patience. But this is not foreign to us. In the first instance, God is the font of longsuffering and patience. It is ‘what he does’ every day for you and for me. When was the last time, for example, that you went and confessed your sins to God before the priest, and went away unforgiven? If you repented, you have never gone away unforgiven. Why would we treat others any differently? God long-suffers you. He is patient with me. He shows mercy on you. He forgives me. Evangelism—the sharing of the Good News—is to thank God for this, and then to share the same exact gift with those whom God places in our path.

Evangelism is also found in the community aspects of our parishes. Human beings seek meaning and community instinctively. It is the Church comprised of Christians, who will be known by “how they love one another”, which is the true, live-giving community. Evangelism is to invite others to share our common life: the life of the worship of God, repentance of our sins, and outdoing one another in showing charity, to paraphrase the whole New Testament. Do our parish events demonstrate our love for one another? How about our parish council meetings? How about coffee hour? Do we break off into cliques and speak only with those whom we know? Evangelism is going the one standing alone and saying “Hello! Welcome!”. Evangelism is saying, “let me introduce you to some of our other parishioners.” Evangelism is “would you join us for lunch?”

Some of this does not come easily. For some it may seem constitutionally impossible. It is, however, vital. It is an ascetical effort. It takes practice. I requires leaving comfort zones. Would we want differently for ourselves if we were that visitor? Would we want to be left to ourselves staring into a cup of coffee along while others laugh and visit and catch up?

Many of the above principles are common to all facets of our life, but are also specific to ‘what to do’ when someone comes to visit our churches. God bless us if he sends folks to us.

But more biblically speaking, we are “sent ones”—apostles. Jesus’ Great Commission was not, “Wait in your Churches and welcome those who show up.” (Though we cannot neglect this.) The Great Commission is “Go!” Jesus’ last words to his disciples, his students, were, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:18ff).

Where are we to go? Go to the neighbor’s. To the store. To the office. To the town square. To the market. To the dormitory. To the Commons Hall. To the Mosque, the Synagogue, the Presbyterian Church. To the PTA meeting. To the HOA. To Africa or Mexico. To Russia or Romania. Where did the apostles not go? GO! Every non-Orthodox person on the planet Earth lacks something in his toolkit for life. In his spiritual hospital for salvation. If you and I have been graced with the full tool-kit, the most-advanced hospital, and we keep it to ourselves—well we would do well to re-read about the man who buried his talent in the earth.

It is never easy to know what to do with statistics, and it is probably complicated at best to equate “Goes to church” with “Christian”, but in the USA (one survey says), 8% of folks never go to church. If you are a church-goer, someone within 8 houses of your house is not a Christian, statistically. In Canada, the statistic is much higher. 38% never or almost never go. If you go to church, one neighbor on either side of your house does not. God does call some to the proverbial African jungle. But let’s not overlook Main St., USA, Canada, Mexico. And if we are concerned with the fullness of faith, the chances are, in the USA that no one else in your whole neighborhood is an Orthodox Christian. In a town of 10,000, statistically speaking, there are 100 or less Orthodox Christians. That means, depending on our strategy, there are up to 9,900 folks who need Orthodox Christianity—who do not know the fullness of Christ. How big is your town?

Biblically speaking, we might organize our efforts according to Acts 1. Again just before his Ascension, Jesus instructed his followers (us!) to go and wait on the coming-and-promised-Comforter: the Holy Spirit. And he noted, “…you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). “Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, ends of the earth…”: We can take these to be like ever extending ripples in a pond. Jerusalem: where we are. Judea: the surrounding area. Samaria: a long way away. Ends of the earth: a foreign land. Some take it in this way: my city, my state, my country, foreign missions. Some indeed are called to go a long way away to bear witness to Jesus Christ. Some are called to stay at home. Some are called to go and come back. “To where?” and “When” are the good questions. “Me?” is not a question. Every Christian is called to be a witness to Jesus Christ. The questions are where, how, when?

To be a missionary or evangelist—simply a witness to Jesus Christ in one place or another—really requires very little. What would those needs be? 1. To have encountered God. 2. To be conforming his life to God’s. 3. To reflect on God’s work in his life. 4. To thank God for that regularly, formally, and informally. 5. To share this story, using words when necessary, with those a) whom God sends us or b) to whom God sends us. Of course, it will benefit us greatly to know the Scriptures, the Saints, the History of the Church, how Orthodoxy fulfills all religions, etc. But the personal knowledge of the Saving God is the bedrock of one’s evangelistic foundation.

