The Mission-Oriented Parish A Perspective from the Orthodox Church in America
The Mission-Oriented Parish
A Perspective from the Orthodox Church in America
Fr John Parker
Chair, Department of Evangelization
Orthodox Church in America
“There is no silver bullet to evangelization,” is my stock phrase when I am asked to speak on or write about evangelism. There is no method, no sure-fire way of growing a parish. Ideas that work in one parish may not transfer to another. Ideas that do not work in one mission may be exactly the medicine that is needed in a different church. Movie nights or Ethnic Festivals or Concerts or Spiritual talks are all good and important ideas for parishes to consider as means of being mission-oriented. But no program of any sort guarantees success.
Rather than specific actions, it is more of an attitude which makes for a “successfully” mission-oriented parish. More simply, “mission-oriented: means purposefully, intentionally, to “face east”—and thus biblically: to face Jesus, the Orient-from-on-high, as we sing in the Nativity Troparion.
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
Has shown to the world the light of wisdom!
For by it those who worshipped the stars,
Were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness!
And to know Thee, the Orient from on High:
O Lord, Glory to Thee!
Whole Churches, Parishes, and individuals can end up facing the wrong direction—this can be through sin, neglect, or the status-quo. Any one or a combination of these can knock us off of our focus, our orientation. The result of such, we could take in English as a play on the same word—this time dis-orientation. Whether corporately or personally, a spiritual dizziness, loss of direction and/or focus.
In the Spiritual life, what is the solution to such dizziness, disorientation? Think of going on a walk or a hike. You have with you your compass and map (or today, your GPS!), you look for your original destination with your tools, and you do what? “re-orient” your efforts towards your original goal.
Disorientation for those with a heart for the Gospel leads to reorientation, which leads to Orientation: keeping our eyes on the Lord.
This of course is very, very clear to us in the baptismal service, at the beginning, where we do our renunciations of the devil and our uniting to Christ. Picture it in your mind right now: we actually, physically turn and face the wrong direction—the west, away from Jesus—renounce sin and the devil—and then re-orient ourselves (face east again), to face Jesus, the Orient from on high.
In simple terms, the attitude of mission-orientation can be said like this:
“the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
A radical pursuit of a life in Christ, according to his life-giving commandments.
To know no other, as St Paul says, than “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
To follow Jesus Christ, with ever fiber of our being, as “the way, the truth, and the life” apart from whom there is no way to the Father (cf John 14:6).
Consider the follow examples of Mission-Oriented parish and personal life:
A mission-oriented parish believes that Orthodox Christianity is for everyone.
By this, I certainly do not mean, as it may be heard in the United States, that the Gospel should be conformed to the will and whims of humans in the fallen world. Rather, I mean that a mission-oriented person, a mission-oriented parish looks at an apartment building and thinks: how many of those residents are not Orthodox Christians? Many of them are not Christian at all! How can we reach them? What can we do to point the way, to invite, to bear witness?
A mission-oriented parish takes the Liturgical Life seriously.
The Orthodox Christian life begins and ends with prayer. Do we love to pray? 11 years ago, we planned and planned and raised money to build a beautiful church. And an amazing thing happened: many neglected the church services! Did we build a church or a monument to ourselves?
A mission-oriented parish serves the services with joy, eagerness, and beauty, not only as a gift of love to God, but also remember how the whole of Russia (and thus Finland, no?) received Orthodox Christianity: by beauty!
A mission-oriented parish takes personal prayer and the reading of the Scriptures seriously.
I was recently talking with a friend who grew up in an ethnic-Orthodox Church. He was an altar boy as a child. He loved the services. He loved God! As a teenager, he went to a church-sponsored athletic event (it was common to have basketball tournaments between Orthodox Churches). In the hotel rooms he was devastated to discover his fellow teenagers drinking alcohol, smoking, and speaking with all sorts of profanity. Not only were 2 of those 3 illegal for kids his age, but it was terribly incongruent with all the words we sing in the services about sobriety and words of blessing. Eventually, he went to college and discovered a Protestant group which had committed itself to sober pursuit of Jesus Christ, to reading and memorizing the Bible, to enjoying healthy and holy fellowship together. He left the Orthodox Faith, and only now as a 45 year old, is he slowly returning to ask serious questions.
