Looking at the data, America has been a social and economic blessing for Orthodox Christians. We are, on average, younger[1] and better educated[2] than most other religious traditions. We are also fairly well-off economically.[3] Finally, Orthodox Christians tend to be racially and ethnically monolithic.[4]

So, Orthodoxy in America is (largely) white, college educated and middle to upper middle-class.

But this doesn’t exhaust the data on the Church in America. Yes, by some metrics, Eastern Orthodox Christians have done well in America. But this isn’t the whole story. Other metrics suggest that not all is well.

While we have more clergy, more parishes/missions and more monasteries,[5] as we’ll see in a moment we have fewer faithful; we have lost both those who were baptized as infants AND those who became Orthodox as adults.For example, in 2007 .6% of the adult population (1,363,271) were baptized in childhood as Orthodox Christians. Unfortunately, 368,083 (or 27% of those baptized in infancy) identified themselves as former Orthodox Christians.

What about converts in 2007?

Well, to the 995,188 adults who were baptized as infants who still identified themselves as practicing Orthodox Christians, were added, 297,264 adults. This means that as of 2007 there were 1,279,452 Orthodox Christians (cradle and convert) in America. But the Church in America still lost almost 1.2 adults for every 1 adult who entered the Church.[6]

The PEW Charitable Trust re-visited the state of religion in America in 2014 and the change in the Church’s situation is dramatic. In 2014, there was a drop in both the percentage and the actual number of adult Orthodox Christians who were baptized in infancy.   As of 2014, .5% of the adult population were baptized in childhood as Orthodox Christians (1,126,541). Of these, 576,474 (or 47% of those baptized in infancy) identified themselves as former Orthodox Christians. So the total number of practicing Orthodox Christian baptized as such as infants dropped to 650,067 for a loss of 222,709 or approximately 25% since 2007.

And converts in 2014?

In absolute numbers, the Church had fewer converts (222,709[7]) in absolute numbers even while converts made up a larger percentage of the total number of practicing Orthodox Christians.[8] In absolute numbers, we seem to have lost 74,555 converts between 2007 and 2014. We also lost slightly more than 2.5 adults baptized as infants for every 1 Orthodox Christian who joined as an adult.

2007 2014 Change Change
Number of adults baptized as infants 1,363,271 1,226,541 -136,730 -10%
Number of adults baptized as infants who have lapsed -381,008 -576,474 +208,391 +56%
Number of adult converts +297,264 +222,709 -74,555 -25%
TOTAL PRACTICING ORTHODOX 1,279,452 872,776 -419,676 -32%

Keep in mind that what we are seeing likely reflects several factors.

  • Historically, the Church in America has done a poor job of gathering census data. We’ve never really had, at least until very recently, anything that approaches accurate data.
  • The dramatic increase in lapsed cradle Orthodox Christians likely reflects not a decrease in active Church members but rather a better count of those who have always been inactive.
  • The drop in the number of converts is frankly sobering. But it reflects the fact that converts will, when the first flush of faith fades, leave the Church even if they don’t (necessarily) leave in as great a percentage of those baptized as infants

The news is sobering in other areas as well.

In 2007, some 758,000 Orthodox Christians (55% of all Orthodox Christians baptized as infants) were born outside the US. But in 2014, 490,616 (40% of all Orthodox Christians in America) were born overseas. This “20% who were born in Europe, 7% who were born in sub-Saharan Africa and 7% who are from the Asia-Pacific region); 23% of Orthodox Christians are the children of immigrants” (Pew, 2015).

Other statistics from 2015, include

  • 36% are third generation (both parents born here)
  • 23% are second generation (at least one parent born overseas)
  • 40% are first generation (born overseas)

Given that over 60% of all Orthodox Christians are either first or second generation, it is hard to see how the Orthodox Church can claim to be an American Church in anything other than the most general of terms. For the foreseeable future, Orthodoxy in America will be an immigrant Church.

[1] With a median age of 40 years old, Orthodox Christians are the youngest Christian tradition in America, see “Which U.S. religious groups are oldest and youngest?” available here http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/11/which-u-s-religious-groups-are-oldest-and-youngest/, accessed 1/27/17.

[2] Together with Muslims and Buddhists, some 40% of Orthodox Christians in the US have at least a college degree. PEW (2015), p. 55.

[3] While 20% of Orthodox Christians have a total family income of less than $30,00/year, 28% have an annual income above $100,000. 24% make $30,000 to $49,000/year while 29% make between $50,000 and $99,999/year. See “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” p. 58, available online http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/, accessed. 1/27/17.

[4] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/27/the-most-and-least-racially-diverse-u-s-religious-groups/, accessed 1/20/2017. For more on the pastoral and political implications of this, see Georgia Kasamias “Orthodoxy and Race in Light of Trump’s Inauguration,” https://publicorthodoxy.org/2017/01/19/orthodoxy-and-race-after-trump/#more-2052, accessed 1/20/2017. See as well Albert J. Raboteau, “ Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.” https://publicorthodoxy.org/2017/01/16/legacy-of-the-civil-rights-movement/ accessed 1/20/2017.

[5] See the research sponsored by the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in America: http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/assets/files/docs/research/1.%20Ten%20Facts%20About%20Geographic%20Patterns.pdf, accessed 1/27/17. The practical effect of this is while “liabilities” increase in terms of clergy compensation, mortgages and upkeep for churches and monasteries, “assets” in term of the number of faithful to support financially the Church are diminishing.

[6] Pew US Religious Landscape Survey (2007), available here: http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/05/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf, accessed 1/27/17.

[7] It is important to keep in mind that the PEW data tells us the number of Orthodox Christians who self-identify as converts in 2014 and NOT the number of adults who converted to Orthodoxy in that years.

[8] In 2007, PEW reported that 23% of the Church in America were converts. In 2014, that number had jumped to 27% even though the TOTAL number of converts had dropped by approximately 25% (from 297,264 in 07 to 222,709 in 14).