Preliminary remarks. I have been pondering the question of church-growth for a long time as I attended churches across four jurisdictions. The following remarks are best taken as an attempt to stir things up, not settle them.
How can the Orthodox evangelize America?
The first thing we need to do is question how we have always done business in this country.
The typical pattern is that a missionary community is founded, it receives visits from nearby or not-so-nearby priests for many years while money is made or saved up by the community until a building of some sort is erected and a priest can be afforded. In the next stage, the parish church grows slowly over time until it is big enough to afford to pay for a long-term church to be built. I visited two churches which made what was supposed to be the community hall the main church building.
The first problem with this picture is that it requires us to pay a lot more attention to money than to anything else. Money is an extremely unhealthy obsession for anyone, but hypocritical and deadly for Christians. The fact that regulations and other factors have made churches much more expensive to put up makes the obsession with money worse.
The second problem is that it requires at some point an unhealthy obsession with numbers—the concern with getting numbers up takes on the feverish anxiety usually associated with sales departments of companies in trouble. We do not see priests pleading with parishioners to save more souls by living pure lives but to invite more people in order to pull the parish back from the edge of the financial precipice.
There is a simple correction for the money-absorbed and cattle-drive approach: church history.
In the early centuries we find that churches tended to be smaller and the emphasis was on quality, not quantity. The early church accepted that it would always, except in large cities, be fairly small. That the gate was narrow (Mt. 7:13) was accepted as a fact. While Christians became famous among the pagans for their love for their neighbors, nowhere do we find any concerns for parish growth.
This absolute and dead silence on our hot-button topic is striking. The church of the martyrs never bothered itself with tracking attendance and contributions. The Fathers have from the time of St. Ignatius been driven by the message of Christ; only heresies drove the Fathers to develop dogmas in a centuries-long, defensive maneuver. Neither the message nor the dogmatic refinements allowed any space for worries about membership and contributions.
If we want saints like those of the first three centuries, first we need to end our obsession with money and attendance. Then we we need to read and reread the early Fathers—from St. Ignatius to, say, St. Athanasius—until we have their frame of mind. We will then know what is important and what is not. Their books are everywhere available—in libraries, in bookstores, online—and are cheap and easy to understand. The men who led the charge to evangelize North Africa, Western Asia and Europe have a great deal to tell us about the faith.
If we all devoted ourselves to reading the early Fathers—for that matter, any Father—I cannot predict what everyone is going to think—we might even disagree with one another—but I am certain that no one will be worrying about the next fund-raiser or designing the next cattle-drive through the narrow gate.
In closing, I cannot say I know how to evangelize America, but I do know that our standing operating procedures—fundraising and boosting numbers—are doomed to fail.