Losing our Religion: On “Retaining” Young People in the Orthodox Church

The 1963 rally in Pittsburgh of the Council of Eastern Orthodox Youth Leaders in America

The 1963 rally in Pittsburgh of the Council of Eastern Orthodox Youth Leaders in America

A recent article on the challenge of interfaith marriage in Greek Orthodoxy has been circulating widely on Facebook.[1] One reason for the article’s popularity is its startling claim that 90% of Americans with Greek roots are no longer in communion with the Orthodox Church.

Similarly dismal statistics are likely true for most Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States, but the article in question concerns only the Greek Archdiocese.

The article assumes (but does not show) that the reason for this mass apostasy is two-fold: (1) the inevitable rise of interfaith marriages in America’s multicultural, religiously pluralistic, and secular society; and (2) the Greek Orthodox Church’s failure to respond to the “critical and immediate need for a broad religious outreach; to make room for interfaith families,” and thereby follow St. Paul’s example in extending “Christianity’s outreach to all nations.”

The article is vague when it comes to solutions for the obvious crisis of mass apostasy, so I may have misunderstood its argument, but it appears to suggest that if the Church were more sensitive, accepting of religious difference, and in tune with modern sensibilities, she would have a shot at retaining interfaith families in a secular age—and thereby find a means to stem the tide of apostasy.[2]

Such a conclusion is contrary to all evidence I am aware of, both from the sociology of American religion and from the Orthodox Church’s own experience throughout the ages.

A few points to consider:

1. Jesus did not tell the apostles to extend Christianity’s outreach to all the nations, but to make disciples of all nations. The distinction is critical. The Church attracts and “retains” people only when she disciples them.

2. The article uses various statistics to describe a problem, but employs no statistically rigorous studies to find a solution. The implied solution is a guess or intuition, and does not necessarily follow from the studies invoked. In fact, as we shall see, the relevant studies that do exist suggest a very different solution.

3. Sociological studies of the ancient world (a highly interpretive but legitimate discipline) are very clear why the early Church grew: Christians took care of widows, orphans, and the sick and impoverished.[3] It’s that simple, at least on the sociological and statistical plane.

The early Church did not focus on “retaining” her own. On the contrary, she sacrificed her own, serving all people in the name of Christ, especially widows, orphans, and the sick and impoverished. Without a similar public witness to Christ expressed through substantial acts of sacrificial mercy, the Church is not being faithful to her own divine identity and calling—and, as long as such is the case, she will struggle to grow in and through the Holy Spirit, ultimately failing miserably to retain even her own.

4. Just as telling as the Church’s historical experience are the insights of modern-day sociology of American religion. Rigorous studies on what makes American young people and emerging adults retain their family’s religious traditions do exist; and the studies suggest an entirely different solution than accommodation to the trends of the modern American family.

If we are speaking on the scale of statistical relevance (not just pastoral care in individual cases), the data are clear: patterns of religious conviction and observance are set far before one’s 20s or 30s. Simply put, if clergy are trying to play triage nurse at the point of marriage and starting a family, the Church has already lost the war and probably the battle as well (except by the grace of the Holy Spirit, of course!).

Data collected and interpreted by sociologists of religion in a major project called the National Study of Youth and Religion show that there are three main factors that contribute to a young person retaining their religious tradition into adulthood:

1. The young person’s parents practiced the faith in the home and in daily life, not just in public or churchly settings.

2. The young person had at least one significant adult mentor or friend, other than parents, who practiced the faith seriously.

3. The young person had at least one significant spiritual experience before the age of 17.[4]

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.

If a young person experiences all three relationships in their childhood and especially in their early teenage years, they are far less likely to drift away from their family’s faith tradition as they transition into “emerging adulthood” and beyond. In addition, while all three relationships are important, what the young person observes in the actions and daily life of his or her parents is the most decisive element by far.

The practical conclusion is rather straightforward: For most people, and when viewed as a sociological trend, unless there is a specific adult in a teenager’s life who shows the teenager by example and in the context of a meaningful, long-term relationship how an adult incorporates Christian faith into daily life, no program, camp, mission trip, youth group, worship style, musical trend, Sunday school, church reform, updated pastoral style, modernization, or even catechetical class will make a statistically significant difference. Further, to retain their faith into adulthood young people need to experience God’s grace for themselves, preferably before the latter part of high school.

The most important sociologist of religion to develop these findings is Christian Smith, who holds a chair in sociology of religion and directs a research center at the University of Notre Dame. His work should be required reading for every person serving in the Orthodox Church.

Two of Smith’s best books on the topic are Soul Searching: The Religious And Spiritual Lives Of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009). The findings of the first book have been turned into an accessible film called Soul Searching: A Movie About Teenagers and God (2008).

Smith’s books are filled with data, carefully footnoted, and eminently scholarly. Other notable scholars have written less voluminous books, based on the very same findings but geared toward a general audience of clergy, youth pastors, concerned parents, and church volunteers. The best in that genre is Kenda Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010).

One of the major findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion, a point which Kenda Dean brings out very clearly and in entertaining fashion, is that American teenagers are actually very good at practicing the faith that their parents teach them: not what parents say they believe, but what they actually believe as evidenced by actions.

