Yeah, I’ve been blogslacking lately. I’ve got a baby and I’m trying to take my exams, what can I say?
I recently offered an acquaintance some fairly detailed thoughts on establishing an Orthodox mission church. They’re very subjective and anecdotal, but they’re based on what I’ve seen in a parish just barely out of the mission stage itself. I’ve written about missions before, but not in anything beyond the briefest of brief treatments. I share here the meat of what I told this person, although I have edited certain details to make it a bit more general. I am interested to hear the thoughts of others on the issues I raise, so please, the floor is open.
Some theory first. From what I have seen, the biggest sign of the spiritual health of a given community, and simultaneously the biggest factor with respect to growth, is the willingness to invite friends to church. As silly as that may sound, Orthodox spirituality is relational and experiential; you can’t read or think your way into the faith, you have to actually go to church and be with other people, you have to actually receive the Eucharist and be in communion with the parish (and with the Church at large as well, something I’ll get to later), and so on. You have to actually do something, and how it is done involves a larger number of people than just yourself. To put it another way, because Orthodox Christianity is experiential, it is also relational; somebody has to tell us to “come and see”, and having come and having seen, it is then incumbent up on us to tell other people to “come and see”. None of this is anything you don’t already know from the friendships you had with Orthodox Christians before you converted, I’m sure. The point is, rearing our children in the Church aside, the Church grows principally through our relationships. I’m Orthodox because of two such relationships; an Orthodox friend stopped me (then an Episcopalian) while we were having a conversation that led to me recounting the Creed; when I got to the section on the Holy Spirit and said, “…who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” he stopped me and said, “No, that’s not how it goes.” That started a conversation with consequences, and then a year later, a Ukrainian friend of my wife’s asked if we would come with her to a blessing of Pascha baskets. Between the two relationships, we had experiences that got us asking questions, and the friends who prompted those experiences were able to be further resources. Subsequently, we had friends we took with us to church, and it has continued down the line. That first conversation about the Creed with my friend has generated something like four generations of converts.
Second, the whole “experiential” part is crucial. The first thing the Church is supposed to do is worship. And we’re supposed to do it well and beautifully, as you well know. Think about the story of the Kievan emissaries visiting Constantinople — they saw the Liturgy and reported back to Vladimir, “We knew not if we were in heaven or on earth — we only know that God dwells there among men, because we cannot forget that beauty.” The Liturgy, then, is epistemological — it’s not just the way we get our chant fix or have an excuse to look at icons or whatever; it is fundamentally the way we know God, and to the extent that that’s the case, it is evangelical. For us to say, “Come and see”, there has to be someplace for people to come to, and there has to be something for them to see.
So much for theory. What I would encourage you to think about, given all of those things, is this:
1) To the extent possible, be geographically accessible; ideally, someplace that might get casual foot traffic. That can be difficult given various economic realities, but particularly as a mission, at the very least it’s not going to do you any good for people to not have any idea how to find you or see you as difficult to get to.
2) Always remember that the church’s primary function is worship. It’s not to sell nut rolls, it’s not to have potlucks, it’s not even to hold Sunday school. These can all be great things, and I don’t criticize churches that do them as such, but I’ve encountered the mentality that says, “Well, people come to church for church, but they stay for the other things the church does. So, rather than concentrating on a worship space, better to make do with a space that allows you to get by for services while also allowing you to do some of those other things.” I suggest that’s exactly backwards. Certainly you have to allow for some economy of space and some clever use thereof when you’re getting started, but from a standpoint of mission and growth it will be better to have a space that allows you to liturgize as best you can while getting by for the coffee hour. I’ve seen missions and churches manage to be located near cafes or whatnot that are able to serve as the fellowship space; it’s potentially a way to be smart about space in the beginning. Along similar lines, make your first priority getting the rhythm of the liturgical life down. Remember St. John of Kronstadt — he did daily services with just his wife as the choir at first, and in the long run they couldn’t fit everybody into the church.
3) Find ways of being visible in the broader community, of contributing to local conversations, etc. If there’s some way you can find to be a leader on a particular local issue, do it. The point here is that, peculiarities of image and calendar aside, the church should be seen as integral, contributing entity of the local community as opposed to a colony of cranks. Food can certainly be a way to do this; there’s a reason people think of Greek festivals and poppyseed rolls when they think of Orthodox churches. Maybe you have a location that enables you to have a really wonderful ministry to the poor; maybe you sponsor picnics that are open to the public; maybe there’s a farmers’ market or community street fair or something where there’s the possibility of the parish having a table. Maybe you’re blessed to have a good singer or two at the outset; find a way that such a person might be able to use music to contribute to the community at large. If your location lends itself to such an effort, do the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Holy Friday, Elevation of the Cross, etc. processions someplace public. Maybe you’ve got a chunk of money to bring an interesting speaker in on some issue of import.
