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.


  1. I’ve grown up in the Protestant tradition and now, in my senior year of college, have begun investigating Orthodoxy. And what you have written has summed up what I have found to be problematic with Protestantism. There is a desire to do God’s will but hardly any interest to know who God is and what he teaches. It is all about the relationship without any of the necessary rules and boundaries that come with even the most intimate of relationships. And you’re observation about what is being taught in modern churches is correct. Even in Protestant churches the sermons teach us how to be good people but not good Christians.

  2. 1. We’ve taken a sacerdotal “ex opere operato” approach to the church to its ultimate end.
    3. We’ve abrogated our social responsibility to government.

  3. Good stuff here…will a followup article flesh out what a “Solution(s)” might look like in an zealous and engaged Orthodox Christian family’s life? Perhaps several practical suggestions from older Priests & Bishops who now have faithful married Orthodox children now faithfully passing on the faith to their own children?

    [note: The sarcastic quip in evangelical circles: “There’s a reason the parents of young children write all the parenting books!” 😉 merits attention. Which is to say: “There is a BIG difference in having a faithful ‘pre-adolescent” family — and raising faithful young adult children who openly desire to pass on the Faith to their own children.”

    1. A good suggestion, stewardman. I would only add one caution: while I think anecdotal stories can be helpful and inspiring, it would be more unusual and therefore more likely to shed light on the issue if such a follow up article were to rely on actual data from a broad study. Invariably, the data confirm the intuitions of the most experienced amongst us and, in other cases, they correct even the most hoary, always refining our thinking in the process.

      One further point: The findings discussed in this blog post are not at all a template for “parenting,” nor does following them guarantee that one’s child will grow into or remain a faithful adult Christian. All have free will. Faith is a gift, not a formula. So, we’re not talking about a method that will produce “results.” After all, the very recommendation is for certain key *relationships*, not strategies or approaches or techniques or styles or programs. There is no one formula. So, the ultimate point is limited even as it is powerful: focusing on, investing in, building up, and enriching these three relationships has a higher likelihood of “success” than any other specific strategy, approach, technique, style, or program. Yet many still fall away. The work is urgent, but the victory is the Lord’s.

  4. An inconvenient truth – if you want your children to be devoted Orthodox Christians…you have to BE one yourself…

    1. True, but I think much of the problem is that folks don’t know what that means, having been taught and modeled something else. “Good Orthodox Christians” go to church on Sundays and pay their “dues,” while people who go more often, attend classes, have icons in their homes, pray together with their children, talk about their faith with others, etc., are “religious fanatics.”

      1. That is one of the messages that need to be taught, that there ain’t no shame in being a fanatic (or fool) for Christ.

  5. This is a superb article.

    One point should be made, and that is that for those relatively weak in the faith, group sociopolitical affiliation might be exacerbating the decay. The Greek American community historically has tended to vote for left-leaning candidates. In many families, political orientation takes on characteristics of a secondary religion, complete with visits to “shrines” such as presidential libraries, et cetera. This was certainly true in my upbringing (although I was raised on the “other side of the aisle”, or “across the House” in British parlance). If the secondary religion, that is to say, the political orientation, is ideologically opposed to the primary religion, that being the Orthodox church (and current major breaches between the left-leaning parties obviously exist across a wide range of issues relating to human sexuality and secularization), this might create a certain cognitive dissonance which would have the effect of encouraging apostasy among the laity of weak faith, and heresy among the clergy of weak faith (certainly this is the process that occurred in the mainline Protestant churches and indeed in the Roman Catholic church).

    That said, as the article points out, Christianity can flourish as a minority religion. The Gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. However, a wide range of pastoral initiatives to encourage devotion and piety among cradle Orthodox are needed; I would suggest a program to make Orthodox prayer books, theology books and iconography freely available to lower-income families with children. Every family at a minimum ought to have an Orthodox Study Bible, a Philokalia, and an Horologion.

  6. Christianity at its most important level always depended on the TRANSFORMATION of one person towards another. “Acquire the Holy Spirit”, says Seraphim of Sarov. “Save yourself and thousands around you will be saved”. He hides in the wilderness and people come to him. For each of us is the question: “Do I live such a life that someone seeing me, will WANT what they see IN me, my joy, my convictions, my steadfastness, my vision of life and the world, my control of passions…”
    It ISN’T about preserving Orthodoxy, it’s about the remnant that still really loves Christ, and follows Him. Bishops and meetings and seminaries with all their pomp and noise are NOT the solution. The generation that is leaving does not SEE anything nourishing in US. Why should they “keep” this kind of Orthodoxy. I look at Facebook and see all these “Orthodox parents fawning over the academic successes of their kids and always wonder what the LESS successful child feels like! Now there’s a “witness” to humility and to the Cross.

