283. 2020 Orthodox Statistics in America: Bad News and Good News

If you hate statistics, you may want to stop reading now. Come back next week.

However, a better choice: If you want to find out what’s going on, you can do so the easy way. I’ll begin each section with a headline. Read those, at least. And out of the goodness of my computer, I’ll even include arrows showing the general direction of things.

If I’ve made any errors copying numbers here, please forgive me and let me know.

Introduction

I put “Bad News” first in the title, because we’re going to cover stats for both our “Eastern Orthodox” churches and also the “Oriental Orthodox” * churches. I write, as you know, from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, and I’m sorry to tell you that our news could be a whole lot better – actually, it’s pretty bad. Prepare yourself for a bunch of arrows heading south. If you don’t want to get depressed, that would be another good reason to stop reading now. Meanwhile the Oriental Orthodox are doing very well.

Coptic Orthodox Cross (GNU license)

  • For any who don’t know: In the Fifth Century there began a schism between certain Orthodox churches of the Middle East who came to be called “Oriental Orthodox”, and the larger group of Orthodox who are usually called “Eastern Orthodox”. (If you are confused by the fact that “oriental” and “eastern” mean the same thing, you’re not alone.) The issue was the Council of Chalcedon, and the definition of the Person of Christ – whether He is both human and divine, or only divine. I’m not going to go into that, except to say that for fifteen centuries the “Easterns” have believed that we are the true Orthodox and they are in error, while the “Orientals” have believed they are the true Orthodox and we are in error. Councils of theologians from both sides met in the Twentieth Century and concluded that 1) The problem likely was not theology but misunderstanding words as translated into different languages; 2) Today, no matter, we all believe the same things about Christ, and so there is no reason we should be remain apart. (It should be mentioned that there are some on both sides who are not so sanguine about that.) Given the speed things move within Orthodoxy, I fear that will take another fifteen centuries! Meanwhile, if you “Easterns” search out the “Orientals” online (the Copts have some excellent websites), you’ll find that, though some of our liturgical forms are different, their “spirit” is very much the same as ours – with not at all the sort of differences we find between us and the Roman Catholics and with the many varieties of Protestants. Today our Oriental Orthodox brothers and sisters in the Middle East often suffer from persecution and turmoil, and deserve the prayers and support of Eastern Orthodox who now live in freedom.

So let’s jump in:

OVERALL CHRISTIAN STATISTICS IN AMERICA

Headline: Crash!

First, it might help us feel a little better (not so bad?) about what’s to follow, if we put this in context. As I wrote last year (in a series of rather complex articles, as they look to me now) *, Christianity in the United States is in a nose-dive.

  • Go to: https://frbillsorthodoxblog.com/2020/10/09/217-the-decline-of-christianity-in-america-part-one/  (There are four parts.)

The following is from Pew Research, October 17, 2019:

“Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. * Meanwhile, all subsets of the religiously unaffiliated population – a group also known as religious ‘nones’ – have seen their numbers swell. Self-described atheists now account for 4% of U.S. adults, up modestly but significantly from 2% in 2009; agnostics make up 5% of U.S. adults, up from 3% a decade ago; and 17% of Americans now describe their religion as “nothing in particular,” up from 12% in 2009.”  Check out the article for yourself at https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/

  • The number of Masses on weekends and of cars in parking lots, and definitely the number of monastics, suggests a more significant decline.

A more recent Washington Post article reports that for the first time in a century, less than 50% of Americans now belong to a church: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/03/29/church-membership-fallen-below-majority/

As an example of what is going on in formerly “mainline” Protestantism as I knew it in Wisconsin, membership in the three Episcopalian dioceses here has shrunk by about one third in the past decade (you can see what that forebodes), and there are plans for the three to unite into one.

  • https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2021/10/05/wisconsins-three-dioceses-to-pursue-reunion-as-one-leaders-announce/

One could speculate at length as to why Christianity is shrinking. * As I learned when I studied meteorology long ago, great storms are caused by several factors coalescing at the same time, and so it likely is with this. However, knowing that doesn’t solve the problem.

