None for Me, Thanks: The Challenge of Reaching the Unaffiliated
Let’s talk about the “Nones.” The term refers to those who have no formal religious affiliation, and the group’s rapid growth has been the source of much hand-wringing in Christian America in the last decade. In 2014 the Pew Research Center’s study on religion in America showed that Christianity, which is still the dominant religion in America, was shrinking. Subsequent reports have shown that the decline is happening even faster than was initially indicated. A Pew survey last October found that:
…in 2018 and 2019, 65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, down 12 percentage points over the past decade. Meanwhile, the religiously unaffiliated share of the population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009.
These numbers are especially dramatic among Mainline Protestant churches, which have long been the spiritual home of a plurality of Americans. At the same time, studies found the number of adults who say that they often experience a “deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being” and “a deep sense of wonder about the universe” had risen.
This likely comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever taken a yoga class, been forwarded an article about mindfulness mediation, or shopped at a farmers’ market. We live in the era of “pop-spirituality,” and it’s everywhere. People say “Namaste” unironically. They post things like “keep my mom in your thoughts, she is about to have surgery” on social media platforms littered with verses from Rumi in artsy script over watercolor backgrounds. And then there is the less devout spiritual but not religious set, who are unwilling to commit to atheism, who feel like there may be something beyond the mere quotidian, but have no time or interest in finding out what it is.
I sound snarky, but I don’t mean to (not much, anyway). I have known many people who find this new, cafeteria-style spirituality comforting and helpful. It allows them to take what “works” for them and to “let go of that which no longer serves you” as a popular YouTube yoga instructor likes to say. The trouble is that it doesn’t require anything of you. There are no creeds to profess, no relationships within a community to navigate, and no responsibility to one’s neighbor. There is no one to worship besides your own “inner wisdom.” Most importantly, there are no claims of objective truth, but only subjective appeals to experience.
At times I have been tempted to write these Nones off, to say, “Live and let live! Enjoy your green smoothie. I’ll be over here firing up the thurible.” This attitude always lasts just long enough for me to remember that Our Lord did not command us to retreat into half empty churches, but to go and make disciples of all nations. As a Christian, I do have a responsibility to love my neighbor, and that means the people who are not already in the pews. And, while I have faith that the Church is an eternal reality, and that God’s will for His Church cannot be thwarted, I feel the anxiety that comes with declining church attendance. So it is not an option to write them off, or to hope they stumble into church one day.
Because I was once a political scientist (of sorts) I’ve noticed a parallel trend that suggests that there may be more to this decline than what meets the eye. More importantly, it may tell us what we can do about it.
The decrease in religious affiliation approximates another: the decline in political party affiliation in the United States. It isn’t a perfect match, of course, because there are only two political parties, and neither has ever had the dominance that Christianity has historically had in America. But until recently the fact of the two-party system has been dominant. Affiliation with either the Democratic party or the Republican party has always fluctuated, but they primarily traded members back and forth. A good number of Republicans became Democrats during the Kennedy years, and many Democrats became Republicans during the Reagan years. But since the early 2000s, something interesting has happened: the Republican and Democratic parties have both been losing members. For the first time in American history, those voters who did not wish to be affiliated with either party increased, while both major parties decreased. This trend has continued for several years, and so-called “independent” voters are now the largest and fastest growing political “party” in America.
So what does this have to do with religious affiliation? I don’t believe that either decrease can be fully explained by a mere loss of desire to join clubs or groups. On the contrary, both religious and political rhetoric has reached a fever pitch eerily echos our tribal roots. And besides, people don’t change their ideas about the validity of institutions spontaneously: they are responding to something happening within those institutions.
There are many factors that could contribute to the decline in political party affiliation, but one that should not be overlooked is the increasing weight that policymakers have put on public opinion polls. President Clinton famously brought professional pollsters into the White House and paid close attention, using them to advise on policy; every president since has done the same. For the last several decades, the driving force behind policymaking has been giving the people what they say they want.
