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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 are we?

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 this growth).

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 way.

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: phomiak@stlukeorthodox.com. I will write an article containing your impressions in a subsequent issue of The Evangelist.

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