  • There certainly are a lot of asterixes in the section! My amateur guesses: 1  Roman Catholic moral scandals, 2  Evangelical Protestant “sell out” to conservative politics, 3  Mainline Protestant “sell out” to liberal politics, 4  Orthodox near-invisibility. (Blunt enough for you?) Plus 5 Secular influences coming from many places. That surely is oversimplified and could all be wrong. It’s based on six decades of observing but only from my small corner of the world.

My point here is not to justify our sad Eastern Orthodox statistics, which you will soon see, but only to say that all American Christians are fighting strong headwinds today.

ORTHODOX STATISTICS IN AMERICA

These figures are taken from US Religion Census 2020: Dramatic Changes in American Orthodox Churches by Alexei Krindatch (akrindatch@aol.com), National Coordinator, Census of Orthodox Christian Churches.

Mr Krindatch, by the way, is not a “free lance” operator. “From 2011-2019, Alexei worked as the research coordinator of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA. His reports and articles on various aspects of the Orthodox Church life in America can be accessed and downloaded from the Assembly’s website.”  There is much other very interesting non-statistical information about Orthodoxy in America at Mr Krindatch’s own website: www.orthodoxreality.org

Keep in mind now that statistics can be tricky, as you know. These were gathered from a voluntary survey submitted to Orthodox clergy. How many failed to respond? However, the similar survey from ten years ago was also voluntary, so the figures should be comparable.

In what follows, I’ll summarize statistics only from the larger jurisdictions. Information on smaller ones is also in the report.

Here’s a quick summary:

Headline One: Far Fewer Eastern Orthodox than you may have heard, and becoming fewer

In 2010, the estimated membership in all Eastern Orthodox churches  was 816, 653.  In 2020 estimated membership was 675,785. (* 1) This represents a 17% decline, more or less the same as Christianity in America overall. (2)

  • 1  Gasp! I’ve seen in print that there are six million Eastern Orthodox in the US, even six million Greek Orthodox!
  • 2  If you were preparing to gloat over the Protestants, you may stop now.

Headline Two: Far more Oriental Orthodox than you may have thought, and growing rapidly

In 2010 the estimated membership of all Oriental Orthodox churches was 294,762. In 2020 estimated membership was 491,413. * This represents a 67% increase.

  • I would never have guessed that many!

So we Eastern Orthodox are declining at more or less the same rate as other Christian groups in America.  Hey! We’ve finally become Americanized! at least in this respect. Do you really want to read on? Well, we’d better, for our own good.

Any Oriental Orthodox readers here? God bless you! I wonder what it feels like.

EASTERN ORTHODOX STATISTICS: The Details

Headline: Greeks way down. Almost everybody else down somewhat.

The Greek Archdiocese of America is by far the largest of the Eastern Orthodox, with more members (375,972) than all the rest put together. Next are the Orthodox Church in America, who were many years ago under the Russian Patriarch (74,415), the Antiochian Archdiocese (71,216) and the Serbian Archdiocese (59,876).

To be specific, in the past ten years, membership the Antiochian Archdioese has declined by 5%, the OCA by 12%, the Serbs by 13%, and the Greeks by a whopping 22% (Κύριε ἐλέησόν), which is the chief reasons why our overall statistics are down so far. Without the Greek decline, we would look… well, not good but not as bad.

However, despite our substantial loss of members, the number of Eastern Orthodox parishes has held steady – actually increased slightly from 1957 in 2010 to 2017 in 2020.

Even more interesting, the OCA has the most congregations (559), while the far more numerous Greeks have 534, the Antiochians 255, and the Serbs only 121. So, the OCA has many small churches and the Greeks many larger ones.

The average membership of an Eastern Orthodox parishes is 130.

A more recent report details the Greek Archdiocese’s decline: https://orthodoxreality.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Report-GOA-From2010To2020Reduced1-1.pdf

ORIENTAL ORTHODOX STATISTICS: The Details

Headline: “Up, up and away!”

To repeat what was shown above, overall Oriental Orthodox church membership in America increased from 294,762 in 2010 to 491,413 in 2020.

Among these the largest is the Coptic Orthodox Church with 179,256 adherents, followed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with 96,374, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate Etchmiadzin *) with 95,207, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church with 21,722, and also some smaller churches.