Two biblical examples come to mind: The woman at the well, and the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus drew near to the “half-breed” Samaritan woman and if that scandal wasn’t enough, he knew every detail of her life—not to ‘expose’ or ‘shame’ her, but to heal her by pointing her to true life: himself. She left the well “and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ” (John 4:28). Principle: Go. Tell. Invite. Point to Christ.

The Gerasene demoniac had already been consigned to the unclean existence of living in the land of the dead, chained to death, and away from his community. Completely cleansed from the army of demons which inhabited him, and filled with Christ—sitting clothed and in his right mind. “And as [Jesus] was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. But he refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and all men marveled” (Mark 5:18ff). Principle: Go. Tell. Point to Christ!

God is good to men. God is good to women. God is good the righteous and the unrighteous. God is good to outcasts. He is good to the sick and suffering. He is good to you, and to me. Evangelism, at its simplest, is taking the Orthodox Christian truths about God, and how he has worked in our lives, thanking him, and spreading that love around. Everyone from baptized infant to nonagenarian—everyone between and beyond, can thank God for his mercy and can bear witness to that in their lives. This is God’s command. This is our response in gratitude and in love.

+ + +

I see the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Evangelization mainly as a cheerleader and resource to serve our Church, and I see it as a leader in coordinating efforts evangelization, church growth, missions planting, and parish revitalization across jurisdictional lines.

There are scores of clergy and laypeople alike—both within the OCA and in other jurisdictions—who are doing mighty work bearing witness to Christ. I hope that our department will highlight them, lift them up, encourage them, allowing their light to shine in other areas of our Church.

There are numbers of faithful Orthodox Christians who are talented church planters, street preachers, writers and teachers, and I hope that our department will introduce them to the wider OCA so that we might learn from them.

There are those in our church who are skilled at strategizing about where to plant churches and how to train leaders. I hope our department will mobilize these to the glory of God.

There are those in our church who have experience diagnosing and revitalizing dying parishes. I hope our department will assist in multiplying and sending these into the suffering portions of our OCA.

And we must, I believe, not be prideful by failing to admit that we have sacramentalized many in our churches without properly catechizing or evangelizing them. We have many who are able to guard the doors of our parish concerning little ‘t’ traditions of Orthodoxy (whether that is related to how one dresses or when one bows, or if one kisses the face instead of the feet of a saint on the icon, or didn’t pay for a candle, or stand for the Gospel), but don’t have a clue what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself” or “forgive one another as I have forgiven you”. So I hope our department will also make an impact in supporting the evangelization, revitalization, and catechizing of those who already bear the name Orthodox Christian within our folds, who have slipped through those cracks.

And I would like to close, for now, with a challenge: that every diocesan hierarch would ask every dean to work in every deanery in our land, each to make a list of the 10 or 20 towns and cities nearby which need an Orthodox Church, in rank order by size and by current Orthodox presence (none, or none in the local language, or big enough to support an additional thriving parish). And then, in the year 2012, to pick one of those cities, and plant a church there. I’ll just take a statistical guess: 14 dioceses, 5 deaneries/diocese, 70 new missions in the new year. Pick one town, and plant it!

Four Marks of a Christian Disciple

FOUR MARKS OF A CHRISTIAN DISCIPLE

Evanghelie-Salzburg-s12-IN-cropEvery Baptized Christian is called to be a Disciple (student) of Christ, and is called to make other disciples. Here is a short list to remember our calling as Christians:

A DISCIPLE IS:

A Student:  Students have a teacher.  Ours is the Lord Jesus Christ.  Christians voluntarily follow Jesus. He does not compel us, nor coerce us.  His commandments and teachings, we believe, are life-giving.  We believe, in fact, that his teachers are life.  To be a true disciple, a Christian seeks, til his last breath, to know the Gospel inside and out, and strives to keep the commandments of Jesus Christ, repenting when we choose our own way.

A Steward:  When Man and Woman were created, God established them in the Garden of Paradise.  There God gave them Lordship over the creation (the same word we use for God: Kyrios!).  There are a number of teachings Jesus gave which compare his Kingdom to a King who left his servants in charge of his land, his vineyards, etc.  We are those servants.  Owing nothing in this world, except a debt of gratitude to God for his goodness, we are to “look after” and “take care of”  all that we monitor, in the Name of the Lord.  Part of Stewardship is taking care of what is God’s in a God-pleasing way.  Part of it is returning to God a portion (the Biblical minimum of which is 10%) as an offering of Gratitude for God’s material blessings to us.

