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Some of the Changes and Challenges Facing the Church

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

When social scientists compare contemporary young adult dating and mating patterns with previous generations, they discover that contemporary young adults are mixing more and intermarrying more. Moreover, this finding clearly applies to Greek Orthodox young adults, since statistics indicate that 60 - 80% of our young adults choose to intermarry annually.

But how is one to interpret these statistical trends? And how will these trends effect the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese's future? Should we expect to face new challenges in our local churches, and at the Diocesan and Archdiocesan levels as a result of these trends? Are there adjustments that must be made? And what are these adjustments?

Obviously a short article like this one can not possibly address all these complex questions. Nevertheless, articles like this one can begin facilitating and encouraging prayerful discussion of the type that can guide us to some answers. It is both hoped and anticipated that what follows will make a small contribution in this direction: to God's glory and our salvation.

Meet Sara and Danny

In the brief conversation that follows, you will be introduced to a fictional couple whom I shall call Sara and Danny. And even though this couple is fictional, I assure you that the remarks offered below are typical of numerous interfaith couples who attend our churches, since the contents of this short exchange will be based on the observations and descriptions of numerous couples who have participated in the Interfaith Research Project (IRP).

Sara (27) and Danny (26) have been married for several years. Sara is a third generation Greek Orthodox Christian, while Danny was raised Catholic, comes from a mixed Irish, Scottish, and Italian ethnic background, and does not know how to determine which generation he might be. Both would like children in the future, are well educated, and will in all probability live a middle to upper-middle class existence.

When asked what compelled them to marry, both indicate that the primary factor was their mutual love for one another. Sara is also quick to offer the following observation: "It certainly wasn't like that for my parents. I think there was more pressure on them to marry a Greek. My mom's dad (my papou) was very insistent that she date and marry a Greek."
Danny is familiar with this story and offers the following observation without any objection from Sara. "Yeah, but that wasn't necessarily true of your parents. I mean, they didn't really care that much."

Sara agrees, and adds, "That's true, but I think way down deep somewhere in their hearts they might have preferred that I marry a Greek. But we never really discussed it, and I think my mom was determined not to impose the same types of dating restrictions on me that were imposed on her. Besides I think we both knew that pressure wouldn't have worked."

Danny interrupts and states, "Yeah, these are different times."

When the couple is asked which church they attend, and why, Sara offers the following remarks. "When we go to church, which is about once a month, we generally go to my church. And the reason why is connected to Danny's indifference to his religious background and my desire to attend my family's church."

As this conversation continues, Sara also observes that she probably attends the Greek Orthodox Church for slightly different reasons then her parents. She states that "I think my parents came because their parents pressured them to come, and they kind of felt that that's where Greek-Americans should worship. But I come because the liturgy makes worshipping God easier. And even though I really don't understand it very much, I like the incense, the familiar hymns, and icons, because they make me feel close to God."

At this juncture Danny is asked if he would like to add anything, and he says, "Well, not really. I think what Sara has said pretty much answered your questions."

Two Brief Observations From this Conversation

First, social science informs us that connections to the old country thin out and weaken from one generation to the next. Moreover, a careful examination of what was stated above appears to confirm this latter point. While Sara has some connects to her ethnic background, her remarks suggest that they are thinner and weaker then her grandparents and parents ethnic connects. Moreover, while Danny ethnic connections remain in the backdrop of this conversation, one infers from his few comments that this is the case because they are so thin and weak as to be indiscernible to him.

Second, social scientists also suggest that as people's ethnic connects thin out and weaken, the dominate American culture plays a greater role in influencing who they are and how they see the world. While there are no direct references that would serve to reinforce this later point, there are plenty of indirect references. For example, this couple's decision to intermarry is perhaps the strongest evidence that their behavior and decisions are influenced more by the dominant American culture then either of their ethnic backgrounds.

Some Concluding Responses

Results from the IRP suggest that past generations of Greek Orthodox Christians attended services because the church met their ethnoreligious needs. Present third, fourth, and fifth generations are less likely to be connected to their Greek ethnic roots, and by extension, may be less likely to attend as a result of their ethnic connections.

Results also suggest that one of the factors, among others, that appears to motivate third, fourth, and fifth generation Greek-American church attendance is a need to meet certain religious and spiritual needs. Furthermore, many of these types of faithful may be lacking in knowledge of their Greek Orthodox faith tradition, but come because it feels the most familiar and most comfortable way to worship.

And finally, as a researcher who has tried to assume a "not knowing" attitude of curiosity so as to avoid allowing my own biases to contaminate the results that have been emerging from the IRP, I have asked myself the following questions, and I conclude this short article with these questions as a way to stimulate further conversation about interfaith issues across our Archdiocese.

  1. If it is true that ties to the old country thin out and weaken from one generation to the next, what factors will keep our intermarried young adults connected to our churches?
  2. If our intermarried young adults are coming to our churches because they feel the most comfortable with Greek Orthodoxy, but also lack knowledge of their faith, how will this effect their children and their children's children commitment to Greek Orthodoxy?
  3. If interfaith marriages are more then a passing trend, then what adjustments should the Church be considering in its efforts minister to a population of faithful whose ethnic ties are weaker then previous generations?