    Everyone reading here should study what the late Fr. Alexander Atty did in Louisville, KY. He transformed his parish into a growing, thriving parish of many, many converts looking for the TRUTH. Go see and ask how they did it! Hint: Personal conviction by all of those attending this church.

    1. It is certainly fair to say that the church must provide a vibrant, living witness to Christ, and sometimes we fail to do that, but that said, as the tagline of this website reads, Doctrine Matters. The Church cannot prioritize the retention of young congregants at the expense of fidelity to the historic Orthodox faith received from the Apostles. When you think about it, there’s no real advantage to doing so; we would not actually be preserving the religion, but rather, sacrificing it on the altar of latitudinarianism. In other words, if it is wrong to focus on preserving Orthodox doctrine, then its wrong for the Church to continue in any form.

    2. Helen,

      I attend Fr. Alexander’s former parish in Louisville, KY and I am one of the converts you are talking about here. Thanks for bringing him into the discussion. His commitment to Orthodox dogma “by the book” (as he called it), as well as out and out compassion for every single visitor, young person, and parishioner. He mentions in an interview online that he had great respect for the book “Beauty for Ashes: The Spiritual Transformation of a Modern Greek Community” in this regard.

      When my Dad decided to convert to Orthodoxy (at St. Michael’s under Fr. Atty) he said, “They just love one another.” I think that says best what Father instilled in us all at St. Michael Parish. Thanks for bringing his name into the discussion. We all miss him. May his memory be eternal.

  7. I can only speak of my journey in the Orthodox faith as a reason for my failing attendance in the Syriac Orthodox Church. My parents have instilled in me faith and are good examples in their actions. The biggest reason I do not attend is the internal politics and hypocrisy among the of those in the Church themselves. I have seen parishes split 4 to 5 times due to power struggles within the parish.Our Church itself has a distinction between those who are Indian Syrian followers and the Syrian followers. I have seen special favors given to those who are loyal to either one side or another in the power struggles. I have seen men become priests with no seminary study what so ever just a s a favor for their loyalty. Others have been given higher ranks to keep their loyalty. I have seen name calling and fighting in the name of God inside the Church. I left because of the Church due to the politics and unchristian behavior. This greed is common among many parishes and if people speak out parishes will make them pariahs and kick them out for disobedience which again I have seen. I know much of what I say sounds quite medieval but unfortunately it is true at least in my experience. I love my Orthodox faith and my faith itself is not shaken but I understand why so many young people shy away from their faith. When the very people who are to lead and help shepherd your faith are corrupt it is hard to bear witness. As I said before I can only speak for my own experience and that which led to me not attend weekly services.

    1. I’d like to reply to your comment from the standpoint of being someone who is very much an enthusiast of the Syriac Orthodox Church and who has a somewhat close relationship with several Syriac clergy.

      The Syriac church consists of two separate, parallel hierarchies in communion: the Suroyo, or ethnically Assyrian/Syriac population in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Turkey, and the Malankara, or ethnically Indian population of St. Thomas Christians. The former is under the direct supervision of the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch in Damascus, and the latter, under the supervision of his deputy the Maphrian, the Catholicos of India.

      Naturally, because of the large cultural and geographical barrier between the two, one will see a specialization of facilities to serve indians or Syrians that report to the Patriarch or the Catholicos respectively. This is directly analogous to how within the Eastern Orthodox Church, you have a separate Greek and Russian hierarchy using the same liturgy; here you have a separate Indian and Syrian hierarchy sharing a common hierarchy; the only difference is everyone (with the exception of the schismatic Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church) is under the nominal supervision of the Patriarch of Antioch. A similar relationship used to exist between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

      Now that being said, people who speak out against parish leadership in any communion are frequently made pariahs. The website wartburg-watch is practically dedicated to the abusive behavior that routinely occurs in Baptist parishes and non-denominational megachurches. I’ve yet to see anything in any Orthodox church, Eastern or Oriental, that even remotely compares to the actions of some of these pastors, who are more powerful within their religious communities than the Pope is in Roman Catholicism. For that matter, I’ve yet to see anything as bad as Roman Catholicism.

