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Exodus from Orthodoxy, Part I: Are Young Adults Leaving the Church (and What Can We Do About It)?

Note: This is the first of the three-part series Exodus from Orthodoxy. Click here to receive a free PDF copy of the complete report.

I’m sure you know one.

A person who grew up Orthodox and no longer identifies as Orthodox.

In fact, I’m confident you know far more than just one.

Most of the people I grew up with fall into this category.

And, if we don’t change the way we do ministry, we’ll see far more young people fall away from the Church in the years ahead.

So what can we do?

This is a big question, so it’s something we’ll explore over the next 3 posts.

A Young Adult’s Story

First, meet Catherine.

Catherine is a young adult who I met a few years ago. She’s what we often call “cradle Orthodox.” She grew up in the Church. She was raised within the Church. 

In fact, she was probably more active in the Church than most people I know. And yet, today, she’s struggling to identify as Orthodox.

So what happened?

When she was a kid, Catherine was involved in everything. She attended youth group and Sunday School. She was a member of the parish dance troupe and on the roster of several parish sports teams. She was at the parish more evenings than she wasn’t.

And all that changed when she graduated high school...

Catherine went from being involved in everything to being involved in nothing. After a few years of being completely estranged from the Church, I met her as she was deciding whether she could come back.

She was looking for a new young adult group to join, something to take the place of her old youth group. 

And I realized that this pursuit reflected a deep problem in Catherine’s life, a problem that stems from the way we’ve been doing ministry.

You see, Catherine wasn’t really looking to reconnect with the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. She was looking to join a new group.

Why is that troubling?

Because Catherine was looking to join yet another group for one simple reason: she never felt like she was truly a member of the Church.

In fact, being a part of the Church wasn’t even on her radar.

How Big is the Problem?

In the United States, a nationwide study by the Barna Group found that about 60% of young Christians fall away from the tradition that raised them. 

While we lack similar data focused specifically on the Orthodox Church, the numbers that we do have aren’t encouraging...

In 2010, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops conducted the first ever census of Orthodox Christians in the United States. I actually participated in this project, and contacted every parish in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

The census found that there were 799,400 Orthodox Christians in the USA.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the Christian Herald newspaper used to publish population data for various Christian groups in the United States. The last time they included the Orthodox Church in such a study was in 1947, when they reported that there were 702,273 Orthodox Christians in the United States.

If we accept these numbers, that means that the population of the Orthodox Church in the US rose 14% over about six decades.

Not too bad, right?

Unfortunately, in the same period, the total US population more than doubled

And based on what I’ve seen growing up in the Church, and conversations I’ve had with Orthodox Christians across the country, none of this is surprising.

After all, about 90% of the young people I grew up with have fallen away from the Church. 

I know this is anecdotal, but it’s unfortunately not surprising, nor is it unique. In fact, when I share this number, people tend to report that they’ve experienced similar loss in their own communities.

While the Orthodox Church may not be able to quantify the problem as precisely as the Barna Group did, the little data that we do have seems to reinforce the experience of so many ministry leaders: young people are falling away from the Church at an unsustainable rate.

But Exodus Isn’t the Complete Story

While we need to be honest about just how widespread this problem of disengagement has become, we can also be reassured that it’s not the whole story. Many parishes in the United States welcome new converts to the Church every year. 

According to most reports, a significant portion of this group (maybe even the majority) are young adults. 

And this actually fits with some of the data that the Pew Research Center has discovered: namely, that the Orthodox Church tends to skew younger than other Christian groups in the United States.

I’ve personally corresponded with, and met in person, dozens of these young adults in the last few years. When I lead young adult events across the country, a significant number of self-identified converts are always in attendance

And these converts include teenagers as well. In fact, while leading a retreat, I recently met a high school senior who is in the process of entering the Church. And I’ve heard from people even younger than that who, after watching the videos Y2AM produces and experiencing the beauty of the Divine Liturgy, took the incredible step of becoming Orthodox Christians.

So, while a substantial number of young people are falling away from the Church, an impressive number are entering at the same time.

Why?

Why Some Leave (and Others Join)

The National Study of Youth and Religion suggests that there are three factors that contribute to a young person’s decision to remain connected to the faith tradition that raised them. 

These factors are whether:

1. the faith was practiced at home;

2. the young person knew someone outside the family who practiced the faith seriously; and

3. the young person had a spiritual experience that brought them closer to God.

As Seraphim Danckaert summarized this: “One could therefore say that a person is most likely to retain Christian faith throughout adult life if he or she had three meaningful and healthy relationships in their early to mid teenage years: one with faithful Christian parents, one with a faithful Christian mentor outside of the family, and one with God Himself.”

So these factors at least help us understand why young people who grew up in the Church fall away.

But they also help us understand why young people enter the Church.

I’ve certainly seen this in the young adult converts that I’ve met or corresponded with. In my experience, they all point to: (1) the influence of someone who took the Faith seriously, and (2) a religious experience

Sometimes this is the influence of a friend, sometimes this is the influence of a clergyman, and sometimes this is the influence of a favorite author or podcaster who helped bring them into the Church.

As far as religious experiences, this can be anything from a visit to a monastery or a first experience of the Divine Liturgy. 

Whatever shape they take, these relationships and experiences help lead people into the loving embrace of the Church. 

They help counteract the challenges that have come to define young adulthood today.

What exactly are these challenges?

We’ll explore them in Part II.

Key Takeaways

• The Orthodox Church is having trouble forming a new generation of faithful Christians

• But exodus isn't the whole story: many young adults (and even teenagers) are entering the Church

• Why some people leave the Church, and why others enter, are two sides of the same coin

• The more we understand what's actually happening, the better we can ministry to the young people in our care

***

Note: This is the first of the three-part series Exodus from OrthodoxyClick here to receive a free PDF copy of the complete report.

***

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM. He and his Team are working on a new ministry training course, Effective Christian Ministry, which will help Church workers develop a Christ-centered vision for ministry and implement it with the core practices of formative and transformational ministry. 

 

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