Tuesday, October 09, 2012

"Nones" Rising: What Does It Mean for Us?


The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has issued its latest study on religious affiliation in the United States, and the findings are sobering. From 2007-2012, the percentage of people who claim no religious affiliation has risen by 30.7%, from 15% to 19.6% of the populations surveyed. That is a massive increase in non-affiliation in so short a period of time.

Meanwhile, from the same report, we find declines across the board in the rate of self-declared Christians (5% points loss), including, as hardest hit, predominantly white mainline Protestants (3% points loss) and white evangelical Protestants (2% points loss). Also on the losing end are Roman Catholics (1% loss). Mormons, African American Protestants, and Hispanic churches were generally stable, although when separated out by African American individuals, there was actually 2% point loss there as well (from 13% to 15% non-affiliated). The Orthodox were also stable, but their numbers are so low that they fall within the limits of the statistical error of the sample. Other religions (not other Christian-related denominations) together grew by 2% points.

But the fastest-growing group, by far, are those who claim no religious affiliation. And here the picture gets bleaker for religious groups in the US. 74% of the "Nones" had been raised with some religious affiliation, and a full 88% of the "Nones" are not "looking for a religion that would be right for" them. In other words, these aren't folks we "haven't reached yet." They are, by and large, folks we actually raised and who now don't care to have anything to do with us or any other religion.

This, in spite of all kinds of efforts during these past five years by many Christian denominations and movements to make their congregations healthier or more appealing in some way, or create a new worship service that targets this particular market niche, or to
reposition their brand identity in the "religious marketplace." 

And it might be a bit disingenuous to blame the economy. After all, really bad economic times or other significant crises are generally associated with increases in religious affiliation, not religious disaffiliation!

What's Causing This?
The full report from Pew includes four "leading theories" for this rise in folks walking away, along with an assessment of whether each of them is validated and to what degree by the datasets behind this report. They include political backlash (primarily against the "Christian/religious right"), the increasing average age of (first) marriage, the "Bowling Alone" effect, and the predictable outcomes of the global process of secularization (full report, pages 29-32).

Of these, the Pew data seemed to support both political backlash and the "Bowling Alone" effect, but did not correlate well with either the increased age of marriage or global secularization models. On political backlash, the vast majority of "Nones" tend to lean "leftward" on social issues where religious organizations tend to lean "rightward." "Nones" also skew significantly more Democrat in voter registrations than most religious organizations do (most skewing Republican). On the "Bowling Alone" effect, only 28% of the Nones indicated it was highly important to them to be part of a group of people outside their immediate circle of friends with whom they shared common values or worked for some common good, compared with 49% of the overall US population.

So, not only did we raise the Nones, and not only do they not want to be part of a religious organization now, they actually don't value being part of any social organization all that much.

So, What Now?

I think we know what our tendencies have been. We see reports like this, and then we decide we need to "reposition ourselves" again so we're "reaching" these folks better than we had in the past.

That might be a reasonable strategy were in not for one thing. These folks are us,
 for the most part! They know us. They've left us. They have very little interest in coming back. 

I'm not saying we write them off. By no means.

But what if, instead of  focusing on reclaiming those we're losing-- rapidly-- what if we focus on making it less likely we lose them in the first place?

And what if the losses we're seeing now at an ever-escalating rate may be the direct result of failing to live and pass on a compelling vision of Christian discipleship worth living, and dying, for?

This hypothesis is generally supported by the findings of the National Study on Youth and Religion documented in Kenda Creasy Dean's book, Almost Christian. Dr. Dean writes: 

"The single most important thing the church can do to cultivate missional imagination in young people is to develop one as a church, reclaiming our call to follow Christ into the world as envoy's of God's self-giving love."

And for us to develop such a missional imagination in youth, we need to have adults alongside them with both a missional imagination and a lifetime of experience-- or at least some significant experience-- living as disciples on mission with Jesus.

Dr. Dean believes, and I agree, that the dropout we're experiencing, especially among young adults (34% "Nones" in this age cohort, says Pew) may be less about political rebellion or anti-social attitudes (like, why do I need a group that meets in real time when I have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, etc), and more about boredom-- that the 'moralistic therapeutic deism' we may have actually transmitted really isn't worth living or dying for, nor even the effort church actually takes. 

We don't make it worth the effort by reducing the effort, by the way, but rather by actually being the church, teaching  what the church teaches, and living the way of Jesus that has empowered saints and martyrs in every generation to live and to die under the reign of God, not the reins of "nice."

Saints and martyrs point the way. These are persons who knew (and know!) a faith worth living and dying for. Perhaps if we are also more in touch with their lives and stories-- from the early Church, from our own United Methodist heritages, and those who radiate the love and power of Jesus in our midst-- we may catch some of their compelling vision and pass it on among us and to those we are raising or may be blessed to raise.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards


Todd said...

