Oriental Orthodox churches become growth center of U.S. Orthodoxy

Oriental Orthodox churches in the U.S. are outgrowing their sister Eastern Orthodox bodies, possibly even stealing some of their members, according to a new analysis of this venerable yet largely forgotten ancient church tradition hailing largely from the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. At the late-October conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Salt Lake City, attended by RW, researcher Alexei Krindatch presented findings on Oriental Orthodoxy from the most recent U.S. Religion Census (2020). The Oriental Orthodox, comprising such bodies as the Armenian, Egyptian Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, and Malankara (Indian) Orthodox churches, total about 500,000 adherents and tend to be found in urban areas of the eastern and western U.S., particularly in such states as California, New Jersey, and New York. Krindatch finds that the newest Oriental Orthodox churches in the U.S., such as the Ethiopian and Malankara bodies, tend to be growing fastest. These churches showed a 67 percent increase since the last religion census in 2010, with the Coptic Orthodox seeing a doubling of members since that time. Whereas the Oriental Orthodox were one-quarter the size of their Eastern Orthodox big sister congregations in 2010, they now are about the same size.

St. Raphael Coptic Church, Houston, Clear Lake City, Texas (source: Jim Evans, 2020, Wikimedia Commons).

Most of this growth in Oriental Orthodox churches is due to massive and continuing immigration to the U.S. Unlike the Eastern Orthodox, outreach to non-members is not a strong component of Oriental Orthodox growth, although the Coptic Orthodox have shown some success in reaching newcomers. Krindatch estimates that while about 5 percent of all Oriental Orthodox are converts, 15 to 20 percent in Coptic churches are non-ethnic members. These non-ethnic members tend not to integrate with Egyptian-language churches and gravitate to separate, non-ethnic English-language parishes. Although Krindatch has no hard data on it, he has heard anecdotal reports that some of these new converts are coming from Eastern Orthodox churches, which are seeing an overall decline in membership, especially of young people. It may be that the more youthful and growing Oriental Orthodox parishes, with their many young families, are appealing to Eastern Orthodox youth who see less vitality in their own tradition.