Recently, an usher brought up a young boy of about 11 or 12 to serve in the altar. No one knew the boy and one of the sub-deacons asked if he was Orthodox. “What’s that?” the boy replied. “Well, where were you baptized?” asked the sub-deacon. “What does that mean?” the boy asked. He did serve that Sunday and he was very good in the altar. We invited him to return and he seemed excited to do so. As it turned out he was baptized here as an infant. Perhaps, neither his parents nor his sponsors thought to bring him to church or to enroll him in the church school. No one seemed to inform him that he was baptized or that he was a Christian. His religion was not part of his identity, such as it is for a 12 year old.
It’s perfectly understandable that the boy wouldn’t know this if the adults around him failed to explain it. Baptism isn’t ‘magic’. Baptism really doesn’t ‘make’ us Christian. It’s actually an initiation into a community of believers. Baptism allows us to take part in the life of that believing community. Baptism gives us permission to become followers of Christ. Being a Christian comes as we grow into, learn about and embrace the teachings and lifestyle of the Christian community. Only parents, godparents and other adult Christians can guide and help children become true Christians. Unfortunately, trends indicate, fewer and fewer adults are taking responsibility to raise their children in the Faith and fewer and fewer adults are identifying themselves as Christians.
The renowned Pew Research Center conducted an extensive and widely-cited study of religious trends in America entitled “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”. It revealed that the number of Americans who claim to be Christians has dropped almost 10% in the past ten years. The fastest growing religious identity are the “nones”= people with no religious affiliation at all. Included in the study is a comprehensive survey of the Orthodox Church in this country and the results are hardly encouraging.
For example, according to the Pew Study, the Orthodox Christians have one of the lowest rates of retention among all Christian and non-Christian groups surveyed. Only 53% of adults who were baptized Orthodox still identify themselves as Orthodox Christians – that means 47% no longer consider themselves Orthodox – nearly half leave the Faith. By comparison; 80% of Hindus, 75% of Jews, 64% of Mormons and 59% of Catholics still identify with their faith group as adults. Statistics for marriage rates and other trends among Orthodox are equally challenging. For Orthodox, marriage rates are down 10% over the last 10 years, which is more significant than any other religious group.
In looking over the study, I wondered where St. George of Boston might fit into the statistics. Our marriage records for the past ten years reveal that over half [56%] of the 79 weddings celebrated here were mixed marriages [an Antiochian Orthodox Christian marrying a Christian of another denomination]. In the majority of these marriages, the non-Orthodox spouse did not convert after the wedding. We have no statistics on the number of former parish members who married outside the church [i.e. civil marriages or marriages in a non-Orthodox church] but I believe these numbers would be significant.
Our baptism statistics reflect our marriage records. Over the past ten years, 56% of the 205 children baptized here were children of mixed-marriages. This reality puts an extra burden of responsibility on the Orthodox spouse to successfully communicate their Orthodox Faith to their partner and to pass the Faith on to their children. Of course, the responsibility for passing on the Faith is no less important for households where both parents are Orthodox.
The parish tries to assist conscientious parents with the religious education of their Baptized children by offering a comprehensive Church School curriculum, an engaging summer Bible School, an Orthodox camping experience at the Antiochian Village and an active youth program. Recent statistics for our Church School however, are rather grim and indicate a general lack of support by parents in the formal religious education of their children. Less than half of the potential number of children at St. George are officially enrolled in Church School and less than half of those who are enrolled regularly attend class.
One Orthodox commentator of the Pew Research Study poignantly observed that, “some like to believe that the Orthodox Church was the ‘first’ Christian denomination, and others boast that we are the ‘true’ Christian faith, it is abundantly clear we are not the only one. And we are also not the most
vibrant, indeed, to the contrary.”
As our society becomes more multicultural and materialistic the Church must create the tools needed to re-present the Faith in a changing world. Facts are facts and this study presents us with some sobering realities. Interestingly enough, they are borne out by our own parish statistics. Rather than lament, we should take this study as a heralding challenge to more actively engage ourselves and the prevailing society.
Surely we can tell our story better. Basically, our story is the Gospel. Four short books that can be read in a couple of evenings. By sincerely living the story we may attract others to discover their place in it. If we re-focus on the story and commit to telling it anew; clergy, parish leaders, teachers, parents and children together can create a welcoming, accepting and safe place where people will want to stay and invite others to come and join them. If we don’t take heed now, the reality may be more than we could bear.
If we do it right, maybe, when asked, a child will spontaneously respond “Yes, I’m Orthodox”.
Blessings, Fr +Timothy