Living Stones, Spiritual Houses
By Fr Christopher Foley
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you 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
Christ 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.