Several years ago, our newly-hired parish catering and events manager – who before coming on board at Saint John the Baptist Church was a seasoned banquet manager on the Las Vegas Strip – asked me what I thought about his chef’s chicken piccata which I had just been served. After giving the manager the unexpected response that, “It was all right,” he quipped, “I guess you’re only as good as your next banquet.” When it comes to food, most of us would agree that the longevity of a dining establishment depends on its quality and consistency: If our experience of a meal or service is less than par on one or two occasions, there is less likelihood that we will continue to return to that place for the “next banquet.”  

The longevity of the Orthodox Christian Church is primarily due to the fact that “the main course” – namely, the Dogmas, the Holy Gospel and the Holy Mysteries (particularly the Eucharist) – has by God’s grace remained consistent and unchanged from the Apostolic period. Moreover, our adherence to Holy Tradition has ensured that the mystical quality of the Divine Liturgy and all the worshiping services is preserved through the ages: As long as the Orthodox Church continues to offer – without trying to change or put our own spin on – what has been received from Jesus Christ through His Apostles, we should rest assured that there will always be the “next banquet” until the Lord returns again.  

With our foolproof recipe and approach, how can the Orthodox Church possibly fail? However, if we look at recent statistics of the Greek Orthodox Church in America alone, we cannot deny that in some respects we are indeed failing: For several years, Baptisms have been on the decline while the number of Funerals have risen, and the absence of Young Adults in our parishes raises a red flag regarding our future growth. While admittedly many of our parishes are engaged in building projects, it is also sadly true that we have witnessed the shuttering of some Churches and even others struggling to keep the doors open. Our Lord did indeed promise that “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” His Church (Matthew 16:18) . . . but this does not let us – as members of His Body – off the hook:  We must do our part to make sure the Orthodox Church prevails!

Is our parish a welcoming place? Saint Paul instructs, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7)  Is our Church a place where everyone feels welcome – from the first experience in the Narthex to the Fellowship after the Divine Liturgy?  Do we have friendly greeters and ushers who are welcoming, and not staring people down or asking in Greek which village the newcomer comes from? Are there service books available for our worshipers?  Do we have an inviting and useful bookstore . . . informative newsletters . . . a regularly updated website? Do we have a real person answering the phone, and if not, do we follow up? As visuals equally leave an impression, is the exterior and interior of our Church, including the grounds and the bathrooms, well maintained?    

Is parish health a priority? Given that so many of us have suffered (or continue to suffer) from toxic relationships or workplaces, is our Church truly a sanctuary from un-wellness?  Saint John Chrysostom wisely wrote, “The Church is a hospital, and not a courtroom, for souls.” Through the Holy Mysteries, and especially the Sacraments of Confession and Communion, we receive by grace the remission of sins. With that said, is our parish a place where these Sacraments are regularly received by a majority of the faithful . . . and are our clergy also frequently going to Confession?  Does our parish offer special services for the faithful, such as Paraklesis and Holy Unction, even outside the prescribed seasons?  Saint Paul asked the battling Church in Corinth: “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13)  Do we have factions  . . . power struggles . . . toxic relationships in our parish? Is our Church a place where people can be nurtured to full health?  Parish health is also tied to financial health: Does our parish both encourage and practice good stewardship . . . do we feel accountable, and are we transparent before God and all regarding Church income and expenditures?    

Do we have a graying parish? Is our Church a place that welcomes our babies without hushing them . . . our youth by actively engaging them . . . and equally, if not more importantly, our young adults by reaching out to them without judgment?  Thank God, our Metropolis had the wisdom to revive the Young Adult Conference this Labor Day weekend: Past conferences resulted in connecting the 18 and older group closer to Christ and His Church – indeed, many priests and marriages were the product of these gatherings.  How often do we hear that our Choirs or parish leaders and volunteers are graying – and if this is truly the case, what are we doing to engage our disengaged younger members?

Finally, is our parish (clergy and laity alike) engaged in active outreach, apart from the Greek Festival?  When I meet people in the larger community and tell them I am the priest of Saint John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, that usually does not invoke a response. However, when I clarify that this is where the Greek Festival is held, then the connection is made. How visible is the Orthodox Church in the larger community, and more importantly how are we perceived? When you Google a Greek Orthodox Church in your city or town, observe the comments, as they reveal much:  Great gyros . . . the best baklava . . . beautiful Church and worship . . . unfriendly . . . helped me in my time of need . . . where God is present . . . forget about it . . . authentic . . . come and see . . . this is a place where every person is welcome, spiritually fed, loved and healed!    

As we begin the new Ecclesiastical Year, may we have the continuous desire and vision for parish growth and wellness – for the glory of God and our sanctification!