Important trends relevant to Orthodoxy in the United States and the local parish are revealed in recent studiesconducted by the ‘Pew Research Center on Religion in Public Life’[Based in Washington D.C. The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact finding think-tank that provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends in both the United States and around the world.The center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis, and other empirical social science research. The Pew Research Center does not take policy positions, and is a subsidiary of ‘The Pew Charitable Trusts’.]
Titled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” the study revealed a nearly 10% decline in the number of Americans who identify as Christians since the last survey was taken seven years earlier. The fasted growing ‘religious affiliation’ is what the Pew study terms the ‘nones’, individuals who do not identify with any organized religion or church. More and more young adults are identifying with this category.
The study offers revealing insight into the state of Orthodox Christianity in the U.S. compared to other Christian and non-Christian faiths. For example, the survey indicates that;
- 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% ten years later, down 10%. In comparison, marriage rates for Catholics were down 6%, for Protestants down 4% and Jews down 1%.
- The Orthodox Church is more impacted by interfaith marriage [an Orthodox Christian with a Non-Orthodox Christian] than other religions. Hindus are more likely than any other religious group to have a spouse with the same religion (91%). 82% of Mormons, 79% of Muslims and 75% of Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. For Orthodox Christians, that number is only about half at just 53%.
- Orthodox Christians have the highest number of first-generation Americans at 40%, significantly more than other Christian groups, compared to 27% of Catholics and 8% of Protestants. Among non-Christians, 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. Compared to Hindus (80%), Jewish (75%), Mormon (64%) and Catholic (59%).
After studying the report, I wondered where St. George might fit into these statistics and trends. In researching existing parish records, demographics and the data base for the past ten years, some revealing statistics emerged.
First of all, it’s fairly safe to say that way over 29% of our households have incomes in excess of $100,000. Although we keep no hard data on individual income it is possible to make reasonable assumptions based on known employment and other evident factors. In our case the number of households with $100,000 plus income would probably be more than 50%. That’s based on roughly 580 households here at St. George. Given the obvious wealth of our parish members [over 50 million dollars at the most constrictive estimate] we may well ask why we often struggle to meet the financial needs of the church. As a parish, we should be more supportive of a comprehensive ‘gifting’ program that adequately provides for the ongoing and future needs of the community. Obviously the ware withal is there.
With regards to marriage rates, our numbers are defiantly down in recent years from a high of 13 in 2010 to only 4 last year. There probably isn’t a whole lot we can do about this since we are not in the match-making or dating service business. It is worth noting that, unfortunately in recent years a number of our young adults have married outside of the Orthodox Church, which essentially cuts them off from the life of the parish. Retaining young married couples must be a priority especially when we consider the next trend.
As for inter-faith marriage, of the 79 marriages celebrated here in the last ten years, 45 or 56% were mixed marriages. That’s higher than the national average according to the Pew study. Mixed-marriages are inevitable in a pluralistic society where Orthodoxy is a minority faith [just over 1% of the population]. The chances of a young adult who goes off to college or enters the work world of meeting and falling in love with another Orthodox Christian are very slim. While we are thankful that a couple decides to marry here at St. George, our challenge is to accept the non-Orthodox spouse and make them comfortable in our parish family. Perhaps they may even opt to enter the faith. It should be noted that for many of these couples, involvement in parish life after their wedding is minimal if at all. This trend has serious implications for parish growth and the raising of children in the Faith. Enhanced ministry to newlyweds may help us with this trend.
Related to the trend on inter-faith marriage, is the statistic on Baptism. We baptized 205 children in the past ten years. Of these 116 or 56% were children with only one Orthodox parent. These 205 new born children equals a whole new generation. Most of our sister parishes don’t have that many children of all ages. As with the trend on mixed-marriage, the retention and involvement rate among one Orthodox parent families is very low. Greater attention needs to be paid to these young families and creative opportunities presented to retain these children.
