How to Keep the New Comers in the Church?
By Victor Beshir
I have received many questions about keeping the new comers in our Coptic Orthodox Church. We have seen many new comers who came to the church for a few weeks or a few months and then left for good. We wondered why they left, and what we could do to keep them in our church. Even, sometimes some evangelism servants get discourage, especially after they put a lot of efforts to attract someone to the church and then the person stop coming to the church after a few months.
Let me start by referring you to Lesson, “Obstacles of Evangelism in the Orthodox Church,” since I am not going to repeat what I have written in the lesson. Let us talk about the stages a visitor goes through and how to make evangelism a good part of each:
A person may visit an Orthodox Church for the first time for many reasons; it could be because he/she read about it or because of curiosity or came with a friend. In all these cases, we as a church should give a warm welcome and a good lasting impression (review how to do that in Lesson 23: The Greeting Committee.)
The person should leave with a warm invitation to come back and followed up by a thank you for visiting card and another invitation to see you again. We need to tell the person about the English Bible Study Meeting we have. If there is a special meeting for the new comers in the church, please tell the visitor.
In the church we receive many new comers who come to attend the church because they like to marry a Copt. They need special long classes to learn about the faith, the church, the sacraments, the Divine Liturgy, and marriage preparation. If we rush them to baptism then marriage-as we do in many churches-, they don’t last either in the church or sometime in marriage.
A meeting to address the topic of “Preparing Our Church For Evangelism,” was held in Atlanta , Georgia , in July 6, 2002, and was attended by: H.E. Metropolitan Pachomious, H.G. Bishop Youssef, H.G. Bishop Serapion, Fr. Tadros Malaty, Fr. Luke Wassif, and Deacon Victor Beshir. The meeting recommended a special prayer that is suitable for the new comers to the church. The prayers and the meeting would last for about an hour only
(For more details, please refer to Lesson 6 “Obstacles of Evangelism in the Orthodox Church). This is the kind of worship and prayer the new comers should attend for a good period of time enough to learn about the faith of the Orthodox Church, and the meaning of prayers and rituals of the church, in addition to the spirituality of Orthodoxy.
Many new comers left the church because they were not prepared for the long prayers in the Divine Liturgy. Therefore, having the above mentioned set of prayers would help until they mentally, psychologically, and spiritually ready to join the other faithful in the long Divine Liturgy.
We need to continue our welcome and show the people that they are wanted. Refer these visitors to the special meetings and special prayers for new comers are very important. If there is no such meeting or prayers, please refer them to an English Bible Study. If there is no English Bible Study, you need to offer the visitor a Bible Study even for this person alone. You may invite a few other servants or interested people. You may have this meeting in your home, because if it is in the church the person may expect to see a big number of people.
The Bible Study meeting should offer a Bible study that attracts the person to Orthodoxy. One good example is to use the Gospel according to John, followed by the Book of Acts. The Gospel according to John has the faith, the theology, the sacraments, and the spirituality. Then the book of Acts is great in talking about how sacraments were well established by the apostles and how the Orthodox Church still keeping these sacraments until today without alteration.
People who attend classes or Bible Study stay in the Orthodox Church, while people who were rushed to attend the long Divine Liturgy and were not prepared long enough, they usually leave the church after a short period of time. The church at certain time in the history asked new comers to stay three years in classes before joining the church. At other time they entered into extensive study that lasts for about three hours a day during the Holy Lint, especially in Jerusalem in the Fourth century.
One of the reasons of why new comers don’t stay in the church is their lack of understanding of Orthodoxy and all the rituals they see. Some churches give the new comer one book or two to read and after that the person gets baptized. Even, sometime the new comer sits with priest or with a servant for a short time to tell about the church and after attending the church a few times, the person gets baptized. Some Copts put the pressure on the church to baptize the partner so they can get married quickly. The church needs not to bow to this kind of pressure. Nobody should get baptized until they learn about all the important aspects of the faith and the church.
While some churches teach the person before baptism, all teaching activities stop once the person gets baptized, and with that the person has no other activities in the church except attending the Divine Liturgy. As a rule, the American churches establish 85 kinds of activities for each 100 families. On the other hand, our Coptic Church has very few activities, mostly Arabic- speaking activities.
