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Research on Orthodox Religious Groups in the United States

Research Project Overview

by Alexei D. Krindatch
Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute
Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA

This project is a study of 22 major Orthodox (Eastern Christian) Churches in the USA with a total membership of 1,200,000 adherents gathered in 2,400 local parishes. 

This research was sponsored by "Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies" as a part of the nationwide "Religious Congregations Membership Study: 2000." The data were obtained directly from the headquarters (diocesan offices) of Orthodox Churches in North America by personal visits there and by interviewing of the church's leaders – the bishops or the chancellors.

The major goal of the author’s empirical study was the creation of a database of all major Orthodox jurisdictions to allow for analysis and comparison of different Orthodox Churches in five major areas. 

  • Membership

  • Church as religious institution

  • Degree of Church’ integration with wider American society

  • Ecumenical openness and involvement

  • Nonreligious social functions

Summary information on these areas is presented in the pdf tables at the index page of this research project.

Orthodoxy in the United States

Historically, the notion of "one people – one Church" is a characteristic feature of the Eastern Christianity. Orthodox believers, when they are asked about religious affiliation, always add an ethnic qualifier such as Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox. 

In the United States, many Orthodox Churches have organized their own jurisdictions to minister to the needs of the corresponding ethnic immigrant groups such as the Greeks, Russians, Serbians, Romanians, Armenians, and Copts.  As a result of the often forced patterns of immigration from the Old World, Orthodox believers in the United States commonly viewed themselves as ethnic communities dispersed from the motherland. Consequently, for most of 20th century, the Orthodox jurisdictions in the USA have perceived themselves as "diaspora" churches and as geographic extensions of their respective Mother Churches from Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

The "ethnarcy" – the combining of priestly vocation and of socio-ethnic leadership – created as a result of this diasporic condition has become a typical feature of many Orthodox parishes in the USA. In most Orthodox Churches, a high priority is given to the preservation of the ethnic identity and culture of their American-born members.  They do this by using the language of their mother country, by setting up all-day schools for their children (as an alternative to the regular public schools), by establishing nation-wide Orthodox Women and Youth organizations, and by creating restrictive policies with regard to the mixed inter-Christian marriages.

Today, the American Orthodox Churches are struggling with the issue of their changing nature and mission in this country.  Beginning in the 1970’s, fundamental changes took place in the demographics of the Orthodox jurisdictions.  These changes included: 

  • the increasing proportion of the American-born members and of converts who came to the Orthodoxy mainly through the inter-Christian marriages, 

  • the new developments in religious education and liturgical life, and 

  • the grassroots movements encouraging greater Orthodox unity for the sake of mission 

These changes have essentially altered the standing of the Orthodox Churches on the contemporary American religious scene.  Religious faith and ethnic identity, once seen as inseparable, are increasingly less important for the socially mobile, geographically dispersed, English speaking second, third and fourth generations of Orthodox in America.  Nor is this an important consideration for the ever-increasing number of Orthodox converts raised in other religious traditions. Nevertheless, at the beginning of a new millennium, the jurisdictional distinctiveness still does remain a basic characteristic of Orthodox Christianity in the USA. 

Actual Orthodox Church membership 

The number of U.S. Orthodox members has been and remains greatly inflated for the North American Orthodox jurisdictions. 

According to this author’s calculation, the real membership (number of adult adherents and their children) in all Eastern Christian Churches in the USA can be estimated at about 1,200,000 persons.  This figure is considerably less than the commonly accepted estimations of from two million to as high as over four million Orthodox believers living in the USA. 

The greatest disproportion between "claimed" and actual memberships were found in the two largest Orthodox jurisdictions: 

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (typically claimed 2,000,000* members versus 440,000 actual adherents) 

Orthodox Church in America (1,000,000* versus 115,000) 

*membership figures are from the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, National Council of Churches, 2000.

The most likely reason for this discrepancy is the common practice of equating Church membership with the total number of representatives of a corresponding ethnic group including second and third American generations of the original immigrants, independent of these persons actual relationship to the Orthodox Church.

Current Sources of Growth in US Orthodox Churches

There are three possible demographic sources of growth:  immigration, the offspring of church members, and Anglo-American converts.  In nearly all Orthodox jurisdictions, new immigrants are roughly as important for membership growth as are the children of existing members, and in many cases immigration is still the major source of church growth.  With the offspring members there is the added factors of the natural desire to assimilate into the dominant American culture and drift away from the language, customs and to a large extent from the Orthodox faith of their parents.

The level of integration within American society 

The line which divides the U.S. Orthodox Churches into categories of obviously "ethnic" and more or less "Americanized" corresponds to the major ecclesiastical division between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches. 

The Oriental Orthodox Churches – the Armenian and Syrian or  recently established Coptic and Indian Malankara jurisdictions – can be considered the more "ethnic" immigrant diaspora churches.  

The Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions, however, demonstrate a high proportion of congregations using English as their liturgical language, a larger share of inter-Christian marriages and a general openness to  Anglo-American converts.

The reason for this distinction can be seen in the historically different situations of their corresponding Mother Churches in the Old World. The Oriental Orthodox came to the United States primarily from predominantly Muslim countries.  In their homelands these groups had gotten accustomed to living as  religious minorities.  Over the generations they created elaborate mechanisms to protect the religious and cultural borders of their closed communities.  Consequently, for centuries the ethnic and religious components of their identities were inseparable.  For instance, if a Syrian Orthodox believer in Turkey or in Iraq converts to Islam, he will no longer be considered a Syriac, but a "gentile". 

Most Eastern Orthodox believers, however, came to the United States from traditionally Orthodox countries. Once in a diasporic situation within the American "melting pot" their ability to maintain their ethno-cultural identity transported from the Mother country was much lower than in the case of Oriental Orthodox.

At the turn of a millennium, two contradictory processes affect the current and future situation of Orthodox Christianity in the United States. 

On the one hand, historically, the Orthodox jurisdictions in the USA have maintained the link between the ethnic and denominational identities in a particularly strong way. 

On the other hand, this linkage has been challenged by the slow but inevitable process of cultural indigenization of the Orthodox Churches in America combined with the growing proportion of 3rd and 4th American-born generations and an increasing number of Anglo-American converts through mixed inter-Christian marriages.

Read more about this recent study of Orthodox Churches in the United States at the index page for this study




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