Every now and then you encounter a book that catches you totally by surprise. I had this experience recently with a book called “The Rise of the Nones,” by James Emery White. During my study leave I read LOTS of books, and most of them I read rather quickly hoping to gain a nugget or two of fresh insights and then move on to the next one. That’s what I intended to do with this read. This book however, caused me to seriously pause and do some deep reflecting. The more I read the better it became. The more I thought, the more I wanted to think! This is the way of all great books.
I’m not sure what image the title of this book brings to your mind. If you just heard the words but didn’t see the writing, you might have the impression that the holy ladies of the Catholic Church were in some sort of revolt. It’s an interesting title, to be sure. The “nones” he writes about, however, are the “religiously unaffiliated.” These are the ones who, when asked about their religious faith, choose to describe their faith as “none.” Over the past 20 years, the growth of this category is nothing short of astounding. Today, one in five people describe themselves as a “none.” Many of these used to be “something”, many used to attend church, but no more.
White seeks to help identify the traits that are statistically most likely to represent someone who identifies themselves these days as a “none.” While this is oversimplifying it, “nones” tend to self-identify as white, young, male, democrat, in favor of abortion and same sex marriage, not an atheist and not necessarily hostile to religion.
What is most telling of this group is this simple reality—they’re not wrestling with faith and rejecting it, they’re simply just not wrestling with it. In fact, nearly three out of four of them never attend any form of religious service. Faith seems totally irrelevant to them. It’s not as if they don’t believe in anything; they have come to believe in themselves.
While there might be a tendency to dismiss this group with a sigh and an “oh well,” what I found most fascinating in this book was the author’s discussion of how it is we’ve arrived at this destination. Tragically, so much of what is documented is a reaction to what I would call “bad Christianity.” This is when we who claim to have faith but fail to live out in our personal lives what we proclaim being a Christ follower is all about. This is when our faith, as another author put it, appears to be very un-Christian to an unbelieving world. It’s when faith becomes about politics and political parties and loses its focus on the redemptive power of Christ alone. As a result, we are watching an increase in those who are willing to say “yes” to God and spirituality, but no to Christianity and no to the church.
While I certainly can’t do justice to all the ideas and insights the author developed in this book, perhaps the most important takeaway for me was this… we certainly can’t just keep doing church the way we’ve always done it and expect to see a greater response in the days ahead. These are different times. The circumstances have changed. We have to rethink our approach. We must learn how to communicate a timeless message to an audience with a vastly different mindset—one that’s continuing to change rapidly. In fact, what’s wrong with the above sentence is it assumes the “nones” are in the audience. They aren’t.
What to do, church?
§ We need to learn how to talk differently, this day calls for a different type of dialogue. We must stop just talking to ourselves. We must have well cultivated minds.
§ We need to change our behavior—one more consistent with the Christ we claim to follow. Are we credible as the hands and feet of Christ?
§ We need to understand that we are called to die to ourselves for the cause of Christ. No longer can the mission of the church be about us…it must be about others. Our goal must be to build relationships with unbelievers that can carry the weight of time, and truth, and honesty. We must communicate to others that we accept them for who and where they are.
§ We need to stop focusing our efforts and energy on those of us who are already convinced and begin to think once again about how to communicate the truth of the gospel to those who need to hear it most. It’s time to stop growing the church by attracting people from other churches and go back to measuring our success by the number of actual conversions we experience in our midst. How many unconvinced are we helping to convince?
§ We need to be willing to let the church change… by supporting innovation and being willing to sacrifice our preferences for the greater cause of Christ. What will it take to reach people? Will we support it?
If you get a chance and are so inclined, I want to strongly encourage you to take some time and read this book. There is far more depth to it than I’ve discussed here. If you do… keep reading, the best part is the second half where ideas and innovative solutions are discussed.
Bottom line? If we don’t address this issue, nothing will change for the “nones.” There will just be more of them.