“Father, I don’t believe in ‘missionizing’, that is planting churches. Rather, I believe in evangelizing. Planting churches can lead to good or to bad, when the focus is on church planting. It can lead to one of the main problems we have today—that many people have been sacramentalized but not evangelized. That is: they have been baptized and chrismated, and communed and married, but they were never discipled. So, we need to evangelize the people. When we teach the Gospel first, the rest will come.”
I serve what I guess would be considered a small church. We have about 65 families and we are located in an old mill town in Central Massachusetts that long ago saw its last immigrant from what one would call the “traditional” Orthodox countries. Our church might be small but the people are dedicated to their faith and to the growth of the church. So how do you grow a church under these circumstances in the 21st Century?
This is a question that I have been reflecting on for some time now and I don’t think I am really any closer to an answer then I was when I started. There is no magic bullet here or anything like that. A long time ago a listened to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio about growth in American Orthodox Churches. The priest giving the talk made the point that location really did not matter as long as the people in the church were praying for those that God was going to send to them. In our situation this was good news. We are located in the middle of a neighborhood on a road that unless you know where it is you will never find it. No amount of signage will help if you don’t not do two things, preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and just plain love people.
Church attendance is a hard sell for people these days. Studies show more people stay home on Sunday then go to church; a trend that the experts say is not going to change any time soon. I’m not sure why but people seem to have lost their faith in many things including church.
All too often I believe we are in a rush to “improve” our numbers and so we try and fast track people through the process. Yes we have churches that are full or partially full but are those people spiritually full or spiritually empty? If we do not preach the Gospel then the people are not being fed. I would be interested in a study of church attendance that looked at and followed up on people who “joined” the church a year or more after and see where they are. Are they still with the church or have then moved on so to speak. That would be one interesting study!
A report was released by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) earlier this year concerning the growth of the various diocese that make up the OCA. In the period of the report, 2000 – 2006 the OCA Diocese of the South grew by 38% while all of the others save the diocese of the West that had a growth of 7% declined in numbers. Some of this can written off so to speak by shifts in the population but there must be something to this.
The late Archbishop Dimitri, leader of the Diocese of the South during this time, was what one could call as master at church growth. There were no gimmicks or anything like that just preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and love. That is the model we need to be teaching in the seminaries however preaching takes a back seat in our American Orthodox Seminaries.
Today, whilst running some errands, I was listening to a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio called Lord Send Me. The podcast is hosted by Fr. John Parker chair of the Department of Missions and Evangelism for the OCA. On the podcast Fr. John shared some reflections about his recent trip to the Diocese of Mexico. He ended the report with a quote from His Grace Bishop Alejo, bishop of the Diocese of Mexico:
Our job is to educate those who are seeking, teaching them what is necessary for salvation, and not to worry about numbers. I believe His Grace hit the nail right on the head. It is about preaching the Word of God and the rest will take care of itself!