      It should also be mentioned that in many Orthodox jurisdictions in both the Eastern and Oriental churches, people are ordained to the rank of priest without going through a seminary. Ultimately, the sole test for ability in the priesthood is the decision of the bishop. A major point of being Orthodox is submission to the bishop; one should presume at all times that the bishop is making the correct decision, and support the bishop with prayer, as more often than not, in my experience, this is the case. We have to trust that the Orthodox Church is the Bride of Christ and will be protected by Him, and if we’re not going to trust that, well, we might as well be Baptist at that point. This is not to say that bishops can’t make mistakes, or for that matter in extremely rare and unpleasant circumstances engage in evil acts that cause schisms (see Eusebius of Nicomedia), but these actions are by nature isolated, and at all times the hierarchy should be given the benefit of the doubt. That is not to say we should follow them without question, but rather, that the good intentions should be presumed as long as there is no compelling evidence of heresy or intentional misconduct.

      Going back to the original subject matter, I would also cite this post as an example of another potential cause of attrition: younger church members may acquire a Protestant or even an atheistic anti-clerical bias just from exposure to mass media, and as a result may be afraid of their bishop, leading to this kind of sentiment. This could result from watching such popular programs as Doctor Who, the revived series of which is almost entirely an anti-clerical and anti-Christian smear (in one episode of the spinoff Torchwood, a “good character”, a medical practitioner who advocates for the rationing of healthcare, says “I was a Catholic, and then I got better.”) Given how this strong, unmitigated anti-Clerical bias may undermine confidence in the hierarchy, I feel its urgent, on a pan-Orthodox level, for work to be done on how to improve the confidence of the youth in their bishops, and I think one rather good way of doing this is to work to increase the amount of social interaction between them (albeit not in the ridiculous manner of World Youth Day).

      1. I am well aware of the hierarchy and the system to which the Syriac Church adheres to. My post is of a personal nature of why some like myself stray from attending service not a post to pick apart and spew church doctrine. The point to my post is merely from my own perspective that our Church leaders need to be more of a reflection of Christ and not like catty politicians greedy for power. A church lacking basic humility will be it’s downfall That is not to say this is a generalization of all clergy. I am a nobody in the church with no ties to the clergy and that is where my point of view comes from. I am just a humble servant of Christ who does not agree with the politics of the church.You have made it clear that you have a close relationship with some clergy therefore have a clear bias. The questionable actions and unchristian like behaviors of our priests and bishops is what leads us to not trust their judgement not our lack of respect for their authority.
        Also please don’t insult our intelligence by believing that the media is contributing to our approach to religion because that is simply not the case. This view is part of the problem. Stop looking for outside influences to blame for the lack of faith among your own. The entirety of your post just shows an antiquated way of thinking and a complete bias. P.S. there is nothing wrong with World Youth Day. At least they are trying their best to engage and incorporate the next generation who will inherit the church.

        1. I don’t pretend to know what your experiences have been (which clearly have been bad), but I’ll at least say of my own experiences that the many godly and humble clergy I’ve known are part of why I wanted to become a priest myself. I don’t hold any delusion that all clergy are saints, but most of the Christian clergy I have known (whether Orthodox or not) are just trying to do their jobs and are usually very hard workers who genuinely love God.

          Yes, we can certainly agree that bad clergy can get in the way of spiritual life. But the point of this post is not to provide a forum for folks to air their grievances against particular clergy. Your experiences have clearly been bad, but I don’t think that they are really representative of the Orthodox Church on the whole. (And, FWIW, the Syriac church is not the same as or in communion with the Orthodox Church which is represented on this website.)

          1. I understand what you are saying. I am merely pointing out an example of why young people like myself have issues with the church. It is not a statement declaring all Orthodoxy as a bad thing.

        2. TM, just so we’re clear, I don’t speak for this blog, nor for the Syriac church (or any other specific jurisdiction in either the Oriental or Eastern Orthodox churches) but am rather just another commentator following up on this article (as should be obvious), and additionally, I was not looking to flame you with the remark about the anti-clerical bias in the media poisoning the youth towards the episcopate (since I would doubt you fall into that demographic, strictly speaking), but rather, sought to point out something relevant to this discussion, that being, how to maintain among those youth whose families are weak in the faith a certain love for the hierarchy, in spite of the attempts of the media to create alienation.

