Growing Your Parish: It’s Possible!

By Reader John (Jason Terpack), M.Div.

While driving home from work today an overwhelming thought struck me towrite on the topic of “Growing Your Parish” and to contact Fr. John Peck for collaboration on such a project. The thought stayed with me and I mentioned it to my wife as we visited on our back patio after my two-year old son John was put to bed and before she and I had dinner. But then I thought maybe I really had nothingof value to contribute at this time, “but maybe later.” But then, while watching television and browsing Facebook; an article posted by Fr. John Peck appeared on my feed “Growing Your Parish.” Ignoring the idea was no longer an option. I immediately contacted Father and he encouraged me to “get to work!”

So what does a former evangelical Minister have to offer to Orthodox Priests about how to “Grow Your Parish”?

Let me first state that I have a great deal of respect for the Priesthood and although I’m a graduate of a Baptist Seminary, I’m still a student myself-in an Orthodox Theology distance learning program-preparing to perhaps one day serve in the role you, the reader, now occupy. Having doubled two different faith communities-one from 50 to 100 in less than a year and another from 40 to 75 in one year, I can tell you these principles work!

Your position as a Priest is one that I respect, yet my heart is pained to know that so many Priests either know and do not care to try, or do not know the five simple (not easy) principles that grow a faith community. These are not Protestant gimmicks or cheap tricks, but Gospel-oriented principles. You would not be reading this article if Archpriest John Peck did not see these things as thoroughly Orthodox.

1. PREACHING

I do not list preaching first because this article is to appear inthe “Preacher’s Institute.” It is listed first because it is what can have the most impact on growing your parish, if what you can influence most, and is what seems to be one of the most neglected arts in Orthodox ministry today. Just a few observations here. I’m not the greatest preacher in the world. When I did preach regularly though, I did not give myself a free pass.

I also regularly recorded the audio of my homilies and forced myself to listen to them in order to help myself improve-just like my Professor made me do in Seminary. And trust me, if you haven’t done this before-it makes you want to do better-a whole lot better!A homily preached well should start with a great “attention getter!” If we do not get the attention of our listeners in the first 2-3 minutes they will be lost the rest of the message. Getting attention usually works well by telling an interesting personal story or something exciting from recent news that everyone is talking about. Next, “securing interest” connects the story you just told with the story you are now going to tell in you homily and explains why it is important for your listener to gain what you have to freely offer. Next, is the most important-make your message Scriptural! Fr. Michael Keiser in his excellent book “Spread the Word” speaks of the great St. John Chrysostom:

“He was famous for explicating the Scriptures line by line for what, by modern Orthodox standards, was a very lengthy homily-perhaps thirty to forty-five minutes…the power of his conviction and his arguments is what held his audience” (pg. 182).

Each Sunday we have the Gospel and Epistle readings that the Church has prepared for us. It has been said that the homily should be based on one of these two readings and if not, it should be based on the Major Feast of the Day (and even better if it can include all three). Explain the meaning of the Scripture text…how did St. John Chrysostom explain its meaning or how did Fr. Lawrence Farley? How can you explain it-it is spiritual food-set the table for your hearers to feast on it!After explaining what the Scripture passage means-explain in a practical way how your hearers can LIVE the truth expressed in the passage. What is truth if it is not lived? Give examples of those who have done just that…lived the truth taught in the Gospel or Epistle. Lastly, challenge your hearersto live this truth out in their very own lives. It’s not enough to explain something well and show how your hearers can live it-you must challenge them to live it.

2. CHURCH BUILDING

The most important thing to say here is “keep it clean!” Have you ever visited someone’s home and honestly thought to yourself,

“Wow this place is very dirty, I don’t want to come back here any time soon?”

That is how many people think when visiting an unkept Church. If it is the Temple of the Lord, let’s keep it clean and in good repair for Him and for our parishioners/guests (we want them to come back after all!). Make sure of all things, that the Ladies Bathroom is clean and in good order, the floors throughout are clean, kitchen areas are sanitary, there is plenty of parking available, and that things smell good throughout (not just during the Great Sensing!).

3. SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media is your friend-use it that way! If people areexcited about what is happening at Your Parish-other people will be excited about what is happening at your parish (and they will get involved too). “Likes” and “shares” and “views” are good things. If you can’t figure it out,appoint someone good at Facebook and websites and have them keep it up regularly. Facebook is free and is still in 2017 one of the best ways to get free exposure/advertising for your parish. By the way, it’s not “your parish” it is the Lord’s parish that he designates to the Bishop’s care, and then to your care. Don’t guard it zealously like someone storing up food for the endof the world-be more like a food pantry trying to give its end of the month supply away so it can receive another abundant supply from the food network

4. PRAYER

“Prayer works.” Pray regularly, not just in Liturgical Services, but pray personally for those you serve and meet. Pray for people by name and by need. Ask God to work in their lives in ways that only He knows best. Pray for the salvation of every sinner you know-including yourself! Ask others to pray, and pray with others. Join your brother Priests and pray with and for one another. Pray for me the sinner?

5. PEOPLE

Invest in each person you have an opportunity to impact. Christ made 12 Disciples and through them reached the world!!! If you reach Bob, perhaps he will reach Sheri. If you reach Jason, perhaps he will reach Martin and a few others. You get the idea; it was just that way in the early Church. When one person was won to Christ they brought sometimes their whole families with them. Pray for people, minister to people, be available to people. If someone calls and leaves you a message, get back to them within a reasonable time. If you called an oil change place to schedule a lube job for your car and no one answered the phone, or did not return your message, you’d certainly take your business elsewhere!Beware; growing a Parish can be difficult. Many times it is difficult because the people in it do NOT want it to grow. I remember asking the President of the Parish Council about moving ahead after we had gone from 40 to 75 people after that first year. He gave me the brush-off and spoke church code for dialing it down a few notches. I did not have a Bishop to depend on and so had to back off from doing as much ministry I had been doing (which had helped produce the growth).

Many little communities and parishes want the entire focus of the community life to be on them and their families. That is why your ministry must begin with preaching and prayer. The people must be taught the Great Commission,

“Jesus said, ‘All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth, go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; teaching them to observe all things which I have commanded you and lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28)

May our good God Who loves mankind, encourage your hearts to seek His will and wisdom for your ministry and “Growing Your Parish.”

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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