Often times in our parish communities we spend a lot of time and energy on thinking about how we can either grow or revitalize our parish. Often these thoughts turn outwardly to the greater community thinking how we can reach them and spread the good news. However, in these discussions we often miss some of the more simple, traditional, yet effective ways we can strengthen our parishes inwardly that would also promote growth and or revitalization. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Get your family to church: Many who grew up in a parish or have been members of a parish for a long time know that people fall away. It is probably a common issue in each of our families. For what ever reason people stop going to church. The first thing we can do to help revitalize our parishes is to make sure our lapsed family and or friends know they’re welcome to return and maybe even offer to give them a ride to Church to ensure they come. Also, in today’s society there are many things that compete for our time, sadly, even on Sunday. It is imperative that our children know that the Lord is the sole obligation for Sunday. With very few exceptions should we ever bless them missing church for another function such as sports, entertainment, or over night stays with friends. If children do not know this priority when they are young do not be surprised when they don’t get when they are older.
2. Pray: Never underestimate the power of prayer. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). Pray for the growth of your parish. Pray at home during your morning and evening prayers and ask your priest if he can add petitions to the liturgy or serve a moleben (prayer of supplication) for this intention. We can do nothing without God’s help so let us not forget His divine assistance on this matter.
3. Evening Services: The Orthodox Church has a cycle of services leading up to the Divine Liturgy that that include: Vespers, Matins, and Hours (sometimes put together as a Vigil). These services should not be seen as optional, rather as a necessary preparation for the reception of Holy Communion. If you want to see your parish grow then go to these services. Parishes that are active and alive will see many parishioners at evening services because they are Grace filled and easy to pray at. Also, if a visitor was to come to these services and find an empty church they are not likely to return.
4. Marriage and children: The Orthodox faith requires that marriages be between an Orthodox man and woman, yet we often make concessions if one of the partners is of another Christian creed. This pastoral approach has more often than not lead to many leaving the Church because support to remain faithful to Orthodoxy and sharing in familiar traditions together is missing. Further, many married couples decide to wait to have children or limit the number “they” want. This approach to children is not in keeping with Orthodoxy. We do not tell God when we are ready to be blessed by Him with children. Rather it is the other way around. With few exceptions we should be open to having children when we get married. Keep your parish strong and growing by encouraging singles that our tradition is that they marry within the Orthodox faith and that marriage means accepting the blessing of children when God see fit.
5. Beauty: Beauty is a window through which we encounter God. It’s a powerful tool for evangelization and a means for Grace. Recognizing that, it should be a priority to invest in making our churches as beautiful as possible and using that beauty to draw people into the parish. This includes adorning our church with traditional decor and developing beautiful music and offering a strong sense of the transcendent when serving the Divine Liturgy. The Russian Primary Chronicles tell us it was the beauty of the Agia Sophia church and service that converted the Russian peoples to Orthodoxy: “ …we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
6. Open doors: This has a double meaning. First our parishes should be open to whoever shows up at our doors by offering hospitality and making them comfortable (without drawing too much attention to them). Second, The parish needs to keep the doors open more, meaning feast days and more weekday services must be served and attended. A parish closed up 6 days out the the week does nothing for parish growth.
7. Frequent Confession and Communion: A parish that is serious about growing must be serious about their salvation first. Confession deepens personal faith. But it takes faithful energy to be faithful to go to Confession regularly. Ignoring our sins and avoiding confession leads to the drifting into the worldly and sensual ways of the mass media, the broken ways of the world and losing the joy of a strong life of faith. Therefore, parishes that do not promote frequent confession and communion will not see the fruit worthy of repentance. Revitalizing a parish starts with revitalizing our own souls. We can not give what we do not have. If we wish to offer the community the peace of Christ then we must first acquire this peace though frequent confession and communion.
8. Piety: Traditional Pious practices in our churches must be preserved. Our Modern society is rather casual in its approach to life in general. We must not allow this prevailing attitude to enter into our Orthodox Christian piety and behavior. Perhaps our traditional piety such as: head coverings, priest blessings, icon veneration, moderate dress, standing for services, etc. seems strange to our modern world but it is this piety that separates us outwardly from secular culture and other christian faith groups. Keep and promote pious practices and be as “Orthodox” as possible without a falling into phariseeism. Younger people surprising gravitate to these practices. They want authenticity and need examples to follow.
9. Learn your faith: We must never stop learning our faith. When we stop learning we become lukewarm and complacent. The Lord warns us that “…because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth”(Rev. 3:16). Therefore, the more we know about our faith the more we can speak to people who inquire about Orthodoxy to us. If we know little, how can we speak to potential visitors intelligently? Thus, we must work on our journey to Christian maturity, providing and attending opportunities for catechesis, formation and regular Christian fellowship.
10. Stewardship: Stewardship is the way disciples of Jesus choose to live their lives. They recognize that everything they have is a gift from God, and they strive to use those gifts to honor and serve God, to help other people and to make the world a better place. The most notable way of doing this is to offer alms to the Church in which the parish can use these funds for beautification and outreach. We should all give weekly, proportionate to what God has given us (I Corinthinans 16:2), and we should do this not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver (II Corinthians 9:7). If we whom make up the current parish are not willing to provide financial means to keep it operating then why look for others outside the church to do the same.
These 10 things can have a dramatic effect on parish growth/revitalization yet it should always be understood that the success of a parish is not by the number of people in the church but by the depths of the spiritual lives they live.
Priest Michael Lillie
Nativity of Christ Orthodox Church