Church Growth: Why Should We Care?
By Pearl Homiak
In order to be faithful Orthodox Christians each of us should be
asking ourselves, "How am I helping to fulfill God's universal vision?" -- Fr. Luke
Veronis, Missionary Priest
Twenty-one years ago a few brave souls in Chicago's south suburbs
took a daring risk. Desiring an all-English parish, they left the comfort zones of their
established Orthodox parishes and struck out on their own. Thus, St. Luke parish was born.
Over the years the parish has grown so that it now includes more than 100 adult
parishioners of various ages and many nationalities. Today, we are thriving-or
The life of any parish follows a pretty predicable cycle. The dreams,
excitement, and missionary fervor of the parish founders last for a few years. This
zeal, however, fades as the parish matures, establishes various programs and ministries,
and settles into a routine.
Everyone gets comfortable, and there is a general sense of "We're
doing great!" Yet, many parishioners have ceased praying daily, hardly ever read the
Bible and other spiritual books, and rarely (if ever) share Orthodoxy with their
non-Orthodox friends and neighbors. At this point the parish has reached a plateau,
and this can be a dangerous place.
Once a parish plateaus, only one of two things can happen: it can
surge forward with renewed vigor, or it can begin to decline as it strives to maintain
the church as is. St. Luke parish is now at this plateau. The rapid growth of the early
days has settled to a point where, over the last several years, new members have
generally only offset those who leave (including our college-age children).
The parishioners of St. Luke are friendly and openly welcome visitors.
But is this all we need to do? Is this enough to increase our membership and bring our
post-college children back to St. Luke as active members when they marry and start their
own families? In essence, does St. Luke parish have high enough quality to increase its
quantity? And what do we mean when we talk about quality?
Ten years ago a theological student in Germany became curious about
this quality issue. Amid the myriad of prevailing church growth techniques and methods,
he began to wonder if healthy (i.e., consistently growing) churches had any unique
characteristics. So he developed a survey and sent it to 1000 churches of various
types and sizes on five continents. He discovered that there were, indeed, several
characteristics common to growing churches and, in addition, these characteristics
are always present in healthy churches.
The characteristics include: empowering leadership, gift-oriented
ministry, passionate spirituality, functional structures, inspiring worship service,
holistic small groups, need-oriented evangelism, and loving relationships. Furthermore,
if a church reaches a quality index of 65 (per the survey's scoring) in all eight areas,
the church will grow "all by itself." Amazingly, these exact same characteristics are
consistently present in healthy parishes even after 40,000 more churches on six
continents have taken this survey. Does St. Luke parish embody these eight
characteristics, and if so, to what degree?
Although we have done surveys at St. Luke in the past, these were
somewhat superficial and limited to our own ideas. Also, there was no basis on which to
compare our results to see if they were meaningful and useful. The quality-dependent
survey, however, is highly statistically accurate and has 1.4 million answers to which
we can compare ours.
The survey is a product of Natural Church Development (NCD), an
organization that specializes in quality church growth. NCD is neither a "magic bullet"
nor a "cookie-cutter approach" to growing a church. NCD simply provides the resources and
guidance for growing each church as God wants it to grow. In essence, the NCD program
helps parishioners rediscover Biblical precepts and relate them to everyday life, which,
in turn, improves the quality of the church. The quality-based survey and other NCD
resources can make our efforts more successful than if we just try to do this on our
own. (Actually, God grows churches; we don't. However, we have an important role in
Several Orthodox parishes in our OCA Midwest Diocese (as well as other
dioceses) are already well into the NCD process, and all of them speak positively about
it and plan on continuing with it. The survey results have been inspiring and energizing
for these churches' current parishioners, and they are seeing both qualitative and
quantitative results. Fr. Jonathan Ivanoff, an OCA priest is trained to administer the
NCD survey and to coach Orthodox parishes through the NCD process. He is currently
working with these Midwest Diocese parishes, and he can work with us, too. And, by
the way, Archbishop Job fully supports NCD.
Lest you think, "We don't need this," ask yourself this question: What
is the median age of the adult parishioners of St. Luke parish? (Think about this, and
then take a guess. The answer is the same number as the highway that goes west from
Joliet to Shorewood). Then remember that half of the adults at St. Luke parish are
above this age.
Every Orthodox Christian, not just the clergy, is responsible for
fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). This is not a choice; it is an
obligation. But NCD can help us do this successfully and enjoy ourselves along the
For more information go to the NCD website: www.ncd-international.org.
This site will give you a comprehensive description of NCD and answer any questions
you may have. Then email your thoughts to me at: email@example.com. I will
write an article containing your impressions in a subsequent issue of The Evangelist.