A Practical Guide to Evangelization for Byzantine Catholic Parishes

Please Note: This guide is now outdated.  I am in the process of preparing a new version.

by Anthony T. Dragani

In this guide, I have labored to present a practical strategy of parish-based evangelization. Many of the concepts utilized I have carefully selected from the writings of Protestant evangelists, who have demonstrated a high aptitude in this field. Other ideas have also been drawn from the writings of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox evangelists. However, I have only included those approaches that are well suited for the typical Byzantine Catholic parish. Our parishes have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and these have been taken into consideration when writing this guide.

In the Protestant world, much research has gone into the study of evangelization. Many Protestant scholars have become experts on the subject, and have developed it into a “science” known as church growth. Drawing on insights from sociology, psychology, and other fields of study, church growth experts have developed approaches to evangelization that yield proven results. In a very real sense church growth can be considered a true science “with theories that can be tested and proven.”[1]

The strategy presented in this guide is essentially parish-based. For numerous reasons, denomination wide evangelization is not as effective.[2] Ultimately, it is the quality and outreach of the local congregation that will attract new membership. Given this circumstance, what role should a diocesan office or committee of evangelization play” It should first and foremost serve to assist individual parishes in implementing a plan of evangelization. Likewise, it should only focus its efforts on those parishes that wish to grow. Some parishes unfortunately have no desire to expand their membership. A diocesan office would be wasting its time trying to help a congregation (and typically pastor) that has no desire for growth. Instead, the diocesan office should only expend its energy and resources supporting those parishes that request its aid in implementing a strategy for growth.

Before proceeding, a few words of caution are in order. First and foremost, evangelization must be pursued with integrity. In no way can the theology or worship of the parish be diluted in an attempt to increase attendance. As warned by evangelization expert Peter Barna, “any church growth strategy that is geared to increasing the number of people without emphasizing the necessity of commitment to Jesus Christ is working in opposition to scriptural command.”[3] In incorporating new members into the Church, it is crucial that the Gospel message is not watered down. Barna warns against following the example of a certain well-known Protestant “cathedral”:

A church in Southern California began with less than a dozen people attending the first week”s service. You cannot find a seat in the sanctuary today, because more than 10,000 people regularly file into the church every Sunday. But the growth of the church occurred as a consequence of spiritual compromise. People who attend that church see a good show, but they don”t hear the gospel the way Jesus proclaimed it. Yes, this church is well marketed, but it is marketed for a different purpose than to serve Jesus Christ.[4]

It is also important to remember that there are no magic formulas for successful evangelization.[5] Ultimately, it is not slick tactics or brilliant strategies that cause a parish to flourish, but the work of the Holy Spirit.[6] Hence, persistent prayer must accompany all efforts.

The Necessity of Evangelization

In recent centuries, Eastern Christianity has been very lax in the field of evangelization. We have rightly focused on serving the needs of our people, but sometimes to the exclusion of spreading the Gospel to those who have not heard it. Historically, this has not always been the case. In the ninth century, SS. Cyril and Methodius conducted a successful mission to the Slavs, under the patronage of St. Photius the Great. And in the nineteenth century the Russian Orthodox mission to Alaska bore great fruit. It is unfortunate that the missionary imperative seems to have fallen on the back burner since then.

The most compelling reason to evangelize is to fulfill Jesus” command:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”[7]

The tendency of Eastern Christian Churches to minister exclusively to one ethnic group, failing to “make disciples of all nations” directly contradicts the will of Christ. Christ”s Church is to be universal, spreading the Gospel to all persons of every racial and ethnic background. In as much as we neglect evangelization, we fail to be Christ”s Church.

