The numbers confirm what many have long suspected: While most church-going American-Armenians are affiliated with the historic Armenian Apostolic Church, they attend less frequently than Armenians of other denominations and their numbers are falling, according to Dr. Matthew Jendian, Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno.
Dr. Jendian shared the results of his doctoral research on American-Armenian church affiliation in an engaging lecture and lively discussion at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary (New Rochelle, New York) on March 31, 2004. His findings are based on survey data he collected from nearly 300 randomly-selected households in Central California containing at least one person of Armenian descent.
Low attendance rates in the Armenian Church can be partially explained by the reasons American-Armenians give for going to church. According to Jendian's research, less than 50% of American-Armenian respondents stated that they attend the Armenian Church for "spiritual" reasons. The majority attend for "traditional" reasons: they were "born into" the Armenian Church, their parents attend, or they were baptized there. Dr. Jendian suggested that, "One who goes to church for primarily spiritual or social reasons will tend to go more frequently than one whose primary motive is to preserve a family or ethnic tradition. For them, a few visits to church per year will probably be enough."
Suprisingly, what Dr. Jendian termed the "out-migration" from the Armenian Church can be seen in all generations of American-Armenians, not just the third- and fourth-generations. It is particularly severe among inter-married couples. "Intermarriage in a multi-ethnic society is inevitable, and it is increasing among American-Armenians in Central California," Dr. Jendian stated. "Almost every ethnic group in the United States is seeing increased rates of intermarriage in later generations," he said, adding, "This is due to sociological factors beyond the ethnic groups' control."
More startling is the reason why inter-married American Armenians tend to drop out of the Armenian Church. Based on responses to Dr. Jendian's surveys he observed that "Nearly three times as many intermarried respondents reported feeling unwelcome at Armenian Church or community functions compared to intra-married respondents," Jendian reported. "But even among Armenians married to Armenians, a significant number reported feeling less than welcome in Armenian Churches," he added emphatically.
"The Armenian Church is actually playing a role in the dis-affilation of its own members," continued Jendian, who is also an ordained deacon of the Armenian Church. Moving out from the podium he asked the audience, "What do we do with that information?."
"Sociologically speaking we have no control over intermarriage. We do have control over how we receive young couples. My research clearly shows that by not welcoming and reaching out to inter-married couples the Armenian Church is losing not only the non-Armenian spouse, but the "blood" member as well," Jendian said.
"Our exclusiveness is a waste of human resources and talent. We offend, at our own detriment, individuals and their spouses and family members who could add much to our church family, and the Armenian Church is not in a position to have such an attitude. Quite the contrary, it is experiencing out-migration of members to non-Armenian churches and will have even greater difficulty in maintaining a sustainable institution in the United States within the next generation if it does not strive to adopt a more inclusive approach, which means reaching out and responding to the spiritual and social needs of its constituents."
Dr. Jendian's presentation sparked a spirited discussion among the seminarians, seminary faculty, clergy and lay men and women present. Many suggested practical ways of reaching out more effectively to our people.
"Dr. Jendian's observations are disturbing but the solution is actually very clear," said George Kassis, Director of Communications and Development at the Eastern Diocese in New York. "We need to greet new people, make them feel welcome, make them feel wanted and needed."
"As a sociologist and as a child and an ordained deacon of the Armenian Church, Professor Jendian is uniquely qualified to guide us in the growth and strengthening of our parish communities," said Fr. Daniel Findikyan, Seminary Dean. "What remains is for us to act on what we have learned tonight."
Throughout the year St. Nersess offers several public lectures on topics related to the Armenian Church's history, theology, traditions, and mission. For further information see the seminary's website: www.stnersess.edu or contact the seminary at firstname.lastname@example.org or (914) 636-2003.