Nones on the run

Flickr photo by  mattjiggins
Flickr photo by mattjiggins

A recent Gallup poll showed that there seems to be movement in religious America, which has seen the sharp rise of the “spiritual but not religious.”  This group of people is categorized as believers without a formal religious affiliation. This statistic is one of many interconnected shifts in our time. It is hardly speculation to see that with the rise of the nones (no religious affiliation, or “none”) there is also a decline in church attendance and ever-increasing distrust of religious leaders, who seem to be less trustworthy if not grossly hypocritical.

These two shifting demographics have been met with mutual distrust in recent years. While working as an intern at the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, I remember hearing conversations about “the nones” and what role they would play (if any) in the interfaith movement. This discussion led to a lot of frustration for those of us looking to study the demographic and pluralistic interactions across the American interreligious landscape. We are on the edge of a religious renaissance. Never before has a country been so religiously diverse. The cross pollination of truths has touched everyone in the U.S. and while the very way we understand what the definition of “religious” is called into question, we see it beginning to change before our eyes.

While I can honestly say that I do think that they play a role in the religious community. I also think that the nones and the church must reconcile and understand one another if they are to both remain relevant in our culture.

From my experience, the nones I’ve met have been incredibly spiritual people, sometimes more Christian than those who spend their Sunday mornings in pews.

What makes them more in-tune with the divine is their resolve to question authority. Many of them are disillusioned by the idea that the church is the last word on all moral matters. These are people who have dared to peer on the other side of church dogma and have yet to see any raining fire and brimstone. It is indeed spirit-killing to search for something the transcendent only to be met with “No!” Yet, because of this intrepid quest, there is a lack of spiritual community. Many nones are alone in their own beliefs and often have no support or peers to keep them growing and real, which runs the risk of falling into an inauthentic, jaded spiritual life.

The nones I’ve met are under the impression that you go to church to receive rigid instructions on how to live. Usually, this means that you must fall in line with whatever is being taught from the pulpit and ONLY that. It is almost universally accepted that you go to church to be told how to be a good person, that the church is the authority on how to live correctly, and that the sermon, once used only as an example of love and faith, is now seen as the dogmatic lesson on how to live.

For much of history, however, churches have taught parables and the good news in a very hands-off way. The point of going to church was much more like a troubleshooting conference rather than a political rally. Parishioners would hear a story, learn how this translated to them, and then be asked to practice compassion and love in their day-to-day encounters as they understood the modeling of the parables themselves.

Today our culture almost doesn’t allow us to reflect on spiritual truths. When the Googles and Wikipedias of the world can offer up instant, self-gratifying, easy answers to any of our questions imaginable, why would anyone take the time to think for himself? Introspection is difficult and takes time. It requires unplugging and, at times, spending an afternoon on the weekend in a church listening to vague parables that upon first glance may not apply to us. In these instances it even challenges one to be better than one is. This is a very important point, seeing as how the nones tend to be younger than those who claim to be churchgoers . Whatever commandments or allegiances solicited from the pulpit should be made to the heart, not to the pocketbook — or ballot vote — contrary to what may be the norm today.

What is interesting about this migration from church (and into one’s self) is that it is seen to be the church’s fault and thus the church’s problem to bring the people back into the fold. But this hasn’t been working too well in the past few years. The American population self-identifies as predominantly Christian but Americans are slowly becoming less a population of churchgoers. Eighty six percent of American adults identified as Christians in 1990 and 76 percent in 2008.The historic mainline churches and denominations have experienced the steepest declines while the non-denominational Christian identity has been trending upward particularly since 2001 . The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion. While marketing campaigns and slick new advertising has attracted many back to “church.” There still is a distrust of these old institutions, much like anything trying to rebrand itself (See: BP after the oil spill).

What results are two inconsolable groups with very radical ideas about the other.

How do we bring these two back to the table? Accountability is the answer.

For starters, the churches could be conscious of the times we live in and remember that the lessons taught from their chapels carry a lot more weight than they may realize. It would be wonderful to see a day when not one church spoke against any group of people but against poverty and injustice instead.

Nones would do well not to write-off the church as just another group of hate mongers, or people who won’t understand or accept them. While the Buddha attained enlightenment on his own, he went back to the marketplace and lived in communion with others — even those who did not accept or understand him.

All too often we find ourselves being divided into polarizing camps. This false juxtaposition between the churchgoers and the nones, if left unchecked, will not only damage the spiritual community, it will limit our very ways of understanding what it means to become fully human. The bottom line is that the nones and churchgoers need one another, and for them to reconcile and work in tandem start on solving more pressing problems in our culture would be the best.

Join us at 10 a.m., April 6 at Revel 77 Coffee for our next Coffee Talk where we'll furthe discuss the concept of spiritual community.

