Is Your Church Growing or Gasping?
- Have you noticed more empty pews in your church?
- Are there catechumens in your church or did you just pause to recall the meaning of that word?
- Are visitors so rare that they get asked: are you Greek? Followed by: Why are you here?
- Is it harder to find volunteers to host coffee hour because the same people do it all the time and they’re tired?
- Going to more burials than baptisms?
If you’ve nodded your head to any of these questions, you’re not alone.
Church Attendance is Plummeting
As our culture becomes increasingly secular, church attendance is dwindling. A 2015 Pew poll found that only 20% of Americans attend church weekly. Does that correspond to your extended family and friends? It seems about right to me.
In January of 2016, The Church of England reported a startling drop in attendance. 1.4% of the population now attends Anglican services on a typical Sunday morning and many of them are elderly. British people just aren’t Anglican anymore. Greek Orthodox churches here in America are experiencing a similar drop as statistics show that 90% of Americans with Greek roots are not in communion with the Greek Orthodox Church.
Is it really due to Intermarriage?
Although the main reason for the decline among Greeks seems to be intermarriage with people of other Christian faiths, it’s likely more complex because this trend of plummeting attendance is happening in all kinds of churches. For example, the Catholic Church in America has lost over 3 million members in the past decade.
For many Christians, going to church every week is just not that important. Many people don’t make a conscious decision to reject their faith. Instead, they miss one Sunday due to sports, then another to sleep in and before long they’re going about twice a year.
Others leave because they feel their personal values or lifestyle conflicts with traditional tenets of the Christian faith, but churches that have changed with the times like the Unitarians and the Episcopalians are rapidly losing members too.
Attendance is even down among Evangelical churches – notably among members who have volunteered and given a lot in the past. It’s easier to go to online church with no driving and no demands made upon you.
Many people say they prefer to pray at home or out in nature. Unless you live near your yiayia, social pressure to attend church regularly is pretty much gone. Others are disillusioned or even angry with organized religion. What’s the one group that’s rising? The group of people who have no religion called “the nones” which has increased almost by almost 20 million people in the last decade.
Hospitals of Healing to a Hurting World
We need a personal faith and our churches must be places that nurture and promote personal Orthodox faith. People need for church to be a place that connects them to God and the communion of saints in a life changing, healing, and salvific way.
Father Luke Veronis, pastor of Saints Constantine and Helen in Webster, MA captured the heart of this issue:
The problem is that many of our churches forget their central calling to continue the ministry of Jesus Christ and become hospitals of healing to a hurting world. The Church is all about witnessing to and sharing the Good News of God’s love to all people. We must recapture this vision, and instill its mandate within our people.
The important topic of church growth will be addressed in a conference this fall in Portland, Oregon called Bringing Orthodoxy to America
I enjoyed a preview of this conference while in Nashville two weeks ago, and was inspired by messages from the four priests who will be speaking at that conference: Father Luke Veronis, Father Theodore Dorrance, Father Evan Armatas, and Father Barnabas Powell.
Each of the priests who will be speaking in Portland has experienced strong growth in unlikely circumstances. While we were in Nashville, they shared their ideas to help other parishes experience similar growth.
Fr. Theodore Dorrance, pastor of Saint John the Baptist in Portland, Oregon encouraged parishes to center the church on the sacraments, promote stewardship instead of dues for fundraising, and focus on parents and other adults as a way of reaching youth. Focusing resources on engaging parents naturally carries over to their children and strengthens the home life of parishioners- the little church. Fr Dorrance also encouraged parishes to start a mission once the congregation grows to about 200 so people can feel connected within their parish.
With Orthodox parishes dwindling by 36% since 1990, Fr. Evan Armatas of Saint Spyridon Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado suggests we take a hard look in the mirror and see what stands in the way of our church’s growth. Obstacles such a lack of teaching, too many meetings, a dirty facility, poor music and simply being too ethnic can prevent church growth. Key ways to promote growth are: determine the obstacles in your parish, make a plan to address issues, prioritize your plan, and then repeat this process once you reach a plateau.
Reach Out to Those Who Do Come
Fr. Barnabas Powell, pastor of Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene Orthodox church in Cumming, Georgia, encouraged us to capitalize on the people who are already coming to our church: those who come to church once or twice a year, people who visit for baptisms and other events, and especially visitors to festivals are all people who could potentially come back. It’s likely that many people with Greek or other ethnically Orthodox roots who are not involved in our churches do come to special events. People who have never been to an Orthodox church and come to a Baptism or wedding often feel touched by the ancient beauty and spirituality but they need to also feel like they could belong here.
Saints Raphael, Nicholas and Irene has experienced strong growth through holding their Greek Festival as an outreach not a fundraiser and promoting the church tour as an integral part of the festival experience. Their congregation is mostly converts and they were converted through the festival. That really surprised me. I only know one person who converted through a festival and I haven’t seen him around in a long time. So often, it’s easier to share food than faith at a festival because people have come for the Baklava. Consider what Father Barnabas said, “Orthodoxy is the healer of humanity so every festival goer needs it”
Everyone needs the love of Christ. Many visitors are deeply touched by the icons and beauty of our churches which are modeled on the concept of heaven on earth, but they leave without a strong enough reason to come back because they missed the part about the church being a hospital for healing. Father Barnabas suggested following up a church tour with an invitation to visit a Seeker’s class the following weekend. He has a class like that available online to help other parishes.
As Orthodox faithful we must live our faith in our daily lives, share the love of God through ministry and outreach, and pray for the Holy Spirit to grow our churches. All of these programs and ideas are important and needed, but the heart of the issue is the Holy Spirit growing the church through each of us as we see Christ in others. Church attendance is important because liturgy is the work of the people.
Having a vision for being a church that is the Church, introducing stewardship instead of dues, reaching the greater community through caring for others, focusing on families through ministering to parents, removing obstacles and creating a plan for growth while keeping congregations small enough that people feel connected, and intentionally building our churches by welcoming the people who already come through our doors are all practical ways we can both live our faith and grow our churches.
“Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Resources for Further Reading:
Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience by Amir Azarvan
100 Natural Ways To Grow A Church: A Guide To Orthodox Evangelism In North America by Adam Roberts
Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home by Elissa Bjeletich and Caleb Shoemaker