How many Orthodox Christians regularly go to Church in Russia, and why?
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His book, entitled “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few”, presents a scientific study, in which the author puts forward the hypothesis explaining why, in Russia, the number of people actually going to Church does not increase, but has virtually remained the same over more than two decades. The site discussed with the author the reasons for this situation, and the problem of relationships between priests and faithful in present-day Russia.

– Father Nikolai, what is the problem that made you start your study?

– For a long time, I have been reflecting on the reason why, in our country, while 80% of the believers call themselves Orthodox – that is, those who do so in various sociological surveys  – actually only 3% regularly go to Church.

– But where do these data come from, according to which 3% of the country’s population is actually “practicing”, while 80% of the people surveyed say they are Orthodox?

– These are more or less general sociological data. Throughout the period following the liberation of the Church, all polls show that we have about 3-5% of people practicing. That is, those who receive communion at least once a month. It’s a rather small group of people.

– But 3% of the entire Russian population is not so little.

– Maybe. In this regard, when the first community of believers was created in Jerusalem, as is written in the Acts of the Apostles, the number of people who joined immediately after the Resurrection was perhaps 3% of the total population of this city. In Jerusalem, according to scholars estimates, there were about 100,000 people. And in the Acts of the Apostles, we speak for the first time of 3,000 people who joined the community of the apostles (see Acts 2:41), then it is said that 5,000 people believed (see Acts 4:4). In one way or another, today the FOM polling institute, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), and the Levada-Center present almost similar data. It is true that the latter usually gives figures of ecclesial and religious practice somewhat inferior to others, and we keep them for reliability reasons. But as a rule, the three polling institutes give concordant figures.

Statistics of the Russian Orthodox Church

However, when we talk about those who receive communion at least once a month, we find a narrow group of people, even among those who may be more broadly called practicing believers. If one extends the concept of practicing believer to those who receive communion several times a year, but less often than once a month, the number rises to about 10 – 12%.
At the same time, according to data from the same institutes, the number of those who responded positively to the question “Do you consider yourself Orthodox?” has been steadily increasing since 1992. To be precise, in recent years the FOM has been giving a number around 80%, and the Levada-Center 65 to 70%. It must be admitted that, on the whole, it seems rather paradoxical: this figure of 3% of those who receive communion at least once a month remains stable, while that of those who call themselves Orthodox is constantly growing. This phenomenon has been discussed more than once in the scientific community, among sociologists and religious scholars. And in general, this has been discussed in a rather critical way towards the Church. Which is quite understandable, because of certain traditions that have so far predominated in the scientific community.

– What explanations have been given?

– The best known and the simplest of them is that the awareness of being Orthodox generally has nothing to do with any religious practice. People call themselves Orthodox, because they try to identify their ethnic or national affiliation, as Russians and citizens of Russia.
There have been other hypotheses, related to the widespread assumption that the global trend towards secularization is being felt here as well, and that Russia is moving in that direction. And secularization gives rise to a special type of religiosity that is extra-ecclesial, vague, and for this reason, can no longer be called classical and institutional, in the full sense of these words.
Such interpretations have also begun to spread among State officials. For example, to questions relating to the influence of Orthodoxy and its social importance, we can now hear, “And why should we support this? Only 3% of the population of our country! Is it socially significant?”
On the other hand, when we ourselves carried out research in parishes and ecclesial communities, we noticed an interesting phenomenon. If we take into account the simplest indicators in Russia, the number of children, the rate of divorces, or social diseases such as tobacco or alcoholism, the (alleged) affiliation to Orthodoxy has virtually no influence on these indicators. Among those who consider themselves Orthodox, there is the same percentage of divorces or, say, alcoholics. But as soon as we take into account the same indicators for the 3% group, that is, those who receive communion at least once a month, these indicators become different, and differentiate positively.

– What do you mean ?