  • That is, under the jurisdiction of the Catholicos (rather like a Metropolitan) in Armenia. There is also a somewhat smaller Catholicate of Cilicia, which is presently located in Lebanon.

In the decade 2010-2020, the number of Oriental Orthodox parishes increased from 623 to 895. The Copts also lead here with the number of parishes (292), followed by the Ethiopians (197), and the others in the same order as membership (above).

Oriental Orthodox congregations are typically more than twice as large as our Eastern Orthodox, averaging 292 members.

Enough of this!

The report contains much more information, the most interesting of which is typical Sunday attendance *, plus charts and graphs about everything imaginable. I could continue, but this is about as much as I can handle for now. Check it out for yourself, if you’re of a mind to.

  • This also is less than encouraging. It would be embarrassing to show it to our Evangelical friends.

Some Questions, in no particular order

1  Did those “six million” Eastern Orthodox in America ever exist? If so where have they gone to? Perhaps this included anyone who has ever walked past an Orthodox church and smelled the incense…? ! or could this be all who were baptized but never again darkened the door of a church? or did some super-optimistic person invent it?

Why is Eastern Orthodoxy shrinking in America? Are we just part of the decline of Christianity here, and there’s nothing we can do about it?

Why is the number of Eastern Orthodox parishes increasing a bit, while our membership is going down? Peculiar…

With all we have to offer this floundering society, why aren’t we doing it? Certainly our first goal must be truth, not numbers, and we must depend chiefly on God’s inspiration and grace, not our human techniques – like the Apostles on Pentecost. However, should we just let Eastern Orthodoxy  fade away?

I can’t speak for people in other jurisdictions. However, in my own Antiochian Archdiocese, three decades back our numbers were increasing rapidly. Our formerly “Evangelical Orthodox” converts, led by Father Peter Gillguist who was chairman of our Department of Missions and Evangelism, were talking about “converting America” – perhaps a slightly over-ambitious goal? but nevertheless… Our Metropolitan Philip (memory eternal) was proclaiming “Come home, America! Come home to the Faith of Peter and Paul!” Does this missionary zeal still exist in Eastern Orthodoxy? There is certainly much excellent material available – books, pamphlets, videos, podcasts. Some national conferences on Missions and Evangelism are still being held.

6  Is it simply that few Americans are responding? Why would that be? Are we so “counter-cultural” that people can’t relate to us?

7  What in the world is going on with the Greek Orthodox? (I say that lovingly. You know from my Posts that I love all things Greek.) Are they counting members in a different way now? Did perhaps fewer Greek clergy respond? Does anyone here present know the answer?

 Why are the Oriental Orthodox churches growing so rapidly?

I could hazard some guesses (and maybe I will if nobody else does), but I’d rather give you first shot. If you have some ideas about this, please comment below. If you don’t, the situation may forever be shrouded in mystery. I suppose that would make us happy: The Orthodox answer to everything is “It’s a mystery”.

However, I think this is a mystery that really needs to be solved, if we don’t want Eastern Orthodoxy to continue going down the tubes.

Or to put it a different and better way, do you remember what Christ sent His Church out to do?

Next Week: James, Brother of the Lord and First Bishop of Jerusalem

Week after Next: Exorcisms I have performed

12 thoughts on “283. 2020 Orthodox Statistics in America: Bad News and Good News

  1. Although not surprising, I do find it alarming that Christianity has fewer believers, no matter if they are Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox…. I remember two years ago, while working in the pastry booth of our Greek Orthodox church (during our Greek festival), I was standing next to the daughter of one of our parishioners. She said she didn’t go, because “2 hours is a long time”, meaning the Liturgy of course.
    I am encouraged by a slow but steady number of baptisms and chrismations at our church, but it seems as though the passing of our older parishioners evens that out. We’ve experienced a lot of deaths this year. 🙁
    I think the Lord of Spirits podcast on Ancient Faith is sparking quite a bit of interest however. It is a well done series.