 A Servant:  Jesus himself came as a servant:  “To serve and not to be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.  The King of the Universe was born in humility and placed in a manger.  His triumphal entry into Jerusalem was on a donkey.  One of his last acts was to wash the dirty feet of his disciple-students.  And his crown was thorns.  A Christian imitates his Lord.  He takes the humble way.  He washes feet, or dishes.  He goes last in line.  He cleans toilets and puts others before himself.

 A Sharer:  A Steward is a sharer of things in the looking after of God’s creation and bounty.  However, this fourth mark, “sharer” refers more to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, dogmatically and personally.  Every Christian, as a good student, will know the story of Jesus, and attempt to share it in creative and regular ways.  Every Christian likewise, as one blessed by God in countless ways, is called to be a sharer of his or her own personal story of how God works in one’s life.  “Go and tell all that God has done for you.”

Living Stones, Spiritual Houses

By Fr Christopher Foley

Holy Cross Orthodox Church

As you come to him, the living Stonerejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to himyou also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. – I Peter 2:5

Hospital ChurchChrist is our living Stone and we too are these stones being built into a spiritual house. What an amazing verse to reflect on when we think about the mandate that we have been given by our Lord Himself to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, the Good News, of the Kingdom. God is building a spiritual house, a Temple for His glory and we are called to become these living stones. First we need to become these stones through our particiption in the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church, feasting on Christ and striving to live a life of holiness in obedience to His teaching. As we become more like Christ, we begin to move from an inward focus to something outward desiring to spread the Gospel. Our Orthodox Faith is meant to be something that is ecstatic, moving out from oneself to others. This can be seen in a very real and tangible way in planting new churches and this is what mission work is all about. What are some ways that we can be more focused and intentional in building a strong foundation? What are some ways that we can “be”faithful in our evangelsim and mission work? Below are a few of my own reflections of being on the front lines of church planting and mission work.

1.  Be slow and steady

We are all familiar with that oft used adage “slow and steady wins the race”.  This is true in mission life as well. Especially in the beginning stages of a small mission, many different responsibilities get placed on the same group of people. While this can be an exciting time to jump in and be involved, the trouble is that burnout and fatigue can quickly overtake even the most well-intentioned zealous parishioner. Instead of trying to do everything in the first few years of a mission, why not pick a handful of things that can be done well and that can be sustained. This helps to focus the mission on a few things rather than trying to do it all at once. It is important to make sure that duties are being shared and be aware of the symptoms of burnout. This usually starts with someone saying “I wish more people would volunteer or help”.  This is usually the first sign of burnout and can quickly turn into resentment of others who are not doing as much as they are. Share the load and be willing to help.

2.  Be Relational

Often we like to create a dichotomy between the social and spiritual life of a parish. How we relate to one another is the true test of how we love Christ in the face of another. We are to work hard on building healthy relationships with others in a mission. Besides the liturgical services, it is important to have social activities that allow people to build relationships with one another. This helps to build trust with one another and avoid the pettiness that can so often creep into church life. We pray at the Divine Liturgy, “Let us commend ourselves, one another and our entire life unto Christ our God”.  This means we have to be aware of one another and that we have a responsibility to one another in Christ. We are saved together in community bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ, as Saint Paul reminds us.

3.  Be Creative

One of the most exciting things about mission work is you get to think outside of the box. One has to be creative with many things. When there is not a church building, one has to think of various options – hotel banquet room, funeral home, store front, larger church with a small chapel or classroom space, etc. This creativity can continue as the mission grows when thinking about outreach. What are some things a mission can do to generate interest and awareness of the Orthodox Faith? Inquirer’s classes open to the community, hosting a speaker on various topics, having an open house for people in the neighborhood around the church, choral presentations in the church and in the community, “flash mob” singing in a local mall, having your priest judge in a local beard and mustache competition (it’s been done), hosting a discussion group or book study in a local coffee shop, hosting a “coffee house night” in the parish hall with local Orthodox musicians, getting involved in local feeding ministries and food banks. There are many ways to be visible in the community. The bottom line is be creative and be willing to think outside of the box. Bless what is bless-able and go for it.

