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.

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[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