Archbishop Joseph Tawil, a revered leader of the Byzantine Melkite Catholic Church, cautioned against an emphasis on ethnicity. Much like the late Metropolitan Judson Procyk, Archbishop Tawil envisioned an Eastern Catholic Church open to all Americans. He eloquently spoke of this in a famous Christmas pastoral letter:

One day all of our ethnic traits ” language, folklore, customs ” will have disappeared. Time itself is seeing to this. And so we cannot think of our communities as ethnic parishes, primarily for the service of the immigrant or ethnically oriented, unless we wish to assure the death of our community. Our Churches are not only for our own people but are also for any of our fellow Americans who are attracted to our traditions which show forth the beauty of the universal Church and the variety of its riches.[8]

Archbishop Joseph warns of the danger of our Church vanishing in North America. Research indicates that this is a very real possibility. The best evidence clearly suggests that parishes that neglect evangelization tend to stagnate or decline in America.[9] Studies show that the typical congregation will lose 6% to 10% of its membership annually.[10] This loss is attributed to parishioners dying, relocating, and dropping out. For a parish to thrive, it must annually replace these lost members ” or face eventual extinction.

There is a prevalent false assumption in how these lost members are to be replaced. Most Byzantine Catholic parishes wrongly assume that the children will take their place. The sad truth is that most of the children raised in our parishes will not be there as adults. In our transient society, most of these children will either move away or join other Churches. Very often less than 10% of the children found in a parish will remain there in adulthood.[11]

Also, denominational loyalty is not nearly as strong as it was in previous generations.[12] In our consumer-oriented culture, young people are accustomed to shopping for the institution that best meets their needs. The reality that they were raised in a specific tradition is unlikely to assure that they will not leave for something more appealing. One fact is clear: the parishes that grow and flourish are those that actively evangelize.[13]

In the past decade, Eastern Christianity has demonstrated an unprecedented appeal in the United States. While there are no firm figures, it is probable that as many as ten thousand Evangelical Protestants have converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the past ten years. Father Peter Gillquist, a former Protestant minister whom once led Campus Crusade for Christ, is now director of evangelization for the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. He believes that Orthodoxy”s present success is largely due to dispelling the myth that it is an exclusively ethnic Church.[14] Orthodoxy offers magnificent worship, sound theology, and a rich treasury of spirituality. Once North Americans were made aware of its existence, and that they were welcome to join, many jumped at the opportunity.[15] I am firmly convinced that Byzantine Catholicism is also capable of attracting an influx of new members, provided that we also unambiguously open our parishes to all Americans.

Phase I: Preparing the Parish

Before beginning evangelization per se, it is crucial to prepare the parish for what is about to occur. Many Byzantine Catholic congregations are not familiar with visitors, and often times do not know how to properly welcome perceived “outsiders.” Well-intentioned parishioners are often prone to ask visitors such questions as “Are you a Rusyn”” or the infamous “What is your last name”” Questions such as these send a strong signal of exclusivity to visitors, who most likely will never return.

What typically needs to occur is a change in a parish”s self-perception. Most of our parishioners subconsciously believe their parishes to exist for the preservation of ethnic identity. There is some historical warrant for this belief. In the Old Country the Church was a crucial means of safeguarding national identity. However, this approach is not tenable in North America. Our young people think of themselves as Americans first and usually have little ethnic consciousness. They are attracted to the Roman Church, which they perceive as being universal and American. Hence, the hyper-ethnic parish often unwittingly drives out the young people, and excludes potential new members ” ensuring its immanent demise.

To be successful, a Byzantine parish must become conscious of a greater purpose. The congregation must first come to understand that Christ”s Church exists to spread the Good News to all persons. Evangelization is a fundamental aspect of the Church”s mission, not an optional activity. This must be clearly communicated to the congregation. Regular homilies are an effective tool in conveying this message.[16] If there is still resistance, it may be necessary to warn of the eventual likelihood of the parish dying through lack of membership.

Most visitors will have their first contact with the parish at Sunday morning Divine Liturgy. It is important that this first impression be a positive one. To ensure that it is, certain practices must be implemented before the visitors arrive. One of the best things that a parish can do in preparation for growth is to assign greeters to the main entrance and exits. Greeters must be carefully selected, and briefly trained to recognize and welcome visitors. The greeter must understand that he or she is there first and foremost to make the newcomer feel welcome and comfortable.[17] Today, most Roman Catholic parishes have greeters, and find them to be a true blessing.

