By Father William DuBovik
What do we do now? It’s a question many may ask when assessing their parish and its direction as they seek to witness for Christ in their parish and in their local community.
Desiring to respond to the call of Christ, to Baptize all nations, and with a love for all of our sisters and brothers in Christ to bring them to the fullness of God’s call, we have begun to implement parts of a program that helps us visibly witness for Christ, sharing His message with others. We share these ideas, not as new, earth-shattering revelations, but as an outline that might be of use in helping to further enliven our parishes.
Outreach, with the goal of bringing more people into the true faith as expressed in the historic church of Orthodox Christianity, is accomplished in many ways. We do this, or seek to do this, so that others may be transformed and may come to know God in the fullest way possible-the only true and fruitful motivation for such efforts. Of course, each one of us must grow ourselves as Christians so that we can reflect Christ in our lives to others. This is a true missionary effort. Still, it is good to make efforts to give our Church greater visibility and to let people know what the Orthodox faith can offer.
Studies show that of those who join a Church, from 70 to 90 percent come because of family or a friend. We need to keep this in mind in any efforts we make to share our faith with others. Even with this statistic, we are left with some 20 percent who come for other reasons-moving into an area, attracted by programs, seeking a new faith, looking for truth, church school, etc., and we need to find ways to appeal to them.
Outreach For The Right Reasons
Ideas and the voluntary efforts to carry out Outreach programs are welcome as long as they are consistent with our Faith. Traditionally, through parish bazaars, special programs and activities that are publicized, people in the community learn of our presence. We need to do more, however, and a parish needs to decide, prayerfully with the Father’s guidance, the Son’s love and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, in what direction we want to go. Let us be careful as we embark that our goal is to share Christ’s truths and not just to share our budgetary expenses with others, seeking persons to fill seats and to pay their fair share or dues. Why would God guide us in growth if our motivations are not out of love, but are selfish?
The following are proposals for Outreach, some of which our parish has attempted, others to which we are aspiring:
Outreach-Car-Pooling: There are people who cannot come to church because they do not drive, or no longer drive. Forms can be distributed to find those who need and would like a ride, and to identify others who would be willing to drive someone from their area to church.
Outreach-Advertising: A society that a couple of years ago got excited over a stuffed red animal that produces an electronic laugh when you press on its stomach-otherwise known as “Tickle Me Elmo”-is a society that attests to the effectiveness of advertising. Our parish has allocated funds and earmarked contributions to increase advertising in the local newspapers-not just that we are here, but with messages of who we are and what we believe. We have seen some fruits from this effort, at least as far as having persons visit us for services, even if they have not yet joined the parish.
Outreach-Community Relations: How can we relate to the neighborhoods in which we find ourselves? Will we become just commuter churches? Some say the latter is impossible to sustain over a long period, and that a church needs to reach out to its neighborhoods. Don’t we have an obligation as Christians to do just that-taking Christ’s message to all people?
Outreach-Liturgical Life: Our liturgical life is the reason for our being, and if we enthusiastically come to as many services as possible, we are in a position to invite others and encourage others to come. Lukewarm adherents will not attract others. Only those with a passion to worship will. Imagine creating a traffic jam, not for a tag sale or bazaar but for Liturgy! For major feast days and special church observances, we should make a statement by taking the day off from work and by keeping our children home from school to attend the Liturgy… Overall, liturgical life must be renewed, and this does not involve a committee or a meeting, but each person making a commitment to Christ. This is of utmost importance for our lives as well as our witnessing for the Lord. Will some lead the way and encourage others to follow their example?
Outreach-Flyers: Distributing flyers about the church is another possibility. Parishioners can go door-to-door, post them on store bulletin boards, give them out on corners and at stores.
Outreach-Libraries: Are there books on Orthodoxy at all libraries in the region? Let’s check and see what libraries will accept in donations of books on Orthodoxy as well as Orthodox newspapers and periodicals. Can we sponsor the appearance of an author who has written about Orthodoxy at a library or bookstore?
Outreach-Telephone: Many people enjoy talking on the telephone. How about calling someone who has not been seen in church lately, or someone who comes sporadically whom we may feel is in danger of falling away? How about calling a non-Orthodox friend or acquaintance, inviting them to come and see?
Outreach-Welcoming: Our parish does have greeters who do a good job of welcoming guests. They provide mini-forms for the guests to fill out so they can then receive follow-up contact. Greeters wear nametags and move out to welcome guests. They do not wait for guests to approach them. One consideration is to have a “Nametag Sunday” periodically, on which each person wears a nametag. There are people at church, new and not so new, who may not know everyone’s name, or who perhaps have forgotten it.
Outreach-Special Activities: Our parish’s “Russian Tea Room” and Bazaar, while a fund-raiser, is a wonderful opportunity to meet new people. We hold church tours throughout the event.
Outreach-Education: We are beginning a library, and have offered opportunities for adult education. Most importantly, we learn through our worship as we listen to the hymns and prayers, especially from the verses for the appointed feast days. Our icons also tell us about the meaning of what we commemorate. In our worship, God speaks to us in many ways and feeds us – body and soul.
Outreach-Computer Age: We need good access to the internet. We need to study how we can best utilize our own website to reach out in this advanced age of technology.
Outreach-Other Publicity: Our parish sends a schedule of our services each year to the colleges, universities and hotels in the area, welcoming all. If one sees a calendar without Orthodox holy days, one can write to the company. School systems can be notified about holy days, but at least a year in advance. Significant church information can be sent to television and radio stations as well as newspapers. Making a "pest" of oneself can be fruitful. We also can correct erroneous statements. We can write letters to the editor.
Outreach-Ministries: Perhaps there is a special ministry in which a parish would like to be involved, such as a ministry to recovering alcoholics, to widows and widowers, to the abused. This is an excellent form of Christian compassion that can result in outreach. Our parish has begun to develop a relationship with an organization that assists pregnant women and newborns.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, these are a few ideas that come to mind when we think of Outreach. You may want to add more, or eliminate some. What is important is that we do not just talk about ideas but that we act to bring them to fruition. How bold and determined will we be? What small mustard seeds of ideas are awaiting our nurturing so they will sprout and grow into huge trees?
We need with openness and most importantly with faith in the power of God to look at our parish-where it is and where it is going. Whether any or all of these projects results in even one new member will be according to God’s will. Just as importantly, with the Grace of God, trying some of these ideas can reinvigorate us, and be a response to any lurking stagnation or backsliding that threatens. We know, too, that an individual or family that focuses only on itself is one in danger. So, too, is a parish. Projects such as these will turn us outward. And, finally, we do need to try to respond to our Lord’s command to “Go and Teach All Nations, Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”