You probably heard about it in the news. It was called the Pew Study on Religious Participation in America. Some experts went out and surveyed all kinds of people to find out what exactly we are doing with ourselves in this country religiously. The big news was that the largest growing group in the country is a group of people who say they have no religious affiliation whatsoever. They are called the “nones.” One in five Americans checked off “none” on the survey.
There has been all sorts of reaction to this. You’d think as followers of Jesus we in the church would be able to roll with this news, but instead church leaders have been getting very caught up in a culture of criticism and panic.
“What’s wrong with these nones? Why aren’t they joining the church?” people asked. And then—because if you’re under thirty, there’s a one in three chance that you’re a none–they asked, “What’s wrong with their parents? What have we done wrong? Let’s fix this.”
But do we need to fix it? Maybe what’s happening is that the church is becoming the church again. Maybe talking to the nones will remind us who we are.
The nones are actually not a new group. We’ve had them all along. Maybe in the old days, they came to Second Presbyterian Church on Christmas and Easter. And, gosh darn it, their grandbaby is going to be baptized here too, and their kids are going to get married here, but you won’t see them other than that. They would probably have ticked off “Presbyterian” on a survey decades ago, but now they can tell the truth. People are just more comfortable self-identifying as nones today.
There’s a really corny joke about this pastor who’s looking out at the Christmas crowd. He sees all of these people he doesn’t recognize and says, “You people only come on Christmas and Easter. You need to be warriors for the Lord.” Afterwards, one of these people shakes his hand and says, “Pastor, I am a warrior for the Lord; it’s just that I’m in the secret service.”
My theory about the nones is that, as usual, the church is about twenty years behind what’s happening in culture. We’re still trying to talk to the nones as though they are ticked off at some other type of Christianity and just haven’t heard about Presbyterianism yet, or whatever it is we are.
Actually the nones are a varied group of people. First you have the “no longers,” no longer in the church. Then you have another group who are like, “No way.” Like, “I’ve been to church, and I’m just furious.” Still another group is saying, “Not yet.” And finally there’s the “Never have and haven’t thought about it” group.
That final group really hasn’t given any thought to church or Christianity. Asking them about their church affiliation is pretty meaningless. It’s like saying to me,”Does it worry you that you’re not a baseball fan?”
“Well, have you learned a lot about baseball?”
“Well, no. Why would I?”
“Well, you might want to take some time to do it.”
Right? That’s the kind of “haven’t experienced it yet.” If someone tries to convince me to have an interest in baseball, they’re assuming I have some sense of the value of baseball. But maybe baseball has upset me in some way. You know, I live in Chicago. Maybe I’m hurt by baseball. Maybe somebody paid too much attention to baseball and not to me.
Or maybe I feel that baseball is responsible for all of the wars that have ever happened in human history because people are so narrow-minded about baseball. I don’t have any sense of the intrinsic worth of baseball, nor do I believe my life will be improved by going to a baseball game, and you’re telling me, “You don’t really know enough about baseball, because there are a lot of different teams out there.” I’m like, “Who cares?”
If I’ve been to a baseball game and I’ve loved baseball and now I’m upset about it, you can reach me. But if I don’t know what it is and I don’t miss it, that approach is not going to work. So the question is this: How do you talk about baseball to somebody who does not care about it and does not feel they are missing anything?
That’s how the “never haves” feel about church. This new generation of nones, the “never haves” and “not yets,” includes many who have never experienced any religious community. And they’re in a very different place from the angry refugees of religious community. They may be open, wanting to learn—they just haven’t done it yet.
To reach this group of nones, we’ll have to stop answering questions that are not being asked. We’ll have to stop assuming that people are angry with the church or disillusioned with the church. Because a growing group of the nones are totally unfamiliar with the church. And talking to this group of nones, listening to their dreams and visions, their worries and needs, may save the church.
Probably the most important thing to remember with this group is that out worship needs to make sense to them. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but it does mean constantly teaching. If you’re going to say the Lord’s Prayer, explain what it is and define the words. Don’t throw words like trespasses out there and leave the “never haves” guessing what it means. You’ll only succeed in making them feel like they don’t belong.
Sometimes we alienate the “never haves”and “not yets”even when we think we’re being welcoming. Someone makes an announcement that tells attendees to see Pastor Sally about joining a new class or attending an event. Well what if you don’t know Pastor Sally? The newcomer thinks, “I’m the only person here who doesn’t know who Pastor Sally is. I must not belong”
So how do we decode our conversation so it’s not an internal one. How do we make it a conversation that works for the person coming in without any frame of reference? And why does it matter?
It matters not because we want to build our institutions but because worship better prepares us to serve the divine in the world. Through worship we prepare people to experience the divine, to do the divine will, to create good and beauty and truth, and to live life abundantly. To do that in today’s culture, we have to have a generous spirit about the really weird ways God works.
For decades we’ve worried that our mainline Christian share of the pie is shrinking awhile that of other denominations is growing. But really, we’re all in flux. Recent changes have affected all denominations and all faiths. We’re all witnesses to the rapidly rising number of those among us who checked “none” when asked about their religious affiliation
No matter which group of nones we are reaching out to, it’s time to stop defining ourselves by what we are not, and learn to describe ourselves as who, and whose, we really are.
Lillian Daniel, our keynote speaker at the Annual Event 2016 is a preacher, teacher, writer, and speaker whose honesty and wit have taken her from the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. to the Festival of Homiletics in Denmark. Wherever she goes, Lillian brings a deep understanding of Scripture and how it can be practically applied to everyday life. Featured in the New York Times and on PBS, her words have been described as biting, hilarious, pitch perfect, tender, and often stunningly beautiful. Her most recent book, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church (Jericho, 2014), makes a provocative case for why religious community matters. Earlier books further explore Lillian’s commitment to making religious life real. She has led and grown three congregations, most recently as Senior Minister at a 1400 member church in the suburbs of Chicago. She is currently devoting herself to public speaking, in order to distract herself from finishing her next book.