    1. Thanks, Hiker. That’s one of the many podcasts I didn’t know about. Looks interesting. Honestly, there is so much good Orthodox stuff out there that there’s no way a person can keep up with it all. Fifty years ago, there was almost no Orthodox material in English. How that has changed for the better!

  2. I recall Fr. Peter Gillquist was fond of saying, 25+ years ago, “Orthodoxy is the best-kept secret in America.” Clearly it remains a secret in large measure.

    Why? I think it’s because our church is so siloed. We refuse participate publicly in multicultural interfaith activities. Many of our monastics and clergy are defensive, taken up arms, been hostile to the world, putting up walls to keep the faith “safe” from the “evils” of secularism. As if God does not exist “out there.” I’ve always thought Jesus would disapprove of that. He went into the homes of “sinners.” We’re supposed to love even our enemies.

    I think a lesson could be learned by studying our older brothers the Jews, and how they have managed to keep the flame alive of God and Judaism burning for more than 5 millennia. Particularly for the last 2000 years. God in relationship with each of us is relevant. Many of them have not fought the world changing, but have accepted it as part of the evolution of mankind and shown how God grows with us, in with the flow.

    I think the idea —which is very “common wisdom” of our milieu —that everything must be a fight, a battle, a war against something, is a flawed premise.

    1. Basically, yes. I think the Church should present a positive face, and too many sermons and talks about how “the world is going to hell in a hand-basket” do a lot of harm. After all, “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”. “In the world you will have trouble, but I have conquered the world”. The war has already been won. So, without being giddy about things, let’s act like it!

      However in another way we need to be very careful of just going along with the “evolution of mankind”. Some things change for the better. Some things change for the worse. “Wheat and weeds will grow together in the world until the harvest” How do we know the better from the worse? We judge all things in light of Jesus Christ. But almost every horrible thing that has come on the world in recent years has been promoted as “an advance”. There are things that must be opposed and battles that still must be fought.

  3. I believe the most common sense answer to the decline is the lack of familiarity in both homes. We have our home where we grow up in and we have another home within our Church. There needs to be a familiarity growing up in both homes. When this is lacking the persons growing up will not find the balance they need to stay in the Church. I am going to say both homes, that is Church and your own home are responsible to God in teaching and leading the children and youth into a relationship with the Lord. We need to lead by example. Be that may I find in my own experience with the parishes that I had grown up with there was a great lack of teaching at the home level. Believe me one or two hours a week is not going to do much for the child and youth when they are not receiving any instruction at the home level. It is a wake up call for the Church to help families to discern this great truth. What is under your roof? If you do not lead by example at the home level do not expect the Church home to do it for you. The problem for children and youth was not so much the Church as it is in their own home. The Catholic priest who had founded BoysTown mentioned that there was hardly any delinquent children and youth but delinquent parenting. We need to find both homes working together within a familiarity that the children and youth will find engaging to find their true worth as a person.

  4. There are so many threads to pull here, so many different things we could point to. I do think that Orthodoxy’s decline is definitely part of the overall American decline, which you rightly attribute in part to the yoking of the “faith” (quotes deliberate) with politics, confusing cultural norms and expectations with worldly politics (and there’s so much to unpack there). But the political yoking is, I think, related to something else, and moreover proceeds from that something else. I think, frankly, (and this is something many different people, from The Lord of Spirits podcast to Jordan Peterson and others well into the secular world have been revealing) that as much as we have yoked our politics to religion, we have done so because we have become blind to the spiritual – “we’re all materialists now” is a common refrain. And materialists do not see that “church” actually does anything.

    I listened to a Protestant theologian (Dr. Philip Carey) in an interview (link below), in discussing why so many Protestants “go liturgical”, say that “at least in Orthodox liturgies they always hear the Gospel”. His larger point was that for most people anymore, church no longer does anything – it’s just a venue for getting morality lectures, which are not only no substitute for the Gospel, but just make us feel bad about ourselves. For many who do attend, their coming is maybe just a bit of cultural practice they still feel obligated to perform. I do not think the Orthodox are immune to this danger – people stop coming to church because they don’t believe it is necessary, it doesn’t seem to do anything (the materialist problem), they don’t want a moral lecture (which often dovetails with the politics problem), and they’re not getting the Gospel.