– For example, in Moscow in 2004, only 3.5% of women over 18 had three or more children. In parishes, this figure was 19%. An obvious difference is likewise visible among smokers. Since smoking is a vice condemned by the Church, we only find 4% of smokers in parish communities. At the same time in Russia, the number was 38%. You see there is a difference in quality. And such indicators and their difference in favor of those practicing occur for problems we connect to defined social problems. We also asked about relationships with the homeland and patriotism. In doing, so we have proposed different concepts of patriotism, one of which is counterproductive. Once again, in the core of the parish, the concept of patriotism proves to be the most adequate. There, patriotism is understood as love for the homeland, and the willingness to work and act for the prosperity of the country, but these people do not consider that their country is always and in all respects better than the others, etc. It follows from all this that the thesis according to which ecclesial life, to a significant extent, is compressed and falls within this 3%, contains a certain truth. But at some point, a hypothesis came to me, simply from my pastoral experience of confession, and I speak about it in my work. If we consider urban churches, the priest constantly feels in a hurry. He constantly feels that someone wants to talk to him, and he cannot, because at that moment someone else wants to talk to him, or because he has to go somewhere quickly.

– How important do you think this problem is?

– I can say that for the parish priest, it is a very painful experience. I am personally convinced that half of the problems related to conflict situations in the church, which I often read about on Facebook or in the press, are related to these circumstances.
Let’s say that a man said he went to church, and the priest behaved abruptly towards him. In analyzing these situations, I fully understand that in half or more of the cases, it happened because the priest was in a hurry, he had to go somewhere. That’s why he simply was not able to talk to the man and to show him compassion. The lack of attention due to constant haste becomes part of a habit. There is a habit of hurrying, and it almost automatically brings about the lack of attention and a haughty attitude, which of course is absolutely not allowed for the priest. By the very fact that it is a defense reaction, it can only repel people and produce a painful impression.
A typical situation is when during a festive service, nearly a hundred people come to the priest to confess, and he just has one hour to speak with everyone! Now, among these people, except those who simply ask for the absolution prayer, there may be some who have come to church for the first in a month, or even in a year. In such a situation, no deep relationship can take place with the priest. And any priest who lives the parish life and for whom confession is an important part of his ministry, has a hard time with this problem. Myself, I have not served much as a priest, in fact just a bit over 20 years, but even during this period, we clearly feel the difference between what was then and what is now.
The difference is very simple: the attention that we could then give to people, we can no longer give it today. We direly need more time. The people who know you well and come regularly to you are becoming so numerous that they cannot fit into the time you can reserve for confession. This simple observation and the painful experiences related to it led me to ask myself another simple question, how many people can I receive? What community can the priest have? Don’t these 3% stable practicing people throughout the post-Soviet period mean that the number of existing clergy, despite all their wishes, cannot receive more parishioners? This was my initial hypothesis, which was confirmed in full, empirically, afterwards. In the course of my research, I have tried to approximately calculate the size of a community that one priest can handle by himself. And although we did not achieve a large-scale study, we came to a conclusion based on discussions with priests and document analysis, that the size of a community served by a single priest, is quite small: 200 in all, maximum 500 people.

– And how St. John of Kronstadt did it, when thousands of people came to him?

– Here, it must be understood that many came to him only once, or just a few times in their life. Also, the number of people who were in constant contact with him was very limited. For this reason, the example of the charismatic priest, of the Spirit-bearing starets, is not typical and is not characteristic for the priest who has his community regularly living the life of the Church, his permanent parishioners, whom he all knows, who are in regular contact with him and who have been regularly confessing to him for many years.
We have also succeeded in establishing interesting data. In a survey in the whole of Russia, we asked the question, “Do you know a priest to whom you can go in a crisis situation?” By collecting data on this, we have come to the conclusion that around every priest, there are about 1,500 people who know him and can turn to him for help. That is to say that around the priest, there is a community that is close to him, about 200 to 500 people, and perhaps another circle or network of contacts, with an average of about 1,500. And it’s actually a limit. Every man is limited and cannot do more.
Besides, we know that priests can be different. Some primarily do spiritual direction. Priests in rural areas celebrate in villages and hamlets where there only three to five people attend the vigils, and they do not know what to do, and so on.
But our study did not stop there. We then tried to analyze the process of confession. On one of the Sundays, when there was not major feast, we counted in only fifty churches in Moscow, how long the confession lasted, and how many people managed to confess. In doing so, we noticed a fairly wide range of the average time of confession.

Despite the fact that people can confess in different ways and at different times, the duration usually ranges from 3-5 to 15-20 minutes. Although there were churches where some people confessed to the priest much longer, and there were others on the contrary, where people confessed even faster. In addition, this indicator did not depend on whether there were many or few people at the service, whether it was Saturday or Sunday, if the confessor was a young or elderly priest.

– How long, on average, can and should confession last?