The American churches offer this big number of activities for good reasons based on psychological and social understanding of the American people. Lacking of these activities in our churches hurt our church because Americans looking for activities and they don’t find them in the Orthodox Church they will leave to other churches that offer them. When an Americans move to a new location, they start examine churches around them to find the church that offer activities for them and for their children. This leads me to say that we need to establish some activities, especially for English-speaking. A good idea is to connect the newly baptized with the youth activities, if their age is near youth age. Then make sure that the youth meeting has many activities to fill the gap.
Another idea is to continue the Bible Study. Why do we stop the Bible Study when the person gets baptized? Continue the study and create some activities for the group.
In addition, encourage the newly baptized to continue to attend the special prayers we mentioned above. Having baptized people attending these prayers will encourage the new comers and will create a group of English speaking who could help in creating their own activities.
I remembered the church in Egypt started in 1960s to pray more than one liturgy on Sundays. The purpose was to have an hour and half early Divine Liturgy for the employees to attend before they go to work. But, what happened was that the majority of people started to attend this hour and half liturgy. Soon, these not-lengthy Divine Liturgies started to happen in other days as well. This happened in Egypt half a century ago while in the immigration land we still insist on having a long Liturgy for all.
I believe we need to have a short liturgy (one hour and half) in addition to the long one, and let everyone participate the one that is suitable to his/her needs and capabilities. The long liturgy is a great blessing, no doubts about. However, we have noticed that people come at a time that reflects their intention. For example, a person who determines to spend one hour in the church, he/she usually comes just one hour before the end of the Divine Liturgy. This is why tardiness is common in the lengthy Liturgies.
We come to another issue, the language. I will not blame a new comer who stops coming after spending three hours every Sunday listening to a language that he/she can’t understand. We need to have a full Divine Liturgy in English.
Some churches offer a full Liturgy in English; however, it is a lengthy one, almost as lengthy as the one in Arabic. Usually one or two or three deacons at the most like to sing lengthy hymns without considerations for others who don’t understand and can’t follow up. Sadly to say sometimes even those deacons just sing these hymns but they can’t fully understand and fully pray these hymns. We have hundreds of great hymns in the church, but we need a good discipline to know the time limit established by each church that is based on the needs and spiritual level of people. Having a respect for the time limit established by the church, deacons can choose which hymns to sing on a specific day, including feasts and fasting, and which ones not to sing. In addition, we all love deeply our great spiritual hymns, but we have to consider others’ spiritual ability, as St. Paul says, “I fed you with milk and not solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able” ( 1 COR 3:2).
What I am trying to say is to have a short Divine Liturgy, about one hour and half, for the newly baptized that they can fully participate in and benefit from. When their spiritual level increased then we can gradually increase the time limit of the Divine Liturgy. Of course we love to see all faithful can participate fully in very lengthy liturgies. Whoever tasted those very lengthy ones will never forget the heaven he/she was in and the spiritual blessings that accompanied them. The more we advance in our spiritual life the more we will ask for a longer Liturgy.
Another great obstacle for the new comers is the culture. After the Divine Liturgy, they go to the coffee hour to find all speak Arabic, and even if a person comes to say hello, he/she will leave soon to continue to chat in Arabic. A new comer in the coffee hour will feel lonely, not welcomed, and not belonged. Unfortunately, this is the last thing he/she sees in the church. Sadly to say, these are the feelings he/she takes to home. After all that can you expect this person to come back to the Orthodox Church?
English speakers or the newly baptized and the new comers all need to have their own groups inside the church, a group that has a common culture, a common language, and a common new faith they love to cherish. These groups with the help of a spiritual wise leader can create their own activities and can grow spiritually. Sometimes they can be the best evangelistic workers for the church when they are armed with the right knowledge.
In a church of immigrant people who strives to build a costly church building, sometimes reached millions of dollars, and struggles to support her people in a new society, it is hard to ask her to strive in evangelism as well. But, for other well-established churches there are some duties; Duties to evangelize and to keep new comers through prayers, understanding of new-comers needs, and offer them in a way that help them to grow spiritually.
I like you to add to what I say here what I have in Lesson 6 about obstacles of evangelism in the Orthodox Church to have a complete understanding of this topic. In reality, we are far away from preparing our churches to receive new comers and keep them. As a result, I have seen some evangelistic workers get disappointed and sometimes quit.
My advise to you is to not get disappointed when you things not going in the directions of evangelism. Remember we lived under severe conditions in the last thirteen centuries preventing Christians from evangelism. To instill evangelism in people’s hearts and minds, it will take time and efforts. To have every local church committed to evangelistic work, it will take great continuous prayers and great work as well.