    And the draw of the popular culture, which explicitly rejects both the Gospel and the moral lectures, means increasingly that even going to church is a deliberate act of counter-culture. With the popular culture’s obsessions over sex and sexual-identity politics, the Church is overtly opposed. This is no easy thing to speak against, and I believe it will get harder.

    1. I keep attracting comments which are more illuminating than what I write! this being one of them. I agree: much of what passes for religion in our culture has very little to do with “faith”. Western Europe is ahead of us in this. They’ve abandoned the veneer, have decided to be honest and have given it up almost entirely. We’re well on the way. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m of two minds. One of my Anglican professors (a theologian/sociologist) claimed that in any generation only about 10% of the people are seriously into religion.

      1. Regarding the spectacular growth of the [Oriental] Orthodox, I imagine that immigration may be the cause. Specifically, the US military and political action in the Middle East resulted in the Muslem persecution of Orthodox Christians who lived there, causing them to flee to the US, from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and other areas. When Orthodox Christians come to America, they seek a “home away from home”, like all ethnic groups do, which ends up being their ethnic Orthodox Churches, basically, cultural centers to which they relate.

        One significant cause for decline in Eastern Orthodox Churches is the phyletism, in the ethnic Orthodox Churches. While it served the purpose of creating a common community for those who came to America, as they adjusted to being here, AND, importantly, created an Orthodox presence, for our great benefit, it had a negative, long-term, counter effect. Specifically, it worked against keeping, in our Churches, the descendents of our founding Church members, for at least four reasons:
        1) 85(?)% of our first generation American-borne children marry outside the culture and Faith, which includes other types of Christians, atheists, agnostics, etc., who, in most cases, are not interested in a “foreign” culture, or, in what is going on, “over there”, and, why should they be? Subsequent generations marry outside of the Faith, in much higher percentages.Their issues and problems are right here. The foreign languages used in our liturgies are part of, and, emphasize this negative effect. This has been changing, thankfully, to a significant amount, and, may have a positive, future effect.
        2) The non-conanical, so-called, “juresdictonalism” is a problem. We need to be, and, to be seen as, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church – in America. This waiting for God to make it happen seems counter-productive. Maybe, the Holy Spirit can use our help, in this matter. A consequence of this situation is in having our Churches surnamed with ethnic monikers, such as: Greek, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Romanian, etc.. The effect is to advertise, falsely or not, that the Church is restricted to a specific ethnicity. We need to admit that we are in America, and, our children, grandchildren, et. seq. are Americans. Every Orthodox Church should consider this situation and act accordingly, as its Bishop might approve.
        3) Are we visible? Are our priests members of the local clergy councils, where they and their Churches can be recognized as members of the local community? Do they ever ask to speak before local service clubs, to provide a reasoned response to local issues and offer their Church facilities for emergency relief centers, gathering places, etc.? Has a priest ever attended a school board meeting, to speak about what our children are being taught? I can’t think of anything more important, and, on which a priest could make a more credible presentation than in challenging the teaching of our children, in ways that are inimicable to our Christisn Faith. After all, and, importantly, we share ideology on many important issues, with our brothers and sisters in other expressions of Christianity. Making such an appearance and arguing for our positions on important educational subjects, would do two things: a) initiate/support a counter-offensive, in the culture war that has developed and is depreciating Christian standards and leading our children away from our Faith; and, b) draw attention to his Orthodox Church, from those who agree with him, and, might be attracted to him, his Church and Orthodoxy. If I’m correct, the Patriarch of Constantinople, from time to time, challenged the Emperor, on important issues, when necessary. In our day, why hold back, retreat and let the secularists have free reign to dominate the political agenda, and, lead our children astray? We belong in this fight. That said, there is an important military strategy to know and take into consideration: Namely, “It takes $10 of defense, to counter $1 offense.” That is why the US is so powerful militarily. It has overwhelming offensive power, and, when allowed to be released, as in the Iraq war, can/will decimate the opposition. If you think about it, this is exactly what the secular Left has done, in pushing its agenda. But, it did so, without a full fledged, counter offensive by The Truth, namely Us and other Christians. The mothers who show up at school board meetings need for us to stand beside and with them, as they challenge the agenda that has been imposed from the secular Left.

