Counting some Orthodox converts

allsaints03Based on personal email, I know there are GetReligion readers who want to know what I think of that small — but fascinating — USA Today story about one of the statistical mysteries in Christianity here in the American context. The question is, “What in the world is actually happening in Eastern Orthodoxy?”

There are reports that waves of converts are flowing into the ancient churches of the East and into the ranks of Orthodox clergy. Others say these numbers are growing, but that large numbers of ethnic believers are quietly slipping away. Truth is, the numbers — like church statistics in general — are not very trustworthy.

I am, of course, very interested in these topics and they surfaced in a recent Scripps Howard column that I wrote (“Beyond Orthodox folk dancing“) about a controversial article on these trends.

Anyway, here is the top of the report USA Today report by Nicole Neroulias:

A new study of Orthodox Christians in America has found a larger-than-expected number of converts, mostly from Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant backgrounds. The report, released by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Calif., surveyed 1,000 members of Greek Orthodox or Orthodox Church in America congregations, which represent about 60% of America’s estimated 1.2 million Orthodox Christians.

Although Orthodox churches were historically immigrant communities, the study found that nine out of 10 parishioners are now American-born. Thousands of members had converted to the faith as adults: 29% of Greek Orthodox are converts, as are 51% of the OCA. …

The study also found unexpectedly high numbers of converts among clergy — 56% in the OCA, 14% in the Greek Orthodox church. In both cases, the higher OCA numbers reflect that group’s use of English in its worship services. ….

This is interesting, but there is one crucial fact missing that many, perhaps most, newspaper readers would not know about.

Which branch of Orthodoxy in America has been experienced the largest influx of converts, especially evangelical Protestants? Which has opened the most convert-driven missions and parishes?

That would, of course, be the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese. Now, in my writing about this trend (which has affected my own life and family, of course), I have always stressed that it is hard to know what is happening with membership totals, as opposed to being able to document the number of new missions and priests. There are few numbers that are solid.

However, this story should have at least mentioned what was happening in this other body of convert-friendly churches, if it was going to discuss these trends. That hole should have at least have been mentioned. Hopefully, there will be more information forthcoming. It’s a small, but intriguing, news story.

ILLUSTRATION: An icon of Orthodox saints in North America.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Miss Sippi

    As an aside, yesterday (10/25/08) for the first time ever, Divine Liturgy was celebrated in Hattiesburg Mississippi, on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. There is now an Orthodox fellowship on campus, sponsored by the OCA church in McComb, itself an outreach of the OCA church in Clinton (Jackson area.)

  • FrGregACCA

    Thanks for pointing that out, tmatt. When I first saw this story, I had exactly the same reaction. However, part of the problem seems to lie with the study itself, which apparently excluded the Antiochian Archdiocese. Inter-jurisdictional politics, perhaps?

  • FW Ken

    Reading backwards from Fr. Peck’s essay, it seems like contemporary Orthodoxy in the U.S. suffers from many of the same ailments as Catholicism in the U.S. Which is no surprise. Individualism, materialism, including sexual obsessions and deviations as well as avarice, and the hubris of power affect us all.

    Omitting the Antiochenes really is a missing piece in the article. As it happens, there is a thriving Western-rite Antiochene parish and school here in Fort Worth, built by disaffected Episcopalians. Also missing, and missing from Fr. Peck’s essay, is the jurisdictional incoherence derived from the ethnic origins. I used to read Orthodox sources that at least acknowledged the problem, even if they didn’t have a solution.

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  • Fr. Andrew S. Damick

    As with other Krindatch demographics studies, I found this one to be interesting, but I always come away thinking, “How the heck did they decide on their statistical sample?”

    I remember one study where Krindatch drew conclusions about the future of Orthodox clergy in America vs. their forebears by comparing seminarians at St. Vlad’s and St. Tikhon’s (who represent a wide variety of jurisdictions, something the study didn’t mention) with OCA Diocese of Eastern PA clergy. I can hardly imagine a more unrepresentative sample! (I also know some of the folks who took part in the survey at one of the campuses who were compelled by the administration to answer all the questions even if they didn’t feel that any of the choices represented their views. When they left certain questions blank, those seminarians were later ushered into a room and told to answer those specific questions — so much for anonymity!)

    I recall another study Krindatch did where his entire sample was OCA and GOA clergy from only the West Coast. From this sample, he drew conclusions about the differences between clergy in those two jurisdictions. To me, though, California may as well be a foreign country. And we all know that Orthodoxy in America remains statistically stacked onto the Northeast (so far).

    Anyway, there are methodological problems with Krindatch’s studies. There are some interesting elements to them, but I’d never cite them, for fear of being laughed at.

  • Mattk

    I’m one the people who was surveyed. I must tell you that, like most surveys, the possible answers left much to be desired. Most of the questions really needed to be ansered with a couple of paragraphs, or even a several page essay. that whole “agree/disagree” thing is really annoying.

  • Karen

    I’m curious about the statement, “Although Orthodox churches were historically immigrant communities, the study found that nine out of 10 parishioners are now American-born.” The idea that the children of immigrants from mostly-past immigrant waves tend to be born in the U.S. seems logical enough to me. I’m trying to imagine someone writing, “Although the Presbyterian church began in Scotland, a study finds that most current Presbyterians in the U.S. are native-born North Americans.”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In my opinion anything Christian Orthodox deserves more media attention than Orthodox Christianity usually gets from the MSM in this country.
    For example, I have seen no notice or information anywhere in the MSM about a visit here to the United States of some of the most interesting Russian Orthodox icons from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
    My wife and I went to see the display of icons and it is a dramatic and soul-touching experience.
    The icon show is at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Ma. Along with the Tretyakov icons you get to see one of the best museum collections of Russian icons in a U.S. museum.
    The Tretyakov icons are here until May 1, 2009. The display is titled “Two Museums/One Culture.”
    More information can be gotten at
    And, since the MSM only seems interested in controversy: some Russian Orthodox have argued that the museum should be closed and, now that the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia is free and churches and monasteries opening everywhere across Russia, the icons in the American museum should be returned to Russia and distributed among appropriate sacred locations. For icons are not merely art work, but, far more importantly, holy windows to the scared which belong in places–like family icon corners or churches-where believers can pray or light candles before the icons.
    I know that as a Catholic Christian there were a number of icons that so moved me I wanted to kneel in front of them, but in the museum setting that would have been out of place (or maybe I was just a coward or typical American secularist not wanting to display my Faith in Christ and His Saints in front of others.)

  • BJohnD

    Fr. Andrew — If you take a look at this link, you might be surprised how many of us are out here on the Left Coast: