"Fostering a Mission Minded Parish"
"FOSTERING A MISSION MINDED PARISH"
Fr. Alexander Veronis
November 15, 2007
Coming back to Holy Cross conjures up many pleasant memories. Here is where so many good things begin for the glory of God. I thank God each time I return for the privilege of observing fresh enthusiasm for the Eternal Gospel.
It should not go unnoticed that tonight’s Vesper Service commemorates St. Matthew the Evangelist. He preserved for the Church the famous and most quoted missionary mandate known as THE GREAT COMMISSION. “Go make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you…”. (28:19)
How are seminarians, future clergy and lay leaders, to respond to that mandate?
Consider for a few minutes the possibilities that exist in a mission-minded parish.
Let’s begin with the priest and the presvytera. From the beginning of their ministry, they can pro-actively chart a course of action which will make their parish mission-minded. They can think and pray as follows:
1. . We want Jesus Christ, who transformed our lives, to do the same for our parishioners, our community, our city, our country, and for the world beyond.
2. We will use our God-given talents, our energy, our faith, our enthusiasm and our love to promote the Gospel here and everywhere to the extent of our ability.
3. We want more than a parochial ministry. We want to do more than focus solely on our local needs and wants.
Like some of you, my wife Presvytera Pearl, who is here with me this week, and I are Greek-Americans born to Greek Orthodox immigrant parents. From our youth we heard about how glorious and great the Greeks were, both in antiquity and in the history of the Church. We went to Greek School and celebrated the March 25th programs and heard about how terrible the Turks were.
We learned and heard about the two classes of people in the world: The glorious Greeks and the barbarians (i.e. all the non-Greeks).
However our educational journeys over the years improved our understanding of history and the human race. Pearl studied at Clark University in Worcester. I had the privilege to study at four schools besides Holy Cross: Lafayette College, Boston University, Athens University and at the Lancaster Theological Seminary. Pearl and I lived on the campus of B.U. and in Athens for two years where we met other Christians from around the world. As Jesus became more real in our lives, we felt deeply the challenge of the Great Commission.
We had a passion to share our rich faith with all the people we met.
This desire did not diminish our appreciation for our Greek Orthodox Church and heritage. In fact it increased our desire to witness for the Eternal Gospel. That’s what the ancient and historic Orthodox Church did throughout the centuries. It preserved and perpetuated the teaching of Jesus. It taught and preached a message meant for everyone.
Surely you have been thinking about your future path in the Church after seminary. When one day you enter parish life, as most of you will, you will face a strong temp-tation to live a parochial ministry which can become quite cozy and comfortable.
Our Church people, by and large, have respect for us clergy and presvyteres. They kiss our hands. They give us the seat of honor at public events. They invite us to their family sacraments. They ask our opinion and counsel in times of trouble. Their attention to our well-being gives us a false sense of added importance. With our egos thus inflated, we can readily espouse a spirit of parochialism and believe we are great spiritual leaders in our small bailiwick.
But the call of Jesus keeps hounding us: GO MAKE DISCIPLES OF ALL NATIONS. FEED THE HUNGRY. VISIT THE PRISONS. CLOTHE THE NAKED. CONSOLE THE SICK. BE AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST. LOOK AFTER ORPHANS AND WIDOWS.
How do we respond to this mandate to live in mission both at home and beyond?
This call to live in mission hounded a Greek priest in the 1950s by the name of Fr. Chrysostom Papasarantopoulos. He prayed for God to allow him to get a formal theological education at the University of Athens. He promised in return to become a missionary to Africa. By the grace of God, he managed to receive his university degree at age 58 and left directly for East Africa. He spent the final 12 years of his life preaching and teaching the Orthodox faith in primitive villages of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the Congo. He did all this at a time when no organized Orthodox Mission Societies existed to support him and to undergird his ministry.
HOW DID HE SURVIVE? He corresponded continually with individuals in Greece and America, among whom I was one. COME AND JOIN ME IN THIS DARK CONTINENT. THE HARVEST IS PLENTIFUL, BUT THE LABORERS ARE FEW, he wrote.
And he would always add, “IF YOU CANNOT COME AS A MISSIONARY, THEN AT LEAST BECOME A MISSIONARY-SENDER, a missionary supporter. The two terms he used to convery this message were: IERAPOSTOLOS and IERAPOSTOLEUS.
Initially, relatively few people in the Orthodox world followed Fr. Papasaran-topoulos’s call to enter a long term mission. But his INTENSE PASSION for the GREAT COMMISSION impacted people. Mission Societies and Centers in Europe and America took hold and began to respond.
