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PEW study reveals critical decline in Orthodox religious membership

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Pew StudyEditor’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.


 

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14 Comments

  1. Scott Kenworthy on

    This study raises some very important issues that all Orthodox Christians in America must think seriously about. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that out of the 35,000 people of the sample group, only 186 were Orthodox Christians (the smallest of any specific group), which yields a very significant margin of error (9.2%). In other words, the results of the survey may be suggestive for the Orthodox, but are by no means certain–much more serious studies would need to be undertaken to really tell us about the situation of Orthodoxy in America.

  2. I think the pessimism is way overblown. I spent over an hour looking at the results of the Pew study the day it was released. The most striking thing about the Orthodox population in the US is how young it is: 26% are under 30, and only 13% are 65+. That makes us the youngest of all the Christian groups identified in the survey. And I think that explains the low marriage rate, as well: Many of our members are still too young to get married.

    The headline is just plain false. The Pew study did NOT show a decline in Orthodox membership. It showed we are now a slightly smaller percentage of a growing US population. The sample of Orthodox Christians in the study was too small (just 186) to draw a solid conclusion about membership trends, so the authors of the study refrained from drawing such a conclusion.

    Perhaps the most troublesome statistic is that, over the past seven years, we have become the only Christian group whose membership is majority male. This raises a big question: Are the women leaving, or are our immigrants (which make up 40% of Orthodox in the US) disproportionately male? Either way, it means a lot of Orthodox men will have to marry outside the faith or remain single.

    • Cynthia Hogg on

      Or bring their future brides into the church. I’ve seen that happen more than once in our small parish!

  3. John Moskal on

    It would be my hope that the Orthodox Church never succumbs to the idea of bending to accommodate popularity which reduces the Church to yet another social experiment and disenfranchises those seeking true faith. I do not put much faith in dreams but had one once of entering a dark Orthodox Church across a moat that was pretty dark except for the painting of Christ on the ceiling which was illuminated. My conclusion was that Orthodoxy is just being reborn to the world and at a time where an unwavering beacon of faith needs to exist. Therefore, it I believe that steering clear of social issues and sticking to the faith is paramount to the refilling of pews throughout the world. Life has just begun for the Orthodox as I see it and particularly so if Roman Catholic leadership compromises on moral issues to fit the times.

  4. Christianity over-all in Europe, America, etc. is shrinking. The Greek Orthodox Church in America which has been extremely ethnocentric, is shrinking because their youth hasn’t bought into the ethnic isolation. This happened with many of the Russian/Slavic Orthodox in the 60’s through the 90’s. So, how does Orthodoxy survive in America, Europe, S. Africa, etc.? Getting rid of the ultra ethnic insistence is key. In America, PAN-ORTHODOXY is the key! Orthodox Churches of all nationalities and converts stressing “ORTHODOXY,” not any particular ethnic heritage. Where this has happened in the U.S., these churches have grown and remain healthy overall. Greek saints are honored, Russian saints, Arab saints, etc. Diff. customs are celebrated, foods, etc. Many times, young adults within the church marry other young adults.

    The key is to get away from “isolationist” policies and strive for “inclusive” policies to include ALL Orthodox and converts. Learning Greek, Russian, Arabic, etc. just isn’t necessary anymore! The Antiochians with their new immigration will turn their churches in America back to 1940. The OCA is doing well with more and more converts. The Greeks see themselves as the leaders in American Orthodoxy, but this is a joke. All of the Greek bishops kowtow to Istanbul that is living in 1400. The Russian immigration will result in more pockets of ethnic ghettos with no real American leadership.

    The answer is: PAN-ORTHODOX CHURCHES. Not 14 diff. ethnic churches in one city, but 3 or 4 Pan-Orthodox!

    • Pauline Costianes on

      Exactly!!!! Put the services almost ENTIRELY in English, and quit catering to immigrants! Their children will be speaking English anyway. The home and the church hall are the places for foreign languages, NOT the services!
      Our ethnicity has been the bane and curse of Orthodox Church growth. It pains me every time I see a man or woman marry outside the faith, and then not stand up for their own Orthodox faith, but give in and raise the kids in and go to the faith of the other spouse. Why don’t our people have more zeal and more backbone with it comes to Orthodoxy???