        Another issue that calls us to arms is “the war on manhood”, Real Manhood. Today, boys are confused and in trouble, due to rampant fatherlessness, caused by divorce and abandonment, and, the agenda of a small group of misdirected feminists, which, in the words of the founding feminists, was out to destroy “the Patriarchy”. A small, beta group of us men, in my Orthodox Church, have joined to address and resolve this problem, within our Church community. We are studying the causes and will identify methods to help boys to become men. I encourage men, throughout our Orthodox Christian community, and, in other Christian Faiths, to do the same.

        In this regard, I recommend, strongly, the book The Anti-Mary Exposed, by Dr. Carrie Gress, for an excellent read on how the feminist movement was started by psychologically and spiritually damaged women who responded, as they did, to the childhood sufferings that they experienced. Interestingly, some of that suffering was caused by bad mothers. Unfortunately, going after the Patriarchy was the wrong solution. Instead, our culture should have recognized how badly a lot of men treated women, which resulted in bad childhood experiences, and, then, addressed how to help men to be the type of men that women deserve, need and appreciate. It’s not too late to address this, and, we must. I invite my fellow Christian men, to join in this effort.

        Regarding the questionable statistics of how many Eastern Orthodox Christians there are in America, of ethnic me and my four, second generation siblings, I am the only one who is an active member of an Eastern Orthodox Church. Between the five of us siblings, we have eleven, third generation children, and, fifteen, fourth generation grandchildren. None of them is an “active” member of an Eastern Orthodox Church, or any other type of Christian Church. But, fifteen of us were baptized, in an Orthodox Church. If all fifteen of us were to be counted, and, the same method were to be applied nationally, then, the 6,000,000 number might result, BUT, it would be a false count of how many Eastern Orthodox Christians there really are in America. Let’s pray that they all have a change of heart and return to the Faith of their ancestors.

        In closing, we owe a debt of gratitude to Father Bill, for this, his latest, blog, on top of all the previous ones, which we have been privileged to receive. So, thank you, Father Bill, and, may God grant you many years.

        1. Thanks, John, for all the thought that went into your comments. I think you’re on the mark. I have two quibbles right at the end: 1) Besides the “secular left”, there is also a “secular right”, often working under the guise of religion. 2) I think “Feminism” also has produced many positive results: For example, women’s right to vote. Equal value given to women’s intelligence and capabilities. Women are now involved in many aspects of life once reserved only for men: Every time I go to my brilliant female neurologist who (as I tell her) has “given me my life back” when nobody else could, or whenever I hear or see women providing news and commentary in the media, I feel sad for how much female talent was wasted all those years. Also equal pay for equal work (someday?).

  5. A time to sow and a time to reap……
    At least Orthodoxy is not stagnant but instead in a constant learning process provided we stay within the traditions, canons and dogma and learn from the Holy Fathers. We may not always agree amongst Orthodox but we share the same foundation in Jesus Christ.
    Sometimes events happen which shake the Church, whether it’s the latest pandemic (or not) or actions taken by the EP. These are the trials of our faith.
    When our love is true for The Lord and we listen attentively we are enabled to stay on the correct path.
    These events from the very beginning, although in several cases cataclysmic,
    Have not erased the faith, but rather strengthened us. What may appear to be disastrous to us, may very well be Gods way of setting things right. We cannot know God’s mind but everything is done with purpose. We can only hope to understand a little bit when God blesses us with wisdom.
    Concerning the increase or decrease in active participation in the Church is akin to the ebb and flow of time. I believe it is part of a natural process of Gods will.
    When events shake the Church perhaps this is a wake up call for us to reexamine our relationship with God and if we are indeed on the right course. This is when we more fervently need to revisit and discuss all the lessons taught to us since Jesus Christ.
    Although many have left the Church for various reasons, I see many who have come to the lit doorway of Orthodoxy seeking the Truth. To find the true foundation and love of Jesus Christ, to join with others in the substance and the reality of the body and blood of Christ.

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