– It’s a different topic, and it is not trivial. Confession is a very complicated phenomenon. It is one thing when someone the priest knows well comes to confession. In this case, confession has its specific character. The person knows very well what he/she is doing and why they came, the priest’s involvement can sometimes be minimal here, because there is already a total mutual understanding. And in general, such a confession does not take much time. But we are talking here about something else. Confession is not a conversation, but a sacrament whose main component is prayer.

– Prayer ?

– During the confession, the priest does not speak as much as the person coming to confess, he prays for them all the time while they are telling him something.

– But still, during confession, the priest must have a conversation, he has to show them reason, and asks questions.

– Of course, but the main thing for the priest is not to talk and to show reason, but to pray to God for the one who confesses at this moment. But now, if that person comes for the first time ever to confession, and even if he does not have particular problems, the priest must talk with him at length and give explanations. He needs to bring him to the reality of ecclesial and spiritual life. And this cannot be done in short conversation of 10 to 15 minutes. Same if the person has real problems, if they came with  sorrow or suffered a serious offense, the very fact not to hurry can play a decisive role. But as soon as the person feels that the priest is in a hurry, their conversation no longer makes sense.
On this topic, a good bishop once told me, “I tell my priests that when they speak with a person, they must hide their watch and not look at it.” I liked that a lot.
Besides, we must understand that so far, a broad and mass ecclesial culture is not in place yet. As in the past, it is very difficult to find an adequate Orthodox school for our children, and we have only two and a half universities for the whole country. In fact, we do not have widespread common social forms through which we can enter the Church. For example, we have virtually no Christian associations and movements. In Western Europe, in spite of all the complexity of the situation for Christianity there, they have a huge quantity of those, in comparison with us, which calls for great astonishment. There is nothing like it here, and when there is, it is on a tiny scale. In these conditions, the priest remains the only point of entry into the Church for people.
Priests are like that eye of a needle or a bottleneck through which our entire contemporary ecclesial life must go through. But it turns out that the whole of it cannot go through or enter, only the 3% of those in the priest’s inner circle can do so, and thus have the happy opportunity to receive communion at least once a month.
One of the most complex cases is large churches and cathedrals, through which an uninterrupted flow of people go through. The priest must receive all this wave, which takes up all his strength. To build under such conditions is very difficult. Even in these conditions, we try to build a community, I know examples, but it is generally like under the steamroller of the huge amount of people who are completely strangers to the spirit of the Church, who come from the street, and whom we must meet.
Usually, under such conditions, the entire community is engaged in an absolutely unique ministry with one purpose, simply to meet and welcome those people. All this, to a significant extent, is destructive for parish life. If the priest comes to the church in the morning, in a dormitory city of 100,000 people, and he finds a list of private services to celebrate, even if tries for instance to bless all the apartments, he will not manage to do it all before his death.

– What are the conclusions of your study? How can this situation be remedied?

– At first glance, my conclusions are terribly disappointing. For example, consider the ratio of the number of priests to the number of parishes in the Russian Orthodox Church. It turns out to be catastrophic: about 6,050 people claim to be Orthodox for 1 priest in Russia. In Europe (in Roman Catholic countries – Poland and France – or Orthodox, Greece, Romania, etc.), this ratio is several times lower: 1,050 people per priest in Greece, 2,688 in France. It’s a completely different picture. So for our painful situation to change, and for an absolutely new practice to become possible, we need three to five times more clergy members.

– Is it realistic?