It is especially necessary that the greeters interact with the visitors immediately after worship, as well as before. According to Robert Bast, Minister of Evangelism for the Reformed Church in America, the moments following the end of Sunday worship are among the most important in determining whether or not a visitor will return. Rev. Bast cautions that “this can be the loneliest moment of all, if everyone is greeting friends, while the visitor goes up the aisle in a pocket of isolated silence.”[18] Designated greeters with good hospitality skills can prevent such awkwardness from occurring.[19] Experience proves that “when visitors feel that no one cares whether or not they have come, they are not likely to return.”[20]

It is also useful to give the visitor something to take home as a reminder of the visit. A simple visitor”s packet, distributed by the greeters, can make a powerful impact. It is not necessary to arrange an elaborate selection of information, as it can overwhelm the reader. Rather, a successful visitor’s packet need only consist of a manila envelope containing a parish brochure, a brief introduction to Eastern Catholicism, and an invitation to join the parish.

I also highly recommend erecting a literature rack near the church entrance. The Melkite office of religious education offers a wonderful selection of leaflets on Eastern Catholicism at a very reasonable price. A literature rack stocked with such leaflets can sufficiently answer many questions that the visitor may have. Nearby there should also be a guestbook, where visitors can leave their names and addresses to receive parish mailings.

One of the most effective preparations for evangelization is already in place in many of our parishes: the post-Liturgy coffee hour. Most visitors are looking for a community where they can feel comfortable. The friendliness of a congregation is perhaps the most important factor in attracting a new member.[21] According to Bast, “Coffee/fellowship time after worship is indispensable for the church that intends to attract and keep visitors. It provides an immediate occasion for inviting, and an excellent opportunity for socializing. Without it, visitors are unlikely to remain long enough to meet anyone in the church.”[22] I have to confess a special fondness for this practice, as these coffee hours played a major role in my own introduction to the Byzantine Catholic community.

During this phase of preparation, I strongly recommend that the pastor appoint an evangelization task force to implement the strategy. This will usually consist of a group of five to seven people who show genuine interest in the growth of the parish.[23] As many of our pastors are already stressed for time, it is essential for them to delegate responsibility to a task force.[24] If the parish is blessed with a permanent deacon, it would be wise to place him in charge of the effort.

Phase II: Attracting the Visitor

Once the parish has been properly prepared, it is time to begin attracting visitors. Our chief obstacle in this task is overcoming widespread ignorance. Most Americans are oblivious to the existence of Eastern Christianity. The common presupposition is that the Christian world is divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. An educated few may be aware of Eastern Orthodoxy. Even less are aware of Eastern Catholicism.

Among those who know about Eastern Christianity, it is commonly believed that Eastern Christian parishes are ethnic enclaves. Most Americans are not aware that they are welcome to attend and join an Eastern parish. Therefore, our task is two-fold. First, we must make others aware of our existence. And second, we must inform them that they are welcome to join our parishes.

With these two objectives in mind, we will now briefly explore some of the best techniques for attracting visitors. While this list is by no means exhaustive, it does present what I believe to be the most effective techniques available.

The Church Sign

This is one of the most overlooked tools of evangelization. A visible sign with accurate liturgy times can have significant impact. Bast remarks that “possibly the single most important advertising a church can do is through the sign it has in front of its building.”[25] He recommends a readable, simple sign that is perpendicular to the road.[26] Service times are a must, and accuracy is crucial. Very often our parishes neglect posting Liturgy times outside of the building. The assumption is that everyone who needs to know the Liturgy times can just look in the bulletin. This presumption fails to consider the possibility of visitors.

Because of the widespread belief that Eastern parishes are exclusively ethnic, we must take extra measures to let potential visitors know that they are welcome. The sign is an excellent place to do this. A simple phrase such as “Everyone is Welcome” can go a long way in this regard.

The Yellow Pages

Market research indicates that people under the age of forty use the yellow pages extensively. Frequently, families who have recently moved into the area will consult the yellow pages to find a church to join.[27] This is a golden opportunity for parish growth that should not be passed up. It is recommended that the parish take as large an advertisement as is affordable. Include in the ad liturgy times, an attractive description of the parish, and a phone number and address. I suggest emphasizing our majestic, mystical worship. Again, a slogan such as “Everyone is Welcome” is essential.

