“You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
Orthodox Christians are Challenged Evangelizers
In historic Orthodox lands, many, and perhaps even most, have a relationship with the Church as institution and not the Church as the Body of Christ and thus a life-giving relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
Difficulty discerning the difference between “folk religion” and the gospel of Jesus Christ;
Long history of Orthodox mission and evangelization being suppressed – pagan culture, Islam, Mongols, militant atheists, and in our own time, ascendant secularism, relativism, intense individualization and syncretic spiritual practice (I choose THIS from Buddhism, THIS from nature worship and THIS from Orthodoxy);
Tacit belief that each country has its own faith – to the English is given the Anglican Church, to the Germans the Lutheran Church, to the Greeks the Orthodox Church, etc. and so ethos determines church residence;
Negative view of evangelization as a coercive and unwelcomed experience. (There are those who make it so, unfortunately.)
So perhaps the greatest challenge is simply accepting that evangelization is intrinsic to living the Orthodox Christian life and being an Orthodox Christian parish. Without the explicit proclamation of the gospel through words and deeds the Orthodox parish is ever-tempted to become a clan, a tribe or a cult (in the negative sense), focusing solipcistically inward. (Solipcism is the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist)
Visitors (Guests) in our Churches
People are curious about Orthodoxy. It’s exotic; it’s bedazzling; it’s new; it’s often presented in the context of a different culture. Our real challenge is not the failure to promote Orthodoxy. We have plenty of visitors coming to our churches. It is much more the failure to authentically and intentionally welcome every visitor as a guest and, with proper courtesy and respect, assist them to enter more deeply into the Mystery before them – the Liturgy, the sacraments, the icons and the saints – the voice from millennia speaking the Faith. This journey happens in the context of human relationships.
The Orthodox Parish is often Pre-Qualified and Branded
Before visiting many people will have talked to friends, explored the parish website and researched Orthodoxy. They may have gained a small sense of the community through a parish festival. In a sense they arrive pre-qualified but also with the identity of the local parish in mind as well as the public image of Orthodoxy as it may have been presented in the media – Serbian “aggression”, Russian “belligerence”, Arabic “violence” and Greek “financial mismanagement”.
In earlier times the catechumenate was a very lengthy process. Not so much today. Developing an emotional sense of belonging, fellowship and ownership can happen quickly, though actually becoming Orthodox takes a lifetime and more. Some respond quickly and others linger on the periphery for years. Everyone needs assistance to make the journey. This is where the parish must be proactive.
Visitors (guests) want to get to seating without difficulty and often, with anonymity. Strive to eliminate the awkward moments. Classic points of difficulty include parking, entering the proper door, finding the restrooms, dropping off children and perhaps some help in understanding the service. An anxiety-free pre-Liturgy experience and then an understandable (by language) Liturgy experience including a good sermon is often what leads to a second visit.
First Visit Follow-Up
In order to follow-up after a first visit it’s important to know how to contact the Sunday guests. Guest books are not designed to capture this information well. Place a friendly human being (FHB) with cards in the narthex. These can be taken and completed leisurely during the Liturgy and if the guests so desire returned to the FHB. One suggestion is to have a short 10 question survey with a blank area for comments to offer to visitors. Explain that the parish is making a sincere effort at welcoming guest visitors (which is completely true) and you are asking their help to identify areas that could be improved upon. Have the option for people to give some contact information if they wish, in addition to returning the survey.
A great default follow up strategy is a Monday afternoon email. Make sure this includes a personal message and not a form letter. Follow with suggestions, still personal in tone, for opportunities to start connecting with the community.
The next visit is different and more difficult. When visitors (guests) return they may be ready to start connecting. Most need assistance finding opportunities that may lead to new friendships.
Established members often don’t realize how challenging this is. The parish has limited time to help newcomers form relationships and build a sense of belonging that ultimately may lead to the choice to become Orthodox.
As people become regulars, the parish must help them find meaningful opportunities to participate in the fellowship, work and ministry of the parish. This is done through close, focused, attentive listening to them as they talk about their journey, their lives, their interests, their challenges, etc. Asking, suggesting, giving information in response to their stories makes the parish relevant to them.
State the Obvious
It might seem obvious, but most parishes fail to make the process for becoming an Orthodox Christian visible. Instead, it is highlighted periodically when there is a sense there are potential members on the scene.