– Of course it’s unrealistic, that’s the problem. Today, the Orthodox clergy in the territory of the Russian Federation is about 20,500 people. I actually wrote that even the most effective recruitment in seminars will not bring the necessary number of candidates. Plus, we all understand that quantity is not a determining factor. As the number of clerics grows, quality becomes paramount. Formal mechanisms do not produce anything good. Besides, for each priest, it is not just about a priest, his whole family must have the sense of the Church, otherwise such a priest is not worth anything.
And here, any manager would ask, how are you going to financially support all these people? This is also a wise and relevant question. And it is impossible to give any immediate answer. And strictly speaking, it was not the purpose of my book. The goal was to identify the problem and to present it reasonably and meaningfully. To show that the existing limitations of ecclesial life are not really related to secularization.
On the contrary, I cite examples according to which, as soon as a priest appears, the construction of a church appears, then a parish. That is to say, everything happens exactly in the opposite direction. The demand does not create the offer. The situation is similar to that described in Say’s law in political economy: any offer quickly creates demand, and we could provide many similar examples.
It is not propaganda, it is not the clericalization of society, but rather on the contrary, people meet in local communities, thus overcoming the atomization of society generated by the 1917 revolution and WWII. In recent years, we have seen a rapid growth of the Church: a rapid growth in the number of clerics and the number of dioceses. Obviously, the Church is growing, developing, and sometimes we have the feeling we cannot do more, that we have already ordained a very large number of priests, and that it will be difficult to add more. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find candidates for ordination, because they are more and more needed.
And as always with active growth, the feeling comes up that we have to stop somewhere, because we cannot maintain all these churches, we can no longer build new ones, all that is expensive. In fact, we have to understand that we are at the very beginning of the road. I believe it is very important to understand this. Otherwise, both the important perspective of the vision of the Church, and the religious image of our country will be very altered. We will have the impression that there is only one marginal Church with in all 3% of all the population, and a mass remaining absolutely impossible to understand, either secularized or with a strange type of religiosity, or in search of a specific civic identity.

– But doesn’t the growth in the number of priests necessarily lead to the growth in the number of parishioners?

– Of course not. This is a wise and important question. In my book, I state that any growth in the number of clergy does not automatically result in the growth of the number of those who regularly attend church. This condition is necessary, but insufficient. Our history these past twenty years actually shows it: the number of clergy has increased five times, while during the same period, the 3% of practicing believers has remained stable. But this is a very important consideration.
Yes, during this period, the number of people who receive communion at least once a month has not increased. But we have sufficient data to say that during the same period, the group of parishioners who receive communion several times a year has increased. It is obvious growth and it is not insignificant. It is not difficult to guess that this group requires much more attention and time. It is a large-scale ecclesialization process, that involves communicating with people, catechizing them, taking time for detailed conversations, and so on.
But for this process to go further, the Church obviously does not have enough resources, especially because of the extremely limited amount of time among priests. Be that as it may, it can be said that this condition is necessary while insufficient. Without the growth in the number of clergy, one cannot expect a change in pastoral practices that have become established when the priest is not available.
This is now the task of the Church. How it can be solved is another topic. I write again about this in my practical conclusions.
Obviously, the key point for the next stage of church development will not be the building of churches, although it remains paramount. Each new church in dormitory cities adds 2,000 regular parishioners during the period of its opening. It is an objective and verified fact. The next step will be the building of parish communities. In this regard, we must mention that Patriarch Kirill constantly speaks about it, and he began to do so a long time ago, even before he was a patriarch. We pay little attention to this.
But when I began to study this topic, I searched specifically and found out that it constantly comes up in the patriarch’s speeches, and even very often, lately. First of all, without active and living communities, there will be no expansion of ecclesial life, in the sense that newcomers will not find a way to enter and fit in. Second, only the community can produce a sufficient quantity of clergy. No recruitment, based on other principles, will be natural or logical, and give this necessary scale of candidates to the priesthood. I think building new communities can be done much more easily, if the priest comes from the community itself, and maintains a constant connection with it. In this sense, it seems to me that one of the possible solutions to the problem is that a spiritual father educates future priests and sends them to receive spiritual formation. They come back and celebrate in their parish, in their community, or in parishes attributed to them. It would also be a very effective practice, if ecclesial life and priestly ministry, as by relay, were transmitted from generation to generation.
All these considerations are very important from the point of view of the preparation of future priests.
The St. Tikhon Theological Institute at the Orthodox University of the same name, of which I am the vice-rector, has been preparing candidates to the priestly ordination for more than 25 years. This study allows us to have a fresh look at the process of pastoral preparation, to better understand the current situation of the Church, to ask ourselves what kind of priests we need today, and how and what they must be prepared for.
I am sure that the Church will find a solution to the problem of the lack of priests. “Out of stones, God can raise up children for Abraham” (Lk 3:8), but at the same time, I believe that without our understanding of the problem itself, and without our participation in this work, the Lord God will not show His mercy. That’s why I wrote this book.

Source in Russian

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About the Author

Emma Cazabonne

Emma Cazabonne

Beside an anthology on Cistercian texts, Emma Cazabonne has translated and published articles on Cistercian spirituality, the Middle Ages, and Orthodoxy. She converted to Orthodoxy in 2008. Her husband is an Orthodox priest. If you are interested in having your book translated into French, she can be contacted here Newsletter

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