Monday, November 24, 2008

Mission: A Healthy Church

Orthodox Christian mission in America can be challenging. But when a recent article in "Christianity Today" focused on the three principles of a healthy church, it was a delight to see how these principles are at the core of Holy Transfiguration mission parish.

In the article, "Denominational Diagnostics: What I Look For to Find a Healthy Church ," Philip Yancey visited all the churches in his area that were in the local phone book. He noticed three qualities of a healthy church: diversity, unity and mission or purpose.

First of all, unspoken in the article – but obviously an indication of a healthy church – is its openness and accessibility to visitors. Being in the phone book is obviously a good way to let people know that an Orthodox church is in their backyard, but we also depend on those who attend our services regularly to spread the word to their friends and relatives that our unique congregation is an option for them.

Then, Yancey pointed out that he could sense an "aliveness" in a congregation that had very little to do with theology. This seems an important consideration for Orthodox churches and mission parishes to pay attention to. Yancey equates "aliveness" to congregational health. From his perspective as a visitor, WHAT was taught was not as important as HOW it was taught. But "how" wasn’t a style of worship or a liturgical tradition; it was demonstrated in who was welcome and how parishioners interacted with each other and the community beyond the Sunday gathering.

DIVERSITY: From the beginning of the Church, Yancey reminded us, Christians were welcoming of different economic classes, divergent ethnicities, cultures and races. Holy Transfiguration mission parish is a singularly multiethnic and multiracial congregation in our community. Our small mission has individuals and families across the economic spectrum, and people who are from countries around the world. People are accepted as created uniquely by God and having unique life experiences which are treasures to the community.

UNITY: Yancey wrote that diversity can only work with a shared common vision. Holy Transfiguration utilizes English as a common language for visitors as well as the Orthodox Christian immigrants and residents, who come from diverse lingual backgrounds. The use of English also helps those first-generation Orthodox Christians, born in America, who have not learned the language of parents and grandparents well enough to understand the powerful spiritual teachings of Holy Traditions of the Church. This includes the songs, hymns, and prayers, many of which have been within Orthodox services since the beginning. The experiential nature of Orthodox liturgy and prayers unifies Orthodox Christians with a common vision shared in Holy Communion (Korban).

MISSION: "Saddest of all are those churches whose vision does not extend beyond their own facilities and parking lots," wrote Yancey. Holy Transfiguration mission parish takes service to the community seriously, contributing to just and needy causes regularly with small grants (as there has been availability of resources) and volunteerism – locally, nationally and internationally. The mission priest, and his wife and son, lead by example in hours of volunteer service and out-of-pocket donations.

"In my visits," Yancey concluded, "I never found a perfect church (nor should we expect to, if the New Testament gives any indication). But when tempted to judge, I simply remind myself that disappointment with the church traces back to God’s own bold experiment: to allow ordinary people like us to embody his presence on earth."

Indeed, Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Mission in Madison, Wisconsin is honored to be among the non-perfect as God shapes and molds the mission and ministry into a better vehicle for His mercy, light and love, and is honored to be a healthy congregation in service to contemporary America while retaining the wholeness of Holy Orthodoxy.

Pray for this mission effort; for its priest and members; and for seekers and visitors who may discover that Holy Transfiguration is the church they’ve been searching for.

  • Holy Transfiguration Publications: books by Fr John Brian

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