          Now regarding World Youth Day, I do feel that that is precisely the kind of misguided approach to retention that this article is referencing. If we dumb down the liturgy or otherwise resort to such madness as dancing bishops in a desperate attempt to conform to, rather than to resist the corruption of, the world, then we might as well throw in the towel right now, because that’s not what the Church is for. Rather, I think the ideal approach is to ensure that youth have some degree of access to their bishops, in the form of routine celebration of hierarchical services at all parishes in each bishop’s jurisdiction. There is something that most Orthodox parishes I’ve visited do with great frequency, but I feel the importance of it cannot be overstated: it should be possible for young people to interact directly with the bishop after such liturgies; the bishops should not rush away swiftly after the liturgy except for the most urgent of appointments (such as visiting a dying person). In addition, I think if more parishioners had the opportunity to see how bishops actually live their day to day lives (in most cases, in a state of relative discomfort), then the fear, instilled by corrupt Roman Catholic bishops in prior centuries, of a corrupt and decadent episcopate, can be overcome, and anti-clerical propaganda resisted.

          Lastly, I would agree with Fr. Damick that a major reason why I’m Orthodox is the extreme holiness of the clergy. Within Eastern Orthodoxy in particular, I was very fond of the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba, and I recently attended a divine liturgy celebrated by Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR; in all cases, the holiness that exudes from these figures is tremendous. I have met many within the Oriental Orthodox and indeed the Assyrian Church of the East who strike me as reflecting the same grace; for that matter, many retired Protestant and older Catholic clergy affect me in this manner; the disagreeable, mean-spirited cleric seems to be a recent phenomena largely confined to those denominations which could be said to be post-Christian.

    2. Though it may be difficult, would it be possible for you, instead of fleeing the problems, to stay and be part of the solution? This is much easier said than done, of course, but be courageous and strong and preserve the living faith that you have. Forgive me, I don’t know you or the specifics of your situation. It just saddens me to think of someone who has faith and a vision for a healthy church to leave it.

  8. A similar discussion is going on at Fr. Oliver’s Red River Orthodox blog. I’ll ask the same question here: what does the Orthodox Church offer her young people that other sects, the secular government, a book club, or any other Christian sect or Judaism, Islam or Buddhism do not? If your answer is “the True Faith” or “eternal salvation,” you will have to do better than that, because everybody else out there is making the same claim.

    1. To a large degree, I think its fallacious to say that we can actually promise anything more than authentic Christianity in the Orthodox tradition. What Orthodoxy offers is the promise of communion with the incarnate God, and theosis, leading to the salvation of the eternal soul, and indeed, this has always been what the Apostolic church has offered. What caused people to become Christian according to one theory, was the virtue this produced in the early Christians who, during the plagues of the third century, risked their own lives to take care of the sick. The mega churches, with their focus on various amenities and social programs, with which no Orthodox parish could possibly compete, have proven the point of Romanides, reducing Christianity to activities.

      Ultimately the real thing we offer then, is Christian love, in its purest and most authentic form, and the way to ensure the continuity of the faith is to manifest that love, iconically representing in our individual life the superabundant grace of the Holy Trinity.

      1. “What Orthodoxy offers is the promise of communion with the incarnate God, and theosis, leading to the salvation of the eternal soul…”

        So does Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. And Wiccanism, if I bothered to check. So tell me, why should I believe Orthodox Christianity over any other belief system?

        1. One could also say that Orthodoxy offers Jesus, but so do all other Christians, etc., etc., ad nauseam. One can say a lot of things. Proving/disproving them by argumentation doesn’t make them true/false, though.

          In any event, proving that Orthodoxy is true is not the subject of this post.

          1. Yes, I went off track. My apologies.

            More to the point, the Orthodox don’t seem to be able to come up with a good answer for why people should belong to their Church over the numerous other creeds out there other than, we’re the true Faith. Of course we are but again, everybody else makes that claim too. So either we stop worrying about retention and growth rates because, after all, what does the Divine Truth have to worry about, or we have some concrete reasons why our True Faith trumps all the other True Faiths.

            A young Amish man, for example, can tell you he’s in a close-knit ancestral community which provides him with a large patronage network and good options for marriage, status and employment. The community offers him an entire infrastructure geared toward making it easier for him to be a good Amish. What does Orthodoxy offer him?

            I’ll cut to the chase and say that is the direction I suggest the Orthodox need to be heading. The sects that are reproducing themselves in their own pews appear to be the Amish, Hasidim and Mormons, where the community consciously works to knock off a lot of sharp corners off life and make it easier for their members to be faithful adherents. I don’t see anybody in the Orthodox Church thinking along those lines, except maybe Father John Peck, and I think he’s drawn a lot of flak for his vision.

          2. There’s not really space here to go into all the arguments that could indeed be offered (e.g., if someone has a commitment to being truly Christian, what does that look like historically and does early Christian history have normative authority?).

