Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Crisis Management is Evangelism

Over the course of the last few weeks we have discussed at some length different approaches to Evangelism and our need to really make an effort in this regard. Today we will discuss crisis management (from a spiritual point of view) and how this, perhaps surprisingly, can be an opportunity for Evangelism.

Given: St. Seraphim of Sarov was correct when he said “acquire the spiritual of peace and 1000 around you will be saved.”

Given: Into each person’s life the Lord sends the blessing of a crisis from time to time.

Why call a crisis a blessing?! That just doesn’t make sense to most folks. Crises are BAD. Well - that is one way to think about crises. That is the wrong way, but that is a way we can think. When we say wrong there is good reason for that: a crisis is a reality of life. Most people are only blessed to experience a true crisis a few times in a lifetime. There are those rare people who seem to have a crisis a few times per week, but that is the exception and probably belies other underlying spiritual issues that need to be worked on. That is a topic for another posting. But the main point here is: a crisis is an opportunity. Most of the time we are pretty static with our spiritual lives. We make a bit of an effort and we don’t really regress too much. Sometimes we take a step or two forward. Sometimes a step or two back. But by and large we don’t have much spiritual movement, for lack of a better word. However, in the case of a crisis we have a great opportunity in that we are more spiritually “pliable” then we are at other times. This means we can move closer to God if we choose to, or move further from God if we do not take advantage of the blessed crisis we have been gifted.

There is no reason to seek out crises. And I would argue that doing so is sort of trying to put our will above God’s will. He sees what we need and He knows when to send to us what we need. When we are ready in God’s eyes He allows us to struggle. And if that struggle is on the level of a crisis (what a crisis is varies from person to person of course) we are sort of freed from our static spiritual state and can move closer to God by working with Him during the crisis. A crisis gives us the opportunity to trust God more, to love God more, to more positively affirm that God knows better than we do what is best for our salvation and the salvation of everyone around us. We don’t deny those things outside of a crisis, but we honestly don’t think about them very much either. During a crisis we are faced with a choice - the choice of Job. Curse God and die (spiritually at least), or trust in God’s providence and love for us. If we chose to trust God and to persevere with His help then we will draw nearer to Him. When we complete the crisis we will find ourselves with a stronger faith. Thus we see that every crisis gives us a much needed opportunity: to free us from the fetters of our static spiritual life and potentially move closer to God. That is, if we choose to do that. If we do not embrace the crisis and work closely with God to strengthen our faith, hope, and love in Him, then we will regress. Let us welcome the crises the Lord sends us as opportunities for spiritual growth!

But that isn’t Evangelism is it? If we just grow spiritually in the corner how do help spread the Gospel? The world is replete with crises. Some authentic. Many contrived. Mankind suffers from these crises - seemingly continually moving further from God. There seems to be no exit! The crises keep coming, trumpeted “helpfully” by our mass media, keeping us in a constant state of crisis management. But that kind of crisis management is not management at all - it is rather the kind of crisis management that just makes us lose hope. Is it a grand conspiracy? Who knows? And for that matter, since we can’t really do anything about that, who cares? What we can do is be a good example to the many who are suffering from this tidal wave of crises.

We often discuss how to help families with rambunctious kids participate in worship without driving others out of the temple. But if we really prayed we wouldn’t even notice the kids. That is not to say that the problem doesn’t need to be managed - of course it does. But if we REALLY prayed, we would not be distracted by anything. We all hope to attain to that sort of prayer some day. And the same is true of our continuous societal crises: if we REALLY lived an Orthodox life we wouldn’t even notice these things. We would be focused on Matthew 25, on the Beatitudes, on the Divine Services and all that is offered there for our salvation, and other pious Christian pursuits. But even IF we could live such a life, perhaps the Lord allows us not to attain to such heights so that we can engage our neighbors in their time of crisis and not seem aloof to their suffering. And offer the hope that only comes from a life lived closely to the Lord. To be an example of one who lives in the world but is not consumed by the world. To engage the world where we find it and raise it just a little bit towards the Heavenly Kingdom by our example of peacefulness in the face of the latest crisis the world offers to us to distract us from what is most needful - the pursuit of our salvation.