The result is that most American teenagers and emerging adults, including Christians of all traditions, believe in and practice “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” not Christianity.[5] Considering this reality, it is hardly surprising that, over time, many emerging adults drift away from their family’s Christian roots, choosing to marry outside their church or even Christian faith itself. Yet their doing so is not actually a departure from or a change in their religious convictions: it is merely an alignment of certain external practices (e.g., what they do on Sundays or Easter) with the actual religious beliefs they have held since their teenage years.[6]

As shocking as such a conclusion may seem, here is the most important point: Teenagers and emerging adults believe in and practice “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” not because their parents and their local church have failed to teach them otherwise, but precisely because that is what their parents and their local church are actually teaching them. As the motto of this website puts it, doctrine matters—and not just the doctrine in a church’s creed, liturgy, bookstore, or pamphlet stand. The actual doctrine of family and local church, as taught to most young people in word and especially deed, ends up driving the next generation from the Church, not because the Church is out of touch with the broader society but because the local church never actually taught and lived by the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the first place.

Just in case it is not already obvious, it is worth noting that the research indicates the problem of apostasy is universal across religious traditions in America. It is not a problem of just the Greek Archdiocese or other Orthodox jurisdictions. One thing this reality should tell us is that the problem is not caused merely by confusion over issues such as ethnicity or language. On the contrary, very Americanized churches, which use only English in their worship, suffer from the same problem of apostasy. In other words, the issue is much deeper than people want it to be, and it requires repentance and change far greater than switching the language of the liturgy. In fact, there are studies that indicate that most American teenagers (and adults) do not understand the theological or spiritual lessons in hymns or worship services, regardless of language or style. It does not actually do anything, in and of itself, to use all English, to update the music, to use contemporary worship strategies, etc.

The fundamental problem is far scarier and far harder to “fix”: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is neither taught nor followed by the vast majority of Christian parents in America. Period. The data are unavoidable. Now, the question arises: Is this fact the parents’ “fault”? On a certain level, yes; but, at the same time, they themselves were neither taught nor discipled. It therefore falls to the whole Church herself, as the Body of Christ—clergy and laity—to correct this reality through prayer, example, and instruction.

Without seriously grappling with the sociological research that exists on these questions, as well as the depths of our own Orthodox Christian tradition, which is replete with wisdom on what it takes to make disciples of all nations, we will neither understand the problem of mass apostasy nor find a successful solution to it.


[1] The original article’s author is a member of my own Greek Orthodox parish and is undoubtedly a rarity these days: a true Christian gentleman. I respect him and his obvious concern for the future of the Church. But I simply cannot agree with his article’s reasoning or conclusions, even while I commend him for initiating an important conversation.

[2] One of the conceptual problems in the original article is that it does not define what it means by “interfaith” marriage and seems to use “interfaith” as a blanket term for very different situations. As far as the Church and sociological or psychological studies are concerned, one should distinguish among marriages between (1) two Orthodox Christian people from different ethnic backgrounds; (2) two people of different Christian traditions; and (3) two people of totally different faiths (e.g. a Muslim and a Christian; or an atheist and a Christian). Properly speaking, “interfaith” describes only the last of these three types of “mixed” marriages.

[3] Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, has made this point persuasively in a variety of publications: the regular witness of ordinary, every-day Christian people tending to the poor, the orphans, and the sick in their urban communities contributed decisively to Christianity’s tremendous growth. For Stark’s most popular presentation of his data-driven research see The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). In this book Stark reveals an insufficient understanding of Second Temple Judaism and some points of Christian history, but the main idea is correct and very instructive for contemporary Christianity. For other relevant historical and theological studies see Susan R. Holman, God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).

[4] I have extrapolated these three findings from my own reading of Christian Smith’s early books (referenced later in the main body of this article). Speaking during an interview focused on one of his more recent books, Smith summarizes his findings on faith and religious practice amongst “emerging adults” (nowadays, those 18 to around 25, or even older) in two points:

“First, it is common for people to believe that the religious lives of young people are completely thrown up in the air during the teenage and emerging-adult years, that everything is up for grabs, being questioned and renegotiated. In fact, a main finding from our research emphasizes the continuity across young people’s lives when it comes to faith and practice. More often than not, most young people retain the same religious faith and roughly at the same levels of belief and practice when they are 18-23 years-old as when they were teenagers. There are large minorities of youth who decline in their religious faith and practice across that time span, and a smaller minority that increases in religiousness too. But the majority, whether they go to college or not, look a lot like they looked as teenagers. So, continuity, not change, is the dominant story. And that is well worth knowing. For one thing, it emphasizes the importance of religious communities establishing solid education, practices, and commitments earlier in life — since what gets established at younger ages is the most likely thing to continue in later years. That’s one part of the story — stability over change.

Our second finding goes back to our earlier work on teenagers — the importance of parents forming the religious and spiritual lives of their children. A lot of parents think that they don’t matter any more once their kid hits teenager years, but their influence still has a huge impact on their children, for better or worse. Parents have a lot of responsibility for the religious beliefs and practices of their children, even when they pass beyond the teenage years.”

The full interview is available here.

[5] On the central doctrines of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism see this lecture by Christian Smith.

[6] Again, I am speaking in broad, statistically significant trends. The reality is that most young people who drift away from their family’s Orthodox Christian roots do not even try to get married in the Church, much less raise their families as practicing Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, there are some who do. Personally, I have known many Orthodox Christians who married a Catholic or Protestant person and, over time, managed not only to raise their children in the Orthodox Church but to find unanimity of belief between themselves, with the heterodox spouse converting to Orthodoxy, sometimes after many years. So, it can be done. However, if we are honest, such laudable examples are the exception to the rule, both in our own lives and certainly when viewed on the national level.