A mission-oriented parish is comprised of those whose personal spiritual habits are as closely linked to the corporate ones as possible. That is, there is a real, true effort to have the inside and the outside of the cup match.
A MISSION-ORIENTED CHURCH THINKS ABOUT THE FUTURE TODAY.
One of my Youth Ministry friends always thought it amazing that in our culture, parents say to their children, “When you grow up and go to college…” They say this constantly and often—and so, when the child is of age, and has his basic education under his belt, there is no question as to what is next: college! My friend, TJ, instructed us: why do we not say to our children, “When you grow up to be a missionary…” or a priest…or a Cantor…or a insert Church vocation here…? This is a gentle preparation for the future in the church. Or to our parishes, “when we get to such-and-such a size, we will plant another church.” These kinds of statements put a mindset in the DNA of our Orthodox faithful.
A mission-oriented parish remembers who they are, and whose they are.
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ… So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:12-13, 19-20).
Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy (1 Peter 2:10).
And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him… (Colossians 1:21-22).
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Do I remember who I was before Christ? Or how I personally have betrayed him and soiled my own baptismal garment, as a conscious Orthodox Christian? Do I remember the rich mercy that I have been shown? Can I count a single time that I have confessed my sins and gone away unforgiven, unabsolved? We were once “nothing” and now we are Christ’s! We were once far off and now we are near to God! We were once strangers, and now we are sons and heirs! And this, not because we a special, but because God is merciful! “Be ye therefore merciful…”
Or as Fr David Rucker, missionary of the Orthodox Christian Missions Center (now serving in Alaska, formerly in Guatemala), once said, “I am just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
A mission-oriented parish attempts to hold Orthodox Christians to the Gospel they have voluntarily accepted and to show a great deal of mercy and long-suffering with those who do not yet know the Gospel as we do.
Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise (Luke 10:36-37).
So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me” (Acts 8:30-31)?
Many times, we wish justice for someone who has offended us, but mercy from God for ourselves. But the saints teach us the other way around: Lord, be strict with me, and overlook the sins of my neighbor!
The Ethiopian Eunuch is such a beautiful example: we need teachers and guides to know what to do, how to live, and why. Can Orthodox Christians expect non-Orthodox Christians—or non-Christians—to know, understand and live the Gospel, without first being catechized? A mission-oriented parish gives visitors a very wide berth, expecting that God will change both their hearts and ways as they learn the Gospel—just as he has and is doing with us.
A mission-oriented parish is generous and practices hospitality unreservedly.
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2).
Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another (1 Peter 4:9).
You received without paying, give without pay (Matthew 10:8).
My favorite word in the Greek New Testament is “philoxenia”. We translate it “hospitality”—from which we derive the word “hospital”. But the compound word means “love of stranger”—“philia” “xenos”. Love of stranger! In the US South, from which I come, there is a phrase of a person who is friendly to everyone—that person “never met a stranger”.
That is a good definition of a Christian. Because a mission-oriented person, and a mission-oriented parish not only remembers that they were once themselves strangers, but welcomes others with the same open arms with which they were once welcomed.
I cannot begin to describe the warmth and kindness with which I have been welcomed. Warm greetings. Personally prepared meals. Gifts. Thank you! We should ask ourselves: Do we greet a visitor off the street with the same greeting? Is this not the call of the Gospel?
In our parish, we greet “strangers”—visitors and guests—in the narthex with a warm, peaceful greeting. We ascertain with a positive question, “Is this your first visit to an Orthodox parish?” in order to help guide them without embarrassment or feeling like an outsider (it is tough enough even to visit for the first time!).