Is there a grand scheme to distract us from our spiritual lives? Maybe yes and maybe no. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we NOT take the bait. That we not fall into crisis after crisis. That we strive to draw near to the Lord during a true crisis AND outside a time of crisis. That we endeavor to acquire that spirit of peace that St. Seraphim spoke of. Grand scheme or not - this is the path that we must follow. And if we do that - if we make a sincere and honest effort to come closer to God when He blesses that - we will be conducting Evanglism. The world seeks the Lord. The world seeks the peace that only God can grant. The world is in pain. The cure can only be found in the Spiritual Hospital - the Holy Church. We can choose to share that cure through our good example, or we can choose to not share that cure through our poor example. We can be evangelists. Or not. Let us choose to be evangelists! Let us decide now - while we are NOT in a crisis - that the next crisis will find us ready, willing, and able take full advantage of that opportunity to grow closer to God. And when we grow closer to God our friends, neighbors, and loved ones see that. They feel that. They perceive our peace. And they want it. And when that is the case, we can begin to bring them to God’s House. “How do you have such peace in the face of this crisis?” “The Lord helps me - come with me to church this Sunday, or the next, or sometime soon to learn how you can have such peace too.”

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

From Strategy to Tactics - the Next Step in Evangelism


We have talked a lot in the last few weeks about how we need to prepare the parish community to receive new people as part of our Evangelism. It is not that this question is now put to bed permanently, but there is no need to talk about the same thing all the time. In fact, I would argue that it is counter-productive to do so. The first few weeks of this effort to post weekly on Evangelism has been focused mostly on over-arching strategy, rather than tactics. Today I think we should begin to focus a little bit on tactics: actual things that we do to reach our goal of:

1. “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

2. “...thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)

We are actually doing a lot of things right in this regard already. At least according to the author of the book I am reading now in this regard: “100 Natural Ways to Grow a Church – A Guide to Orthodox Evangelism in North America.” As I work through the book (and I would encourage everyone to pick up a copy – it is a light but informative read and free on Kindle) I am even a little surprised at how much we have already put in place to welcome new people into our community. I am thankful for this and for all who have worked so hard to get these things established. That is not to say we couldn’t do more/do this better. Of course we could. And we must. But we have a VERY good foundation already established. The founders of our parish had excellent vision in this regard! Now it is up to us to keep their efforts in place, to broaden them, to deepen them, and to strengthen them.

So we should look at some ways in which we could do things better than we already are. And maybe at adding a few arrows to our quiver, so to speak. Let’s make a little list:

A. I need help with this project! Our Volunteer Opportunities page has a ton of things that you can do right now to help your parish – ministries that you can be involved in supporting. Evangelism is one of these. Please consider volunteering – we can do A LOT with just a little effort and God’s blessing. And if we don’t care who gets the credit. The point is not who gets the credit – it is how we as a community can best spread the Gospel.

B. It is good that we have pamphlets to hand out to people that visit us. I’d like to up that game a notch and put together a welcome DVD. But that is going to take one or two helpers. In the last few weeks we’ve had some really good response to shooting our video live stream (we have 4 volunteers under the age of 20 doing this ever week now!) and with our Greeters (we are growing the number of Greeters too!). Thank God. But there is much more to do. I think a DVD to hand out to visitors is the logical next step. But we need volunteers to help – please consider whether you could help with this.

C. The Divine Services are key. This last weekend Vladyka Peter was supposed to be with us. He couldn’t come because he was sick. But WOW – what an incredible vigil we had on Saturday night! Full church. Full choir. Everything just beautiful! We need to do this every Saturday! And if we did – I guarantee the present church project would have to scrapped almost immediately because people would be coming to us IN DROVES. Why? Because of our authentic witness to authentic Christianity. The Divine Services are theology in action. We praise God, but we also learn. A lot. People are looking for authenticity. We have it! But we often hide it. We’ve got to stop doing that! And the Liturgy was no slouch either! 80+ for communion. 120+ kissed the cross. We can do this – even when the bishop isn’t there. But we have to want it. We have to be willing to work for it. If we are – our Evangelism will spike. If we aren’t – we’ll keep plodding along but obviously won’t do as well hiding our talents as we would if we actually used them.

That’s it. Short and hopefully to the point this week. Thank God Vladyka has recovered enough to be in Cleveland for their feast day this week (St. Sergius of Radonezh) and in Hiram for theirs (St. John the Theologian). Vladyka has asked me to join him so I am here posting from Ohio. We think we have a date for Vladyka to visit us in November. More to come on that. In the mean time, please think about A, B, C above. We shouldn’t think of Evangelism as some few huge leaps. Maybe it is that sometimes, but mostly it is lots of little things that add up to something great. Like A, B, C above. Maybe your ministry is in those points. I know people are consciously looking for their ministry because I keep talking about this incessantly. Pray about this – and help if you can. And if you can’t – keep looking. And keep praying. The Lord will help you find your ministry if you seek it sincerely and ask His help.

In Christ,

Fr. Gregory

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Worshiping Eucharistic Community is Evangelism

Dear Friends,

On Sunday our sermon was about Evangelism. This is because the Great Commandment was central to the daily gospel reading and it seemed like a good time to address this crucial topic in that venue. You can see the sermon here if you didn’t get a chance to hear it on Sunday:

It is important for us reach out to others via our example of having Christ abiding within us. So first and foremost – we must work on our own salvation if we hope to attract others to Christ. In fact, I would argue, the most important part of Evangelism is not focusing on intake (physically bringing new people into the parish), but on inner life – the inner life of each of our parishioners and the inner life of our parish as a whole. In order for people to STAY once they visit they need to find Christ abiding within. Within each one of us, and within our community. That is not to say we are going to put Evangelism on hold until we get this 100% right! That is to say, we need to spiritually walk and chew gum at the same time – we need to work on ourselves and our community while, AT THE SAME TIME, we are inviting others to join us.

Struggle is central to the Christian life. Success only comes before work in the dictionary. I know people don’t like it when I say that. I’m not sure why. That saying applies to me too. Maybe people don’t like it because it is so true and so contrary to the prevailing winds in our society. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. Whether we like that saying or not it is true and everyone knows it. :) We need to work. We need to struggle spiritually NOT JUST FOR OURSELVES, but for the good of those that we will influence. That is right – salvation is not just about our own reward – it is about how we can bring others to Christ too through our example. Theosis is not something that is ever finished. We don’t transform ourselves into the sons and daughters of God and then take a break for the rest of our lives! We LIVE our faith, hopefully in a more Christian way every day. And that process of struggle is attractive to others. If we invite people to join us and they find a bunch of “perfect people” in the spiritual hospital they are going to be discouraged. “How can I become perfect like these people here?” But thank God – I know that I have a long way to go to get to perfection and I suspect I am not the only one.

So let us struggle for our transfiguration in Christ! And as we do, others will visit the spiritual hospital which is the Holy Church and see that this is a place of struggle, but also of healing imbued with God’s love. For in the spiritual hospital we find the only true healing from the Physician of our Souls, our Lord Jesus Christ. Through our personal struggle we will inspire others to join us in the spiritual hospital. So the point is not that we don’t do Evangelism until we are all perfect – we do it by STRIVING for that perfection. That is the personal side of Evangelism – the seeking of salvation for ourselves, and through that process, helping others with their struggle for salvation.

Let’s now talk a little bit about how we move ourselves closer to the definition of a parish according to the Mission Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. A parish is, according to that document, a worshiping eucharistic community with God as the center and the faithful gathered around God’s altar, helping each other spiritually to attain salvation. For as we’ve said many times: we are saved in community and we perish alone. If then, we are striving to live this definition – EVEN IF WE NEVER PERFECTLY ATTAIN IT – others will want to join us. Why? Because that is what a parish has been since the time of the Apostles. We’re not making stuff up here! We are not doing something new! We are trying to live out the lives that Christians have always lived in community. That is a strategy that has brought new people to Christ by the hundreds and thousands since the Apostles went out to preach! We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here – but we do need to use the wheel that we’ve been given. Odd metaphor, yes, but let’s let it play out and see if it is helpful for us.

1. Worshiping: we do pretty good here by some standards. We serve a lot of services and a lot of folks participate in those services. We could do better however, and we should challenge ourselves in this regard. First – we don’t have nearly enough people who attend the evening services on a regular basis. The Vigil is not for the clergy – it is for the community! And it is the MOST educational of all the Divine Services. If you want to learn about your faith you can learn the most at the Vigil. If you plan to partake of Holy Communion then you NEED to be at the evening services the day before. That is the time to confess – not on Sunday morning. We allow folks to confess on Sunday morning out of economy – we understand that not everyone can get there for Vigil. But can almost no one get there? Not by a long shot. We should not be lazy here – but we are. We must be honest. And as for worthily preparing oneself to partake of Holy Communion, attending the evening services is a crucial piece of this. If you just can’t make it then please join us on our LIVE STREAM. But if you just don’t feel like, or it just isn’t convenient – then push yourself to do it and get there. Vigil is not optional! AND ALSO: we’ve got to do a better job of being to Divine Liturgy on time. I get it – if we started at 8:00 a.m. folks would trickle in. But we start at 10:00 a.m.! You get yourself to work and your kids to school by 8:00 a.m. every weekday. We visibly show that we don’t have God’s house as a high priority in our lives by coming late to Liturgy. Of course that will happen occasionally. But the church is not usually full until half way through the service. How would it work if the clergy came half way through the service? :) Remember: the clergy are not some special class of Christians. We are Christians just like you. Our ministry is mostly worked out in ordained ministry, but that doesn’t mean we are better! We come early to the services and frankly speaking so should everyone else. And if you aren’t there by the time of the reading of the gospel it really isn’t appropriate to partake of Holy Communion. WE DO WELL HERE BY SOME STANDARDS – but we can do better. And in order to really do Evangelism well we need to do better.

