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Who are the “Nones”?

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Tom Bandy is the author of the “MissionImpact Mosaic Application Guide” and coaches church leaders to use MissionInsite for the development of adaptive ministries.

Who are the “Nones”?

Thanks for asking this question. The term “Nones” has been defined in a variety of ways by the media, and leaders who read articles on cultural change are often confused. This is one of the fastest growing demographics in western culture and is accelerating quickly in the US. Churches urgently need to understand this phenomenon for the ministries to be effective in the emerging world.

MissionInsite uses the term “Nones” in the context of “No Religious Preference”. This category is included in a list of religious preferences found on page 18 of the ReligiousInsite Report. The list includes the best know religious traditions and denominations today (e.g. Catholics, Muslims, Jews…Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptist, and other Protestant denominations and Non-Denominational churches, etc.). The current US average is just less than 30% of the population making it the second largest group after Roman Catholics. 

The “Nones” have grown between 3% – 4% in the last ten years depending on the region where you live. The Catholics are declining about 2% – 3% every year. A few denominations and independent churches have grown 1 – 2% in the past ten years, but most have declined by about the same amount. This makes the “Nones” or people with “No Religious Preference” the most influential religious non-movement in America. 

Remember that this statistic only measures membership in a religious organization, so it is helpful to compare this with trends in active participation in a church. This has declined about 10% in just 10 years. Now compare this with the top four reasons people give for not participating in church:

  1. Churches are too judgmental.
  2. Churches are too focused on money.
  3. Church leaders are not trustworthy.
  4. I don’t believe anymore.

The order of complaint changes from region to region, but these specific complaints always rank highest.

Who are these people? Where have they come from? The growth of the “Nones” reflects convergence of several generational events.

Seniors (called the “Silent Generation”) attended church faithfully but were largely “silent” about sharing faith at home. Religious behavior and cultural norms tended to merge in their behavior, so when children rebelled against one, they included the other.

Babyboomers initially protested all institutional authorities (including the church). Many revived their interest in the late 80’s and 90’s but became disillusioned and dropped out again. Meanwhile, they raised their children to make their own choices about religion without offering any educational structure to their decision-making

Therefore, Gen-X opted to place religion lower and lower among their priorities. Some maintained membership in a traditional organization to access rituals for marriage and baptism, but most elevated career, sports, fashion, and other cultural forms to quasi-religious status.

Gen-Y (millennials) had few religious role models and no connection with churches as they grew up. They live a paradoxical existence of self-absorption and social conscience. They are more likely to connect with a non-profit agency and dismiss the church as inefficient and out of touch. 

The emerging Gen-Z give little thought to religion or church, and are unfamiliar with religious language, Biblical stories, church traditions, and even the religious significance of public holidays. They are more likely to fear the church as a potential abuser.

MissionInsite also includes a category in its research for “Spiritual/No Religious Preference” averaging about 3% – 4% the population and increasing between 1% – 2% in the past ten years. But this category is very difficult to measure because “spirituality” can mean almost anything from magic to mysticism, naturalism to pantheism, paganism to witchcraft. My experience is that almost everyone I meet are “spiritual” in some sense of the word. A cursory review of media (including movies, books of all kinds, video gaming, blogs, urban graffiti and visual arts, etc.) suggests that intuitions of, or longings for, the supernatural abound. These “nones” are a diverse, eclectic, and often moving target. Although many are young, the “nones” include all ages and span all demographic categories.

The greatest challenge facing the Christian movement today is how we address the rapidly growing institutionally alienated–but spiritually interested–public. I think there are four keys.

First, Christians must be willing to engage them in genuine and respectful conversation. Preaching, one-sided lectures, Bible studies, and print alone won’t work. The conversation will unfold in public places and on the go, which means cafes and social media. It will be content-rich and may unfold over a considerable time, which means that Twitter and Facebook won’t work and platforms like Instagram will be more effective.

Second, relationships must reveal consistent positive behavior. They should be compassionate, upbeat, peaceable, patient, generous, and self-controlled (basically modeling what Christians call the “fruits of the Spirit.” They should avoid ideological or dogmatic debate and concentrate on living a meaningful life and discovering personal purpose.

Third, conversations should accept ambiguity as a fact of life and be open to mystery. Christians should be willing to explore ideas and seek truth in all public sectors, in diverse cultural and community contexts, and across academic disciplines. There are few, if any, absolute certainties because God cannot be contained in the human mind.

Fourth, the stories that matter are about contemporary heroes rather than past saints. The “nones” are constantly seeking heroic figures. These are individuals who demonstrate great courage and integrity, make enormous sacrifices for the well-being of others, and never surrender hope. 

If churches want to bless the “nones” and include them in community, they must ask themselves these questions. Are we capable of non-judgmental conversation? Can we consistently model positive core values in our spontaneous words and daring deeds? Can we be open to alternative viewpoints? How many “heroes” do we have in our church?

I welcome all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development. You can reach me at tbandy@acst.com.


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