Demographic Changes in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the USA?
February 18, 2015 9:51 AM   Subscribe

When I was growing up, in the seventies and eighties, Eastern Orthodoxy was pretty much an ethno-faith. That is, to be Orthodox was to be Greek, or Ukrainian or Russian or any of the historically orthodox nationalities who had immigrated to this country, along with a few outsiders who had married into the faith. Nowadays, however, things have changed . . .

It seems as if the demographic base of the Eastern Orthodox church in the USA is broadening a little bit. Within the last five or ten years, it seems as if many more non-Slavic, non-Greek people are joining the Eastern Orthodox church. I wouldn't call this a mass phenomenon comparable to the growth of born-again Protestant Christianity amongst Latinos, but it is noticeable and very different from the world in which I grew up so I have to wonder why. Why are people who are not from historically Orthodox ethnic backgrounds joining the Orthodox church?

I'll put my cards on the table here: I am an atheist. I don't have a religious cell in my body. But I will be polite and respectful and willing to listen. I expect the same from people who are reading this and contributing.

As always, many thanks in advance!
posted by jason's_planet to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The mediocre protestant churches (UU, Methodist, Lutheran, generic baptist, etc.) are emptying out and people who remain Christians are joining churches with more historic credibility and theological consistency (methodist to orthodox/catholic, evangelical to presbyterian/lutheran/orthodox/catholic, fundamentalist to reformed baptist, etc.) Part of that trend is people rediscovering their ethnically-aligned faith but some people are from different backgrounds and come for the theology and history.
posted by michaelh at 9:56 AM on February 18, 2015

Best answer: When I say mediocre I mean they don't really offer a reason to be a member over another denomination besides habit unless you really think they stumbled across perfectly correct theology, which is pretty hard to believe when you know the history of the Reformation, which is easier to discover now thanks to the Internet. The trend is for people to have a preference for a church that is "unique for a good reason" and they'll go as far with that as they're comfortable with.
posted by michaelh at 9:59 AM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am not one of those people but I have to say that, having studied the Russian Orthodox church for school, it comes across as a pretty awesome church on paper. Far LESS restrictive than Roman Catholic.

Unfortunately, you'd never guess this from the way it actually behaves. Still, if people are choosing their faith based on its writings, I could really see its appeal.

(I remember one of the intro books was The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, if you're interested.)
posted by small_ruminant at 10:11 AM on February 18, 2015

Best answer: Why are people who are not from historically Orthodox ethnic backgrounds joining the Orthodox church?

Speaking for myself as a convert, because I was convinced of the truth of it. I was formerly Roman Catholic but after studying the history of the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches, I was convinced that the Eastern Orthodox Church is the one church of the apostles. I was accepted by a Greek church but have no Greek ancestry. I could have easily gone to the Russian or another churches if there were one in town. Ultimately, I figured out that the church is a single visible community, so I needed to make sure I was part of it. It had nothing to do with preference because there is no preference when it comes to the truth.

As a former Roman and current Orthodox, I wouldn't understand a statement that Orthodoxy is less restrictive than the Roman church. As far as I have observed, the Roman church has lost all asceticism among the laity. Orthodoxy involves ascesis such as standing for hours on end during church services, abstaining from meat for half the year, daily morning and evening prayers, prostrations. It is quite rigorous. In fact, I think the converts to Orthodox are tired of what is "watered down". They want something challenging and rigorous. And of course, how "hard" it is or not really shouldn't be a factor in a convert's mind anyway - they should be trying to find what they think is the truth. Whether the truth is "hard" or "easy" is incidental. I remember one priest's story of how a non-Orthodox told him that it was "cool" that Orthodox priests could be married. The priest's response was, "I don't know if it is cool, but it is apostolic".

I have observed the phenomenon of entire Protestant congregations becoming Eastern Orthodox, usually OCA. There has been a trend of late in American Protestantism to discuss "the early church" or "the first christians". We Orthodox say when you are studying "the early church", you are studying us. I think those non-Orthodox who come into the Church often draw a similar conclusion.

I'm sensitive to site culture so if you wanted to discuss more with a convert, please don't hesitate to send me a MeMail.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:29 AM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

Why are people who are not from historically Orthodox ethnic backgrounds joining the Orthodox church?

Rod Dreher is a fairly prominent example, though whether he's typical is another matter: a conservative who was raised a Methodist, converted to Catholicism in 1993, then joined the Russian Orthodox church in 2006 for its "doctrinal stability, sacramental reality, and practical Christian mysticism."
posted by holgate at 10:30 AM on February 18, 2015

Best answer: Really? This super surprises me! A couple of things come to mind - the fact that Orthodox folks don't believe in papal infallibility, and scripture is treated as the chief authority, vs. the church as an organization, and, priests can be married.

