The Pew Research center recently released its latest numbers on religious affiliation in the United States, finding that the number of people who identify themselves as Christian is declining significantly. In 2007, 78.4% of Americans were Christian, and only seven years later, in 2014, that dropped to only 70.6%. That is a significant decrease, and a sign of the times. America is becoming more secular and less Christian, and this is not news, but this study confirms a change in America’s religious character.
The study analyzed retention rates, and tells us that among adults who were raised in the Orthodox faith, 53% still consider themselves Orthodox, but 47% do not.
That’s almost half — if you take all the people alive in the United States today who were raised identifying as Orthodox Christians, almost half of them have left the Church. 53% stayed, about 30% became Protestants, about 4% switched to Catholicism, and about 10% moved to a non-Christian faith.
That number should give us pause: 47% of people who were baptized Orthodox and who considered the Orthodox Church their home church, left after they grew up.
At the current rate, which is accelerating, you might assume that only half the kids in our parish will still think of themselves as Orthodox by the end of their lives.
Studies like this make us look at what we are doing with our children, with our youth ministries, and ask ourselves if it’s effective. If half the kids grow up to walk out that door, does that mean that we failed them somehow? It may. Somehow, perhaps, in the years that they lived in the Holy Church, they didn’t see Christ and they didn’t see the grace of God; perhaps they didn’t feel transformed and loved. Somehow, they did not grow up feeling that it was necessary to live in the Church. In the end, their years with us did not compel them to stay.
When Jesus was walking around on earth, He preached to huge crowds. He would teach thousands — but not all of them would be baptized. There were people who would listen to God in the flesh and then wander off, unimpressed. Not everyone who is called will choose to follow Jesus. Not everyone stays.
But historically, we Orthodox seemed to think that it might be enough to say to our children, we are Greek and therefore we are Orthodox. We are Serbian, and therefore we are Orthodox. But over the years, those kids started to think of themselves as American, and they grew up and married some really nice American people. And when those nice people said to them, ‘why are you Orthodox?’, perhaps they answered, ‘I am Orthodox because I’m Greek’ or Syrian or Serbian. And maybe more than a few of those spouses said, ‘I’m not. I’m American.’
I know a lot of people who married ethnic Orthodox folks and found that the parish just didn’t love them the same way. They’d walk into coffee hour and see their ethnic spouse embraced and kissed on each cheek, but they felt invisible. It’s possible that we didn’t invite them in, and that’s how we lost some of our beloved parishioners — by neglecting the people they loved.
The 47% who left began like the children in our parishes today. They were children, baptized Orthodox and raised by families who thought of themselves as Orthodox. They had Orthodox identities, and they gave them up.
We might ask ourselves: what did we show these kids, this 47% who left? Did they see empty rituals performed in a language they didn’t understand, or did they really apprehend the mysteries presented to them? Did they attend liturgy, or did we pull them out for Sunday School classes? God works His magic in the sacraments, and a person can learn everything they need to know by just attending, by just marinating, in those services. Did we bring these kids to church? Did they hear the whole liturgy, and did they understand it?
If they asked questions, how did we answer? Did we just say, “we do this because that’s how we’ve always done it” or did we take the time to learn about holy Tradition and use the opportunity of their questioning to explain to them the amazing things happening in our liturgies and in our prayer lives?
Many of us live in hope that if we teach about the faith, if we bring it to life in their lives, that we can somehow convince them that this Christian life is their own life, so that they could not imagine leaving. But when it comes down to it, we can’t guarantee anything. We don’t control our kids and we don’t know what the future holds for them or how they’ll react to it.
These numbers are about who stayed in the Church. Who stays Orthodox. We probably all want to keep our kids in the Church, because we like the Church. We are the Church. But we have to be careful how we think about this. Do we just want our kids in the Church? Is our fundamental goal just that they call themselves ‘Orthodox’ or that they drive to an Orthodox church on a Sunday morning?
Isn’t our real goal something else — something deeper?
When Jesus Christ walked this earth and spoke to individual people — think of Matthew, sitting in his tax collector office when Jesus called him to follow, or of Zacchaeus or the woman at the well or Nathaniel — Jesus didn’t talk to them about keeping membership numbers high, or about joining this really great club. Jesus looks at every human being and sees them for who they truly are. He wishes to reach their hearts; His goal is to heal every individual person, to save each person’s soul, because He loves all of us, very specifically and personally.
