Counting some Orthodox converts

allsaints03Based on personal email, I know there are GetReligion readers who want to know what I think of that small -- but fascinating -- USA Today story about one of the statistical mysteries in Christianity here in the American context. The question is, "What in the world is actually happening in Eastern Orthodoxy?" There are reports that waves of converts are flowing into the ancient churches of the East and into the ranks of Orthodox clergy. Others say these numbers are growing, but that large numbers of ethnic believers are quietly slipping away. Truth is, the numbers -- like church statistics in general -- are not very trustworthy.

I am, of course, very interested in these topics and they surfaced in a recent Scripps Howard column that I wrote ("Beyond Orthodox folk dancing") about a controversial article on these trends.

Anyway, here is the top of the report USA Today report by Nicole Neroulias:

A new study of Orthodox Christians in America has found a larger-than-expected number of converts, mostly from Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant backgrounds. The report, released by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute in Berkeley, Calif., surveyed 1,000 members of Greek Orthodox or Orthodox Church in America congregations, which represent about 60% of America's estimated 1.2 million Orthodox Christians.

Although Orthodox churches were historically immigrant communities, the study found that nine out of 10 parishioners are now American-born. Thousands of members had converted to the faith as adults: 29% of Greek Orthodox are converts, as are 51% of the OCA. ...

The study also found unexpectedly high numbers of converts among clergy -- 56% in the OCA, 14% in the Greek Orthodox church. In both cases, the higher OCA numbers reflect that group's use of English in its worship services. ....

This is interesting, but there is one crucial fact missing that many, perhaps most, newspaper readers would not know about.

Which branch of Orthodoxy in America has been experienced the largest influx of converts, especially evangelical Protestants? Which has opened the most convert-driven missions and parishes?

That would, of course, be the Antiochian Orthodox archdiocese. Now, in my writing about this trend (which has affected my own life and family, of course), I have always stressed that it is hard to know what is happening with membership totals, as opposed to being able to document the number of new missions and priests. There are few numbers that are solid.

However, this story should have at least mentioned what was happening in this other body of convert-friendly churches, if it was going to discuss these trends. That hole should have at least have been mentioned. Hopefully, there will be more information forthcoming. It's a small, but intriguing, news story.

ILLUSTRATION: An icon of Orthodox saints in North America.

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