            In any event, I think a famous quote from St. Gregory Palamas is apt here: “For every argument there is a counter-argument, but who can argue against life?”

            Something can indeed always be “offered” or argued, etc., but my experience has been that the “answer” does not really lie in, well, answers. Yes, much can and should be said, but offering up arguments can only serve as an opportunity to nudge folks in the right direction and/or to clear out the brambles of misunderstanding or ignorance. The “answer” in Orthodoxy is in the saints, in the presence of God in the Church’s life. Many of course makes such things as “claim” (though not really, as you suggest, all those religions you mention above; some aren’t interested in communion with God and/or don’t think it possible, etc.) and make claims to be truly true. But Orthodox Christianity, at least, isn’t really about claims or answers, but about life.

            And you also say: ‘If your answer is “the True Faith” or “eternal salvation,” you will have to do better than that, because everybody else out there is making the same claim.’ But this is, again, along the same lines. Once you preclude the possibility of truth, then it’s really all just dropped down the Nietzschean hole, isn’t it? But, yes, I agree with you that there really is no “answer” that can satisfy (or you at least seem to be saying that).

            But I don’t think too many people are in religion merely because of answers.

  9. I would find it interesting to read a study focused on families where different children took different paths. For example, my two siblings and I were raised by faithful Protestant parents who lived out their faith, and had good relationships with other adult Christians. However, my sister doesn’t attend church anymore, my brother only now is thinking of attending church so his son can be in the preschool, and I converted to Orthodoxy. We’re not very far apart in age, and all pretty much had the same church experiences. So why the difference? I’ve seen it in other families, too, where one or more children remain in a church while their siblings leave it. It might make for an interesting followup study.

    1. A very interesting study. Great idea.

      To reiterate what I said in another comment: The point of the research discussed in this blog post is not that these three relationships *guarantee* “success.” We’re talking about human beings, who have free will, are unique, and are also unpredictable, especially as individuals, in small sample sizes (e.g. your family), and even in mid-size groups.

      But, taken in aggregate across a large sample, one can observe a *trend.* The trend is not necessarily the case in any specific instance. In fact, all it indicates is that these three realities are usually present, in one way or another and to greater or lesser extents, among *those who actually remain Christian*. In other words, we’re only *guaranteed* one thing: without these three factors, the “results” will be *even worse,* at least in the aggregate.

  10. Reblogged this on The Mystical Axis and commented:
    “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.”

  11. Greetings Father, for the first half of my life I was a protestant. My parents never agreed or settled into a specific religion. We went to Baptist, Nazarene, Episcopal churches never staying long enough to become grounded. I became a pentecostal with the Assembly of God Church and even though I spent 15 years with them I was never satisfied. After my divorce was when I finally found the right way. They say your sins will find you out. I lost everything that was dear to me, and broke the promise I made to God,myself,and my former wife. A very gentle Syrian monk invited me to Mass. When I stepped inside that small church, for the first time in my life I felt the presence of God. Since that time God has restored to. me all that I lost seven fold. One thing comes to mind,the wisdom of Solomon, “Train up a child in the way’s of the Lord and when he is old he will not depart from them.”

  12. Having now read both the article of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and your response to it I think in a way both articles may ultimately be alluding to the same root cause for the falling away of our youth from Orthodoxy.

    The Archdiocese makes the claim that the decline is related to the significant number of interfaith marriages. It’s a pity they don’t have a comments section on their site where we could ask the author what it is about interfaith marriages that makes it more likely for the offspring to fall away from the church. I am fairly certain the author would agree it was in large part due to the difficulty of raising a child in an Orthodox christian tradition when one parent is not Orthodox.

    In your article you state in footnote [6] that for an Orthodox christian that is married to a non-Orthodox to be able to raise children that are committed to the Orthodox church is an exception and not the rule.

    So given the above, if the majority of cradle-born Orthodox are marrying non-Orthodox partners it would seem both the Archdiocese and you would agree that it becomes more difficult for their offspring to remain fully committed members of the Orthodox church…and in turn even more difficult for the subsequent generation.

    For us Orthodox an important question then becomes why is it that Orthodox youth do not think it is that important for their spouse to be Orthodox as well? I assume that Christian Smith is not Orthodox so for him this would not be a critical area to investigate. In fact he may not be considering the impact of interfaith marriages in his research?

    My hypothesis would be that even if an Orthodox parent in an interfaith family followed all of the precepts put forward by Christian Smith the most likely outcome for the offspring would be for them to adhere to the worldview defined in your article as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. This is because in an interfaith marriage the family unit is fundamentally not in a state of spiritual unity and shared communion as there must be doctrinal differences in belief and practice between the interfaith parents. The only options available for a child under these circumstances is either to pick a side (Mum’s or Dad’s church) or to just hold the watered down shared beliefs that are held in common by the parents which is what “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” seems to be.

