Much of the literature of the sociology and growth of the church focuses on the broad categories of the churched and the unchurched. There have been various definitions of each of those groups. I typically define “churched” as a person who attends a church worship service at least once a month, while any others would be “unchurched.”
My definition obviously says little about the commitment level of the churched. Indeed, if a person attended church worship services only one time a month, he or she could hardly be considered a committed churchgoer.
One category of religious identification that often gets overlooked, however, is the religious “nones.” Church leaders must understand the trend of the nones, and its implication on church life in America.
Who Are the Nones?
Mark Chaves, in his wonderful book on church trends, American Religion, does a good job of helping us understand the importance of the nones. Since 1972, the General Social Survey has asked a plethora of questions every one to two years to representative samplings of Americans. One question that has been consistent is: “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”
From the inception of the study in 1972 to 1990, people who self identified as nones stayed consistent in the 5% to 8% range. From 1990 to today, the number has increased significantly. The nones now represent 17% of all of our population, nearly one in five Americans. That statistical trend may be one of the most significant changes in the religious and moral landscape of our nation.
Why Are They Nones?
The nones are not all atheists or agnostic, but they are a large part of the category. Nearly one-fourth of the nones believe in the existence of God, so we could surmise that the rest have doubts about the reality of God. So, to a great extent, the nones represent a growing shift away from a belief in God.
But it also appears that the nones have rejected institutional religion as much as they have rejected God. That would be consistent with the research by Jess Rainer and me on the Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000). We found that not only is this generation a minority Christian (15% by our estimates), they have even more rejected religious institutions. Deborah was one of the 1,200 Millennials we interviewed. Her comment was representative of her generation: “Why would I want to associate with a church? All those people ever do is fight with each other.” Indeed the advent of the Millennial generation, the largest generation in America’s history, is one key reason for the rather dramatic increase in the nones.
Chaves rightly notes that if people were raised with no church affiliation at any point in their lives, they are more likely to be a none. The Millennials represent the first generation in history where a majority had no religious or church background.
What Are the Implications about the Nones for the Church?
Of course, the religious nones include far more people than just the Millennial generation. They are a cross-section of America in age, income level, racial and ethnic background, and geographical residency. They are in areas all around our churches and neighborhoods.
It would seem that the nones have rejected the messengers of the gospel more than the message of the gospel itself. Most of them are unwilling to give us Christians an audience because of their negative perceptions of our churches and denominations.
One positive story took place in post-Katrina New Orleans, an area with an abundance of nominal Catholics and nones. Because the Southern Baptist denomination took such a key role in the ongoing recovery and disaster assistance, churches in the area now have a better opportunity to share the gospel. Perceptions of Protestants in general and Baptists in particular have dramatically improved.
Maybe that’s the lesson we should learn. Maybe that’s what we need to learn from the rise of the religious nones. While we must be ever ready to share the message of the gospel verbally, that message will have a much more receptive audience if we just act a little more Christian toward each other and toward the world.