I just found this blog post, which suggests some reasons.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:33 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

(I'm thinking that people who are looking for more this-worldly, experience-grounded and community-based guidance in faith practices, vs. top-down edicts, might be drawn to it [priests counsel from experience]. But I remember the 80s Orthodox church my family attended, and the idea of people not from the ethnicity affiliated with the church attending and fitting in is interesting. A lot of people in the 70s-80s, especially recent immigrants, and including mostly faithless people, used the church as more of a community nexus.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:43 AM on February 18, 2015

Tanizaki, like I said, I'm not Orthodox. I'm not even Catholic, though I went to a lot of Catholic church when I was little (Byzantine Catholic, which also involves hours of standing and aesthetically resembles the Orthodox church, though the dogma is pure Catholic). The restrictiveness I'm talking about is the relief from the endless guilt of the Catholic church. Orthodoxy, so far as I can tell. doesn't do guilt. That was a huge thing!

Also, the Catholics of my acquaintance are big on "the gift of suffering," which I find deeply repugnant. Maybe Orthodoxy also has this school of thought but I haven't run into it. For whatever reason, the Catholics I know are exceedingly severe (oldest friend is cloistered) so I haven't run into the laxity issue you're talking about.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:19 AM on February 18, 2015

Best answer: I have several friends and family members in this group, and here are some general observations:

-many of them grew up in more mainline evangelical culture, and found themselves longing for more liturgy/tradition/formality/regimentation. A lot of evangelical congregations are mighty casual, and many people are seeking houses of worship where there is a more concerted effort to display reverence/awe.

-the intellectual underpinnings/discussions of orthodoxy are fascinating to many of these people, who tend to be markedly cerebral/bookish (the ones I have known, I mean).

-iconography reframed as worshipful divine-in-the-tangible rather than a dangerous form of idolatry, which is a very Puritan/Protestant concept.

-I do not mean this in a derogatory manner, but: religious cosplay, for some. They take it very seriously, but I have seen an undercurrent of passion for the clothes/authentic garments/self-presentation that reminds me of LARPers.

It is also worth noting that none of these people (the ones I know, that is) are NOT joining the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, etc. There is now a form of the Orthodox Church that is not affiliated with any particular nationality.*

*This is not to say that some of the people joining are not Russophiles. A member of my family who attended an Orthodox Seminary told me it was exasperating when his classmates told him, utterly seriously, that being a starving Russian peasant was better than living their own lives in the 21st century.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:20 AM on February 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Alexei Krindatch’s 2010 demographic study of Orthodoxy in America might be interesting to you though it is based on numbers not sentiment.

If you're interested in further reading, there is a good book on the subject: Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church.

I will add that in my experience a lot of the growth is in "less ethnic" parishes and/or jurisdictions both in the OCA and also with the Antiochians. You can still find ethnic enclaves in all the jurisdictions though, places where you will feel out of place if you don't speak Greek, Russian, Serbian or what have you, but there seems to be a tipping point where enough insiders have married outsiders that things really open up for everyone.
posted by cessair at 12:05 PM on February 18, 2015

Best answer: I do not mean this in a derogatory manner, but: religious cosplay, for some. They take it very seriously, but I have seen an undercurrent of passion for the clothes/authentic garments/self-presentation that reminds me of LARPers.

Speaking from a Greek-Orthodox perspective, we have several converts attending my local church who exhibit this obsession with ritual. It's kind of annoying, to be frank, as these same individuals also tend to have a "more Orthodox than thou" attitude, which is rather offensive for people who were born into the church. They also are much more politically and socially conservative than the "ethnic" Orthodox, particularly when it comes to issues of sexuality (strongly anti-gay, anti female-inclusion), so you see things like gay Orthodox being refused communion, which I've never seen happen in churches that don't have a lot of converts. Dreher, of course, supports this exclusionary fundamentalist movement in Orthodoxy. It's one of the reasons I still remain active in my church, because I don't want to see Orthodoxy become a bastion of hate, as so many conservative denominations now are.
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:29 PM on February 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

The comments on that article are interesting because from the sound of them, many of the posters aren't Orthodox, or if they are, they've been hanging out with the Catholics and Protestants too long.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:09 PM on February 18, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks everyone!
posted by jason's_planet at 5:01 PM on February 21, 2015

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