    1. Those considering interfaith marriage should consider exactly what you hypothesize and ask themselves if they are ready accept that (children growing into watered down, generic “do goodism” faith) as a potential end-game, and/or at least to be prepared to struggle against it. There is no denying that having a non-Orthodox spouse, especially a practicing one, is like riding your bike into a stiff wind as far as trying to raise Orthodox children goes. It will take much more work to get to the same destination.

      On a positive note, for those already in an interfaith marriage that extra work might make you stronger and there are examples where the Orthodox parent has managed to provide a good example, that they (with the help of God of course) effected a conversion in the other. This doesn’t come by the Orthodox parent being nominal in their faith.

      I’ve also wondered of all the interfaith marriages performed, how many instances the non-Orthodox spouse is basically nominal in their faith and the subsequent impact it has on the spiritual upbringing of children.

      Sometimes I wonder if we’ve forgotten some of the beautiful and unique aspects of household Orthodoxy. It is blessed with practices that can really take root in our memory. Take icons, candles, vigil lamps and incense in particular. Whenever I smell incense, I immediately think of my mom censing the house and lighting the vigil lamp in the kitchen on Saturday nights when I was less than 4 years old. Then there is also making the prosfora, etc. Even though my mom was not extremely knowledgeable theologically she at least blurred the line between church and home for us. I get a vague feeling that these practices are not being done by us Orthodox as much anymore, at least in my generation in Greek North America. (I’m in the sandwich generation, between children and grandparents). These small things make the faith tangible, connected, and real and the memories will serve as beacons as children grow up. That’s another hypothesis, perhaps.

      Blessed Holy Week and Pascha.

      1. Jim, I loved reading about your childhood memories. Thanks.

        I just finished reading How the West Really Lost God where Mary Eberstadt (a Roman Catholic) looks at the historic correlation between the strength of the traditional family (mother-father present, welcoming of children/birth) and religious adherence and practice. She presents evidence that religious practice does not just promote/support the traditional family (which I think we would all acknowledge it does), but also vice versa, that there is something about strong loving family connections and nurture of children that also provides a fertile environment for faith. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Orthodox understanding that the Orthodox family itself constitutes a small church.

    2. Thanks for reading and for your comment. A few thoughts:

      1. The original article is *not* the “Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s.” It does not represent the official or unofficial position of the GOA in any way. I say this mainly because I have seen many people making this mistake around the internet, perhaps because the original article has no byline. However, if you look carefully, you will see that it appears in the “Guest Writers” section of the Office of Interfaith Marriage. This particular office has a long history of publishing opinion pieces on issues relevant to interfaith marriage submitted by interested outside parties. The article in question was written by a lay person in my parish. His views are his own, not the GOA’s.

      2. As for the next part of your comment: You have basically grasped the logic implicit in my own response. Interfaith marriage is not the cause of apostasy; it is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. Accommodating it further would do nothing to stave off apostasy *in the aggregate*.

      3. The reason one might be tempted to think otherwise comes from privileging anecdotal observation over a broader view. The fact is that many, many families who are very faithful and active members of GOA parishes are currently or began as “mixed” marriages: an Orthodox and a Catholic; an Orthodox and an Anglican, etc. Probably the *majority* of the most pious and engaged families in my parish began in such a way. Over time, the family became more and more involved, the heterodox spouse learned more and more, and, slowly, slowly, they came to the decision to become Orthodox themselves. When you see such a thing firsthand, time after time, with scores of families, it is easy to think: “Wow, this can really work.” Well, it can and it does. The GOA chrismates about 800 people annually who convert before or after marrying an Orthodox spouse. But the fact is that for every one family like this there are many more where it ends up differently.

      4. Finally, properly speaking, there is *no* “interfaith” marriage in the Orthodox Church. An Orthodox Christian cannot marry an atheist or a Jew or a Hindu or a Muslim. Of course, one can find isolated exceptions in this or that place and this or that time, but that’s the rule, even today.