2. Eucharistic: we do pretty well here I would have to say. Many people partake of Holy Communion regularly in our parish. Thank God for that! Usually it is about 50% of those present for Divine Liturgy. That is good. But we could do better. Not by expecting those who regularly partake to partake more often, but by expecting those who rarely partake to partake more often. How often we partake of Holy Communion is an intimate question. There is not really a right or a wrong, but we should all strive to partake AT LEAST monthly, if not more often. Many people partake more often – but many partake very rarely. Let us encourage our parishioners to worthily partake of Holy Communion more often so that our witness to those we are evangelizing will be even better than it already is. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (John 6:54-56)

3 Community: we also do pretty well here. But we could do better. Our Greeter Ministry is a mess. We have one poor person struggling to welcome people while trying to take care of her family too. That is just silly! Where are our greeters!? This is the first and simplest piece of Evangelism: welcome visitors. Challenge yourself dear friends! And if greeting isn’t your thing, then pick one or two other ministries that you can help with from this list:

Everyone should have one or two things on this list that they participate in regularly and actively! Our Christian lives are a struggle. Not a struggle to avoid doing our fair share so that others are killed for having to pick up the slack from our laziness. Not that kind of struggle. A struggle to minister to others in the name of Christ. This is how we live out the gospel in our lives – by serving others in the name of Christ. “ For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) If we bear the name of Christ, that is, if we call ourselves “Christians” then we emulate Christ in this way: we minister to others. Our Volunteer Opportunities give you that chance. That crucial part of bringing the Liturgy into our lives outside the Liturgy. We need this! And this is why we give you these opportunities. Yes – we need help to do all that needs to be done as a parish. But YOU need the opportunity to live the gospel message. And when we all do that as a community our Evangelism will be incredibly strong! And when we don’t – our Evangelism will be weak because it will be hollow. Just like telling our kids not to do something and then doing it ourselves. “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) WE NEED TO SHOW – TO LIVE – OUR FAITH BY OUR WORKS. The work of living the gospel. Then we will fully be a Community as envisioned by the definition of what a parish is.

There is a financial piece to this too. “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, ...” (I Corinthians 16:2) Supporting the parish is not an option if we want to call ourselves Christians. It has always been the case that those who can support do support. If you are destitute then know that you will find help here. But few of our folks are destitute. It is a matter of priorities – and we speak our priorities very loudly by how we choose to spend the 100% of our income that the Lord has blessed us with. He asks us to give Him back 10% for His House, the Holy Church. We won’t berate the point here. Please have a look at this page to learn more – but please do not forget – part of Evangelism is making sure that God’s House is in good financial order:

Evangelism is sharing the gospel with those who do not know it. But in order to share it we must fully embrace it ourselves. We have many positive aspects of this life in our parish now, but we all need to work on ourselves and our parish in order to be an example to those that we invite and who find us on their own. The news is good: we are moving in the right direction. And the news is good: we still have some struggle to get to where we need to go. And the news is good: if we continue to work on ourselves personally and on our community corporately the Lord will continue to bless us. And the news is good: we all know now that Evangelism is important and that doing nothing is not Evangelism. Doing nothing is not an option. Unless we want a museum for a parish. But I don’t think anyone wants that. I certainly don’t! We are called to be alive in Christ – not to preserve the past for the sake of the past. Museums are important! But parishes that are museums die. That is not why we have joined ourselves to this vibrant Christian Community – our St. Vladimir parish!

Let us thank God that He allows us to progress and that He allows us to continue to struggle! And if any of the words above pricked your conscience: thank God! The priest’s job is to challenge. Why? Because Christianity is a challenge. God’s challenge to us to not just be a good semi-pagan, but to be transformed into His sons and daughters. That takes work and we have to be challenged to do that work. Otherwise we’ll just waste the valuable time the Lord has given in this life – the time He has given us to work out our salvation. This is why we are given life – so that God might share His love with us. Let us put Him first and get to work in that regard. If we do – we’re going to have to redesign that new church – it is going to be WAY TOO SMALL!

In Christ,

Fr. Gregory