What Greek Festival Dancers Can Teach Faith Communities
People love Charlotte’s Greek Festival for the baklava and gyros. But the way the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral teaches folk dancing could show a few new moves to congregations nationwide, that are facing historic declines in attendance.
The festival helped make Holy Trinity the fourth largest Greek Orthodox parish in the United States. The church is now starting centennial celebrations. And experts in the evolution and health of faith groups say events like this — which create bonds and build community — are a key tactic to maintain engagement.
Stacie Peroulas runs Holy Trinity’s dance program, the largest church-affiliated Greek folk dance program in the United States.
“Greek culture is for the world,” Peroulas said recently. “It’s not just for Greeks. There’s so much rooted in Greek history and Greek culture that translates — it’s all about hospitality and community and bringing people together. And that’s sort of what a lot of us are missing right now.”
Polls show participation in most faith groups has dropped by about 20% in the last 20 years, while engagement at Holy Trinity has remained consistent. Cultural activities like folk dancing, sports, and language programs are all factors in that success, said the director of an organization focused on congregational health. But not for obvious reasons.
“It’s not so much about the activities so much as it is an expression of identity and community,” said the Rev. Chris Gambill, director of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, a ministry of the Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist medical system. “The fact that they’re still having Greek festivals, dance classes and language classes — it’s a reflection of what’s already there.”
The loss of social capital in the United States is also true of churches, Gambill said. Activities that bring people together for a common purpose help them feel connected authentically in a community, he said. Greek national and ethnic identity help.
Holy Trinity also benefits from Charlotte's population growth, Peroulas said. New arrivals look for ways to make themselves and their children feel belonging and connections, she said, and youth programs in dance, sports and language can draw families in.
The fabric of community
When members of faith groups bake cookies together or teach folk dancing, they’re strengthening bonds and building social capital, Gambill said. “They’re not just doing that robotically. They’re talking to each other, updating about family, making family connections. They’re doing all the things that create the fabric of community.”
Lack of community also helps explain intense political polarization in the United States, Gambill said. “The less we know about each other, the easier it is to demonize them or characterize them as ‘the other.’”
Beyond cultural activities, the author of a history of the American Greek Orthodox church, Alexander Kitroeff, said parishes are a key component of Greek American identity.
“There are no parallel lay organizations such as community organizations that rival the sociocultural centrality of the parish,” Kitroeff wrote in an email from Athens. A history professor at Haverford College, Kitroeff is teaching American students in Greece.
According to the Census of Orthodox Christian Churches, Holy Trinity has about 4,500 adherents, who are defined as people who participate in church activities frequently or infrequently, and their family members. The census indicates Holy Trinity has about 750 regular attendees. Gambill said the average number of regular attendees for a U.S. congregation — pre-COVID-19 — was about 80. The pandemic made the numbers worse.
Community, not conversion
But cultural activities are probably better at preventing attrition than attracting new members, said the Rev. Martha Kearse, a former minister at St. John’s Baptist Church in Charlotte. She is now a minister in Lynchburg, Virginia.
“I remember coordinating a big Easter egg hunt one year and thinking that maybe we would get new members,” Kearse said. “But I don’t think we ever attracted a single new member. People coming for an egg hunt are not necessarily looking for a church. They’re looking to occupy their children on a Saturday.”
Festivals are no piece of cake
Holy Trinity’s director of communications, John Shelton, estimates 500 volunteers, staff members, vendors, and police officers are involved in the management of the annual festival, including entertainment, retail, food, tents and security. The dance costume committee alone includes three or four women. Festival planning starts one year in advance.
More than 450 youth and young adult dancers perform, Peroulas said, with 14 groups corresponding to K-12 grade levels and one adult group. The curriculum covers dances from around a dozen geographic areas of Greece, including island groups, the Peloponnese, Crete, Macedonia and Thrace.
Gambill said this is the challenge of cultural activities managed by faith groups. Not all congregations can pull together the resources.
Imagining the future
For a report on COVID-19’s impact on congregations released in September 2022, the Rev. Eileen Campbell, visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, interviewed more than 100 pastors and lay leaders. She wrote that nearly every leader believes expectations for church and ministry need to be reimagined.
Engagement and intentionality are keys to attracting and maintaining new members, Gambill said.
“Community building is a primary goal of this experience,” he said. “When you have those people in a room, interacting differently with intention, rather than sitting in a pew and looking at the back of someone’s head and waiting for the program to begin.
“There’s a whole new cultural pattern around church that is being created in front of our eyes,” Gambill said. “We’re still trying to figure it out, but in the future it probably won’t look how it has looked in the past.”
Shannon Kingston, Kayla McDuffie, Nicole Rojas, Sebastian Shered and Hannah Tracy contributed to this story.
Palmer Magri, Caroline Willingham and Ellie Fitzgerald are students in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.