4.  Be Beautiful

I’m sure many of us have visited small mission parishes where the singing was, let’s just say, a joyful noise – with the emphasis on noise. Sure, the Lord accepts our sacrifice of praise offered up with pure hearts, but if we are trying to share with others the beauty of our rich worship, it behooves us to work hard on making them, well, beautiful. This can be overwhelming for a new mission with only a few singers. The principle of slow and steady can be applied here as well. Find a few capable singers who are willing to put in the work of regular rehearsals, choosing settings that are doable and sustainable for the group that you have. Better to have simple, beautiful music than to try difficult music that no one can sing. Once a core group is formed and a repertoire is learned, only then begin to add more music. Also, it is important to have a few competent readers who know the services and can lead the responses when there is no choir available. Saint Paul encourages us to “do things decently and in order”.  Take seriously this injunction and spend the time early on to make the Divine Services beautiful.

5.  Be Hospitable

Nothing can be more off putting than a parish that is not welcoming to visitors. God forbid, a new person comes to church and leaves without anyone welcoming them and engaging them. Here it is important to assign a few people as “greeters” to make sure that visitors are talked to. This does not mean that no one else talks with them, but this insures that they are welcomed upon arrival. It may be helpful to have a newcomers packet with some information about the church and the priest’s contact information. It is also important to get their information for follow up purposes. Make sure that they have a Liturgy book to follow along with and that they are welcomed to coffee hour. It can be hard enough to walk into an Orthodox service for the first time, but even harder if one feels like it is a cold parish without anyone greeting them. Also, make sure that the priest has a chance to greet them personally and follows up with them later that week with an email or phone call.

6.  Be Nurturing

One of the great things about mission life is getting to do things that you never thought you could do. This may include reading, singing, teaching, serving on the council, organizing a fund raiser, planning an event, visiting the sick, etc. Be willing to step out and try something and encourage others to try new things. People’s gifts need to be nurtured and allowed to grow in the soil of a supportive mission. One idea is to ask everyone to fill out a survey about their talents and gifts in order to see where people can serve.

7.  Be Spacious

This can be one of the more difficult parts of mission life. Sometimes people leave and we are left wondering why. Many church growth specialists say that it is a common experience that when people start a mission church that within the first 6 years a large percentage of the original core group is no longer a part of the mission. Let this be a warning to those who embark on mission work – make sure that it is being done for the right reasons and that there is a shared common vision along with the lay leadership (council and priest). It is imperative that when people leave that others reach out to them and that they are missed. At the same time, sometimes people need to step away in order to come back at a later time. We need to be sensitive enough to reach out but also allow space for people that need to leave for whatever reason. The mission also needs to be self-reflective enough to notice if people are leaving for a specific reason that needs to be discussed. This is a hard balance act but one that needs to be a part of any mission effort.

There are many more “Be’s” that could be added to this list and each mission is unique and one size does not fit all. Mission work can be a joy and an exciting way to be involved in building the spiritual house on the foundation of Christ. All of it can be summed up in “be faithful” and you will see firsthand the growth of the vineyard which Christ Himself has planted.

Missions, Evangelization and Stewardship

By Fr. Robert Holet

St Nicholas Orthodox Church     

first and finest

One of the joys (and challenges!) of any startup effort is the opportunity it provides to strip away extraneous elements and focus on the core. The ministry of starting a new parish is no different – the core here being the Gospel (the kerygma) and the ways that it impacts people’s lives. In mission parishes, we rarely present the full array of liturgically correct services, the iconography is nominal, the singing perhaps not yet angelic, and the attendance sparse. Congregations that aspire to reach the pinnacles of Orthodox perfection need time, effort, and often a dose of financial help. One such pinnacle – Hagia Sophia in the 10th century – offers a glimpse of how “when it all came together,” the emissaries of St. Vladimir knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth. It took ten centuries to get there!

Ironically, a rich, hidden blessing is revealed when those things are stripped away in the mission setting – and you get to ask a vital question in all of its starkness, ‘What is the purpose of this parish?’ ‘What is God’s vision for it?’  While the icons and liturgy are revelatory about God’s vision for the Church, the real richness of the Church abides in the heart of every human being who crosses the threshold, seeking and receiving a sacred, saving encounter with Jesus Christ. This means that human encounters, where seekers meet believers (the Church), are the place where heaven and earth meet – even in a mission setting. When new people come to a parish they pose a test for us: are these Orthodox Christians real, authentic and grace-filled? Is their faith merely something external to them, to impress others, lacking in true fellowship and love?’   The material elements may impress – but what converts the heart are sincerity, authenticity, truth and love.

