"Building Up a Healthy Church"
Building up a Healthy Church
By Fr. Luke A. Veronis
from The Orthodox Observer
Over a two year period, a Church goes from having an average of 40 to 120 parishioners on Sunday. The budget increases from $60,000 to $155,000. The Sunday School grows from 5 to 35. Most importantly, though, a spirit of familial love becomes tangible; the faithful begin to understand the beauty of worship; a thirst for spiritual knowledge develops; an interest in sharing one’s faith with others takes root; and people catch a healthy vision of what it means to be the Church. This is a true story of how our churches can become healthy, vibrant, and even growing communities.
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.
There were five integral characteristics in the early Church. The Apostolic Church spent time in prayer and worship daily. A loving fellowship took care of all its members, and even welcomed outsiders. The entire Body of Christ had a passion to share its faith with others. The people of God longed to learn and grow in their knowledge of and relationship with divine Truth. And the first Christians not only served one another, but even served those outside its community.
From these central characteristics, our Church created the following mission statement: The mission of Saints Constantine and Helen Church is to proclaim the Good News of Salvation through the Orthodox Christian Faith for the glory of our Triune God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are a community of believers who journey towards our Lord Jesus Christ and towards one another through our worship, fellowship, spiritual growth, witness, and service. We invite all people to join us on this journey towards the Kingdom of Heaven.
Using such a mission statement, a Church can then focus on developing each of the core characteristics. How can we make Worship more understandable, relevant, vibrant and alive for everyone? Offering a “teaching liturgy” regularly can help people better understand what we do in worship. In such a teaching service, the priest may interrupt the Liturgy numerous times to explain what is happening, and what is expected of the people. Encourage the faithful to wholeheartedly participate in singing, saying various prayers aloud as a community, offering the kiss of peace to one another, and partaking frequently in Holy Communion. Such participatory worship should take place in an ever increasing cycle of weekly and daily worship.
In the area of Christian Fellowship, how can we promote events that celebrate a spirit of unity and love? Can we offer fun and exciting activities and excursions that are also spiritual and educational? One important aspect of fellowship for the priest should be annually visiting every home in his community. During the Epiphany season, I visit and bless 160 homes. I publish a schedule of the general areas where my parishioners live and then go to all the homes uninvited. Sometimes I offer an “unexpected” visit. At times, I visit people who have not been to church for years. All of that is ok, because it is showing people that the Church cares!
Spiritual Growth for Church members of all ages is essential for a healthy, vibrant, growing community. Can we offer a variety of educational opportunities for people of all ages. When we arrived in our present church, very few children came. So we had to become creative. We introduced Grandparents Sunday, to get the grandparents to bring their grandchildren who had left the church long ago. We developed a puppet ministry to attract the children, and for the first six months of our renewal, we actually had more puppets than children! We developed an exciting week-long Summer Vacation Church Camp, and encouraged our youth to invite their non-Church friends to participate! In adult education, we focused on a weekly Bible Study group, while offering an Introduction to Orthodoxy Catechism group and a small Agape Circle prayer group. We brought in great speakers for Lenten retreats twice a year. Our monthly bulletin, The Light, became a 24-page plethora of spiritual education, inspiring meditations and general information about our faith. And our weekly bulletin summarizes well prepared sermons.
One of the more challenging aspects of our Mission Statement has been in the area of Witness and Service. Too often, churches hold on to a parochial spirit. “Charity begins at home,” is a common mantra, as churches reject reaching out beyond themselves. Of course, a clear sign of a healthy church is when it reaches out beyond itself, sharing God’s love with others.
During our first year of renewal, our budget committee accepted to put three specific line items of $1000 each supporting missions and outreach on a local, national and global level. I heard more than once, “Father, how can we give globally when we’re not sure if we can pay our bills?” Yet, our Council learned an important lesson - the more we gave to others, the more richly God blessed us! Three years later, our Church actually sent its first Missions Team to Project Mexico. And this year, we are sending our third team of 13 on a cross-cultural mission, with our parishioners raising an additional $15,000 for this trip! Such cross-cultural mission teams have inspired our community to get involved in outreach to the local soup kitchen and to volunteer in a neighboring homeless shelter!
The road to renewal is not easy and does not happen fast. Yet with patience, love, and discernment, combined with prayer and an openness to God’s Spirit, positive change can happen! Our Saints Constantine and Helen Family still has a long road ahead in fulfilling our potential and becoming the Church God wants us to be, but thank God we’re going in the right direction!
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Fr. Luke A. Veronis presently pastors the Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church in Webster, MA and teaches as an adjunct instructor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and Hellenic College. He and his wife served as OCMC missionaries for 12 years in Albania and parts of Africa.