Source: Orthodox Christian Network
June 22, 2016
That oration of St. Peter must have been pretty incredible, if it converted three thousand souls in one day! I often think about church growth—it is part of my “ministry” as a priest and part of my “job” as an administrator of a parish. Why is it that some churches are growing and others are in decline? And why is it that overall in America, at this time, churches in general are in decline? At the outset, on the day of Pentecost, three thousand people, who woke up that morning, not knowing what Christianity was about, were converted and gave their lives to Christ. How did that happen?
There are two actions that took place that led to this mass conversion of people. The first action was a “witness” on the part of St. Peter and the other Apostles. This witness included “preaching”. The Apostles taught about Christ, using all the languages which they were empowered to speak in. The Apostles not only imparted words, but they imparted these words with zeal, confidence, conviction and boldness. There is a critical difference between the words that are spoken and how they are said. There is a big difference between the “ouch” someone says when they stub their toe on a piece of furniture, and the harrowing cry of pain when someone has broken an arm or leg. And likewise, there is a difference in the message of Christ when it is offered “to check a box” and when it is offered with great feeling, inspiration and conviction.
Very few people actually talk about Christ. We do a lot of talking about the Church, and what the Church should do better. But we do not do enough talking about Christ. We don’t give a lot of witness for how the power of Christ can change lives. When is the last time you spoke to someone about how Christ has changed your life? In order for the message of salvation to be spread, there needs to be people who can spread it. Imagine Saint Peter and the other Apostles, if they had received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and they just rejoiced themselves, didn’t say anything to anyone? The Church would have been short-lived. They recognized that they had been imbued with an ability to preach the message of Christ and they did. Each of us has been given the same ability to spread the Gospel in some language. The challenge is do we have enough knowledge in order to speak credibly about Christ, and do we have enough confidence, zeal, conviction and boldness to step out and actually do that.
The second thing that was needed on that day of Pentecost, was people to “receive” the words of St. Peter and the other Apostles. Scream out a message in a forest where there is no one to hear it and the message goes nowhere. Scream out a message to a crowd of people who are wearing headphones and it doesn’t go anywhere either. Listen to a message with a heart that is closed and the message is quickly forgotten. So, there needs to be hearers for the message to spread and those hearers must come with open hearts. Before one can share the message, one has to understand and accept the message, and that can only happen when we have a heart that is ready to receive the message.
Many people look at the message of Christianity like a buffet at a restaurant. They want to pick and choose which parts to follow. This dilutes the message because the messengers are not equipped to spread the whole message, just parts of it. For instance, one can’t just speak of the joy of the Lord without speaking of our need for repentance. Joy is easy, repentance is hard. One cannot rejoice in the sacrifice of Christ without making his or her own sacrifices.
The reason that hearts aren’t open to Christ is that our society doesn’t encourage that. In fact, it discourages and maligns the Christian message at almost every turn. Additionally, we, the messengers, are at times giving a diluted message.
There are two things I can say for certain regarding growing the Church. First, it is a commandment of Christ to grow the Church, not merely a suggestion. So, if a church community, or any individual Christian, does not understand the need to grow the Church, there is something fundamentally lacking in that community or individual. Second, we can’t force people to come to Christ. We can work hard to model Christian behavior, share the joy of the Lord and work on our own salvation. These are things we can do. In modeling these things, we encourage others by example.
If we see ourselves like the Apostles, as “fishers of men,” then it is important that we have the tools (in their case the boats and the nets, in our case the knowledge of the faith) and the persistence (in their case, remember the fish didn’t always bite right away, and in our case, those who hear the message don’t always receive it, or receive it right away) to keep casting the net again and again, with joyful anticipation of catching fish. Remember when the disciples cast the net on the “right” side; this is when they caught the fish. When we cast the net in the right way, we will catch (Christians) as well.
Blessed are You, O Christ our God. You made the fishermen all-wise, by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit, and so through them you drew the world into Your net. O Lover of mankind, glory to You. (Apolytikion, Feast of Pentecost, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Think of ways that you can help spread the faith and grow the Church.