Editor’s note: The Orthodox Christian Church in the United States is in Crisis. What actions will the Assembly of Bishops take? Stonewalling and ignoring the facts only contributes to the decline of Orthodoxy in the USA.
By a Layperson in the New Jersey Metropolis of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
An extensive, highly-cited study of religious trends and affiliation of Americans [America’s Changing Religious Landscape] published on May 12 by the well-regarded Pew Research Center found that the Christian share of the U.S. religious population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. The findings from interviews with more than 35,000 Americans in 2014 concludes that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christian has dropped by nearly eight percentage points – from 78.4% to 70.6% since Pew’s last survey just seven years ago. The fastest growing religious affiliation are the “nones” as Pew’s findings call them – those who do not affiliate or self-identify with any organized church or religion. Not surprisingly, more and more young adults identify themselves in this “none” category.
The study’s results provided some interesting insight on the state of Orthodox Christianity in the U.S., as compared to other Christian and non-Christian faiths, including:
- Orthodox Christians have the most wealth, on a per capita basis, compared to other Christian denominations. 29% of Orthodox Christians have a household income of more than $100,000 per year, as compared to 19% of Catholic households and 14% of Evangelicals. When including non-Christian groups, 44% of Jewish households have an income of more than $100,000 and 36% of Hindu families.
- Marriage rates were down 6% overall, but Orthodox Christians marriage rates are down more significantly than other religious groups. In 2007, 58% of Orthodox Christians identified themselves as married, compared to 48% in 2014. In comparison, marriage rates for Catholics were down 6%, for Protestants down 4% and Jews down 1%. Marriage rates for those who identified themselves as Atheist were down 3%.
- The Orthodox Church seems to be more impacted by interfaith marriage than other religions. Hindus are more likely than any other religious group to have a spouse or partner with the same religion (91%). 82% of Mormons, 79% of and Muslims and 75% of Catholics and Evangelical Protestants are married or living with a partner have a mate who shares their religion. For Orthodox Christians, that number is only about half at just 53%.
- Orthodox Christians have the highest concentration of first-generation born Americans at 40%, significantly more than other Christian groups, compared to 27% of Catholics and 8% of Protestants. Muslims have the highest concentration of first-generation Americans at 61%, and 26% of Buddhists are first-generation immigrants.
- Orthodox Christians have one of the lowest rates of retention across Christian and non-Christian denominations. Only 53% of adults who were raised in the Orthodox Church still identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. Compare that to Hindus (80%), Jewish (75%), Mormon (64%) and Catholic (59%).
While some like to believe that the Orthodox Church was the “first” Christian denomination, and others boast that we are the “true” Christian faith, it is abundantly clear we are not the only one. And we are also not the most vibrant, indeed, to the contrary. As Greek Orthodox church leaders chart the institution’s path in an American society that looks to be growing increasingly secular, diverse and pluralistic, I hope that using broader societal trends as benchmarks will give our leaders the facts, strength and guidance to ask the tough questions and make the necessary decisions to guide the church’s future. For example:
- Given the relative wealth and household income of Orthodox Christians, why do so many parishes struggle to meet their financial needs? Communities in even the most affluent parts of the country are struggling to repair roofs, pay bills and keep the parishes fully staffed.
- How do we as a community find a way to bridge the gap between the rather high concentration of immigrants with the large number of interfaith marriages and non-Greek spouses and families with declining ties to the language and traditional customs of our culture and heritage?
- Where ARE those tens of thousands of former Orthodox people who have left the church over the past decade? Do we have tools and training in place to get them back or even ask them why they have dropped out? The Pew research identifies a loss of nearly half of all Orthodox Christians once they become adults. In truth, the recent trends of Greek Orthodox paid membership is even more startling. Credible sources report that just in the past five years, stewardship membership nationwide has fallen from 250,000 families in 2009 to 159,000 families in 2014. That is a decline of 38% in just five years. Long term survival of any modern institution bearing such drastic decreases in the ranks of its adherents, stewards and members becomes questionable.
- What does this all mean for the pipeline of future generations of Greek Orthodox clergy? Not just for recruiting purposes, but how do we train them to better serve a diverse, bifurcated church population with competing needs and expectations?
The statistics and conclusions of this study raise questions for the Greek Orthodox Church leadership. These questions are only the start of the rehabilitative process. Just like to any patient in trouble seeking spiritual or mental health therapy, the answers are potentially frightening, disruptive and emotionally charged. But if we continue to espouse the leadership’s mantra that the Greek Orthodox Church is on track to succeed in the changing religious landscape of today’s America, the reality could indeed be more than we can bear.