What is our goal?
We might begin to think that we want to ‘keep them in the Church’ but truly, our goal must be deeper than that. Like Jesus, our goal should be nothing less than the transformation of human hearts.
We may want these kids to live good moral lives, to be happy and successful, but the truth is that as Christians we know that all of the comforts of this world, the success and the defeats, the houses and the fame and the careers – even the pain of the gulag – everything in this world, is transitory, impermanent.
So what do we want for our children?
We want them to have a joy, a joy that lasts, and in our hearts, we must know that having material success and lots of stuff can’t guarantee them anything.
Our family lost a child, our son Luka, and that experienced changed us and tested us. A lot of marriages fail when children die, a lot of people become angry with God and they turn away from Him, screaming Why Me? That’s a terrible path, when people isolate themselves from God.
Maybe some of our 47% felt that pain — maybe some of them had bad luck, saw tragedy, and got angry with God.
In our house, we were able to hold close to God, and we turned to the Church instead of away from it and our lives have been enriched by the experience. The truth is that if I had it to do over again, I would not change a thing, because we grew so much in faith and love for our Lord. Several times a day, He called us out of that tomb and resurrected us, and we became witnesses to the Resurrection. He used that death to give us life. What an honor to have been Luka’s mother, and to be loved by God.
Five years later, our baby girl’s liver failed and she was on the transplant list at just four months old. It was a long process, but we all survived it and we were even, if you can believe it, kind of peaceful about it, because we held close to God and He never ever let us down.
Life is not easy, and you never know what is coming next. Our children’s lives will be like that. They’ll be blindsided by sudden tragedies, heartsick over a loved one’s illness – maybe ours. Life is not easy, and you can be a good person and go to work every day, and still lose your home in a fire or your family in a car accident. Perfectly healthy people drop dead while they’re on their morning run. Things happen. We have fragile bodies and we live in a fallen and crazy world.
We are fools to think that our children will be safe and secure if only they have a good education and a successful career. These are the illusions that help us sleep at night but in truth, we think we are secure, but in this world, there is no security save Jesus Christ.
And that’s what we need to give our children. They need to hunger for Christ and to work to be close to Him, so that when the bottom falls out and their world caves in, they know where to find Him. They need to know that when they are weak and broken, that is the moment when Christ can do the most for them.
So what is our goal for our children? We should want them to be witnesses to the Kingdom, to know Jesus firsthand, to see the spiritual fruit of life in the Church.
What we should really want is to create a thirst for God in our children, so that He can transform them. We must hope that Christ will live in their hearts so that they can find their joy and their meaning and their true eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
Do we want them to stay in the Orthodox Church? Sure, but only because this is where you’ll find wisdom and grace and assistance in coming to know God. We want them here not so that we’ll look like good parents or so that the numbers will look impressive, but because we want them growing in Christ and living in the Kingdom.
We need not chase after numbers; we should not concern ourselves with membership trends, per se, but we need to do what Jesus does: we need to see every single person, to love that person and to offer transformation and joy and eternal life.
So, how do we do this?
We should talk to them, but it’s not just about filling them up with information. I love Church History and Sunday School, but this isn’t something that can be contained in a curriculum. This requires relationship. We have to actually love them, and we have to be open with them about our own relationship with God and our own struggles in the faith, so that we can walk beside them as they struggle.
St. Paul tells us in First Corinthians 13:1 — Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
You can teach all sorts of brilliant lessons about doctrine and feast days and liturgics — but the love must be there first. Real love: not just rapport, but relationship. They need to know that we are interested in them, that we see them, that we respect their journey with God. They’re fellow travelers on this path, and we can walk beside them and help them along.
So we’ll teach them how fasting and prayer and the sacraments will help their hearts open up and soften and transform into organs that can experience God. We’ll talk with them about what it all means and we’ll take this journey with them.
Let’s not give them any pat answers. Let’s not say that we come to Church because that’s what your grandparents did. Instead, let’s tell them that we come to Church because we cannot bear to be so far away from God. And let’s try to mean it. Let’s try to see our children as God sees them, and to love them as He loves them. Let’s witness to the Kingdom. If our children are truly raised in the Kingdom, we won’t be worrying about statistics. If they are Christ’s subjects, He will take care of them better than we ever could.