The Rise of the Religious “Nones”

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.


  1. says

    Those who have abandoned “organized religion” are exactly who I focus on, and they are hungry for the Word, sans the politics and hypocrisy, are are quick to return to a discourse once they have seen the person engaging them is “without affiliation”…
    Denominations can just write those people off, they will not be brought back by them, because “they” are the reason for their departure.
    Denominations need to focus on the repair of their current image, the renunciation of involving their member churches in the politics of the state, and teaching their member churches to focus on a silent witness being taught as priority number one.
    I am a Southern Baptist, I entered the SBC as a elementary school child, and do not regret a moment of it, but I had to shed my denomination ties to go out into the world to find these folks, and engage them, so that their faith in the “Body of Christ”, and not the “Church” can be restored.
    It pains me daily to look out into the horizon and see the SBC in the distance, and know that I cannot stand beside them, because it would hinder my ministry. The best I have been able to do is use our church Lifeway account to stay current with the quarterly Sunday School curriculum, which is welcomed with wide open arms!
    That is what I have narrowed down the problem to be…
    It is not the teachings of my denomination that are the cause of their separation from it, but the personalities in leadership positions that have sent them packing…
    The same is true of the so-called “atheist” that was once a “believer”. They are quick and eager to engage me in a positive dialogue when I am the first to admit that the current incarnation of the New Testament Church has problems that it needs to address, before it can regain the credibility it once had.
    The one thing I appeal to them with, that always gets them to open the door is: “Jesus is not the problem, it is His fan club that folks can’t stand.”
    Chastise and scorn me all you will, but it is the truth, and any evangelist with half a brain knows it. The problem is that we need to admit it, and then correct it.
    David sinned, but always confessed, and God was faithful to put away his sin. We as denominations need to confess, so that God can put away our sins, and allow us to present the Gospel of His Son Jesus Christ more effectively without the… “Brought To You By…”

  2. David Van Lant says

    Our actions must match our words, obviously, but the One Person in whom they were perfectly matched was rejected by the majority of those who heard Him. Do we think it would be different for us? Sometimes I think we talk about this as though we think it might be.

  3. Linda J says

    Regarding this blog and Comment #1 mostly, when I join a religious conversation with possible “nones” I don’t talk about the church but about where I fit into what God did.
    Only if it comes up I say something like this: there is a lot to be thankful for and going to church is a way to be thankful to God. Church is made of imperfect people like me so it has problems. But in order to give thanks and show faith in God, I go anyway. And I deliberately choose the SBC because of its beliefs.
    I pray that I represent the Lord (and as a result this church) better and that my free-will would allow God to answer that prayer. The possibility of a positive response from even one “none” is worth it all.

  4. says

    Can we do away with the term “unchurched” and call them what Christ called them, “lost”? Unchurched is too politically correct, these people are lost and are heading to hell.

  5. John46 says

    17% is more nearly 1 in 6 than it is 1 in 5. Please use arithmetic (3rd grade stuff) more correctly so that we may have confidence in the other things you have to say.
    Having said that, I do enjoy your writing and views very much.

  6. C.P. Steinmetz says

    I surely must be one of the ‘nones’ you describe – I reject organized religion. Your approach seems a good strategy for what you are trying to do.
    Your article is quite interesting, and several things caught my eye:
    1. You say: “That statistical trend [‘nones’ increasing] may be one of the most significant changes in the religious and moral landscape of our nation.” ‘Moral’ landscape? Does your use here mean you think there is no morality apart from religion? Surely you didn’t mean that. Just as surely, the immorality of those in organized religion could suggest just the opposite.
    2. The nones, you say: “have rejected God.” As with many ‘nones’, I don’t ‘reject’ your God any more than I ‘reject’ Superman as a person.
    3. I do react quite strongly, however, to true believers, who have the arrogance to proclaim – with not a whit of objective evidence – that those who don’t believe as they do will go to hell, or other mythical places.
    4. I think this quote nails the problem for the religious: “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.” The religious, and religions will have to deal with the rising issue of people becoming more educated in science, reasoning and technology, and therefore less likely to believe because of an appeal to authority, or because their parents raised me to believe that way.

  7. James B. Dickinson says

    I just learned of the “nones” from a mag. that I got from a friend. I am a 5th generation Christian, and as a child was raised in a strict Free Methodist home. I was born again 50 years ago in my sister’s home. Since I was saved at home, I have had a little different outlook on church membership. When you are born again, you are in the church of the first born Son of God, and if you are not born again, you need to be. I can feel the plight of the nones as most churches of today no longer teach the truth. In place of Gospel truth as it is in the Holy Scriptures, it is merely men’s doctrines. Who will get up in front of their flocks and preach about the sins that their flocks are guilty of?….when they have a big church, and lots of members, and giving starts to fall off?? When you depend on the paying members instead of God, to keep you in the business of saving souls, you can no longer preach as you should. The question I want to ask is this, who is living in your tabernacle? Is Adam, the sinner, still living there? Or is Jesus Christ the Redeemer living there by the Holy Spirit? How you live and speak will give him away– who is it?

  8. arlo says

    “Can we do away with the term “unchurched” and call them what Christ called them, “lost”? Unchurched is too politically correct, these people are lost and are heading to hell.”
    Brian, this sentiment is exactly why I am a ‘none’ I guess, although I’ve never heard this term before. The truth is, you have absolutely no idea what the truth is. The supernatural by definition is beyond your ability to know. The idea that all humans have to make a very precise and specific choice based on vague feelings, happenstance exposure to proselytizing and/or hitting the birthplace lottery of being born in a Christian society or you will burn in hell forever is simply appalling.
    Before you say the cliché “his ways aren’t our ways”, your god put a moral compass in all humans according to you. The idea of hell (love me or burn for all eternity) is simply repulsive and immoral.
    Maybe you’re worshiping an evil demon?

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