The Mailing List

A mailing list of previous visitors and friends of the parish can be an invaluable resource. Such a list can be cultivated through the guestbook mentioned earlier. A well-maintained list can be used to regularly send out notices of upcoming events, as well as invitations to worship with the parish during holidays. Such letters of invitation can bring back someone who otherwise may have forgotten about the parish. With every mailing, I strongly suggest sending an attractive, professionally designed parish brochure.[28] A professional copying establishment can produce such a brochure for a very reasonable price. Be certain to include in it accurate Liturgy times, directions to the parish, and activities such as scripture studies and youth education classes.

Information Night

An information night is an opportunity to introduce the church to the local community. Eastern Orthodox missions throughout North America have used such information nights with great success.[29] Frederica Matthews-Green, a famous convert to Orthodoxy from Protestantism, writes of the use of information nights by her growing mission parish:

We hold evenings like this a couple of times a year, and from past experience I know that some of these strangers will be joining us as regulars at Holy Cross. We sing through Vespers” After I describe my conversion to Christ and journey to Orthodoxy, Carl speaks a little more knowledgeably about the Orthodox Church; after all, he has a recent doctorate in Byzantine history” As the meeting breaks up we move to the fellowship room for platters of snacks that include plenty of cold cuts and sausages, since everyone”s clearing out refrigerators. The crowd is jovial, and the conversations go on for hours.[30]

A successful information night has several key ingredients. First, it must be well advertised. A noticeable newspaper advertisement is called for, inviting the community to discover the rich spirituality of the Byzantine Church. If a guest speaker will be present, his or her name and credentials should also be mentioned. A flyer should also be sent to everyone on the mailing list.

Second, an engaging speaker must deliver the talk. Absolutely nothing is more effective than a convert to Byzantine Catholicism telling his or her story. The advertisements are likely to attract spiritual seekers who will readily identify with conversion stories. Such accounts are easy to relate to, and are almost never boring. If the parish does not have any converts, one should be recruited from a neighboring parish for the event. Most converts are full of zeal for their newfound Church, and will gladly share their stories.

Third, contacts must be made. An information night is an excellent opportunity for visitors to meet regular parishioners. Much like a coffee hour, the information night is also a chance to demonstrate the sense of fellowship present in the parish. Also, every visitor should be given a printout inviting him or her to join the parish, with instructions on how to do so. Visitor addresses should also be collected, and added to the mailing list. With a minimal amount of planning, information nights can be as effective for Byzantine parishes as they have been for Orthodox missions.

Phase III: Incorporating New Members into the Parish

Once a visitor expresses interest in the parish, it is imperative to provide opportunities for him or her to become incorporated into the life of the community. The key principle is that a visitor will not remain in the parish unless he develops friendships within the church. As evangelization experts testify, “without friendships within the congregation, most new members will not stay.”[31] Here we will look at two proven vehicles for developing these friendships.

The Small Group

The number one personal problem in our modern age is loneliness. National surveys conducted in recent years indicate that loneliness is one of the major, fastest growing problems in North America.[32] Although we generally are living in closer proximity to one another, we know each other less and less. Most visitors to parishes are not searching for theological purity, but for friendships.[33] It is the responsibility of Christ”s Church to try and meet this need by providing opportunities for Christian friendships to develop. Thom Rainer, Dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth, writes of this crucial necessity:

In the early church, people caring for one another, eating in each other”s homes, and giving out of love was the norm. Today city-dwellers do not know even the names of the family living three houses down the street.[34]

Historically, one of the most effective ways to counter loneliness and develop friendships in the parish is through small group studies. These studies usually meet weekly and feature “a combination of Bible study, prayer, and personal sharing.”[35] For a Byzantine Catholic community, the structure can be tailored to incorporate liturgical prayer and patristics. These small groups are an excellent way to incorporate potential members into the parish. Very often a person becomes heavily involved in a small group long before officially joining the church.[36]

Today, there is a serious spiritual thirst. Many adults are longing for in-depth, substantive spiritual learning.[37] It is impossible to fulfill this need solely through Sunday morning homilies. One of the main reasons that Catholics join evangelical Protestant congregations is to study the scriptures. As well as facilitating friendships, a small group can also serve as a valuable tool for adult religious education. And usually from these small groups, parish leaders will emerge who will take positions of responsibility, easing the burden of the pastor.

