Friday, March 02, 2007

A Though Experiment: Converts, Reverts and the Need for Pastoral Change (part II)

Reverts set up the same kinds of potential experiences of cognitive dissonances as do the converts. Reverts need to be integrated. And so, like converts, reverts require that the parish as a community change--if for no other reason then because, as with the convert, there is a new person at Liturgy on Sunday morning--and that means all our relationships must change as surely as adding a rock into a stream changes the flow of water.

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has approximately 500 parishes and (depending on who you asked) 440,000 to 2,000,000 members. The later number is the official number according to the Archdiocese, the former reflects recent sociological research into the number of Orthodox Christians in America (see "How many Eastern Orthodox are there in the USA?") Using the official number, and assuming an average Sunday attendance at Liturgy 0f 500 faithful/parish what do we see?

On any given Sunday there are roughly 250,000 Greek Orthodox Christians attending Liturgy somewhere in the United States. This means that only 12.5% of the potential Greek Orthodox Christians who could be at Liturgy are actually at Liturgy on any given Sunday. Flip that and we see that some 1.75 MILLION (or 87.5%) of the Greek Orthodox community are, for one reason or another, absent from Sunday Liturgy. If only 10% (175,000) were reconciled with the Church, the Sunday average attendance would increase by 70% (or an average of 350 people added to a Sunday congregation of 500). Drop the number of those reconciled to only 1% and you have 17,500 reverts or 35 new Sunday congregants, or approximately a 7% increase in attendance.

But whether the number is 35 or 350, these new people will make significant demands on the congregation--both clergy and laity. Reverts, like converts, tend to invest significantly more personal resources in the Church--but they also make significantly greater demands for pastoral care (for example, Confession, religious education certainly, but also they have a greater interest in evangelism and philanthropic work). Basically, whether the change is from a non-Orthodox background or from a lapsed background, those who are reconciled what to invest more in the life of the church AND see a greater return on that investment then I suspect is typically the case for the majority of the congregation.

The question that I will address in the next installment is this: Given what I see as the rather middling track record on integrating new members, what would it mean pastoral to reconcile to Christ and His Church even a (relatively) small number of lapsed Orthodox? If the integration of converts represents a pastoral challenge that is often not met (one study of Catholic converts, albeit in Australia, suggest that only one third to one half of Catholic converts remain Catholic. See: Caring for New Catholics), what does it mean to integrate someone who we have failed pastorally or personally?

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