Editor’s note: We continue to publish reflections on the topic of church attendace in the west.
Why is Attendance Declining in Russian Churches in the West?
“The Heart of the Parish Community Must be Love”
Growth & Attendance in Orthodox Parishes in CanadaI have been asked to write an essay reflecting on whether liturgical attendance is increasing or decreasing in the West. Frankly, I think this is something that will vary from location to location and parish to parish. I can say that in the Midwest, and especially here in the Upper Midwest, I have noticed four trends.
1) Parishes established in the early twentieth century, which remained predominantly ethnic with internal political disputes shrink and die. This may seem to be something that ought to be obvious, but given the fact that it has happened too often, it seems we need yet to learn this. There are parishes in the Upper Midwest that no longer exist because of such a history. In a few cases, the parishes died off without needing internal disputes because to be Orthodox in that parish meant having to accept all other cultural elements from the culture of the people who founded that parish in the early 1900s. Generally, however, such parishes had internal political disputes as well.
2) Parishes that have high number of converts tend to have a higher percentage of attendance. This is likely for two reasons. First, most converts adopt the theological norms of the faith they have newly embraced and thus want to attend the services. Second, they are converting in an American culture that still places value on attending services at least on Sunday mornings and high feast days (though this may be a waning cultural phenomenon). So, they enter the Orthodox Church with that operating assumption. [As an aside, for this reason alone, fellow Orthodox should not deplore their recently converted brethren.]
3) Parishes that have a high percentage of recent immigrants exhibit both increases and decreases. I am aware of parishes that have seen both reactions from new immigrants. In some parishes, the immigrants attend church services frequently, as a means of connecting with who they are and how they were raised to be. Such immigrants and refugees may attend church services more in America than they had in their old country. In such cases, the parish grows in numbers and in attendance. In other parishes, the new immigrants continue to attend nominally, perhaps only on Pascha or maybe Pascha and one other high feast day, possibly Christmas. In such cases, the parishes grow in numbers but therefore drastically decrease in parish liturgical attendance.
4) Mission parishes tend to have high degrees of attendance at church services. This is because missions are typically supported by people who care to see the mission grow and because without attendance in a very small parish, nothing can function as it should. On the other hand, missions that were not attuned to burnout can suffer from a decrease in attendance. Because of this, many small parishes and missions simply cannot offer the same amount of services as a larger parish or cathedral. I am aware of a few exceptions, but generally, a mission cannot serve all the services. Many missions do not even have their own permanent worship space.
In light of all of these trends, what do I think is happening in the Upper Midwest in America (for I do not believe I can answer for other areas)? I think attendance is generally holding steady and perhaps increasing very slightly. I say this because parishes that are dying or poorly attended are offset by parishes with high attendance (50% + on any given Sunday morning). Of course, this is presuming Sunday Liturgy attendance. If we expand it to include all services, then the truth is nowhere in America do Orthodox attend services very well. For even parishes with great attendance on any given Sunday morning will generally have poor attendance on Saturday night or for a weekday service. Praise God for the exceptions! But keeping my reflection to Sunday liturgies and high feast days, I would have to say that in the Upper Midwest, our attendance is stable and in our missions, it tends to increase. I expect this to remain the case. Increasingly, there are more activities in sports and other secular organizations planned for Sundays, even Sunday mornings. This, combined with exhausting work weeks and sometimes sheer laziness will continue to hold parish attendance where it is now. Missions may slowly increase in the sense of growing in numbers, but we need to remember this will be slight. Most missions grow slowly and in spurts. Precious few take off like a rocket. The main thing we all need to do is twofold: support and encourage one another to attend and, if we’re in a small parish or a parish that has a workload shared by only a few, watch for burnout. If we do these two things, we just might increase our attendance and certainly, we will be helping our local parish, whatever the ultimate result might be numerically.
Fr. Oliver Herbel, rector of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission Church in Fargo, North Dakota.