By Fr. Andrew Jarmus
Director of Missions, Education and Communications
“Everything is fine the way it is. Why change?” “We don’t need new members. We just need to keep the ones we already have.” “If too many new people join. the parish won’t be the same.” Such statements are very familiar in parishes of every religious community. Our world, especially in our modern times, is full of instability and change. We need a solid foundation. People of faith find their foundation in their beliefs and in the worshipping community to which they belong. When people find a parish that speaks to their needs and worldview, it is natural to want to hang on to that community with great zeal. It is equally natural to be anxious about anything which is viewed a potentially effecting the stability they get from their community.
Here is an example of what I mean. A parish out in western Canada found that it had out grown its church. The parish decided to build a new temple. The land was purchased, the old building was sold and plans were underway for the construction of the new church. The only catch was that there were six months of “lag time” between possession date of the old building and the completion of construction of the new building. For those six months, the parish took up temporary residence in the chapel of the local Ukrainian Orthodox institute.
Leaving the old building was difficult for many of the members. It had been the only parish home that they had known. Nevertheless, they had to leave and in the process they packed up and stored many of their liturgical articles; however, some of their icons and other liturgical articles they kept out and set up in their temporary home. One of the things they took to the chapel was a processional cross that stood in the Nave of the chapel, in the front, off to the side. For the whole time that they were in the chapel one of the church’s parishioners always stood right beside that cross whenever she was in church. When asked why, she said it gave her a feeling on being “home”. This cross provided her with the stability that she needed as her community faced the “highs and lows” of moving into a new spiritual home. Such is the powerful effect that the familiarity of our spiritual landscape has on us.
Being a source of spiritual and moral stability is obviously an important ministry for our parishes. However, we have to be very careful that what the parish provides is truly strength for the continued journey, and not a spiritual sedative that simply “takes the edge off” of our daily lives (this is the exact nature of Karl Marx’s words when he criticized religion as being nothing but an “opiate for the people”). Our strength and stability must help us in the dynamic life in Christ that each of us is called to. The Church must never be used as an excuse for becoming complacent.
Studies in parish growth show that as a parish grows, it will hit certain plateaus in membership. Counting the average number of people attending Sunday services, the first plateau is at around 80 members.The next plateau is at around 140 members (again, members are defined here as people attending Sunday services). Then a major plateau seems to be 200. The reasons for the resistance to continued growth at these plateaus might be voiced openly, while at other times people put up resistance without even realizing it. When we probe a little into these situations we find that the main concern is that if more people come, things will change.
As we said earlier, it is natural to want stability in life, especially in our spiritual life. However, in a parish this stability cannot come through adopting a “maintenance” mentality-that is, putting all efforts into “keeping things the same”. Maintenance in parish membership is a myth. If our bodies and minds are not exercised regularly, they become weak, get sick and eventually cease to function properly at all. Likewise. if things stay too static in a congregation, it begins to “atrophy” and die off. It may be a slow process for larger communities, but it is nevertheless bound to happen.
Now, it is very important when speaking of change and growth in a parish to be aware of what is up for negotiation and what is not in our Church life. Talk about changing the time of a worship service, adding more services to the schedule (for example, Vespers and Matins on weekends) or what language to use in services are areas that can be delved into by the community. Issues of` doctrine, liturgical form and canonical order are beyond the parish’s capacity to discuss.
It is also important to take a balanced approach to making the changes in the parish life that will make it more appealing to newcomers. Change in necessary, but too much change, too fast, is as detrimental for a parish as no change at all. As in everything, moderation is important.
Sometimes, a parish might want to handle the “change/growth” situation in another way. In some Christian Churches, there is a kind of “limit” placed on parish size. Once a congregation nears this size, a “church planting” team will be established to look into starting a new parish in another area. Parishes that have reach a “comfortable” size may want to look into establishing a mission outreach in another part of the city or a neighboring town.
Whether it is facing the changes necessary for the growth of one’s own parish, or helping start a new parish somewhere else, one thing is certain: every parish has a mandate, from Christ Himself, to bring new people into the Church. Jesus’ final words before His ascension to the right hand of the Father were, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you…” [Matthew 28: 19,20] This “Great Commission” is at the core of everything we do as Church. It has to be, therefore, the “prime directive” for every parish.
Those who are anxious about “losing out” as a result of change brought through parish growth can find strength in these words of our Lord: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” [Mark 8:35] It is precisely when we try to “keep things the same”, with white knuckles, that we begin losing out.
Although maintenance may be a myth, the fruits of following this Great Commission have been proven time and again by parishes throughout the world. It is in our willingness to ‘give it all up’ that we find God’s grace opening to help us hold on to that which is dear to us, and to receiving even more than we imagined.