Your work in evangelism is to evangelize, keep an eye on the new comers, work with them, be their companion during the coffee hour, open your home for their Bible Study, and teach them about your church. Then when they baptize, don’t stop your work with them. Even if you work alone and nobody is supporting you. Our churches need to see good examples of good evangelistic workers who work with even one person.
Our congregations need to see:
- how we welcome new comers with open arms and open hearts
- how to love them although they’re different
- how to deal with them with special sensitivity to their culture
- how to deal with shortcomings, especially when it comes to not understanding our culture, our customs, and what we do in worship
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Evangelism road like any Christian service is not a road full of roses and entertainment; to the contrary it is a road full of obstacles that needs three important ingredients:
1- Deep prayers with faith that God will open doors, and work at His time.
2- Hard work without looking at the fruits of the work. Let Him takes care of the fruits, just do your best.
3- Be ready to work even alone. Don’t get disappointed no matter how many people leave or no matter what others could say about you.
Just remember, even your Master, after spending over three years in preaching and healing people, on Good Friday the multitudes demand his execution and His disciples ran away, except one. But, look at Christianity today; there are hundred of millions of Christians all over the world!
Last word to say here is to understand that change takes time, a long time. You know, you’re convinced, you’re ready, and you’re full of energy and wonder why others in the church don’t come aboard. Don’t compare yourself to others, everyone is different. To change one person takes time, and to change a system takes much longer time. To change a congregation or a community it takes much time depending on many factors. Sometimes changes will not take place until a new generation old enough to take responsibilities and enforce new settings. However, prayers help to make things happen and to make the unattainable attainable. You need to be a man/woman of prayers, who believes that God listens and will act at the right time.
When I visited South Africa I met a very old Coptic African priest. H.G. Bishop Antonius Markos told me that this priest is a contemporary saint. But, in my heart I doubted to have a contemporary saint who is new to the faith and have not lived in the deep spirituality of the church for a long time. Soon after, I met that priest, and I loved him the minute I saw his face. What can I say? The man is very simple person with a smile and simplicity you can’t see except in children. He started telling about his story. He said that about fifty years ago people came from Egypt and evangelized him. At that time he knew that the Coptic Orthodox Church is mother church of all Africans because out of Egypt missionaries traveled to preach the Gospel in Africa.
Couple of years after he was baptized and joined the Coptic Church, the Coptic missionary workers left South Africa for good. He found himself alone and saw people started to go to other churches. He prayed and decided to quit his job and work as the only voice for the Coptic Church. Without any financial support for his family, he started to travel from one place to another to meet those who were baptized to let them keep their Orthodox faith. He said, ‘God takes care of all my financial needs all the time.” Of course this care doesn’t come without test. But he stood fast even when things were very bleak and he has no money to support his family. God always test and then reward, and that is exactly what God did to this wonderful priest.
He continued to tell me that for about forty years he kept praying to God to send someone from the Coptic Church to lead people. He did not loose faith; he kept all the church books and belonging with him for that long time, having faith that God will send the Coptic Church again. After a while his son came to invite him to meet the bishop, so he left me after he left a lasting impression on how evangelism should be. I remembered the words of the bishop about him that he is a saintly person and said to myself if this person is not a saint, he will not have the faith to stand fast for forty years to work alone in a big country like South Africa without any kind of support. By the way his son was a student in the Theological College and he is getting prepared to be ordained as a priest. Today South Africa has a great number of Coptic churches. I had the blessing of visiting them, and speaking to their priests, adults, youth, and children. These churches have thousands of followers. Behind all stand the faith of one simple person, a great contemporary saint and evangelism worker?
Let me change the question I asked first, ‘How to keep the new comers?’ to the true question that we should ask,
“How to prepare evangelism workers who are full of faith and who could do the work of God no matter what?”
I think if we succeed in preparing such evangelistic workers, we would be sure that evangelism will flourish in the hardest situations and circumstances.
This will lead eventually to the question, ‘Who prepare evangelistic workers?’
The best answer is God through the church. However, all depending on the person who receives the invitation and the teaching.
Is evangelism a passion in your heart or it was just a desire you had one time and later it disappeared?
Do you really like to follow Christ in that road of evangelism no matter what?
Do you feel your need to fill by His power, wisdom, and grace to be able to evangelize?
Do you pray to God to prepare you for evangelism?