  5. Harry Katopodis on

    You write:
    “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.” The previous writers show how the Pew Study is probably not accurate when it comes to Orthodox, however to say that some like to believe we are the historical true church but not the only one is wrong. History shows we are the oldest unchanged Christian Church that many of us believe has preserved the true faith and even if our membership is in decline, that doesn’t change the facts. Sorry you feel that way about Orthodoxy. If this article reflects OCL belief, then an organization such as yours that does not believe we are the historical church of Christ has no business trying to reform the church.

    • George D. Karcazes on

      Hi Harry,
      It has been a long time. Obviously you know better than to attribute what a “lay person in the Metropolis of New Jersey” writes in response to the PEW study as OCL’s “belief”. OCL has devoted more than a quarter of a century in advocating for Orthodox Unity, transparency and accountability, and a meaningful role of the laity in Church governance. OCL has never called for the Church to compromise its doctrinal tenets or transcendental truths. The issue addressed in this thread is the “critical decline in Orthodox religious membership” in America. Aside from the PEW study, it has been reported that the numbers of members of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese have declined by 38% over the past 5 years. No one from the Archdiocese has come forth to dispute those figures. A report on the GOA website indicated that fewer people are members of the Church today than there were in the 1920’s even though the population of the US ha tripled since then. The same report stated that 90% of the people in the US who have “some” Greek heritage (one grandparent or great grandparent, etc.) are no longer members of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1993 OCL published the “Project for Orthodox Renewal; Seven Studies of Key Issues Facing Orthodox Christians in America” [which is available in OCL’s archives]. The last sentence in the study on Faith, Language and Culture” written by the late professor Charles Moskos of Northwestern University reads: “If the Greek Orthodox Church in America were to emphasize secular ethnicity over sacred ethnicity, it might well end in a situation in which the descendants of the immigrants are neither Geek nor Orthodox.” What has happened in the 23 years since Dr. Moskos wrote those words?

      If the report that the GOA has lost 38% of its members over the past 5 years is true what does that say about the leadership of the institution: Hierarchs, Clergy and Laity? Why aren’t the Archbishop, Eparchial Synod, the Executive Committee of the Archdiocesan Council, and the officers of Faith: An Endowment for Orthodoxy and Hellenism, and Leadership 100 meeting in emergency session to address this crisis? The question raised by the PEW study and the reports of the decline of GOA membership is not whether the Orthodox Church is the “historical true church”, or “oldest unchanged Christian Church that many of us believe has preserved the true faith.” If we profess to be Orthodox Christians and we recite the Creed every Sunday at Liturgy, we must believe all of those things and more. We must also believe that the charge received at Pentecost, to “bring the Good News of Christ to all Nations” includes the U.S. and that we cannot dismiss what is happening to our Church in this Country with a comment like: “.. even if our membership is in decline, that doesn’t change the facts.” It is precisely because we believe that the Orthodox Church is the “historical true Church that has preserved the true faith” .. that we cannot remain silent as the leadership of the Church accepts its “decline in membership.”

  6. Steve Allen on

    I would be very curious to see this study re-done for Orthodox specifically. i.e. A much larger Orthodox sample group, spread across and broken down by jurisdictions. I think the results will be wildly different by Jurisdiction.

  7. Chp. Wendy Portolos on

    I would like to respectfully comment on this issue: My husband is a first generation Greek Orthodox Christian I converted 40 years ago and we raised our children as Orthodox Christians. I was very involved with the church when raising our sons but my husband came to church only on high holidays as most of the Greek men of the church. When you looked at the congregation at the time it was mostly full of women and children. Some spoke Greek but most of us only spoke English and that included the children. The Sunday school classes were taught in English mostly by women only a few men taught the older high school classes back then, and many of the older boys were alter boys. We did offer Greek school for people who lived close to the Church but many members lived over an hour away or could not afford to take their children to those classes and they did not teach the Greek spoken in the liturgy. As years went by our children lost interest as they saw their father not going to church and they complained that they could not understand what was being said and they stopped going to church with me.
    As a convert I had to study a great deal to appreciate the Church and the teachings of the church. Years later I got my degree in Religion and then my Masters degree in Theology and endorsement from the Bishop Gerasimos to serve as an institutional Chaplain. I have seen the decline in the attendance in the Church of the two Churches that I belong to and the growth of the Evangelical Churches in our area and there are a few of things that I see going on that may be the cause : 1. The Orthodox Church is not a Church that anyone knows anything about and tends to not be welcoming to someone new. ( In Theology school all the schools were starved for information about the Orthodox religion) 2. The problem on language and not using the primary language used in America which is English. 3. There is no out reach program to bring new people into our church because of these problems. 4. There are not enough Priests to handle the over load of work that is expected. 5. Reinstatement of the role of women Deacons could help with this problem.
    As the years have gone by no matter how much people make many of us who did support the Church financially are now at a point that we are retiring and believe it or not we can not put up with the demands for the amounts of money requested by some of the Churches Stewardship requests. As Membership shrinks we can not make up the difference so the answer is to be more inclusive, welcoming and loving to the people who are our fiends and neighbors who don’t know us and start walking the walk of Christ and not just talking the talk.
    Yours in Christ.