When we speak of ‘witness,’ we usually think of the witness of words – people ‘witnessing’ door to door or on street corners. The early Christian use of the term was much deeper; this word in Greek, martyr, was seen to apply fully and even solely to those who had suffered persecution for Christ, like the first martyr Stephen, who gave up His life as a witness to Christ. The witness of a martyr’s death, however, has been most often the zenith of the martyr’s life and the way that he or she lived it. It’s precisely in how the day-to-day Christian life is lived which builds up a mountain – stone by stone – creating a peak upon which can be set the “light of the world … a city on the hill” (cf Mt. 5:14) which can be seen clearly in a darkened world.

If this is true, then the mission context offers a chance to see the importance of Christian stewardship in its fullest expression. Christian stewardship is how we put to use everything entrusted to us by God – based on our personal relationship with Him.

For a new visitor to a parish, it’s not hard to figure out what the parish is really all about – as the Lord says, “Where your treasure is, there will be your heart.” (Mt. 6:21). So the visitor clearly sees (or intuits) what is important when seeing what a church considers its treasure. Material wealth or the beauty of an edifice may impress at first (like a well-endowed museum), but most people are looking and longing for something else. The manner in which a parish lives stewardship of God’s treasure is far more important – material treasures, human treasures, spiritual treasures. Which leaves a more positive impression – a parish with great wealth that does little or nothing or a little parish that does great things?

Financial expenditures continuously expose a community’s soul. Does the parish utilize its resources for Godly purposes or worldly ones? Orthodox patristic tradition is so helpful in this regard! The Fathers exhorted the church faithful not to hoard treasures or accumulate possessions, and directed Church treasuries to be opened to allow the poor to be fed and captives to be ransomed. This Gospel-in-action approach gave authenticity and authority to their homiletic words and theological utterances. This message was actualized by palpable faith in a living God – effective in their day, and in ours as well.

The stewardship of time is a key component of our witness to others today. Sometimes I’m embarrassed when a visitor comes to church “too early,” on Sunday – maybe during Matins, when nobody is there except the chanters! People filter in later during the Liturgy, hopefully by the Gospel, but sometimes not even then. Clearly, Matins is not considered important to most – their stewardship of time reveals this. Many churches have already abandoned the pre-Liturgy services because they know that no one will come! We can tell people in convert instructions how important, theologically rich and beautiful the Matins services are – but the visitor cannot see beyond the behavior – the stewardship of time and presence. The end of Liturgy tells a lot about the stewardship of time too. In a parish filled with life, the doors of the Church become the floodgates to the social hall where the tide of people flows to share their lives and food in authentic love and friendship. If the church doors open and people pour out to the parking lot (to catch the 12 noon kickoff or soccer game), the message of the ‘importance’ of fellowship and love is utterly obscured, perhaps despite an enthusiastic homily on the topic 30 minutes earlier. Likewise, parish priorities become visible when we compare the effort for fundraising activities (a sign of supreme value) with the commitment to events of a spiritual nature – intercessory prayers, special worship services, bible studies, evangelization events, charitable efforts, etc.

The stewardship of parish wealth is revealed in our Parish budgets – even the budgets of mission parishes are revelatory. I fear that Christ at the Last Judgment will simply open up the Parish Books, and reveal to us how our supposed priorities are not the same as His – which include loving the poor, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, etc. One need only ask, “Are Christ’s priority line items even in our budgets (let alone fully funded) – in the parish or even those of our Diocese or Central Administration? When it comes to our true witness, the popular saying rings all the more true, “Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”[1]

An Orthodox Stewardship approach is essential to bring clarity to our parish focus. If, as I posit[2], the sacred offering is actually the first movement of Christian stewardship, this offering of the first and finest portion (our ‘first fruits’) financially to God can establish the pattern for all of the practices of parish life. These offerings to Christ serve as a ‘cornerstone’ for the future foundations and walls of Church activity. If this cornerstone is solidly and correctly in place, the remaining structural elements will align – if not, there will (eventually) be major problems. Ironically, financial offering is a powerful force in this effort, because our finances are so important to us – serving as placeholders for the hours of labor at our jobs, and our concerns about our personal well-being (family sustenance, home, health). This basic principle of stewardship must begin in the lives of individuals and families, before it can become a reality in the parish context. Those who have made this shift have repeatedly validated the premise – when our finances are consecrated to God, wonderful things happen.