I wish I could challenge you on this, Taylor, but frankly I couldn't agree more. As I think about what is needed to turn this trend around is this:

"And for us to develop such a missional imagination in youth, we need to have adults alongside them with both a missional imagination and a lifetime of experience-- or at least some significant experience-- living as disciples on mission with Jesus."

In my experience the honest truth is such adults are in short supply. "Church" has been more club than community or cause. We've spent so much energy attracting consumers of our services that we've forgotten how to train practitioners. I see some hope, in the new monastic movement, in the renewed interest in spiritual disciplines in some quarters, in the revival of the class meeting in some settings. But even with such efforts I suspect the congregation as we know it will largely disappear.

Todd Anderson said...

Perhaps the Homophily Syndrome Brother Dan Dick has exposed contributes to the decline? As those in the church that are alike dwindle in population so goes the "church" ? Which, of course, is in direct opposition to the central message of the Gospel -- "One Body -- Many Parts".
The whole "inclusive" Open blah blah blah marketing catchphrase of the UMC is quite the joke when viewed in light of these statistics...........mere, hollow words. NOT the burning passion and motivation to be the "church".

May God Make SPEED to Save Us,
May God Make Haste to Help Us.

Todd Anderson

michael l mckee said...

Taylor, this is my discernment as well. i'm calling it 'The Revolving Door Effect.'

It has been my opportunity to lead confirmation using the Credo confirmation materials for the first time this year that has revealed to me this enormous hole/gap in our common faith life.

The Credo program is awesome! It puts kids, parents, and leaders in covenant relationship; it really teaches them how to be faithful followers of Christ; it teaches them how to grow in faith through covenant accountability, and it does all these things very well.

Trouble is, the kids will arrive at confirmation, they will declare their faith, they will join the church, their confirmation covenant will end and then we will be obliged as the church to admit and confess to them that the adults really don't practice anything that we just taught them. So it's really: "We wish you well as disciples, but it's 'please do as we say not as we do.'"

So, i'm trying to re-frame the discipleship 'call to commitment and accountability' around the idea that the church must do this in order to stop this revolving door effect the church has going on with our young people.

i'm planning on titling my confirmation sermon: 'Confirmation is not Graduation!'

Taylor, thanks for your ministry!

Jane Sample said...

Maybe one reason is people are looking or looked and found no one home. I want to go to church to worship God, not spend 30 minutes of an hour serve listening to who needs to be prayed for, I know this needs to be done, but I want to worship God, thank him, sing to him, pray to him. I don't want to spend the first 15 minutes passing the peace--which means catching up, few passing the peace, more hey how are you haven't seen you in a week, what's up. Church I think is turning away from worshipping God and more on feel good but empty.

Anonymous said...

Many of the people I know who have walked away from religion have done so because "Christianity" (as they view it) has chosen to die upon the hill of gay marriage.

Given a choice between 1) being a Christian and 2) accepting, loving and granting equal rights to one's GLBT neighbors, friends and relatives, who can blame them for choosing the latter?

journeyman37 said...


You are not alone in your concerns.

You can see my post related to your comments here:

Attentional Worship

Morgan Guyton said...

This is a piece I wrote addressing the "liberal church," though the liberal label need not be a distraction. It might be very simple-minded of me but we need to be a place where deliverance occurs instead of a place where "awareness-raising" occurs and we're "open-minded" above all else. Basically we need to be "evangelical" in the sense that we believe in the euangelion. http://www.redletterchristians.org/three-considerations-for-the-liberal-church/

journeyman37 said...

Just a note to all here-- Typically, I do not allow anonymous notes to be published.

I have made an exception in this case because I think it important to comment on this.

Overall, as I read the Pew data at least, there's no real way to say that any significant fraction of people are leaving religious organizations BECAUSE of this one issue-- or in fact, over any one issue. Certainly some do-- and on "both sides." I know some who have as well.

The deal is, in most congregations I've been part of, there are folks who are all over the spectrum on the "political backlash" issues the Pew report identifies as particularly salient for the "Nones." Yet, as ardent as these concerns may be, they still participate-- actively and gladly. Why? In my experience, it's because they see so much greater value in being actively part of the Christian community, even and sometimes especially with such disagreement on some points, that being with the community transcends a need to be surrounded by people who hold their same position on all things.

The bigger picture seems to be folks who are leaving because they see little compelling reason to stay engaged in a religious community. Or to re-engage. In other words, they're not primarily leaving "mad" about one thing or another. They're just leaving.

Again, to be sure, some people do leave mad, and on BOTH sides of polarizing issues. I don't wish to discount their anger, or their witness. But I don't see how it is possible to use this data as a kind of warning, on either "side," that unless everyone agrees with "my side" this patten of escalating drop-out will keep getting worse.

dtkenosha said...

We as a church have hard work in front of us if we are going to change the growth of the "nones". Unfortunately many in the church know why the "nones" are leaving but we have not had the passion or motivation to put our knowledge into action. Maybe this poll and related blogs and articles will do just that with the church. May God help us.