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  1. How do you propose this reconciliation should begin? What’s step one?

  2. Thanks for this well written and detailed article on the plight of the nones and the churchgoing culture. Lou has a very good question above, to which I would like to continue the discussion with another question:

    What about the problem of religious dogma in a scientific and rationalized culture? I agree that the problems the nones have with traditional religions are many and varied, but the dogma of the church is a big part of them. For example from the Christian tradition, how do nones and churchgoers overcome such obstacles as the virgin birth, Jesus as God, the Trinity, the resurrection, etc. I see it more difficult for nones in a scientifically rationalized culture to accept these ideas, but regular churchgoers are not going to relinquish them. Therefore I think the problem might be deeper and the gulf wider than you have proposed in your article.

  3. R. Skyler Oberst

    Hi Bruce and Lou,

    I appreciate your comments and have to admit that I was expecting someone to raise these points…

    This article was very difficult to write, mostly because talking about these issues left me inherently using what I believe to be a false dichotomy between the Nones and churchgoers. I think this may be what you were trying to get at Bruce, when alluding to the fact that there’s still a lot more to unpack here. This is a unique phenomena that requires a unique solution– a reorientation– of what it means to be religious, nonreligious or even to live in modern times. To address both of your points in tandem, the solution is to first recognize our common humanity on both sides of this “juxtaposition”. The old ways won’t work. We need something new.

    I’m reluctant to agree with you, Bruce, to say that it’s harder for Nones to accept church doctrine. I would say that it may be just as difficult for those who believe in the ideas stated above in a ‘scientifically rationalized culture’. This goes back to the earlier point that I was trying to make: when we begin to “other” one another, we begin to descend into an arms race of fundamentalism, on BOTH sides. We then end of with Christopher Hitchens or Westboro Baptist Church, each just as unlikely not to come to the table to help bridge this gap.

  4. R. Skyler Oberst

    (Apologies for the typo: Last paragraph, last sentence: “We then end UP with…”)

  5. I appreciate your desire to voice the problems and critiques of the “nones”, its a trend that everyone working and worshipping with people know and wrestle with these days.

    But man there were SO MANY easy generalizations and broad judgements in this post, that I don’t even know where to begin.

    All your contemplation was one sided. Problems are rarely in just about the other, they are the result of both. True change comes from within not from labeling and judging others. That path is painfully juvenile and egotistical, not spiritual.

    The dark image we see in others is more often the troubles in our own souls.

    I could recount beautiful examples against all the judgements you laid st the feet of clergy and churches, and I’m sure the other religious groups could tell good stories too. Stories in this town.

    Ive seen deep and honorable commitments by leaders and churches to embody mission and message in true and immensely faithful ways not “less trustworthy if not grossly hypocritical” ways.

    I’m interconnected in a movement of young and old people who have turned critique into commitment to greater authenticity, more humble expression and more loving compassion while staying rooted in biblical truth and good tradition.

    I recognize that isn’t everyone’s experience but there are many stories bring told today.

  6. R. Skyler Oberst

    Thanks Eric for your comment.
    It gives me hope.

    I’ve traveled across this country, speaking at colleges and universities about the interfaith movement and service work that can be done by young people. Everywhere I’ve gone, whether Ivy-League institutions, or small rural campuses in the Midwest, I’ve have heard a similar story. Like I wrote in the post, these are things that I have heard and observed, and may seem generalized, but they’re happening. On a large scale. And people my age are leaving churches. On a large scale.

    I admit that the piece offers only one side of the story, and I did that knowingly. The very contextual structure of telling this story forces me to write in a way that I don’t believe in at all: that there are two types of people, not ONE. I alluded to this in addressing earlier comments, and though this false juxtaposition was perpetuated through my writing this piece, I was hopeful that I could draw attention to people being hurt and struggling. On both sides of the “spectrum”.

    Like you said, “The dark image we see in others is more often the troubles in our own souls.” I can only hope that leaders in the church could be as receptive, compassionate and astute as you. There’s a lot of hurt out there. Let’s be conscious of where others are coming from, while focusing on what we can do together. That’s the solution.

  7. Not trying to hyjack your post but since the church is who you are focusing on in the article, as a pastor of a church, here are some ‘steps’ or adjustments I think we can or should take on the church side to remove some barriers to crossing over the bridge.

    -Us leaders, Pastors etc, need to engage the community in conversation outside of our congregations. There’s a lot of misconceptions and ill-will guided press, so use our own voices.

    -Major on the majors, not the minors of biblical truth. Simple, clear, faithful attempts to be true about the core but humble about the peripheral in doctrine & practice.

    -Drop as much of the religious pomp and circumstances that alienates, divides and limits human connection. Tradition isn’t about sacrificing people for programming or props.