Today the percentage of seminary graduates in the Orthodox world, who choose to serve full time in a missionary setting remains small. However, the number of mission-minded and mission-sending and mission-supporting CLERGY, PRESVYTERES, AND LAY LEADERS continues to increase. All of us can live and conduct our ministries as MISSION-MINDED people of God, whether we become foreign missionaries or nurture a mission-minded spirit in our parishioners.
Fr. Anastasios Yannulatos (today the well-known and highly revered Archbishop of Albania) and Fr. Chrysostom Papasarantopoulos were two of the early Greek Orthodox clergy who increased Presvytera Pearl’s and my desire to develop a mission-minded parish and ministry.
Our experiences over the past 46 years at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church of Lancaster, PA, the only parish we have served and continue to serve, gave us ample opportunities to imbue a parish with a mission spirit. Some of the fruits we have witnessed are:
1. A Parish Mission Committee which blossomed into an GOA Archdiocesan Mission Center by 1985 and into a Pan-Orthodox Mission Center under SCOBA by 1995 known as the OCMC. Today the OCMC has mission programs in5 countries.
2. Two priests and two presvyteres from our parish who became full time missionaries abroad.
3. Over 100 lay parishioners who served on short term summer mission teams to foreign countries.
4. The establishment .
5. 50 years of parish leadership to eliminate local and world hunger through CROP of Church World Service through educational programs and annual CROP HUNGER WALKS. Four and a half million dollars were raised in Lancaster over this period to stop hunger.
6. A generous contribution annually from the parish budget to local food and clothing banks for the poor, given in cooperation with the Lancaster County Council of Churches.
6. The growth of a parish mentality that believes the local Church should always be living in mission at home and abroad, witnessing to the Gospel by word and deed.
Mission Week at Holy Cross gives you seminarians the opportunity to consider a mission-oriented ministry wherever God sends you.
Here are some practical suggestions how to accomplish this goal:
Create a Missions Committee. Meet and discuss ways your parishioners can support missions and outreach.
Secondly, start a Bible Study Group Ministry on the GREAT COMMISSION of Jesus and outreach in general. Study passages in the Scriptures, of which there are many, that create mission-minded parishioners. “God desires that all people should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”
(I Timothy 2:4)
Thirdly, teach and preach that Tradition and Mission go together. We revere our rich Orthodox Tradition of 2,000 years and all it has passed on to us. But we must not hide behind that Tradition, as the Pharisees did, and neglect the other commands of God’s teaching, such as justice and mercy, evangelism, charity and mission outreach.
Fourthly, read the literature and reports that come out of the OCMC. Join a short-term mission trip, especially to a developing country of the third world. Consider long term service (2 years or more) in an Orthodox foreign mission. Witness first-hand the enormous thirst people have all over the world for the Good News of Jesus.
Finally, look around your own community. Discover where the Food Banks, the Soup Kitchens and the Clothing Banks for the poor are located. Search out the half-way houses that rehabilitate drug addicts, released law offenders and people who wish to turn their lives around. Teach some of your parishioners to get involved in these ministries. Share generously and give freely to others the excellent Orthodox literature, DVDs, CDs and cassettes that exists today from Conciliar Press, Light & Light Publishing, Holy Cross and St. Vladimir’s Press and other sources. Be ready to witness for Jesus, as St. Peter writes,
“to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that in you”
( I Pet 3:15)
What happens to mission-minded parishes and churches?
Do they become less caring of their own parishioners?
Do people stop contributing because large sums of money and resources are going out of the parish? Does attendance decrease at the Liturgy and worship services?
Quite the contrary.
Mission-minded parishes become more Christ-centered and vibrant!
Attendance at the Liturgy and other worship services increases.
More people come to Bible Studies and Retreats and commune more frequently
as a haven for all of God’s people.
Parishioners identify more compassionately with the poor and the physically and spiritually needy and share their financial resources generously.
People pray more as mission outreach increases.
Parishioners make pilgrimages to nearby monasteries for spiritual growth and bring back the spiritual insights they learn there.
Parishioners become more accepting of people, once considered “XENOUS” (foreigners), who love Christ and come to worship him with us: non-Greeks, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and others. And the people of God rejoice that the words of the Prophet Isaiah have been realized, “MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL PEOPLES.” (Isaiah 56:7)
Mission-minded parishes see the entire world as their mission field. A Greek Orthodox Church soon grows into a Pan-Orthodox Church,into a multi-racial Church, into a Church where all people feel comfortable and welcome because Jesus lives in the heart of that parish.
Our thriving Ethiopian/Eritrean communities/parishioners and their growth.
That has been our experience for which we thank God.
Someday we hope it will be yours as well. AMEN.