We have a “coffee hour” after Sunday Liturgy, which we say is “always more than coffee, and usually more than an hour”. In fact it is more like a full meal, brought by willing parishioners each week. There is never a charge for anyone, and the “strangers”—visitors and guests—always are invited to go first, to receive the first and best portion of our offering!
A Mission-oriented parish tries to live “the world is my parish” rather than “the parish is my world.”
“Some see the parish as the world, others see the world as their parish.”
This quotation is often attributed to St John Chrysostom—though it comes from John Wesley, founder of Protestant Methodism. He wrote in his journal,
“I look on all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty, to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”
A mission-oriented parish is not closed in on itself. Of course it has a rich inner life—it is a family. But it is a family always eager for one more adoption. The table is set with one proverbial chair empty. While every effort is made to deepen the parish life, every effort is also made to invite others to come and see.
From our parish, here are several simple examples: when we put the pine floors into our new church, we invited the whole neighborhood surrounding the church to come and hammer the nails. (In the neighborhood, there are two Orthodox households out of 700.) Many, many people came that day and took part, and remember “my nail in the floor”. Another way was to host a Music and Arts festival which was anchored with our own parish choir, and the iconographic adornment of our own parish, but to which we invited dozens of non-parishioner artists to come show and sell their art (carvings, paintings, photographs) and musicians to come and play (classical strings, brass quintet) in the courtyard. This helped to bring them into the orbit of the church—to give them a good experience of Orthodoxy as “approachable.”
When one wishes to re-orient himself, or when a parish wishes to face-Jesus-again for the sake of mission and evangelism, they simply need to remember that reorientation means turning around. Reviewing who we are and whose we are—where we have come from to to where we have been invited, and why, and to extend that same grace, mercy, hospitality, welcome, to everyone who will accept an invitation.
A mission-oriented parish cultivates attitudes of servanthood.
“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
For three years I taught Spanish to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. At the same time, I was a church youth leader for the same age group. In two successive summers, I took the same groups on 8 or 9 day tours of Spain. We were always in need of getting in a line to get organized. And, at least in the United States, there is often a race to be at the front of the line. Inevitably, there would be some pushing and shoving in trying to get to the front of the line.
I was always frustrated with that jockeying for the “best position in line”. And then it dawned on me: it is the perfect opportunity to teach a Gospel lesson. I even encouraged the teenagers at one point: we are lining up for a very special purpose this time—line up! Of course they raced and elbowed to get to the front of the line. Once all in order, I went to the back of the line. There, I asked everyone to turn around and face me. What, I said, to them, is the word of our Lord? The first shall be last, and the last first.
Can we cultivate in our parishes an attitude in which we constantly say, “you, please, go ahead of me”?
At meals on our trips and retreat, I would insist that each teen take the plate of someone else at the end of the meal—to take it to the kitchen. You could take only the plate of someone else, and therefore practice being a servant. Can we do the same as adults?
There are many, many other characteristics, attitudes of the mission-oriented parish, comprised of mission-oriented Orthodox Christians.
A mission-oriented parish is discipleship driven. The parishioners see themselves always as students.
A mission-oriented parish is always trying to find a way to invite others to “come and see”.
Perhaps the most important attitude that we can have is the one which says, “Lord, you have given me so much in the Orthodox Church, in my Orthodox Faith. How can I, how can we share this with the same abundance with which you have given it to us? Maybe a good exercise is to review these attitudes: how does my parish relate to each one? How do I? And then, maybe pick just one—perhaps the one with the most space for improvement—and, with the help of God, to firmly establish that attitude in the parish. And then, the next…
Fr John Parker is the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He is the Pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Raised in the Episcopal Church, Fr John and his family were received into the Orthodox Faith in 2002, at which time they moved to Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. Fr John earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, his MTh from Saint Vladimir’s, and is currently working on his DMin at the same. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.