4) Seriously do not stress over the baggage of cultural “strangeness”, be those related to liturgy, calendar or whatever else. If people know first and foremost that they’re welcome at your hearth, they’ll be less freaked out over those kinds of things and more inclined to ask productive questions. Just greet them with open arms, make sure they can find the coffee afterward, and be prepared to explain the various “whys” as many times as is necessary. Emphasize what’s good about the distinctive things in a way that praises the good things people already know, and maybe shows how these distinctive qualities add other good things. The idea of “completion” (the real definition of “perfection”) rather than “replacement” is useful here.
5) Books are good, and a mission book counter/library or something like it is a universal in American Orthodox churches, but they can also be shortcuts that have consequences down the road. The personal connection is probably going to do more than any book by Schmemann or Rose possibly could. I’m a book guy, to be sure, and I’m a scholar by profession, so I’m all about the books, just so we’re clear. I spent hundreds of dollars on books in my couple of years as an inquirer, and being Orthodox has influenced my life in other ways that has led to further thousands of dollars spent on books. But in terms of the literature one tends to read as an inquirer/catechumen (at least from what I’ve seen), there’s a certain sameness, particularly in the convert testimonies. It’s useful to find a convert testimony that resonates with you, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and it’s going to be better found in the services and the prayers than in books. Ware’s (or McGuckin’s) The Orthodox Church for general background and history, Schmemann’s For the Life of the World for a compelling account of what the sacramental life means, Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox for proof that even cultural Evangelicals can do it, and then perhaps Mathewes-Green for the personal account of the life, but beyond that, I’d really de-emphasize the books. Emphasize the relational and experiential (“Oh, you want to know about <topic X>? Then you should really make sure you come to <service Y> and/or talk to <person Z>”).
5a) Make sure that you’re smart about how you operate any retail sales like that. I’m familiar with a case where the parish bookstore was just ordering things from Light and Life at full price and then selling them at full price, then wondering why they weren’t selling anything. Wholesale relationships are reasonably easy to set up — Liturgica.com and Musica Russica for CDs, Conciliar Press for certain titles, etc. All it takes to start a good parish bookstore that’s self-sustaining in the long haul is $1000 and being smart with your wholesale accounts; a friend of mine did exactly that at his parish.
6) Certain jurisdictions make things very easy in the sense that there’s a way you do things, and you do it that way. Those very same jurisdictions also usually come with baggage arising from the perceived ties with “the tribe at prayer”, and the worry that this is going to wind up being all about building Little Byzantium or Little Beirut or Little St. Petersburg someplace. The truth is, Orthodoxy in an American setting is going to be American somehow just by virtue of the fact that Americans are doing it. Just take seriously that there is a way you’re receiving of how to do things, do it as well as you can, have doing it that way be the normal way you do things from the get go, and resist idiosyncrasy as much as possible. It’s a gift to be given an expression of the Tradition in a clear, whole-cloth form if you’re in a jurisdiction that does that; it takes a lot of guesswork out of things (there are at least four different things one might mean by “Antiochian practice”, for example). There will always be ways that things have to be adapted for particular contexts, but if you just normatively receive it and do it from the start the way they tell you, then you won’t have to deal with the shock to the system later of trying to do it. To return to something I touched on earlier, it will also help at least give you the sense of being in tune with the rest of your diocese/jurisdiction, even if you’re relatively isolated. Being idiosyncratic and isolated is not a good combination. If you want to be welcoming to Orthodox that show up down the road who are used to particular ethnic practices — well, in my experience, a Liturgy served faithfully according to Russian practice and a Liturgy served faithfully according to Greek practice have an awful lot in common. It’s at least going to be recognizably the same ethos, even if the details are different. It seems to me that the solution in America is to do it in reverent English (whether or not that includes thees and thous), don’t apologize for the rest of it, just be prepared to explain the “whys” over coffee afterward (or better yet, have them over for lunch and talk about it over a home-cooked meal).
Bottom line: be faithful, and God will give the increase.