  13. Head, please meet sand. The reason young people raised in Christianity practice “moralistic therapeutic deism” is that in this age any other option is too horrible to contemplate. Who can or wants to believe in a tribal God, endlessly taking revenge on people inside and outside the preferred group who deviate in the slightest from His supremely arbitrary demands and, as a culminating demonstration of his “philanthropy” for mankind (as the Orthodox like to say), allows, permits, or perhaps, even, requires his very own Son to be tortured to death to satisfy his demands, plans, or intentions, take your pick. No, the problem isn’t sociological or catechetical either. Humanity has simply moved on, for better or worse. Whether you’re looking at words on a screen in a bare hall or listening to lovely 4th century chants surrounded by lovely vestments, incense, and haunting icons, the old world of faith is not coming back. What will take its place remains to be seen, and I for one, do not anticipate any real improvement, alas. In the meantime, visitors to the vastly entertaining and educational museum of Orthodoxy will steadily diminish and, as the Orthodox priest says, exactly as they will in all the other increasingly desperate churches in the west.

    1. Forgive me for saying so, but your characterization of “a tribal God, endlessly taking revenge on people inside and outside the preferred group who deviate in the slightest from His supremely arbitrary demands and, as a culminating demonstration of his ‘philanthropy’ for mankind (as the Orthodox like to say), allows, permits, or perhaps, even, requires his very own Son to be tortured to death to satisfy his demands, plans, or intentions, take your pick” really has nothing to do with Orthodox soteriology. That’s not remotely the God the Orthodox Church worships.

      (FWIW, we normally would not publish comments like the above, since their purpose is really just to ridicule, but we felt it was worth permitting the question to be raised.)

  14. I’m Reformed and have no interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, but let me say this is a good analysis.

    I’ve read a ton of articles from almost every perspective imaginable, Christian and Orthodox Jewish. Everybody is trying to come up with reasons why the youth are leaving etc.

    May I suggest two things:

    1) There’s no formula. They want to leave.

    2) People like sinning. I bet you porn and sleeping with anyone you want is a huge factor.

    At the very least those who leave Protestantism, which isn’t healthy in a lot of areas, will realize that Orthodoxy/whatever else is in the same boat.

    1. Orthodoxy as a whole is growing; the decline referred to in this article is specific to ethnic Greek parishioners in the United States, and as has already been pointed out, the rate of attrition is shockingly low compared to that of other communities. The Episcopal Church, USA, the United Church of Christ, and other liberal mainline denominations do not adopt a stern moral position on fornication, and only recently, for reasons of feminism, has porn come under fire among the more liberal clergy, yet these denominations are shrinking far faster than Orthodoxy.

      If in fact this argument had any weight to it, one would not have expected the historic popularity of extremely strict religious observances such as the Puritans. It is further disproved by the increase in monastic vocation within Orthodoxy, as witnessed by the remarkable revitalization on the Holy Mountain. I would argue that the surest way for the Church to reduce attrition is to ordain a new generation of loving clergymen who are nonetheless capable of severe moral exhortation in the manner of St. John Chrysostom.

  15. I left the church when the priest, during a marriage ceremony, said that the man do not have to obey his wife …but the wives have to obey their husbands.

    The priest could not explain why; he promised to call me back once he has the answer…. so I left the church.

    1. Well, strictly speaking, the Pauline epistles contain numerous directives to wives to be submissive to their husbands, to be pleasing to the Lord. An Orthodox way of looking at it would be to say that the husband and wife iconographically represent Christ and his Church, and the submission of the wife to the husband thus symbolizes the submission of the Church to Christ. Now we must remember that the other side of that coin is that Christ loves His Church with perfect love; husbands who abuse their wives are failing entirely to imitate Christ, and in such cases, though it is a sad reality, divorce is warranted.

      One good aspect of Western chivalry is the idealized notion of male-female relations. I am not sure to what extent that idea propagated in Eastern Christendom, but all Orthodox married couples I know are, with some exceptions, happier than most contemporary counterparts. The current fad in some parts of the “Bible belt” among schismatics towards so-called “Christian domestic discipline”, in which husbands beat their wives horribly, is damnable heresy.

  16. Perhaps I should say its my opinion that its a damnable heresy, to invoke the name of the Lord to justify such abuse, since it has not been deemed heretical by an Ecumenical council, but I have no doubt my beloved Ss. Basil, Athanasius, et al, would be opposed to it. Wife beating is a moral transgression; wives are to be submissive, as per Paul, but this is not a license for spousal abuse, and any pastor who proclaims otherwise is, in my opinion, and probably in the opinion of the Church as a whole, blasphemous.