St. George certainly has a high percentage of first-generation Americans, higher than the Pew study average, perhaps upwards to 55%. We consider this a positive factor that enriches the overall community and creates a strong sense of parish identity. The traditional religious and family values brought by our first-generation Americans is central to the distinctive character of our parish. Maintaining and building on these unique values in our contemporary secular society is an ongoing challenge. In our case, it’s safe to say that we have witnessed the last wave of immigration from the Near East. Christianity is on the decline there and immigration policies here make it extremely unlikely that a new immigration will occur. The test now is how well we do with maintaining traditional customs and values that contribute to the building up of the Church while at the same time assimilating the positive values of the prevailing culture. This struggle has implications for the final point. The retention rate for Orthodox, according to the study, is abysmally low. Nearly half of adults who were born into Orthodox families and baptized in the Faith no longer identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. That struck me as a frightening statistic and I wondered how to gauge something like that here. It’s difficult to say. While there are no hard statistics to go by, a subjective analysis does point to this trend holding true here. Think of the young people we know, our own children and relatives to begin with. Were they active in the parish as children? Did they attend Liturgy regularly [i.e. almost every Sunday]? Did they attend Church School? Did they go to the Antiochian Village? Were they in Teen SOYO? Did they attend and participate in the Parish Life Conferences, Bible Bowl, Oratorical or Creative Arts? I’m sure we all know young adults who did all of this who are no longer involved in parish life.
Of all these trends, serious each is, it’s this last one that is the most alarming. If this trend is realistic, then nearly half our young people will opt out of the Faith by adulthood, what does that say about Orthodoxy and her message? About our parish ministry? Our parenting? Our future? In a real sense, this is one of those ‘ultimate’ questions that should be considered conscientiously by the parish and meaningful strategies and ministries adopted to address it.
Generally speaking, we are a thriving parish with many blessings to be thankful for. We have a rich one hundred and twenty year heritage of dedicated hardworking parishioners who passed on their commitment to the Orthodox Faith to the succeeding generation. Despite our claim to be inheritors of the ‘Apostolic Church’ and being the ‘true faith’ it is obvious that there are more vibrant options available on the religious spectrum. In light of the statistics and trends revealed in the Pew study, we can’t wait for world Orthodoxy, the Mother Church, the North American Assembly of Orthodox Bishops, the Archdiocese or some other Orthodox entity to address, analyze or strategize around these concerns. To my knowledge this is not a topic of discussion on this level. That leaves it to us, as to paraphrase a well-known expression, “all religion is local”. The challenge is for each of us to make a preferential option for Orthodoxy, embrace the Faith, commit to Christ and live out our Christian vocation with obvious commitment, modeling Christ and living the Gospel. Perhaps our children will be impressed by our way of life and opt for it themselves. If we do it right, then maybe all our children will embrace the Faith and as adults be able to identify themselves as true Orthodox Christians. We should talk about this, we have a lot of work to do.
Blessings, Fr. +Timothy
"He Took My Muffin"
The other evening we got together for our regular ‘Family Night’ and listened to Dr. Philip Mamalakis share his insight on Christian parenting. Seems one of his adolescent sons took a muffin, the last muffin, from his brother and ran out the back door. What’s a parent to do? From his extensive background as a Certified Family Therapist of over twenty years, professor of pastoral counseling for fifteen years and a parent [of seven children] all his adult life, Dr. Mamalakis was able to unpack the parent-child-sibling kitchen drama into some easy and reasonable neutralizing steps.
Briefly put, his informed advice for parents was to ‘take a deep breath, say the ‘Jesus Prayer’* and model appropriate adult Christian behaviour’. Reason without scolding, admonish without judging, and love without reservation. Model a Christ like image based on our knowledge of the Gospel. Ask for ‘forgiveness’ don’t just say ‘I’m sorry’. Move from ‘forgivness’ to ‘reconciliation’. Taking Christ as our model, imitate His behaviour, His forgiveness, His love. Seems hard in the midst of kitchen chaos, temper tantrums, sibling taunting and high family drama, but it’s really very doable given the overall bigger picture – the Kingdom of God.
His evening with us was extremely enlightening and he offered refreshing insight into often complicated parenting dynamics. The next day, one of our parents responded, “Last night was the best Family Night ever! You raised the bar high! Thank you for all your hard work. The speaker was amazing I learned so much from him. I was practicing my new parenting skills today and they work!” Can’t have better testimony than that.
Thanks to a generous grant provided by Bishop John and the local Diocesan council our PTO was able to invite Dr. Mamalakis as guest speaker to our ‘Family Night’. Next month we have have Jamil Samara and Bill Bowman, professionals in the IT industry, to speak with us about children and the internet – pros and cons – pitfalls and advantages. Everyone should join us for that timely and critical conversation. See the announcement in this issue of the ‘Messenger’ and make sure to attend.