The Rise of the Nones

Recently, the Pew Forum released, and USAToday’s ever-vigilant Cathy Grossman reported on, another study that I think is helpful for us to understand the context in which we live. In the study, they indicate that the number of Americans with no religious affiliation (identified as the “Nones,” as in “none of the above”) is climbing.

I had the opportunity to look at the data beforehand, and was not particularly shocked by it, though many will likely trumpet this as a huge shift. It’s not. This is simply the natural progression of what is taking place in our context.

A big part of what is happening is that the “Nominals”– and by that I mean nominal mainliners primarily, but nominal evangelicals as well– are shifting and becoming the “Nones.” This makes sense, as the cultural currency (in other words, the value a society places on identifying as a Christian) is decreasing. And thus, we see a movement away from Christian identity as a cultural value.

I’ve written on multiple occasions about how the term Christian is used. Most recently I talked about “census Christians” (census Christians are those who, when filling out a form, pick “Christian” rather than “Hindu” or “Jew”) and “churchgoing Christians” (churchgoing Christians considering themselves Christians because they occasionally attend a church.) I believe that this move is primarily the result of people who are “census” and “churchgoing Christians” shifting to the category of those who don’t have any identification at all– the Nones.

Furthermore, I don’t think this is all bad. As I’ve discussed on The Exchange (see the entire episode here, as well as a short clip here), there is great opportunity in being able to speak with more definition and clarity about what a Christian is, and is not.

So, should we be alarmed? First, one of the characteristics of faiths like mine is that we tend to see opportunity in everything. Furthermore, being a monotheist, all monotheist faiths tend to see what goes around them either as the blessing of God or in some sense the judgment of God. So in other words, when the people of Israel in the Old Testament saw bad news and were in crisis, they did not believe that there was no God. They simply believed that God was disciplining them. So, in that great tradition, I think that God is teaching us something through this difficulty. I think God has a lesson here for our churches.

As such, I think it’s fair to say three things:

  • First, we continue to lose what some have called our home-field advantage. On a growing basis, identifying oneself as a Christian is not a means to societal advancement but can actually be a means to societal rejection.
  • Second, the “squishy middle” is collapsing. Nominalism will go its way. I believe the future of Christianity in North America will look more like the present-day Pacific Northwest, as I have explained here.
  • Third, and finally, it is still a vast overstatement to see this as a collapse of the Christian faith in North America. The reality is that evangelicals have been relatively steady as a percent of the population over the last few years, however there is still great cause for concern here– and for action.

For me, it is both a concern and an opportunity.

I am concerned that people are moving away from any religious memory that so many churches, particularly seeker churches, could appeal to. In other words, you can’t bring the Nones back to church– they simply don’t find it appealing.

I see an opportunity for churches to clearly state what a Christian is, as others are no longer claiming that title as frequently. Furthermore, teaching believers to live on mission in their contexts, rather than just to bring their friends to church, is how we will reach the Nones.

So, as society moves away from Christian identification, let’s meet them on the road and say, “We did not believe in that expression of Christianity anyway. Let me tell you about Jesus and how he changes everything.”

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
comment_post_ID); ?> "While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken

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