We sense that something needs to be done. We see the trends. Attendance is down. We are celebrating fewer weddings and baptisms. Funerals are holding steady. Stewardship is declining. We clearly need to do outreach. So we form a parish Outreach Committee. What do we do now? Where do we start? How do we “do” outreach?
Before we begin our outreach efforts, it is important to realize that there is no shotgun approach to this ministry, no silver bullet, no magic pill. This ministry is about going to people wherever they are in their walk with Christ, and helping them to realize their importance as members of the body of Christ. The old Dean Witter commercial used to say, “We measure success one investor at a time.” We need to look at outreach ministry in the same way. We reach people one at a time -- personally – going to them wherever they are in their knowledge and practice of the faith, offering them what they need to grow in understanding and commitment. In the words of Thomas Hopko, “An Orthodox Christian parish…is essentially a teaching and learning community for its believers.”
The Department of Stewardship, Outreach & Evangelism provides a number of resources to prepare and equip your parish for outreach ministry. The best place to get started is with a small volume titled, Outreach & Evangelism: Practical Steps. Though your parish may be doing many of the ministries outlined in this booklet, you will find it a good place to start, with many ideas for expanding and improving existing ministries as well as creating new ministries. Our ultimate goal is to engage active and inactive members, inquirers and the unchurched in the sacramental life of the Church. If we are going to be effective in this ministry, it is important to understand that we need to be infected with Christ before we can be contagious.
Most recently, the department published a volume titled, Reaching the Distantly Connected: An Urgent Ministry for the Orthodox Church, by Fr. Charles Joannides, PhD, LMFT. This resource distills years of research and experience, applying it in a practical way to the critical ministry of reaching the distantly connected. In addition to the solid research and plan of implementation, Fr. Charles provides insightful excerpts from the responses of individuals participants. These direct quotes make clear the urgent need to engage people in worship through increased knowledge of the faith and some consideration for offering liturgy in the language of the people. Fr. Stanley Harakas has written that the history of the Church, beginning with the ministry of Saint Paul, points to “…the restoration of the fundamental principle of Orthodox worship, that worship take place in a language understood by the worshippers.” If we ignore this issue, we will continue to see our people drift away from their Orthodox Christian roots.
The first step in all outreach efforts – the “low-lying fruit” – is to remove impediments or perceived impediments to non-Orthodox individuals that approach the local Orthodox Christian parish. This includes the critical ministry to the non-Orthodox spouse. What messages do we send out intentionally or unintentionally? What might cause the richness of Orthodox Christian worship to be ignored or misunderstood? Is the approach to the church welcoming or intimidating? Is there a message of welcome outside of the church building? Are the entrances clearly marked? Are signs in English? Does our website inspire a non-Greek Orthodox person to visit the church? Do we use social media effectively to draw people to your parish?
The Department of Stewardship, Outreach & Evangelism can provide your parish with a variety of outdoor banners sending a message of welcome to those approaching the church or just passing by. These banners serve a dual purpose. They welcome passersby to visit the church. They also serve the equally important function of changing the mindset of our parishioners. If the banner outside our church says clearly, “All are Welcome” or “Join us…” then we begin to see our church as a welcoming place and change our behavior accordingly.
Research has shown that first-time visitors to a church will decide within five minutes whether they will return for a second visit. Do we fill those first five minutes with a financial transaction for a candle? Do we stand back behind the candle stand as the visitor enters and watch to see if they follow proper procedure or pay the correct amount for their candles as they enter the church? Our first step is to come out from behind the candle stand. A sincere smile, a firm handshake and a word of welcome may be the most important missionary work we do. It has been said that in the church, “friendliness can have eternal consequences.” This is true for the visitor as well as the greeter.
First-time visitors should never leave the church empty-handed. Every encounter is a teaching opportunity and should not be missed. The Department of Stewardship, Outreach & Evangelism can provide your parish with a great variety of excellent full-color brochures dealing with various aspects of our faith. These brochures can populate your literature/welcome table and be added to your parish bookstore.
As you carry out this ministry in your parish, it is important to remember that outreach isn’t something we do. Outreach is a mindset and an attitude that defines a community. We invite people to church. We welcome those that walk through our doors. We make sure they feel welcome. We sit near them and guide them through worship, helping them to find their place in the liturgy book and to understand the various aspects of our worship service. After liturgy, we invite them and guide them to fellowship and refreshments in the church hall. We introduce them to others with whom they seem to have something in common. And we do all these things without thinking about it, but rather because that’s who we are as a community.
"And the Lord added to their numbers daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47)
Fr. Jim Kordaris serves the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese as Director of Stewardship, Outreach & Evangelism. He also serves the parish of Saint George in Kingston, NY.