Over the years I have found that a parish ‘first fruits’ offering can be accomplished by dedicating the first fruits[3] of the parish offerings and tithes to worthy charitable purposes. This activity, as the first priority, sets a pattern of stewardship for the balance of gifts entrusted by God to the community, including its members’ time, gifts/talents and wealth. When properly dedicated in a spirit of faith and thanksgiving, this first fruits offering to God is a ‘sweet-smelling’ offering, which leads to communion with the Lord (Gen 8:20), affirming our Covenant with Him which our liturgical Eucharist literally embodies. This orientation of thanksgiving (literally in Greek ‘Eucharist’), allows the balance of parish life, filled with grace, to flow. It brings freedom – because Christ is established as the center of all activity – not money, civic regard, edifice prestige, ego-centric satisfaction, ethnic elitism or other false gods. This is what will be communicated to the world as witness; what the parish does is what the parish is – a Eucharistic community.

How does this vision look? When the orientation of charity (love) forms the basis of parish life, it is what visitors experience when they come to church. Hospitality characterizes their visit from the moment they enter the doors – or even before – when they park their cars! They sense that people in the liturgical assembly know each other, care for each other (young and old) and readily welcome others into the circle. They sense an orientation toward the Lord in worship and hear, in clarity, how their life can be oriented toward fulfillment in Christ. Visitors will check things out – and will read the parish bulletin and learn about the sacrificial and charitable works of parishioners. Sometimes they sense the character of the parish when they see the tired faces and dirty hands of workers when they join in service projects. An atmosphere of love, sweeter than the best incense in church, envelops visitors who cannot quite explain what they experience; what they know is a desire to experience more fully the inspiration and healing which results. Orthodox ‘stuff’ – sacraments, theology and icons – come alive for them as possible, visible paths to God because of this experience. Liturgical music is enlivened by the voices of those who are inspired to actively participate; people are drawn into the community, into worship, into the divine Presence. Such visitors are challenged to enter more deeply into this Mystery, invited to ask questions and probe the Faith as Thomas probed the side of Christ. This is their first step on a new road in their personal journey of faith.

Sadly, however, when the parish community is focused on the aforementioned list of worldly orientations (money, civic regard, etc.) there will always be division and dissipation within the Church, and a weakening (if not obliteration) of its witness in the surrounding community. Parishes (clergy and laity) who are focused on these things walk dangerously close to the precipice of hypocrisy – perhaps the sin most hated by the Lord Jesus – proclaiming a message of the love of God, grace, salvation and love of neighbor; but embodying and giving witness to something quite different – arguments, money-oriented living, ignoring the poor, internal rivalries, spiritual-material dualism, etc.

As suggested in The First and Finest,

“…, (T)he authenticity of the apostolic witness of the Gospel by the Church in the world depends not only upon the effective presentation of the teachings of Christ to non-believers, but as much (or more so) upon the spiritual witness of faith communities living in the Spirit according to that teaching.  When individuals (clergy or laity), parishes, or whole churches miss the mark (sin) in their personal or corporate stewardship of God’s gifts, the effectiveness of the Church in engaging the world with the Gospel will be thwarted and the spiritual battle will go badly.  I believe that financial stewardship is the ‘front line’ of that battle in our American culture today.”[4]

Ours is a battle against a great foe – the principalities and powers of today’s world that wound people, even mortally. Still, the darknesses of secularism, materialism, and sensual orientation in the world today contrast all the more powerfully with the light of Christ. So the challenge is presented to us – “Will our personal and parish stewardship of all things (including our finances) radiate an authentic Christian light to this darkened world?” If God’s love so radiates into the world, then this light will draw people from the world to seek God. Those whose lives are weary, broken and wounded will seek the Church, and will be received into the Body of Christ. And they not only will receive the Light of Christ, but will become part of the Body which radiates that Light as well.

________________________________

[1] This phrase most likely arose from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.” From his essay Social Aims.

[2] This is the premise of, The First and Finest, Orthodox Christian Stewardship as Sacred Offering, Authorhouse, 2013.

[3] The biblical tithe is a good measure for this (the first 10%) but if this is difficult to do at first, a lower percentage, based on what God provides, can be a good starting point.

[4] The First and Finest, p. 111

The Fields are White for Harvest

 

A Picture is Worth a 1000 Words.  Look at all the towns and cities where Orthodox Churches are waiting to be planted!  View Alexei Krindatch’s Five Interesting Facts about Orthodox Church Geography and Demography in the US to see the whole report.

White for HarvestWhen he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:36ff).

 

Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. 36 He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor” (John 4:35ff).

 

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