    1. From what I have seen and read, notions of “submission/obedience” and “headship” within heterodox circles can mean (in varying degrees) something very far removed from an Orthodox understanding of the nature of this relationship, grounded as the Orthodox one is in this iconographical truth of Christ and His Church, and which is balanced by proper veneration of the Theotokos and other women Saints (largely lost in most heterodox traditions). I think it is also balanced by the critical importance of genuine human freedom in traditional Orthodox teaching, which makes all forms of coercion (never mind outright violence) completely foreign to a genuinely Orthodox spirituality. Bill Gothard’s teaching is an example of the extreme of where this ultimately un-Orthodox understanding of biblical “headship” and man’s “authority” can lead, often with tragic and damning results. It’s no wonder modern women shy away from some of the traditional biblical language when we consider how frequently it gets perverted by sinful human beings. There’s a thoughtful series on this subject from an Orthodox perspective beginning here:


      Jenny’s experience seems to be a good example of why it might be helpful if Priests and Bishops ministering in Western, and especially American, culture are educated about the ways our traditional language has been co-opted in non-Orthodox cultures and perverted, and where these distorted understandings have been absorbed as normative. Perhaps as a corollary to this, I’ve never heard Proverbs 23:13 used by the Orthodox as a defense of physical punishment–let alone with a literal “rod”–as the prescribed “biblical” means of parents’ “discipline” of children for disobedience, though there are Fundamentalist Protestant sects and groups where this is exactly what is taught.

  17. Miniscule sample size totally anecdotal: My son is 27 and a faithful communicant in the same parish as I attend where he grew up. He has all of the 3 markers you describe in your original post:

    1. The young person’s parents practiced the faith in the home and in daily life, not just in public or churchly settings. We did or at least tried too

    2. The young person had at least one significant adult mentor or friend, other than parents, who practiced the faith seriously. Actually he was blessed with three but not of them were in his life for long. One is a life-long missionary in Romania and the other two died young and shortly after the relationships began

    3. The young person had at least one significant spiritual experience before the age of 17.[4] He was an altar server beginning at age seven to 18 and had a number of experiences there in the altar (elsewhere too).

    I would say that the least impactful of all of these was #1.

    Perhaps the most profound impact for him were the brief interactions with his Godfather (the missionary), the sub-deacon who supervised and taught the altar servers and with another man in our parish who simply cared about him and expressed it.

    When my son talks about the faith he emphasizes the experiential nature of it rather than the theology per se. He is impatient with much talk.

    That brings up the question: How does one help create an environment in which all of our children can have a faithful adult mentor/friend and allowed to enter into spiritual experience?

  18. The fact that most U.S. colleges & universities have now become an outpost of atheist marketing and professional mockers of all things Christian certainly doesn’t help matters. Sending a spiritually unprepared child into that worldly system, when it is often the first time they have lived somewhere else full-time and on their own, is like sending them into the lion’s den! There is a very specific and intentional effort to get Christian students to renounce their faith under pressure of open ridicule and other types of persecution in class and on campus. Interestingly, such pressure does not seem to exist for Muslims or other world religions, at least from the staff and faculty. I think Orthodox parents (and other Christian parents for that matter) should really weigh the costs of paying through the nose to have their child “educated” away from the faith. Is the mammon of financial “success” in this world worth the ultimate price of our kids “opting out” of God’s Kingdom? This is a serious question I am currently considering with our oldest son right now.

  19. Two things struck me deeply in this,

    A) “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.”

    and B) “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.”

    I grew up in the Lutheran Church and fell away for essentially the exact reasons outlined in this article. Yet God did convict me and I was brought back to the faith… but having finally come to a real conviction of the Scriptures and Christ Jesus our Lord both of the above highlighted points just seemed to be echoing to me. Once my eyes were opened I marveled at how no one seemed to notice just how serious our faith, our Scriptures, and our traditions really are. In my search for the “original faith” eventually ended up in a Messianic congregation, especially because everyone there seemed to take their faith and the Scriptures very seriously. Unfortunately, that movement has a plethora of it’s own problems which eventually lead me away from it, and now years later here I am reading an Orthodox Church post. Although, I must mention, even if my theological studies convict me of the Orthodox Church and her traditions, as a young person, if such is the case as described in your post, then I am not in any way encouraged to seek out a Parish. Indeed, thinking about Orthodoxy sadly reminds me of the spiritual lukewarmness of my Lutheran church growing up. In contrast to this, as off base as branches of Evangelical Christianity may be, it does seem that they are at least on fire for the Lord and His Word, and practice in their lives in such a way that youth are sticking with it. At least, this has been what I’ve witnessed from my experience with a Young Adults Bible study at a Baptist Church (a wonderful, encouraging atmosphere that I miss dearly).

    Whatever the case may be, thank you very much for your post.

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