This all sounds lovely and democratic, but is in fact an abdication of leadership. An organization that gives the people whatever they say they want rejects the very notion of objective truth, and instead allows individual whims and cultural currents to rule the day. Instead of being leaders, our leaders become followers. What the people say they want, often isn’t what they actually want or actually need. When politicians tried to match their proposals to what the people said they wanted, people became disillusioned with the pandering.
Unfortunately, churches, especially Mainline Protestant churches, have demonstrated a similar interest in following the whims of modern culture. We have read the defection of the Nones as an indictment of traditional Christian faith, and have responded out of fear. In our desperation to become more “relevant” in the 21st century, we’ve resorted to gimmicks like beer church, the Beyoncé Mass, and other stunts. But even run of the mill mainline churches are under considerable pressure to soften their theological and liturgical commitments. The message is clear: You don’t have to do anything. We will come to you.
Here, there is no cost to discipleship. There is nothing to which one must aspire—no mountain to climb, no journey to embark upon, to mysterious depth to plumb. There is no distinction between those who are in, and those who are out. We give the people what they say they want, without asking anything in return. As a banner I saw on an Episcopal Church website proudly proclaims “You don’t have change who you are.”
But is what they want really what they need? What is the telos, the rightly ordered end, of a spiritual but not religious faith? Are we human beings really destined for this sort of existence? To consume more and more, to soothe our everyday cares with slogans and affirmations? Were we put on the earth merely to exist, or are we called to more?
Jesus Christ calls us to more. He does not promise that we don’t have to change who we are. In fact, He wants to change everything about us. He wants to take our wounded nature and heal it. He wants us to decrease that He might increase. He wants to free us from the shackles of sin and death. He wants us to lose ourselves in Him, and thus to find who He has always intended for us to be. He wants us to be more than we are. He wants us to have life, and to have it abundantly. To be disciples, saints, and martyrs. He wants to take everything we have, so that He can give us more than we can ask or imagine.
If the Gospel is true—if Jesus really is who he says he is—then there can be no half measures. There can be no cafeteria-style Christianity. In fact, one of the few things that atheism has in common with orthodox Christianity is that it requires a serious commitment. It has a non-negotiable (if unwritten) creed and metaphysic which is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.
In the brave new world of spiritual but religiously unaffiliated, no such commitments need to be made. When our churches try to build on this foundation of sand, the essence of what it means to be Christian is worn away bit by bit. We ignore inconvenient parts of scripture and shave away little inconvenient parts of the tradition until we end up with the president of a major seminary denying the virgin birth and questioning the Resurrection.As C.S. Lewis wryly reminds us, “the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”
Even if we put the theological issues aside, the tactic of making Christianity more approachable for Nones just isn’t working. Nones keep growing, and Mainlines keep shrinking.
It may be worth asking if Nones have really rejected Christianity. Can average college graduates with no religious affiliation give a classically theistic definition of God? Can they explain the differences between the major Christian traditions? Have they had even an elementary education in the orthodox faith? I wonder, has Christianity left their questions unanswered, or have their questions gone unasked? Have they tried Christianity and found it lacking, or have they left it untried? The Nones do not need to be coddled, but they desperately need to be evangelized.
If this is the case—if the rise of the Nones is not due to their rejection of the traditional faith, but because of our rejection of it—then we have our work cut out for us. If churches are going to be places for Nones to explore their faith, we have to to offer them something they can sink their teeth into. We must have a loving, honest, and intellectually rigorous message. We can’t just be one more vendor of self-help slogans and pop-spirituality—the Nones already know where to find those.
Instead, we must hold fast to God’s promises: without shame and without fear. We must embrace true Christian evangelism, and learn to speak ancient truths to today’s culture. We must teach and preach to those who are already in our own congregations, so that they may preach and teach to those in their schools, offices, and neighborhoods. We must turn off Beyoncé, and instead lead reverent worship worthy of the Most High God. We don’t need to make Christianity relevant, because God’s Word is better than relevant: it is true.
Does the church have the courage to learn from the Nones? Are we willing to preach the Gospel, or have we bought into own propaganda? Will we have the courage to be leaders, or will we simply follow the polls, and give the people what they say they want?