    -Stop focusing and vocalizing certain sins of other people above other sins while ignoring blatant examples of sin that are in front of us. Example: Jesus spoke more about divorce than homosexuality.

    -Build THE Kingdom not our kingdom. Much of today’s abhorrence of church is that its practices and expenses deny the very example of its founder. Materialism, consumerism, politicization and militarism undercut a claim to be the branch of the Jesus vine. People over politics and positions. If we cannot speak to all, we probably shouldn’t be speaking to many.

    -Stop hurting people. Heal more than divide, demand and debate. If more people are leaving than arriving, humbly repent, return and reclaim the way and truth of love. Clarify if you are known more by what we are against than what we are for.

    -Look around our groups. Does it all look, sound, work, vote and eat like us? If so we probably don’t reflect the kingdom of God but a socialized group of issues, projects or hobbies but not The Kingdom coming.

    -Would our neighborhood know if we moved if our worshipping community relocated? Would they suffer more because we are gone?

    -Open up the conversations in our community. Do other races, sexes, and ages have a voice among us?

    -Stop trying to be more than we are. We are not scientists, politicians, city planners, performers, JFK, MLK, Lincoln, The Pope, the Mayor, Ghandi or Martin Luther…or Jesus, you are you. Remember it’s ok to suck, the sooner you embrace it, the closer you will get to being a welcoming community. Nobody likes or wants a know it all.

    There’s a few self-reflecting suggestions and ruminations from the establishment, now i’d love to hear some self reflecting from the “Nones”.

  8. R.
    I hear you, I guess I see us all as part of the wounded, wandering, wasted and wicked whether we have stayed or gone from a building or association. I think there are more answers to the situation than how bad the church is. There are a host of issues at play and I guess I felt that you focused on the low hanging fruit. I get it, its a start, but hard to bring people to the tabe when you come out of the gate talking about how fat and ugly they are! 🙂

    Alos for many Evangelicals, you are going to have to face the fact that all the things you describe are signs to the evangelical that the ‘End’ is unfolding. The postures, attitudes, demands and actions you are sharing, are the script of the ‘apsotates’ of evangelical premillinialism. It’s hard for large swaths of church folk to not associate the huge exodus you speak as anything other than the great falling away fortold in the apocalyptic portions of the Bible. This issue is hard to ignore for many.

  9. I recently dropped out of Christianity to search for something else. To Eric’s point, I don’t see the Church as the problem, as least as far as being accommodating. They have tried everything under the sun to bring people into their services. Instead, I see massive tectonic plates shifting. The nones are only a symptom of a much bigger scene.

    I realize that conservatives and Evangelicals who see Christianity as inherent truth aren’t going to accept what I say. But Christianity arose during a much different time. The Jewish Temple had been destroyed; pagans saw gods everywhere; Jesus was an apocalyptic rabbi who predicted the end of the age and the Kingdom of heaven. You have to understand the devastation that it caused when their Temple was destroyed. The Christian church was there to pick up the pieces of a broken people, and the idea of God being a man instead of living in a building was born. The Roman world likewise fell upon difficult times. Pagans had no problem with a god being born of a union between a god and a woman. They had many similar stories. That God would become a man and sacrifice himself for the sins of the world was a beautiful and attractive story. It’s not hard to see why it eventually became the world’s largest religion.

    But now fast forward to today. Our national mythology is Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Most have a high school education, and many have a higher level degree. There’s no small disconnect between quantum physics and Jesus walking on the water. Not everyone is a physicist, of course, but these ideas have permeated our culture along with cellphones and pads. We don’t have gods walking the streets anymore, and miracle workers are quarantined to circuses. That God would so love the world to send his only Son is a powerful story, but the associated dogma is difficult for the scientifically rationalized to stomach.

    People have responded to these tectonic shifts in two generalized ways: To Eric’s point, some have retreated into inherent truth, infallible Scriptures, and apocalyptic ideas of the end times. To them, Christianity is the only truth, and those who embrace the modern culture are “worldly” and signs of the end of the age. But we also see more and more just dropping out of Christianity, or the nones. They still want to believe in God, but there is no “mythology” that connects them to God and doesn’t seem silly at the same time.

    I don’t see any way to reconcile these positions. All the dialog in the world won’t move tectonic plates. We can’t go back to the past. The nones will continue to grow in number while the Evangelicals carry their faith to the grave. Another generation will rise and God will do something new.

  10. R. Skyler Oberst

    Bruce and Eric,

    I think we’re on to something here. I feel that our perspectives are more similar than we may see here on the web. Perhaps we can discuss it at the next CoffeeTalk? I’ll be on the panel, and I think your comments would help foster meaningful conversation. I invite you to come so we can talk about this further!

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