The Inquirers Class

One variation on the small group is the inquirers class, a small group study for those interested in joining the Church. Roman Catholic parishes have had tremendous success with this concept, which they refer to as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). As a result of RCIA classes, thousands of converts join the Roman Catholic Church every Easter Vigil. In the RCIA program, each new member is assigned a sponsor who acts as his or her guide in exploring the faith. This program has borne great fruit.

Every parish should offer an annual inquirers class. Even parishes that seem to have little growth should make the class available, demonstrating an expectancy of new members. To quote a recent adage, “if you build it, they will come.” Some parishes expect no growth, and believe planning for such a class to be an unnecessary expenditure of time. Bast frowns upon this negative attitude:

It is ideal to plan and announce a year”s schedule of new member classes. Unfortunately, many congregations hold new member classes only when enough potential participants can be identified to warrant scheduling. This passive approach is “reactive” rather than “active” and may be characteristic in other areas of church life, which then becomes a “self-fulfilling” prophecy. The result of a planned and publicized schedule is a sense of expectancy” “we are going to receive new members.”[38]

A successful inquirers class places no pressure on the prospective members. No commitment is asked for until the end. I propose that the RCIA program developed by the Roman Church could serve as a valuable model in developing an authentically Byzantine class. The RCIA process is based on the initiation of Christians conducted by the early Church, and prepares the convert for reception of the Christian Mysteries. It has proven to be one of the brightest spots in the Roman Church today, and could also be a source of growth for the Byzantine Catholic Church.

Needed: Parishes with Vision

The plan of evangelization outlined in this guide is by no means the final word on the subject. There are many other approaches that can also bear fruit. However, I believe that I have presented a very practical plan of action that almost any parish can implement.

This guide was not written for my pleasure, or the pleasure of any reader. Rather, it is to be put into practice. It is very easy to bewail the problems in our Church. But it is much harder to take the necessary actions to make a difference. Today, the Eastern Orthodox Church is growing at an astounding rate. The Roman Catholic Church is flourishing, winning thousands of new converts daily in Africa and Asia. And yet there are still millions of people who have not heard the Gospel, right here in North America. Will we sit by and quietly watch our Byzantine Catholic Church die” Or will we take the actions necessary to spread the Good News to the unchurched, and in the process usher Byzantine Catholicism into a whole new era of growth and prosperity” The choice lies with you.

Bibliography

Barna,George. Marketing the Church. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1990.

Bast, Robert. Attracting New Members. Monrovia, CA: Church Growth Press, 1990.

Gillquist, Peter. Becoming Orthodox. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1992.

Martin, Ralph, ed. Pope John Paul II and the New Evangelization. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995.

Matthews-Green, Frederica. Facing East. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997.

Rainer, Thom. The Book of Church Growth. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993.

Endnotes

[1] Vinson Synan, “Which Churches are Growing and Why”” in Pope John Paul II and the New Evangelization (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), 111-121.

[2] Robert Bast, Attracting New Members (Monrovia, CA: Church Growth Press, 1990), 52.

[3] Peter Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1990), 17.

[4] Barna, 157.

[5] Barna, 36.

[6] Synan, 121.

[7] Matthew 28:18-20, ASV.

[8] Joseph Tawil, Courage to Be Ourselves, (Internet: www.melkite.com/Courage.html).

[9] Synan, 111.

[10] Bast, 11.

[11] Bast, 12.

[12] Bast, 93.

[13] Bast, 13.

[14] Peter Gillquist, Becoming Orthodox (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1992), 183.

[15] Gillquist, 176.

[16] Bast, 21.

[17] Bast, 63.

[18] Bast, 64.

[19] Bast, 130-131.

[20] Bast, 66.

[21] Bast, 62.

[22] Bast, 88.

[23] Bast, 16.

[24] Barna, 129.

[25] Bast, 46.

[26] Bast, 46-47.

[27] Bast, 47.

[28] Bast, 48-49.

[29] Frederica Matthews-Green, Facing East (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 156-158.

[30] Mathewes-Green, 156-158.

[31] Bast, 136.

[32] Barna, 51.

[33] Bast, 94-95.

[34] Thom Rainer, The Book of Church Growth (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 296.

[35] Barna, 112.

[36] Rainer, 294.

[37] Bast, 73.

[38] Bast, 142.

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