  8. Patty Damisch on

    I have been gravely concerned about the steep decline in membership for the Greek Orthodox Church for some time now. It mystified me that hardly anyone else spoke of it! In particular the lack of members under the age of 40 is startling! The reasons for the rapid decline in the younger generation includes:
    1) When will our hierarchy get it through their skulls that the majority of younger generation are not fluent in Greek. They will not tolerate going to a service where they do not understand what is being said.
    2) Demands on time. The youth have a myriad of activities vying for their time, attention and loyalty. Church based activities are skipped in favor of school activities both athletic and academic in nature. While these may be fine experiences the impact of less time in church related activities is the youth have weaker ties to the faith and the organization as a whole.
    3) Society in general in becoming more secular. Even worse, it is more common today for the young to not believe in God. Entertainers like Bill Maher flaunt their atheism with pride making it socially acceptable.
    4) Those of us over 50 grew up identifying as being Greek Americans and enjoyed the aspect of church fellowship where we were with others of the same ethnic group. Few of our youth today are of 100% Greek descent and even those that are do not define themselves as Greek Americans. Full assimilation has taken place and the downside to that is that they do not cling to the bonds of their fellow Orthodox Christians.
    5) The generation that is growing up with sound bites and tweets do not relate to Divine Liturgies that last nearly two hours in length, with little variety from week to week. They expect to be more actively engaged in the experience, as occurs in Evangelical Protestant churches.
    6) Scandal and controversies in the church, especially the Chicago Diocese. Who wants to be associated with that?

    I fear our hierarchy are not up to the challenge of facing facts and making the necessary changes to turn the situation around. I fear by the year 2050 our faith will be nearly non-existent in the United States.

  9. Andrew Kartalis on

    When you throw in the statistic that over 60% of our youth that go to college leave the Church and never return – repeat – Never Return!, then you have to admit that there is validity in the study even with its imperfections. The 60% statistic is not one made up by the Pew Foundation. It was done by the Orthodox OCF national office several years ago. So it is real. And if you want to convince yourself, look around your own church and think of all the young people who are no longer there.

    The hierarchs do not seem to be concerned about this trend. Why not?? Good question.

  10. I’m one of the editors to a web blog “We Are Orthodox”. We have spent quite a lot of time listening and following to our readers on a multitude of issues that affect the local Parish in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA).

    I think this 38% number is accurate and reflective of what our collaborative team has seen in various parishes. Whether the number is within a few points from being exact, it is irrelevant. We are looking at real numbers here whose findings have ben stated earlier in another study that was ignored. The Patriarch Athenagoras Institute report “The Orthodox Church Today” by Alexei D. Krindatch of the Patriarch Athenagoras Institute (September 2007 through May 2008), has daunting statistics that show the problem is deeper than you might imagine. Please see http://weareorthodox.com/ourblog/ignoring/

    Ignoring and denial are part and parcel of the mentality that suffocates an objective look at the sad reality of where we are today. If a person does not think we are in a crisis, then I would suggest stop burying your head in the sand.

    Wake up my brothers and sisters. We have a problem here that is being ignored. For me, this speaks of the condescending disconnect our leaders, and their sycophants, have in understanding who we are in America.

  11. The key to the problems and the solutions often begins with the clergy. The episcopate at the ready to excommunicate anyone refusing to “commemorate” them even to fomenting violence. The parish clergy ungracious to other clergy making them feel unwelcome. Canonical snobbery, resulting in uncanonical, anti-canonical, noncanonical, pre-canonical, extra-canonical, ultra-canonical, more canonical than thou. While the street poor would be happy with a non-denominational sandwich to stave off hunger. Jesus loved jew, samaritan, pagan, tax collectors, etc. and healed all. When all else fails, try LOVE. Then will all know that we are His disciples.

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